Portland ME Christmas Novella
Faith failed him.
Ambition drove her.
Serendipity brought them together.
They’ve never met, but their paths run in the same direction—home for the holidays.
Yet their reasons for leaving are as different as the reasons they return.
Meeting by chance along a 1400 mile stretch of highway when a snowstorm grinds traffic to a halt, they have no choice but to jointly ride it out.
Exposing a common thread, leading them from the past to the present, it’s through the innocent eyes of a toddler, they discover a future.
“Be careful on the road.”
I look over at Sydney, who showed up with a cooler of food, just as I was loading my bag in the car. Even though Syd is not that much older than I am, she likes to fuss over me like a mother hen. I love her as a big sister, so I let her. She’s married to Gunnar, who owns The Skipper, the pub on Holyoke Wharf where I’ve worked since coming east about eighteen years ago.
Then just nineteen, I’d been in a hurry to leave my restrictive family life behind. Growing up in Esko, Minnesota, under the heavy yoke of the Laestadian Lutheran Church, had not exactly been a barrel of laughs. The only regret I nursed was the little sister I left behind, which is why I didn’t hesitate driving clear across ten states with winter weather looming when she called.
I’ve been back home only once, about twelve years ago. My sister, Leena, had just turned thirteen at the time. The visit had been a disaster, but seeing her again had been a blessing. I tried to stay in touch with Leena fairly regularly since then, but more often than not, our parents made communication difficult. The single telephone in the house was closely guarded by my father. He firmly believed any technical advancements the world had made in the past century was the work of the devil, and it was his responsibility to shield his family from all evil. I’d heard that song and dance my entire life, growing up in that house.
I may have talked to my sister a scant dozen times in the same amount of years. Until she called two weeks ago, finally taking me up on my repeated offers to help her get out of there.
“Don’t worry, I plan to arrive in one piece,” I reassure her. “And I’ll call in when I stop for the night.”
She walks up to me and slides her arms around my waist, tilting her head back to look me in the face. “Are you sure you don’t want one of us to come along for the drive?”
“I’m positive. Christmas at my parents’ place will be tense, to put it mildly—if they let me in at all—and I plan to use the drive to get myself in the right frame of mind to deal with them. They won’t let Leena go easily.” She buries her face against my chest, and I wrap her in a tight hug, before setting her back gently. “I’d better get on the road.”
“Go. Go get your sister and bring her back here. Let her know there’s an entire family waiting to welcome her at this end.”
I press a kiss on Syd’s head and slide behind the wheel of the brand new Equinox I bought especially for this trip. I needed a new ride anyway after my transmission blew on the old GMC Jimmy. A new car for a new start seemed appropriate. Not like I couldn’t afford it: other than buying a modest two-bedroom house on the south side of town eight years ago, I’ve been hoarding my money. There’s just been me, and I virtually live at The Skipper anyway, where the dress code is jeans and a shirt and I can eat most of my meals free of charge. Aside from my family there, I don’t have any financial dependents, no family of my own to worry about.
I lift a hand at Syd, who watches me back out of the driveway and turn onto the road.
By the time I get to Albany, a little over five hours later, I’m due for a sanitary break and pull off the road into the first gas station I see. Parking beside the small building housing a variety store, a coffee shop, and hopefully some bathrooms, I pocket my phone and head in. The woeful cries of a child draw my attention, and I look toward the counter where a woman with shoulder-length blonde hair seems to be arguing with the attendant, while trying to bounce the crying little girl on her hip. Poor kid.
Spurred on by the pressing call of nature, I turn my back and head for the bathrooms on the other side. After relieving myself, washing my hands, and splashing some water on my face, I walk out and aim for the coffee shop. I’m hoping to get to Erie, Pennsylvania today, but I’ll need to keep infusing caffeine. I already lost about an hour due to traffic around Boston this morning, and have at least another six or so to go before I get to Buffalo, provided it’s all smooth sailing, which I know is wishful thinking. It’s already after one.
Placing my order for an extra large brew, I notice the warbled sounds of a Christmas carol playing in the background. I glance over at the counter on the other side and confirm the woman and crying toddler are no longer there. Once outside, I zip up the collar of my winter coat against the wind. Shit, it’s cold.
Back behind the wheel, I lift the top of Syd’s cooler to find something to eat on the road. The thing is packed to the top with muffins, sandwiches, baggies with raw vegetables, and bottles of cold water. I grin; she really is the ultimate mother hen. Grabbing a sandwich, I fold back the wrapper and take a bite, putting it on the console as I start the car. I probably should get some gas while I’m here, even though I still have about a third of a tank left.
I pull up to a pump, behind a red Toyota Highlander with Massachusetts plates. The moment I open my door, I hear the child’s crying again. The same blonde woman, still with the little girl on her hip, is one-handedly wrestling to get gas in her tank, swearing up a storm. Without thinking, I walk up to her, unscrew her gas cap and take the hose from her hand, fitting it in her tank.
“Thank you,” she mumbles, using her free hand to cup the child’s head and press it in her neck.
“Is she okay?” I ask, nodding at the little girl whose little red nose barely peeks from the fuzzy pink hood of her jacket.
Shit, shit, shit.
I was afraid this might happen.
I gently press Flynn’s little head against me and out of the biting wind that seems to have picked up, as the tall man easily takes over the task of filling my tank.
