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Seeking Warmth by Brigham Vaughn (1)

Chapter One

People hurried past Benny Fuller without seeing him. They were bundled up warmly against the snow, clutching their holiday shopping bags and packages. They were too intent on their destination to see the kid they pushed past. Now that the sun was going down, the crowds were beginning to thin. The wind picked up and the fat, fluffy snowflakes grew smaller and sharper. They stung his cheeks and made his hands ache. It had been early spring when he went into juvie. He’d had a hat stuffed in his old, beat up Army-style jacket but no gloves.

When the caseworker picked him up at the juvenile detention center and drove him to a foster home, she frowned at his bare hands. She said something about making sure he had a pair of gloves—and a warmer coat and boots—but she got a phone call a few minutes later and apparently forgot. He hadn’t said anything to the foster care lady about it either. So now the slushy snow soaked into his shoes as he walked and he still had no gloves or winter coat. He’d have to make do. But that was nothing new for him, was it? Benny had been doing that for a while now.

He kicked at a piece of torn, soggy cardboard on the sidewalk as he passed it. It did nothing to relieve the gnawing hunger in his stomach or the cold air that crept down the collar of his jacket and numbed his fingers.

It was satisfying though. Something to do to let out all of the frustration and fear boiling inside of him. His job search had amounted to nothing. Everything amounted to nothing. There were no opportunities for kids like him.

He’d been wandering the city for a week. Ever since he left the foster home they placed him in. It hadn’t seemed bad at first. It was clean and there were only two other kids there, both younger. But one of them was a nightmare. Benny had never seen anything like it. The boy screamed and tried to hit the little girl all the time. The foster mother did nothing to stop it. The little girl had bruises on her arms and legs from the boy and it made Benny sick to watch it happen. Within the first day Benny was there, the boy bit Benny hard enough to draw blood, but Benny was the one who got yelled at by the foster mother for provoking him. Benny hadn’t done anything but sit down next to the kid.

Benny had tried to help out, thinking maybe the woman was just overwhelmed, but she yelled at him for interfering. The day after he got there, the little girl had to go to the doctor for pinkeye. Benny was left home with the boy. It was a nightmare. After the boy screamed and hit him and acted like a little monster all day, Benny couldn’t handle it anymore. As soon as the woman got home with the girl, Benny crawled out the bedroom window and left.

He went straight to his childhood home, even though there was no one there waiting for him. He collected his car and a few belongings, but he knew he couldn’t stay or Child Protective Services would just drag him out of there and back to a foster home.

But once he left his old house, he had nowhere else to go. He had a car though, thankfully. It had sat, unused, while he was in juvie. It was still registered, thankfully, although the insurance on it had lapsed. He’d have to hope he didn’t get pulled over, or he’d be in big trouble.

With no home and no job, what else could he do now but wander? Sit in his car and feel sorry for himself? Even if he wanted to, he didn’t have any money for gas so he couldn’t do it for long. He tried to run the engine as little as possible. Just enough to keep himself from freezing to death. At least when he was up and walking, his blood was flowing.

He wasn’t warm, but at least he wasn’t dead. That was something, right?

Up ahead, a brightly-lit storefront spilled yellow light onto the snowy sidewalk. Its warmth beckoned Benny to come closer, but as he approached, he recognized the building and scowled. Sullivan’s Fine Gifts, the sign on the window read. Damn it. His wandering had taken him to the last place he should be.

Stupid. Why did I come here? He wondered. It wasn’t like he could go in and see Scott Sullivan. God, he wanted to though. Scott was the only person Benny had ever trusted. The only one who really knew him. Scott was the best thing that had ever happened to Benny. Too bad Benny was the worst thing that had ever happened to Scott.

Benny stood in front of the gift shop long enough for the snowflakes to settle on his too-thin jacket. His breath fogged the window and cold and hunger faded away as he stared into the store owned by his ex-boyfriend’s parents, mesmerized by the cheerful lights and decorations. It advertised home and family.

Warmth. Security. Love.

All the things Benny didn’t have.

While Benny gazed in the window, a few people went in and out of the building. With just over two weeks to go before Christmas, the popular shop was surprisingly empty, but maybe the snow kept them away. The jangling bell over the door startled him every time someone walked through it, but the warm rush of cinnamon-spice scented air that flowed out was comforting. Familiar.

It had always smelled like that at Christmas in the Sullivan shop. The scent used to cling to Scott’s clothes and Benny had liked to bury his nose against Scott’s chest and just breathe him in as he listened to his heartbeat. They fell asleep like that in Scott’s bedroom all the time after school. Benny wanted to feel that again.

Without any conscious thought, Benny’s feet carried him into the warm, safe haven. Some dim part of him knew he should turn and run as far and as fast as he could, but the shop was so warm and he just wanted a few minutes of peace and security. Benny hadn’t seen Scott when he peered in the window. The only person he had seen was a bored college girl ringing up the occasional sale and texting on her phone. Benny didn’t recognize her. She must be someone new. Seasonal help or something. Hopefully he could warm up inside without anyone paying him any attention at all.

