I'd forgotten what it felt like to be warm, I think that we both had. We'd become so accustomed to feeling nothing short of cold for so long that our skin seemed to have become permanently chilled.
We'd quickly ran out of the money that we'd managed to scrounge together and now we were resorted to begging, our adopted place just outside of a corner shop our new spot to pass time, huddling together in an attempt to keep the bitter chill of January away.
Sammi had her head rested on my shoulder, the comforting weight of her skull causing a rare smile to flicker across my face as I rested my ear against her limp red hair. I pulled the blanket around us tighter, the scratchy brown material irritating my skin as I pulled it under my chin, making sure to keep an eye on the cup of change in front of us and watching people pass by.
Sammi sniffled and snuggled closer, her nose bright red against her pale face. She cleared her throat, the action triggered a loud breakout of coughing, the rattling of rubbish loud in her chest. I readjusted the blanket around her more securely.
She peered up at me. “Do you fancy another game of eye spy?”
I rolled my eyes. “Don't you ever bored of that game?”
“Not when it comes to people.” Before I could protest, she started. “I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with H…”
I would have argued but as I looked at the dark circles marring her skin and the slight tremor of her lips, I felt something in my chest constrict. I knew that she was trying to stay optimistic. She would always be grinning, causing her already cracked lips to strain as she tried to keep us laughing. I decided to ignore the artificial brightness in her eyes and play along with the façade. Taking a deep breath and ignoring the influx of cold air to my lungs, I looked around us.
We were on the outskirts of a major city, so we would often see all kinds of people pass by. We would often try to catch the eyes of those who appeared the wealthiest in the hopes that they may give us the chance to have a hot meal later. Sometimes we were lucky. Usually they acted as though we weren't even there.
My eyes swept over the pedestrians, my gaze flitted from face to face. “Is it a hippie?”
“Hugh Jackman lookalike?”
She laughed, the sound soft and airy as she closed her eyes and leant back against the wall behind us. “No.”
“Then who is it?”
Her eyes reopened and her blue eyes skipped through the crowd before settling. She nudged her chin in the direction she was looking. “There, definitely a hipster.”
I nudged her with my elbow causing her to squirm. “That's cheating.”
“No it's not.”
“It so is, he's in a building. He's not-“
The shadow of a person stopping next to us cut me off the loud clunk of change landing in the interrupted our conversation. A man, who appeared to be in his thirties, with light hair was stood next to us. He was waiting a dark brown jacket and peeking out from around the high collar I thought I could see a tattoo.
I will still assessing him when Sammi spoke. “Thank you.”
“I’m glad to be of help. You two must be freezing.”
The corner of his mouth downturned and his brow creased as he scratched at a patch of stubble on the bottom of his square jaw. “Haven't you got anywhere that you can go? Surely it's better to be back at home then out here.”
As Sammi was fiddling with her share of the blanket and looking at anything but the stranger, I answered for the pair of us. “No, we don't.”
His expression seemed to soften. “I'm sorry to hear that.” His brown eyes flickered to the ground before returning to meet my gaze. “Look, girls, it's up to you whether you take this offer or not but I run a shelter on the top of Bagnall Street- you're more than welcome to stop by.”
I clenched a handful of the material beneath the brown fabric. I risked a glance at Sammi who was looking down at her lap. “Thanks but we’re fine.”
He shoved his hands in the pockets of his jeans but his attention never wavered. “Of course, I understand- God knows how many weirdos there are out there. It's wise to make sure that you don't trust any strangers.” He glanced over his shoulder to the shop next to them. “Look, I'm going to go in, do you want anything?”
Sammi’s head whipped up, her eyes suddenly wide and eager. “Could you grab us some sandwiches, please? Maybe some bottles of water?”
After a few more seconds to clarify we didn't need anything else, he slipped into the shop. I released a breath I didn't know I'd been holding.
Sammi seemed to have renewed energy, her excitement more believable as she squeezed my arm. “We're going to have something decent to eat.”
I tried to copy her joy but the emotion felt empty. Sighing, I looked out over the pavement and the people passing by. “Let's just see, shall we...”
Sammi sat and waited while I pulled our cup towards us and checked the contents. Above the small collection of coppers and five pence pieces were ten one pound coins.
I ran my finger over the texture of them, refamiliarising myself with the currency as Sammi continued to chatter into my ear.
A few minutes later the man returned and passed us a carrier bag. “Here you go, girls. I hope things get better for you soon.”
I gave him a swift nod as Sammi took the bag, her hands almost shaking in her barely suppressed eagerness. “Thank you so much.”
His eyes swept between the pair of us once more before he gave a small wave and began to make his way down the pavement, his hands once again stuffed into his pockets.