“She sleeps as long as I’m moving, but when I stop—she cries,” I add to my earlier explanation.
“Do you need a doctor? I’m not from here either, but I can help you find one.” I look at him suspiciously. How the hell does he know I’m not from here. He seems to catch on and smiles—great smile. “Massachusetts license plate.”
Right. That would be a giveaway.
“She’s on antibiotics, they tend to make her a little out of sorts. She’s normally a really happy kid.” I’m not sure why I feel the need to defend my daughter’s behavior to this stranger.
“She’s quieting down already,” he points out astutely, trying to sneak a peek under the edge of her little hood.
He’s right, she is. With all the bouncing up and down, I didn’t notice that aside from the occasional hiccup, her crying has stopped.
When Flynn came down with a middle ear infection just three days before we were scheduled to visit my parents, I didn’t hesitate to change our plans from flying to driving. A bit of a haul, at least three days, I’m guessing, but I figured it might be a good way to wind down from working like a dog for almost eighteen years building my business. I’d even worked right up to Flynn’s birth, and had only allowed myself six weeks off before diving right back into the fray.
I wouldn’t even have taken this time if my mom hadn’t called me a few weeks ago. On her insistence, Dad had gone to see the doctor, who told him it was time to slow down. His blood pressure had reached alarming heights, despite the medication he’s been on for the past ten years. Slowing down is not in my family’s vocabulary, so Dad decided to brush it off, but Mom had been really concerned about the upcoming holiday season. The busiest time of year for their bakery, and even at almost seventy, my parents were still running all the day-to-day operations.
Almost four years ago, I was confronted with a now or never situation when I found myself pregnant at forty-one. I’d never taken the time to think about a family, I was too driven creating a successful business. Faced with the reality of a child, I was forced to take a long hard look at my life and came to find I wanted it: the child, the experience of motherhood, a little family of my own. The decision for me was easy, but not so for the man who had fathered her. We had an arrangement of convenience, neither of us in the market for a committed relationship, we simply sought each other out for sex. We never even actually slept together, always waking up alone in bed. There were no messy feelings or expectations, and it worked for us for a few years before I found myself pregnant.
He did not take it well. He especially did not appreciate the fact I would not even discuss an abortion. He insisted he wanted no part of the child’s life and was actually insulted when I presented him with the legal paperwork for him to sign off on his parental rights. I didn’t get this far in life by being an idiot—of course I wanted his relinquishment documented properly.
“All set.” The man’s voice drags me from my thoughts.
“Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.”
Once again he bends down to peek at my daughter and a little smile plays on his lips when his eyes find mine. “She’s sleeping,” he whispers, but I barely react: I’m mesmerized by the warm intensity of his brown eyes. “Safe trip.”
I still stand there, my baby sleeping in my arms, like some half-witted idiot instead of a successful business owner, as the tall stranger stalks back to his vehicle and unscrews his own gas cap. The moment I see him start turning around, I quickly open the back door and put Flynn in her seat, before getting into my own, never looking back as I pull away from the gas station.
I’d been checking the satellite images these past few days, because of a system that was expected to hit sometime tonight over the Great Lakes. Last thing I want is to get stuck in a snowstorm somewhere, so I mapped out an alternate route to Cleveland, heading south and then through Pennsylvania. I want to try and avoid getting stuck around Buffalo with this impending weather. If I can make it to the hotel in Clarion tonight, I’m a happy camper.
I take a quick look in the rearview mirror to see Flynn still fast asleep in her seat. Fitting my earbuds in my ears, I give my mom a quick call.
“Everything all right? Is Flynnie doing okay?”
“She’s fussy when I stop, but sleeps like a log as long as I keep moving. I have another six or so hours to get to the hotel I booked in Clarion. I’ll give you a call when I get there.”
Mom had been worried about me driving all the way, and I’d promised I’d keep her up-to-date on my progress. I had even sent her details on the route I was planning to follow, just in case.
“Drive safe, honey, and if you get tired, please don’t push it. I’d rather you get here later than not at all.”
“Sure thing, Mom. We’ll be fine. Give Dad a kiss?”
“Will do, Montana.”
It’s almost nine when I finally pull into the parking lot of the Radisson Park Inn. I didn’t rush and the worst we encountered was some sleet just past Scranton. Flynn has been awake since we stopped for a quick bite, but has been quietly watching a video I had lined up on my iPad. She hasn’t cried since Albany. I’m keeping my fingers crossed the antibiotics are finally settling into her system.
“Are you hungry, sweetie?” I ask her after her bath as she waddles around the hotel room in her pj’s.
“Cookie,” my one-track minded daughter demands.
“No, no cookie before bed. You know that. How about a few Cheerios?”
Flynn claps her hands together in approval. Nine out of ten times I can distract her with Cheerios and luckily tonight is one of them. I install her in bed with a small bowl of cereal and my iPad while I take a quick shower, leaving the bathroom door open. When I step out, barely five minutes later with a towel wrapped around me, my little blonde pixie is once again fast asleep on the bed, her hand still clutching a fistful of Cheerios. I slip into my nightshirt, turn off the iPad, and pluck the cereal from her fingers, before turning off the lights and slipping under the covers beside her.
The last thought I have before drifting off is of warm brown eyes belonging to a handsome tall man who looked to be at least ten years out of my range.