© 2010 Sheila McClune
Late into the night, the snow fell and fell. Risa's aching hands clenched the steering wheel in a death grip. This is stupid, the nagging voice in her head told her for the thousandth time. Turn around. Go back. The voice got louder, grew strident as she approached another in-the-middle-of-nowhere exit. She turned up the iPod, patched into the radio with a makeshift cable, to try to drown it out.
That, too, was a bad choice. Bohemian Rhapsody ended, and the next song began. Three notes were all that had a chance to play before Risa mashed the skip button, but it was too late. The three notes had already stabbed their way into her heart. Their song. Her eyes flooded with tears...
A mile marker – 420, some idiotic portion of her mind noted – loomed in her headlights, straight ahead. Risa yelled a few words she'd never repeat in front of her mother and fought the urge to yank the steering wheel sharply to the left. Instead, she eased it to the left as gently as she could while still having a chance of not biffing the signpost.
The car almost-but-not-quite scraped the signpost and headed back toward the center of the northbound lanes of the interstate, but then the back end started to skid. She knew she was supposed to steer into the skid, but that would head her straight into the median, so she yanked the wheel back the other direction. The car fishtailed, then described a graceful three hundred and sixty degree turn. Not knowing what else to do, she jammed on the brakes. The car skidded a few degrees further; then the antilock brakes kicked in and did their job, stopping the car inches from the edge of the road.
Luckily there was no other traffic in the middle of nowhere at three in the morning, especially during a blizzard. She made an inappropriate suggestion to the universe in general, then sat and shook for a few moments. Stupid, stupid, stupid, she chided herself, beating her fists against the steering wheel.
No. This wasn't her fault. It was Jason's fault. Damn Jason, anyway. She'd show him.
Cautiously, she put her car into reverse and backed away from the edge of the road. Not too far; she didn't want to fall off the other edge, either. Then she shifted back into drive and pointed the sedan north once again.
Damn the snow, too. She should be in Pueblo by now, two hours from Denver and home. Instead she'd spent the last five hours covering miles she usually crossed in less than half that time. The weather had been cloudy but dry when she'd left Albuquerque. The snow had started as she headed into Santa Fe, getting heavier between there and Las Vegas – the one in New Mexico, not the bright shiny one in Nevada – but then it had let up for a little while, and her hopes had risen. That only lasted until Wagon Mound, where the snow started to get heavy again, piling up on the roadway and clogging her wiper blades. Urban legend had it that the State of New Mexico only owned four snowplows, and they were all obviously busy elsewhere on this blustery night.
She settled back into her cruising speed of thirty miles per hour – probably a little too fast, given the conditions, but she was not feeling patient. She passed the snow-padded form of an SUV in the median, and then a few miles later another one in the ditch. Both were so completely covered with snow that she guessed their owners had abandoned them where they were until morning.
After that, there were just miles. “Miles and miles of miles and miles,” her father used to quip when they made this journey in the family car. The snowflakes in her headlights were hypnotic, mesmerizing. She cracked open another bottle of Mountain Dew and cranked the iPod a little higher, singing to keep herself awake. Not the songs that reminded her of Jason, though. She skipped those.
“Damn you, Jason.” Saying it out loud made her feel better. “Stupid jerk. What kind of an asshat breaks up with his girlfriend on Christmas Eve eve anyway?”
Apparently, the kind Jason was.
No. She wasn't going to think about that now. Wasn't. Wasn't. Wasn't. Instead, Risa tried to visualize how surprised her mother was going to be to see that she had come home for Christmas after all. Derek and Lisa would be there too, and there would be the usual teasing confusion about “Lisa” and “Risa” – why on earth couldn't her brother have married someone with a different-sounding name? – and Dad would build a big fire in the fireplace, and the whole house would smell of pine boughs and woodsmoke and roasting turkey.
Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that she hadn't eaten anything since lunchtime. Trinidad, she promised it. We'll stop for breakfast once we're safely over the pass.
Meanwhile, signs reminded her that Raton was just ahead. She glanced down at her gas gauge and bit her lip. Less than a quarter of a tank. She'd usually chance it and wait to fill up in Trinidad where it was cheaper, but she had Raton Pass to negotiate before she got there, and in this weather she'd be happier with a full tank.
She stopped at the first open station she came to, filling the car's tank, using the restroom, buying another bottle of soda to keep her going. She pulled out into traffic; or rather, behind the only other car on the road, a State Patrol cruiser. She followed it to the on-ramp to the highway, but then it surprised her by pulling across the ramp, blocking it. What? She sat and stared dumbly at it for a long moment.
A dark-clad figure emerged from the patrol car and shuffled to her side of the car. She put down the window.
“Sorry, ma'am,” said the officer, her brown hair doing its best to escape from under her hat. “Highway's closed.”
“Closed? But … but I need to get home!”
“I'm sure you do, ma'am, but we'd rather you got there alive.”
“But … I mean, you just closed it. Couldn't you let just one last car through? I'll drive really carefully, I promise, and I've got good tires, and ...”
The officer cut her off. “Wouldn't do you any good. Semi jack-knifed just short of the summit. All the cars that are up there now, they'll be turning 'em around and heading 'em back this way.” She peered in at Risa, shining her flashlight on but not at her, taking in her red-rimmed eyes. “Besides, you look pretty tired.”
