Caged in Winter

By: Brighton Walsh



I mentally flip through my schedule for the next few days. I don’t have much leeway, but it doesn’t matter.

I’ll be back in that pub before the end of the week.


winter

I rank talking to my boss lower than cleaning the toilet bowl. With my toothbrush. He’s an asshole, and it’s like he takes this perverse pleasure in seeing me—seeing any of us, really—struggle and ask him for his help. Part of me thinks that’s why he hired me in the first place. So he could keep me under his thumb, knowing the job he could take away at any moment is the only thing keeping a roof over my head. Keeping me fed.

I’d rather swallow a handful of razorblades than ask him for anything, but I don’t have a choice. When I talked to him last night, I had to clench my hands behind my back, gnawing on the inside of my cheek as I asked if I could pick up an extra shift. By some miracle, he agreed, and even though it’s only three hours, it’s something, and I’ll be able to make back what I lost in tips last night. At the expense of time allotted for schoolwork, but when making the choice between an A or a B in the class or eating, sometimes a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

The professor dismisses my last class for the day, and I grab my laptop, stuffing it in my bag as I glance at the clock while the rest of the students shuffle out. I have forty-five minutes to get home and change before I need to head to the bus stop. I usually stay behind in this class, working on coding and designs and geting a head start on next week’s classes, but I can’t today.

So wrapped up in getting out of here, I nearly rush right past the couple standing at the bottom of the steps outside. A guy is leaning against the railing talking to a girl I recognize from my class. His face is familiar, and it only takes me a moment to realize where I’ve seen him before. He was the loudmouth from last night at the pub—the one who’s friends with Prince Charming. I stuff my hand in my pocket, clenching my fist around the money there. And before I know what I’m doing, my legs have carried me forward until I’m standing directly in front of him.

“Excuse me.” I butt in mid-conversation, and I can’t even dig up an apology, too fueled by righteous indignation. I slide in between the two of them, and the girl gives me a narrow-eyed glare, the guy looking at me quizzically.

“Uh, yeah, hi?”

“You were at The Brewery last night, right? With some friends?”

“Yeah,” he drags out the word, his eyes flicking to the girl he was talking to before returning his gaze to me.

“You friends with the jackass who left me this?” I hold the bills between two fingers, waving them in front of his face.

“Umm . . .” He scratches his head, looking at me quizzically. “You’re—wait. You’re the pissed-off waitress?” His eyes travel the length of me from head to toe, and I don’t blame him for not recognizing me. My hair’s not down like I wear it at work, instead pulled back into a messy ponytail, and I’ve got on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. The fact that he doesn’t recognize me without all my skin showing tells me loud and clear exactly what parts of me he was focusing on.

“That’s me.” I slap the money to his chest, a thousand retorts running through my mind. A thousand things I’d say to that guy if he were here in front of me. But he’s not, and his friend wasn’t the jackass who cost me three hours of work, so in the end, I sigh and settle on, “Give this to your friend. And tell him I don’t need his goddamn money.”

I wait until he reaches up and takes the bills, nodding slightly, before I spin around and leave.

I weave my way through the sea of bodies, zigzagging around the slow walkers and the meanderers and the talkers, adrenaline driving my path.

My pride has always been my downfall, and it’s bitten me in the ass more than once. For as long as I can remember, it’s the one thing I don’t bend on. I do everything on my own. I want to do everything on my own. If I count on no one but myself, I’m not going to get let down. The minute I start relying on others is the minute I’m undoubtedly disappointed. The minute everything I’ve built comes crashing down around me.

And even though this isn’t new to me, I still wonder if what I did was stupid. I think of all I could’ve bought with that. Milk and cereal and a whole fucking case of ramen, but even with these thoughts running through my mind, I don’t care.

I straighten my shoulders as I march home, confident in my decision.

I don’t take handouts.


cade

“Good work tonight, Cade,” Chef Foster says, patting me on the back. “I loved the addition of the Sriracha sauce. Bold choice.”

“Thanks.” I smile, offering him a nod. “I forced Tessa to be my guinea pig at home. Took me a few tries before I got the right balance.”

“Well, you hit it out of the park. Everyone loved it. Nice job.”

I can’t keep my grin from spreading. If there’s one thing I love to hear, it’s that people enjoy the food I make. In the kitchen, there’s no better compliment; nothing makes me feel higher than that. And hearing it from him, from someone who’s known me most of my life and whose professional attributes I strive to emulate, is the highlight of my week.

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