Benny wandered around the place for a while. It was a long, narrow shop in an old brick building. The register was near the front of the store, but it seemed to go on forever in the back. There was always one more thing tempting shoppers to look further. Benny recognized the old, familiar displays of cards and hand lotion, but everything else changed with the season. Right now, there were a dizzying number of candles, food, home decorations, gift bags, wrapping paper, and bows. He saw bright menorahs and Advent wreaths and dozens of decorated Christmas trees were scattered throughout the store. The trees ranged in size from a foot tall to one that was at least eight or ten feet. The largest one shone with white lights and glittered with ornaments in silver and gold. It was the most beautiful thing Benny had ever seen. A far cry from the sad, lopsided tree Benny had picked up at the curb last year just before Christmas.

His parents hadn’t bothered to get a tree and decorate it in a while. Of course, they didn’t do much of anything, anymore. It hadn’t been so bad when his grandma was alive—she’d looked out for him and Angel—but she died over a year ago and with her gone, Benny was the only functional person in the house, except for his sister, Angel. And she was too little to take care of herself.

He’d wanted Angel to enjoy Christmas, so he snatched up the discarded decoration and made the best of it. He re-wired some of the broken branches although they still drooped weirdly. And no matter what he did, he couldn’t get it to stand upright. He scrounged up enough money for lights and cheap ornaments from the dollar store. It wasn’t much, but it was enough that his sister could celebrate Christmas. When he showed it to her, her smile was so bright it almost eclipsed the lights on the tree.

Benny had felt terrible for not being able to do more, but there wasn’t enough money for anything but a few inexpensive gifts. Whatever money his parents scraped together went to alcohol and god knows what else they used. It had been pills once, but he was pretty sure they had moved on to some kind of street drugs. Whatever it was, they were too fucked up to take care of Angel so Benny had to do it. He worked as many hours as he could after school at the grocery store, but most of it went to insurance and gas for his car and to make sure Angel had food in her belly and clean clothes. Not to mention the inhaler she so desperately needed.

Now, Benny wandered closer to the biggest Christmas tree in the Sullivan’s shop, tempted by the bright lights. After being in the warmth for a little while, his cheeks had begun to lose their chill and his fingers felt less stiff and frozen. The girl at the counter had shot him a couple of suspicious looks, but at least she hadn’t kicked him out yet.

Benny carefully examined the hanging baubles on the tree. He wasn’t really sure why he was looking at them until he spotted the clear glass angel with gold paint on her halo and the tips of her wings. He lifted it off the fake tree branch and looked at the price tag. Twelve dollars and ninety-nine cents. Before tax. He thought of the carefully scrounged soda and beer bottles he’d cashed in and the mangled, wet five dollar bill he found next to a storm drain, dried and smoothed out the best he could manage. A grand total of fourteen dollars and fifty-one cents. All of which was supposed to support him until he could get a job. Only, there weren’t any jobs to be had, at least not for a guy like him. They certainly didn’t want him back at the grocery store.

But it was almost Christmas, and no one else was going to get his sister Angel anything. It was probably stupid for him to buy a little kid a glass ornament, but she loved pretty, shiny things, and for a seven-year-old, Angel was careful.

When Benny was arrested, he begged the police to send someone to check in on the Fuller house. Without him, there was no one to care for Angel. Benny didn’t have much hope that it would be a good foster family they placed her with. But almost anything was better than leaving her with their mom.

Now that Benny was out of juvie, Angel was his priority.

The lady from CPS had told him his sister was in foster care, although she couldn’t tell him where Angel was living.

The day after Benny retrieved his car, he went to the elementary school near his old house. He had no idea if Angel was still in the same school district, but he figured it was the best place to start. He hung out near the playground, trying not to look too shifty as he waited for Angel to come out for recess. When he finally saw her, a wave of relief washed over him that was so strong it made his eyes water. He hid so she didn’t see him. He was afraid it would cause more problems if she did. But at least he was able to reassure himself that she was okay. She was taller than the last time he’d seen her and her thin little face looked pinched. Her hair was a kind of scraggly, but she didn’t look too worse for wear.

At least she was going to school. And they had a lunch program so he knew she was getting fed at least one meal a day and she wasn’t with their mother or living on the streets like Benny. She was as safe as she could be at the moment. All Benny had to do was figure out how to get his life together, turn eighteen, and convince the courts to let him take custody of his sister. No big deal, right?

The ornament hung from Benny’s index finger by a gold thread and he gently twisted his hand, watching the bauble spin. It caught the tiny, bright dots of the Christmas bulbs and threw golden sparks of light everywhere. It was mesmerizing. It quieted the fear in his mind and the doubt about how he was going to survive this winter. Maybe it would help Angel too. Bring her peace in the middle of the chaos of foster care until Benny could figure out how to get her out. He just hoped the other kids there didn’t break it.

“What are you doing?”

Benny jerked, sending the glass ornament flying from his finger to the ground. It shattered on the floor into a thousand tiny fragmented shards of light. He stared down at the broken slivers, wishing that when he turned around he wouldn’t see Scott Sullivan standing behind him. He hadn’t seen Scott since he was released from juvie, and he’d meant to keep it that way. Stupid of Benny to come here. Stupid, stupid, stupid. But bad decisions were what he did best.

