ALL HORNS and RATTLES
Twelve years since Nina White’s family was ripped apart.
Twelve years since she’s seen her siblings.
Twelve years she’s had to fight for everything, including her own life and her freedom.
Tex has known Nina since she was a smart-mouthed, tough teen working with him at Miguel’s Gym. Tex knows nothing of Nina’s past, and he’s never had to fight for anything, until he decides he wants Nina, scars and all.
Nina has had it bad for Tex, not that she’d ever tell him. His sweet smile and a heart the size of Texas are way too good for her. If he ever learned about the ugliness of her past, he’d go back to his perfect family and his perfect home and his perfect life. What sane man wouldn’t?
Tex insists that she try to find her family.
Tex insists that she lower the walls surrounding her heart.
Tex insists that she love him back.
One kiss sends her world spinning out of control. The past has a way of catching up with you, and the future she never dreamed of is within her grasp. Will it be fleeting? Or can she make it hers?
***New Adult novel intended for audiences over the age of 18 due to adult language and sexual content**
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“You’re eighteen today, Nina.” Mrs. Graft yells into my room. “State won’t pay for you anymore so you’ve gotta go.”
I knew this day would come, but are they really kicking me out this early? It’s like seven in the morning.
On New Year’s Day!
“Can I get a shower and food first?”
She steps into the bedroom I share with three other girls and scowls at me. “Make it quick. No point in dragging out the inevitable.”
“Thank you.” I push back the covers on my lower bunk and get out of the bed, careful not to bump my head, which I’ve done more times than I can count.
“Do you really have to go, Nina?” Ellie, the six-year-old who is on the top bunk asks, tears in her deep brown eyes.
“I’m eighteen. Those are the rules.”
A tear leaks out of the corner of her eye as she holds out her scrawny arms to me.
I lean in and hug her. She’s such a sweet little girl and has only been with us about six months.
“I’m going to miss you,” she whispers into my hair.
“I’ll miss you too, but remember what I told you.” I pull back and look into her eyes. “Take care of yourself, be strong, and don’t ever be afraid to tell your caseworker, policeman, firefighter or teacher if someone is being mean to you.” She’d been physically abused, but like so many children in her situation, had been too afraid to say anything. It wasn’t until a trip to the emergency room after a teacher noticed she was in pain and couldn’t reach a parent that Ellie finally spoke up. She was taken from her home and put into the system. She misses her mom and dad, and despite all the physical pain they inflicted on her, they are still her parents.
I remember all too well feeling lost and scared when I’d been taken from my family. Except I didn’t miss my parents. I missed my older brothers and younger sister. I especially remember asking why I couldn’t be with Dylan. He was the oldest and was the one who tried to take care of us.
“I promise,” she says.
I wish I could keep her and make a place for just her and me so she didn’t have to go through what I did, but no social worker is going to allow me to raise a kid. I can barely afford to take care of myself.
“Go back to sleep,” I whisper and tuck her into bed, along with the stained and battered rag doll she keeps close.
I grab my toiletry bag and hurry off to the bathroom as I try to swallow past the lump in my throat. It’s not that I love it here, but it’s a roof over my head and food in my stomach. Once I walk out that door, I’ll be on my own.
At least I have a part-time job. Make that two part-time jobs. Not that they pay enough, combined, to rent any kind of apartment, but at least I’ll get to keep my paychecks instead of handing them over to Mrs. Graft.
She takes money from all the foster kids in the house. Her rule is that as soon as we are old enough we have to get a job to help out financially. She claims the state doesn’t pay her enough to house, feed and clothe us. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I never asked my caseworker about it because my paycheck is a small price to pay to live in a house where I’m not bothered or scared, and the others are basically decent people. If I would have snitched on Mrs. Graft, I may have been pulled from here and put somewhere else. I wasn’t about to risk ending up someplace worse than this. I’ve been to worse and didn’t want to go back.
Plus, I have half of my tips from the past two years. As soon as Mrs. Graft asked for my paycheck, I told her that I had to turn in all my tips so taxes could be taken out. Which is partially true if a customer paid with a card. However, any cash left for me, I got to keep, after sharing it with the cook. I bus my own tables since it’s only a diner, so I don’t have to share with a lot of people like at larger restaurants. I’ve saved what I could, hiding it, because I knew this day would come.
