Chapter 1

Halifax, Nova Scotia

I tug my fingers through my hair, pulling on the blonde strands, pinching them between my fingers and inspecting the rough ends. I need a haircut. 

“Tabitha,” Dr. Cromish says, and I startle dropping the strands. “Are you still there?” 

“I am,” I lean back in the driver seat of my sister-in-law’s RV. The one they gave me two years ago to make the trek here to Halifax to go to school. 

The first Stryker in university. My heart flips, and my guts squirm as I push air through my nose. Dr. C taught me that for when the anxiety spikes up. In through the nose out through the mouth. 

“How are you feeling about our discussion today?” she asks. 

I tap the steering wheel with my thumb and stare out the windshield to the multi-story shelter. It’s a sad grey colour with a big, bold red sign. The parking lot is dotted with a few cars and folks leaning on signs or sitting on curbs smoking. Some drinking. Beyond the lot is the soup kitchen where I’ve been working for just over two years. My jackass of a boss is there too, waiting for me. 

“I’m nervous. About quitting.” I don’t have to be looking at the screen to know Dr. C is still, her warm brown eyes fixed on me while I look everywhere else but at her.

“And your brothers?” she finally says.

I snort and crush my eyes shut, and disappointment washes over me. I know they’re not going to be happy.

“You don’t live your life for them, Tab,” Dr. C’s voice is soothing and terrifying all at once. I know if it weren’t for her, I’d be a disaster. If it weren’t for my brothers sacrificing everything to make sure I got here, God knows where I’d be. 

“They’ve done so much,” I mumble picking at my fingernails.

“And you are grateful for that. But you don’t have to live a life they set for you. I think they’ll understand.” 

I pull in a deep breath and nod. 

“Okay. Well, I have two weeks to figure it out.” 

“Keep me updated okay?” she asks.

“I will.” 

“Good luck, Tabitha. You’ve come a long way. I know you can do this.” 

“Thanks,” I say with dryness in my voice. I’m not so sure I can, but at least one of us believes in me.

We say goodbye, and I’m hopping out of the RV, the letter clutched in my hand. 

The warm, salty air tangles my hair around my face, and I tuck the strands as I make my way across the concrete lot to the doors of the shelter. 

“Hey blondie,” a dry, raspy voice sounds just before an arm is slung over my shoulder. I stumble slightly at the sudden weight. 

“Hi Delores,” I smile and hold my breath knowing the cloud of smoke and alcohol is about to crash straight into my senses. It’s best to acclimatize slowly. 

“You packin’ today?” she wheezes with a grin on her wrinkled mouth. I laugh at her joke because that’s always what she says, but I’m never sure if she really knows what it means. 

“I have no weapons on me today, sorry.” I tease her, and she cackles and coughs giving me a brain-rattling shake. Nine out of ten people who hang out outside the shelter are completely harmless. To be honest, I feel more safe and comfortable here sometimes than I do in a room full of suits. Having two jobs one at a shelter and one at a catering company has twisted up my brain on both ends of the socioeconomic scale. But this chaos here is what I’m used to. This is comfortable for me. 

I have no idea what that says about me. 

“You know what I mean, little girl,” Delores says through her laugh. I love that she calls me little girl. I’m not sure she’s much older than me. But time works in strange ways, and these folks have lived lifetimes over in the years they’ve been alive. 

I pull out a pack of cigarettes and tug three out handing them to her.

“You’re the best, Blondie,” she says immediately veering off the second she has the smokes. I don’t smoke, but I always carry a pack with me. It’s basically how I’ve rooted myself in this crowd. Cigarettes are more valuable than money. My heart skips as I think back to my brothers. Giving my father smokes to get him to go outside and stop screaming at Mom or wailing on them. A life lesson I didn’t need at five years old.

Delores and her friends whoop with laughter, pulling my attention to the vast parking lot for a moment before my shoulder slams into someone and I stumble backwards. 

“Oh sorry,” I say looking at the tall thin man I’ve never seen before. 

“Watch where you’re going,” he grumbles, adjusting his army hat on his light sandy hair. The same colour as Lyles. My stomach lurches suddenly at the thought of my ex-boyfriend who I haven’t seen in a year. Since he showed up in Halifax to try and win me back. It was a gesture my romcom-loving heart should have jumped all over. The grand gesture of love. Instead, I felt scared and spent days at the shelter pouring myself into meal prep. 

The man storms off leaving me open-mouthed and speechless at his rudeness. I clutch the paper tighter in my hand and shake that jerk from my thoughts. It’s not uncommon to be treated that way here for other staff members. I rarely get that. My boss says it’s because I’m obnoxiously bubbly. Reason 4536 why I hate him. 

The heavy doors groan as I push my way into the shelter, nodding at the reception desk.

“Sandy,” I say in my best voice. “How’s Paulie feeling these days?” 

Sandy’s round cheeks scrunch up with her smile. “Oh much better, Tabby. The Vet has him on new meds, and he’s like a puppy again, I swear.” 

I lean over the counter and tap her photo of her dog on the nose. “I’m glad to hear that. Is my meeting still scheduled?” 

Sandy looks over her glasses at the screen and pinches her lips while she scrolls. My boss is a selfish asshole. I know for sure he’s going to make this about him. I’ve been dreaming of the day I could hand him a resignation letter and tell him to shove it. Now that I’m here it’s very different. Joys of my panic disorder. I’m not afraid to quit; I’m afraid my body will betray me, and I’ll make a fool of myself.

“Says here you’re booked in at 9 am.” 

Five minutes. 

The paper flutters noisily as my hands begin to shake. A lump thick and heavy forms in my throat and cold sweat forms. I struggle to steady my breathing, channelling every bit of Dr. C’s advice I can. 

God if I’m this terrified to quit working for a man I hate, how on earth am I going to tell my brothers that I dropped out of college.