“I wasn’t going to steal it,” Benny muttered, turning to face his ex. He couldn’t look him in the eye, so he stared at the knotted and frayed string on Scott’s blue hoodie.

“I didn’t think you were,” Scott said quietly. “Didn’t know you were back, though.”

“I got out last week.” Benny jammed his hands in the pockets of his coat. He could still feel the crinkled receipt from the last meal he’d eaten. Yesterday. His stomach was beginning to cramp from hunger.

“You didn’t call.” Scott sounded wounded.

“We broke up. Why would I?” He tried to keep his voice light. Like he didn’t care at all about Scott.

“I know, but I wanted you to anyway.”

Benny tried to ignore the way Scott’s words made his chest ache but it didn’t work very well. He took a deep breath to try to ease the tightness there. “I’ll pay for the ornament. And I swear, I wasn’t going to steal it.”

“I know. And you don’t have to pay. I’ll tell my parents I broke it.”

Benny finally lifted his gaze to meet Scott’s. He still had light brown hair and blue eyes. The funny little shadow on his upper lip that refused to turn into a mustache. But Benny had never seen him look so sad before. Scott’s expression was pleading. But what could Benny give him? He had less than nothing.

“You don’t have to do that,” Benny argued. “I don’t want you to lie for me.”

Scott stepped forward, and Benny heard the crunch of glass under his feet. “There, now it’s technically true.”

“Scott ...” Benny said softly. He hated that Scott was willing to lie for him. He wanted Scott to stop being so nice. It was hard to stay away when Scott acted that way. Shouldn’t Scott hate him? It would be so much easier if he did.

“What?” Scott scowled. “I missed you, okay? You’re a stupid ass for breaking up with me, but I missed you, and I’m not going to let you screw it up again.”

Benny turned away, swallowing hard as he blinked back the wetness in his eyes. Scott was too good for him. That’s why he’d broken up with him. Why should Scott—who was definitely going to college next year—get stuck with a guy with no money and no job? He hadn’t even finished high school. He had no future at all.

“What if I don’t want to be with you anymore?” Benny said, his voice breaking. “Maybe I already met someone. Maybe there was a guy I hooked up with when I was in juvie. Maybe we’re together now.”

Benny hadn’t so much as looked at any of the guys there. He’d spent every night of the past nine months thinking about Scott. Wishing he could kiss him again, wishing he could apologize. But that was stupid, right? Stupid to want what he could never have. Stupid to torture himself imagining the kind of life he didn’t deserve. It was what had gotten him through the nights on the hard, narrow bed, covered with a thin, scratchy blanket though. When two other guys—way tougher and more hardcore than he was—had held his arms and a third punched him in the stomach and lower back until he puked, he’d thought about Scott. Thought about the great future Scott had without Benny in his life.

“I know you’re lying.” Scott wrapped an arm around his waist, and for a moment, his cheek was pressed to Benny’s. It hurt because Benny desperately wanted it to be real. And it was so much harder to lie when Scott was so close. He’d feel the jump in Benny’s heart rate and hear the quaver in his voice.

“Fine, there’s nobody else,” Benny muttered. “But I haven’t changed my mind. We’re over.”

“Benny ...”

He hated the pain in Scott’s voice and the fact that he wasn’t even trying to hide it. Why couldn’t Scott just pretend that he didn’t care? It would be so much easier for both of them.

“Hey, I thought you were coming back with a box cutter,” a woman called out.

Benny froze, staring straight ahead, as Mrs. Sullivan came around the corner. She looked the same as she always did. Short, kinda round, with caramel colored hair and lines around her eyes from when she smiled. She wore a cheerful, tacky Christmas sweater and corduroy pants and she was the kind of friendly, awkward Mom that every kid deserved. And Benny and Angel had never had.

Benny didn’t have time to pull away before Scott’s mom spotted them, but even after she did, he couldn’t move. The weird thing was, Scott didn’t move either, other than to straighten up. When Benny tried to break free, Scott held him tighter.

Scott was strong, but fear made Benny stronger and he struggled until Scott let go. Glass crunched under Benny’s feet as he made a beeline for the door and he remembered that he needed to pay for the broken ornament. He reached for the money in his pocket and flung all of it to the floor, hearing the coins pinging as they bounced across the old wooden floors.

“Wait!” he heard Scott yell but he didn’t let it slow him down.

“I’m sorry,” Benny called out as he flung open the door. “I’m so sorry.”

The air outside was shockingly cold after the warmth inside Sullivan’s. The icy wind stalled the hot tears stinging his eyes as he slipped on the wet sidewalk. The worn soles of his shoes didn’t get much traction on the slush, but determination forced him onward. Behind him, he could hear Scott calling after him, but he tried to block it out.

No more. He’d done enough to mess up Scott’s life. He shouldn’t have come to the store. He’d made a mistake today but he wouldn’t do it again. Scott was his past now.

Benny had no future.

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