Eighteen and out and I’ve saved $1,506.47. It’s not much, but it’s a start for the first day of being an adult.
Truthfully, I’ve been on my own since I was six. Just like Ellie, and it’s just the beginning for her.
Twelve years, and even though I’ve been in about half a dozen foster homes, I’ve been alone.
This one might be the hardest to leave. Not because the Grafts are exactly loving, because truthfully they are in in for the money, but I’ve been here for two years and I like the other kids. And, I’ll worry about Ellie. But, there is nothing I can do for her and I know as well as anyone that a kid’s hands are tied. We just need to roll with the rules, and the punches, and protect ourselves as best as we can.
At least I had the forethought to push through school and get all the necessary credits so I could graduate early. There was no way in hell I was going to try and finish out my senior year while living on the streets. Just eight months to survive and then I’ll be in a dorm. I hope. I’m still waiting to hear back if I’ve been accepted to any colleges.
December graduates go quietly. We take our last test and walk out the door for good. But, I will walk with the rest of my class in May. I busted my ass for good grades and I want the pomp and circumstance, and the cap, gown and diploma.
Shit! The cap and gown. I ordered and paid for it, but it won’t arrive at the school for a few months. Once I get a place, I’m going to have to let my counselor know where I am. If I don’t have a place, I’ll ask Miguel about using the gym’s address for mail and stuff. I work there part-time and practically live there anyway when I’m not at my other job or when I wasn’t at school.
My suitcase is waiting by the front door when I finish my eggs and toast. It’s old and battered, but it’s mine. I found it beside a dumpster when I was eight and took it back to my foster home and cleaned it up. It’s much better than a garbage sack. That’s what most foster kids put their stuff in and I hated it. When it’s time to leave and go to a new home, the old parents just toss your clothes and toys, if you are lucky enough to have any, into a big plastic bag and send you out the door, just like the garbage. I’ve had this suitcase for ten years, and it’s my home. Not that I sleep in it, but anything that is important to me stays in that suitcase.
Mrs. Graft hands me an envelope. “It’s got your immunization record, school transcripts and anything else you need.”
My life in one large manila envelope.
Swinging my bag over my shoulder, I shove the envelope inside and lift my suitcase. “Thanks for everything.”
Five kids from ages six to seventeen are standing on the other side of the room watching me. Ellie is holding onto the hand of Darius. He’s seventeen and will be the next to go, but Darius will watch out for Ellie until then. He’s a good guy who has learned to keep his head low, quiet and just get through.
This is their future, they know it. Just like I knew it when I was the one watching another eighteen-year-old leave. Except, the others usually had a social worker come by. That’s not an option for me. It’s a holiday and the one I’ve been assigned is out of the office for a few months.
I step outside and take a deep breath as the door closes behind me. Ten a.m. on the first day of the year. Nothing but the future ahead of me.
It sure is a beautiful sunrise. I only wish I wasn’t watching it alone. My family is asleep in the big old farmhouse I grew up in, and my friends, who I was once really tight with, are likely hung over and have a long, painful day ahead of them.
We had a great time last night, but it wasn’t the same as in the past. We’ve grown apart, which I suppose is normal, but it has me questioning a lot of things. Like my future.
The wide open plains of Texas are spread out before me and go on forever. There’s a nip in the air and it’s just cold enough that I can see my breath in the early morning dawn. To Texans, this is cold, only a few degrees below freezing. To me, after living in New York for the past couple of years, this is just chilly.
The fields and the cattle before me are the scenery I grew up with and thought I’d come home to. Except, I’m not so sure Texas is really my home anymore. Going to college in New York was my way of seeing the world. Stupid young kid going off to the big city two and a half years ago. I was going to be a boxer. The best.
I’m not a boxer and no matter how much Miguel tries to teach me, I’ll never be great.
At least I went after my dream. That’s all anyone can do and I won’t be suffering from the what ifs when I’m old.