The loud rustling of the plastic bag drew my attention back to Sammi to see her rummaging through the contents. She quickly pulled out a few packs of sandwiches as well as crisps and bottles of water. Eagerly, her fingers fumbled with a sandwich wrapper, her fingers slipping from the cardboard in her haste before she managed to get in and bring the malted bread to her lips. She took a big bite and hummed loudly in appreciation, before slipping her eyes closed and falling back against the wall. “So good...”
A small huff of laughter escaped me as I watched the utter bliss on her face. I reached for a pack myself and ripped open the container before taking a bite myself. She gave me a crumbly grin in response.
Unfortunately, the good mood didn’t last long. Where the food had brought us high spirits and a new found energy that I’d forgotten we ever had, the bleary night soon reminded us of the hard situation that we’d found ourselves in. The wind was particularly strong, icy currents easily bit through the blankets and layers that we huddled inside and we clung onto each other as tightly as we could in a weak attempt to save on body warmth. I could feel Sammi’s teeth chattering as she buried her face in my shoulder, her breaths short and shallow as she tried to protect her face from the bitter weather. My own face felt frozen as my fingers dug into her side as I tried to pull her closer. Another hacking cough escaped her.
She looked up at me, her blue eyes bleary. “Maybe we should have taken that guy up on his offer.”
“No, it’s too dangerous- we have no clue who he is.”
A particularly loud gust cut off her words. Nearby, the limp material of a shop’s canopy flapped loudly. Sammi’s grip tightened on my coat. “Please! I don’t know how much of this I can take, Penny.”
I looked down at her. She was so close to my ear I could hear her wheezing and the scraping of her throat each time she breathed. She was already struggling. How much worse would her health get if we stayed out in the cold? But the risks...
Sammi coughed again. I fought not to grimace as I heard her struggle to catch her breath. I pulled her closer against me and tried to ignore the jittering of her chest. When she had finished her episode she looked up at me again and, after a minute of deliberation, I gave an unwilling nod.
I struggled to my feet, my tired legs complaining as I tried to straighten them and bring Sammi upright as well. She stumbled, her own feet slipping as she tried to regain her balance, before we gathered all that we could. Slowly, we began to walk.
Sammi had the blanket around her, the material taut with the grip she held it with. “I promise that if we get there and anything seems wrong we’ll leave straight away.”
“It has to be immediately. Even if you think that you’re being daft- if anything feels funny, we’re gone.”
She nodded. “Now, where did he say it was?”
“The top of Bagnall Street.”
We carried on walking. The wind was unrelenting as it pushed against us. The streets were completely clear as we trudged on. As we passed houses we could see the lights on through the windows, the flickering images of bright colours catches our eyes as families huddled down to watch the TV. I tried to zip my coat up higher and pretend I could feel the same warmth they did.
Eventually we reached a point where Sammi stopped, pointing at a nearby street sign. “Bagnall Street- it must be up here.”
Wordlessly, I followed as she turned into the road and began the ascent up the hill. We had passed several detached houses when I thought of something. “How will we know which one it is?”
“I guess we just have to keep going until we reach the top and hope that we can work it out from there.”
Our already aching legs seemed to weaken as we continued up the bank, our limbs straining as we pushed ourselves on. The road never seemed to end, houses followed one after the other as we carried on. As time seemed to drag, I was tempted to tell Sammi to forget the idea altogether and that it must be some sick joke when we eventually reached the end of a col-de-sac and a small driveway that branched off.
I looked between the identical buildings around us and groaned. “How the hell are we supposed to know which one it is?”
Sammi was lingering by the pathway, her neck stretching out as she tried to peer around a large bush. “I think it might be this way.” She glanced back at me. “It’s got to be.”
Uncertain, I watched as she began to make her way down the wide gravel path before hardening my resolve and catching up. The stones shifted under our clumsy feet as we went, shrinking away from the wild limbs of the torrent trees before we came across a large house.
A floodlight quickly illuminated as we approached, giving us a clearer view of the large red brick building. The windows were large yet white paint was peeling off the sills, the dried up coats crumbling in small clusters around the corners of the wood.
Swallowing back the lump in my throat, I was about to speak when Sammi stepped forward and lifted a fist. I quickly reached forward and grabbed her arm. “I don’t think that this is a good idea.”
She looked at my face and her lips thinned for a moment before she shook her head and gave the hand which I had used to capture her bicep a squeeze. “We have to at least try. If we get in there and it’s bad, we’ll make excuses and get out of there.”
My heart felt unbearably light as though it might flutter straight out of my chest. Reluctantly, I withdrew my hand. She waited for a moment for it to leave her sleeve before she knocked.
Then we started to wait.