Lacing our fingers together, I tug on her hand until she allows me to move it up and out of the warmth of the blanket. Not knowing or understanding why, I kiss her hand. The skin is smooth and tastes sweet, just like her constant smell of flowers. My lips linger much longer than needed, and then I guide her palm back to my chest, right next to my beating heart.
My mouth goes dry. No one has kissed me since Matt. No one kissed me before Matt. I avoid thoughts of kisses and of dating and of boyfriends and relationships, because the last time didn’t work out so well. But Matt never kissed me like that, not even when I gave him my virginity.
Never did he kiss me in such a way that my insides bloomed, or in a way that I saw color in darkness, or in a way that made me want to kiss anyone back like how West kissed me. It wasn’t even on the lips; it was on my hand. I inhale deeply to calm my breathing. Just wow.
“Will you tell me what happened?” West rolls, and, even in the darkness, I sense him staring at me.
I stiffen and my head pops up. “What?”
“With your family. Will you tell me how you ended up here?”
“Oh, yeah.” I sink back into the mattress. For a second, I thought he was asking about me and Matt. “My dad was an engineer and my mom stayed at home. He was laid off a year ago last Christmas. There was some unemployment and some savings, but we got behind on everything and my younger sister had an emergency appendectomy and then we found out the insurance had lapsed and everything turned into a huge mess. Dad couldn’t find a job. Then he got depressed and whatever dollar store job he did take, he couldn’t keep. We lost everything.”
My hand slams against the air mattress, the anger still as fresh as it was when I found out. I pull on my hand and West lets me go. “It’s… I hate them, you know? My dad worked at that company for twenty years and, poof, they decide it’s cheaper to move to Mexico.”
There’s silence from West. I’m probably freaking him out. I cover my face with my hands. Oh, God, that was too much information. He scratches the top of his head and asks, “Who did your dad work for?”
“It was a small factory, bought and sold many times. I think the last name they had was Sillgo.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, and by the tone in his voice I can tell he takes it personally.
“It’s not like it’s your fault. It’s what people do, they buy and they sell companies not caring that souls are involved. They only see profit margins and they never think about the families. I often wonder how much my family and the other families were worth. I mean, are we different from animals on an auction block?”
The heater clicks on again and part of me wishes West never brought up my family. I’m tired of being angry. I wish he was still holding my hand, but then again, that would mean me falling for a fighter and that can’t happen.
Flipping to my side, I turn away from West and try to create space between us. I told him I trusted him. I do, but I obviously shouldn’t trust myself.
“Haley…” He hesitates.
Silences seem longer in darkness. I think it’s because it’s harder to lie when the lights are off. There’s a rawness that only belongs to the night and the truth can’t help but be set free.
“I hate to ask, but I need to know. What are the shelters like?”
I fold into myself, absolutely crushed. My dirty secret isn’t such a secret after all. “Did Jessica tell you?”
She knew because her mother had volunteered her to work the shelter’s kitchen one day as a punishment for stealing money out of her purse. I can’t begin to express the utter embarrassment and horror I felt the moment our eyes met over a tray of scalloped potatoes.
“Yes,” he admits.
“And you were going to tell me you knew when?”
“I’m telling you now.”
I bring my knees to my chest and tug the blanket to my face.
“What was it like?” he insists. “Staying there?”
“They separated us. Me, Mom and Maggie from Kaden and Dad. The three of us at the family shelter and Dad and Kaden had to go to the men’s.”
We had heard of family shelters and when we arrived, desperate for a place to stay, my mom broke down when they informed us men above the age of thirteen weren’t allowed to stay at the family shelter.
“But we’re a family,” my mom begged. Tears spilled down her face and Maggie sobbed with her arms wrapped tightly around my father’s leg.
“I wanted to puke, West. I wanted to find a bathroom and puke. I mean, we had just lost our house and we had nowhere to live and now we were being separated. I was terrified. It took everything I had not to grab on to my father and beg him to make it go away.”
The world became this tunnel-vision blur as my mom asked if an exception could be made and the person behind the counter kept telling her no.
Right as the tingling sensation in my head grew into a roaring, Dad grabbed me by my shoulders and looked me straight in the eye. “You’ve got to be strong on this one, Hays. Do you hear me? I need you. Your mother and Maggie need you. I need you to do tonight and any other night what I can’t.”
“You stayed strong, didn’t you?” West says into the darkness and I jump, feeling a bit crazy as I wonder if I said the last part aloud. “Because you could protect your mom and sister.”
“Yes.” Tears well up in my eyes. I didn’t cry then and I won’t cry now.
I inch closer to the wall, not wanting his pity, but he parallels my movements. West doesn’t touch me. Instead, his body heats my back. His hand hovers near my shoulder and, after a second, his fingers comb through my hair. The gentle pull, the tenderness of the motion almost causes the tears to cascade down my face.
“What happened?” he asks.
I swallow to clear my throat. “We were fine, but things were rough for Dad and Kaden. The population at the men’s shelter was more…unstable. I found it impossible to sleep at night without knowing if Dad and Kaden were safe. My mom cried all the time and Maggie was starting to have night terrors.
“The shelter wouldn’t let Kaden in a few times because he had bruises on his face from training. They thought he was violent, so Dad and Kaden slept in the car or at the gym. One night, at the shelter, some guy tried to steal their stuff and Kaden hit the guy. All of them got thrown out. Then outside the shelter, Dad and Kaden were held up by a man with a gun. The next morning my mother went to my uncle and begged for him to take us in and here we are.”