But, what now? I graduate in a year and a half and need to decide if I stay there or come back home. I’m working on a degree in Sports and Fitness Administration so I could be a fitness director, athletic trainer and run a gym.
I like sports and the physical and have always been athletic. I’m just not good enough to ever be professional. Out of all the sports I played in high school, and I played them all, boxing was the one thing I loved, and I didn’t learn that at school but at a community center that has long since shut down.
Maybe I can come back and reopen it. Give the kids a place to go since there isn’t much to do in this tiny town. It doesn’t even need traffic lights. Hell, if you stick to the back roads, you can drive from one end of the county to the other and only run into a handful of stop signs.
I don’t want to come back here to nothing and do nothing. What I want is to stay in New York and keep working at Miguel’s.
Miguel’s gym was the first place I headed after unpacking in my dorm room. Mom and Dad said I could pursue my dream of boxing, and encouraged it, as long as I got a degree in something. They didn’t really care what as long as I got a piece of paper with a bachelor’s degree on. They knew I had to get the boxing bug out of me before I could move on.
Well, the boxing bug isn’t gone, it’s just been refocused.
I’ve learned a lot from Miguel and the other guys at his gym, but if I do anything with boxing, it will be training, not fighting, and I’ve come to accept that.
I don’t know what I’d do without that old man. Miguel is like my father in New York. I have a great mom and dad here too, but Miguel kept my head on straight when I could have made some poor ass decisions. I was so unprepared for everything New York City had to offer. It’s not like I hadn’t been to big cities before, but I was basically raised in the country, on a ranch, not far from a town that can boast a population of like three thousand, on a good day. Worse, I think I may be related to half of the residents one way or another.
I just had to get out of here. I didn’t want to live in Texas for my entire life even if I do love the land. I needed more. Wanted more. My roots are here, in the desert, cattle, horses and oil. My heart is in New York.
Except, she will be leaving in the fall. Not that Nina has any clue she’s the reason I don’t want to come back to Texas.
I don’t even know when it all happened and when she became so important to me.
Heck, when I stepped into Miguel’s for the first time, she was just a kid, smart-mouthed, tough, and armored up like an armadillo, contrary and so fucking brave that she’d charge into hell with a bucket of ice water. All horns and rattles, that one. The slightest thing could get her riled up and she’d go off on the person, which is why I started calling her Horns. It used to be just me but more and more people started calling her that, and not really knowing why. The last time I ordered team jerseys I even had Horns put on the back of her jersey, instead of her last name, just to be ornery.
She’s not so much that way anymore. She’s still armored up, but she’s softened. Not that she’s all warm and fuzzy, never that. But I’ve seen some glimpses beneath her tough exterior, more and more over time, and as much as Horns will deny it, she’s got a really soft heart.
Eighteen today in fact. And she’s not like any of the girls I’ve ever known, which became painfully clear after hanging with my friends these past couple of days, and I had to face what my gut already recognized. Nina may be just eighteen, but she’s got a world of maturity and common sense above the girls who are my age and whom I’ve known since we were all dragging our diapers on the ground.
I’ve always admired Nina but she’s no longer just another girl at the gym. She’s my friend and I’ve fallen hard for her. I didn’t even see it coming until it was there.
And, she has no fucking clue about how I feel and I have no idea what to do about it.
I’d ask Miguel because I ask him everything, but I can’t talk to him about Nina. She’s like a granddaughter to him, put up on a pedestal to be seen and not touched. If the old man had any clue what I was thinking or wanting, he’d kick my sorry ass out of the gym and lock the door behind me.
But damn, she’s prettier than the sunrise, with her light brown hair and light grey eyes, pert nose and the most kissable lips God has ever created.
Lips I haven’t kissed. Lips I don’t dare kiss. Lips I can only dream about, like the rest of her. Slim, strong and toned with legs that any man would love to have wrapped around him. Not that I’ve really seen all of her legs because she only wears shorts that come down to her knees, but I sure as hell can imagine.
And, they’ll never be wrapped around me. She’s my friend and I love her, but if I cross that line and let her know how I feel, I will lose her, and having a part of Nina is better than not having her at all.