“But … but … what do I do now?”
“I'd suggest you high-tail it back into town and grab you a motel room before they fill up. Here.” The trooper pulled off a glove, dug around in a pocket, and handed Risa a business card. “Give 'em this and tell 'em to give you their best rate. Okay?”
Risa took the card in numb fingers. “Okay. Thank you.”
“You have a good night, hear? Or at least, what's left of it.” The trooper patted the side of Risa's car and trudged back to the police cruiser. Risa had no choice but to back around and head back toward town.
* * *
The first three motels she passed all had glowing red “NO VACANCY” signs; given how few cars were in their parking lots, it seemed more likely to Risa that their owners had just given up and gone to bed for the night. But the fourth one – optimistically called “The Dunes” – still had the “VACANCY” sign lit, and the lobby looked warm and inviting, with Christmas lights around the edges of the windows. She pulled up in the loading zone opposite the entrance.
The door bonged loudly when she opened it, and a male voice called “Be there in a sec!” from a doorway behind the front desk.
“No hurry,” she called back. It wasn't as though she had anywhere to be. While she waited, she looked around at the racks of tourist brochures, the coffee machine – unfortunately empty and turned off – and the fake Christmas tree in the corner.
A minute later, a sleepy-eyed young man in a t-shirt and pajama pants came out of the back room. His dark hair looked as though he'd combed it with an egg beater, and he was about three days past due for a shave, at least to Risa's mind. “How can I help you?”
“I need a room, if you've got one.”
“I think I can find you something.” He grinned, gesturing at the nearly-empty parking lot. “Queen or king? Regular or deluxe?”
“I don't know. What's the difference?”
He quoted her features and rates. They didn't seem unreasonable. She finally decided on the deluxe queen, though she doubted she'd need the refrigerator or the microwave. She presented him with the card the State Patrol officer had given her. “She said to tell you to give me your best rate.”
“Did she, now?” The clerk raised an eyebrow at her. “Pulled you over, did she?”
“Not exactly ...”
“Never mind. None of my business.” He took back the registration form he'd just handed her and crossed out the rate, penning in one that was twenty dollars less. “There you go. There's breakfast in the lobby until ten. Real breakfast, not just coffee and doughnuts. And I've already marked you down for a late checkout. Two instead of noon.”
She smiled. “Thanks.” She signed the form and handed it back along with her debit card.
While she was waiting for the payment to process, two more cars pulled up behind hers. He looked back at her, grinning. “Highway's closed, isn't it?”
“That explains it.” He tore off the credit card slip and handed it to her to sign as he turned to greet the new arrivals. She smiled to herself when she noticed that the rates he quoted to them were substantially higher even than those he'd originally given her. The free market economy in action, she thought. Taking her card key, she slipped back out into the snowy night.
* * *
She awoke with a start. Where the heck am I? Then it all came back to her in a rush. It was Christmas Eve, and she was stranded in a blizzard in Raton, New Mexico. And Jason …
This time she gave in to the tears. Jason. Not the first man she had ever loved, but the first she had loved this much, and the first one she'd ever lived with. Back in April, moving in together had seemed like the right thing to do. They'd known each other for almost three months, had been dating for two of them. He was everything she'd ever dreamed of in a man – smart, loving, sexy, and damn hawt – and being with him just felt like it was meant to be.
Or at least it had until the subject of where they would spend the holidays had come up. She'd assumed they'd spend Christmas in Denver, with her family, since his mom was further away, in Seattle.
“I'd rather not,” he said.
“Why not? I thought you liked my folks. You got along okay over Labor Day...”
“I'm just not into that whole Christmas thing. What would be wrong with spending the day here, alone, just the two of us?” He waggled a suggestive eyebrow at her.
“But Mom's counting on us.”
“For what? I'm sure they can eat turkey and open presents just fine without us.”
“I've never not spent Christmas with my family. I'd miss them.”
“So we'll go visit them another time. Martin Luther King day or something. Besides, if we're ever going to be a family, it's time we started our own holiday traditions. Maybe we could go skiing up at Sandia Peak or something.”
She rolled her eyes at him. She'd grown up in Colorado, after all.
“Well, okay, maybe we'll find something else to do. We'll see a movie and eat Chinese food, or maybe just stay home and be cozy. What would be wrong with that?”
She'd allowed him to talk her into it, against her better judgment. Mom hadn't taken it well, at least at first.
“But, honey, it just won't seem like Christmas without you. And who's going to mash the potatoes? You know you're the only one who can make them without lumps, the way your father likes them.”
“Mom, it's not like there won't be other Christmases. Besides, if Jason and I are ever going to be a family, we need to make our own traditions. Like you and Dad did.”
“Oh, honey! Does that mean...did Jason propose?”
Risa kicked herself for bringing up the subject. “No. Not yet.” Though now that she thought about it, that would explain why he was so anxious for the two of them to spend Christmas alone, together. Perhaps he was planning to propose! “But Mom, you remember how it was when we were little and we had to spend the whole holiday shuffling back and forth between your folks' house and Grandma and Grandpa Miller's. You were the one who put her foot down and decided we needed to have our own Christmas. Remember?”
Her mother's sigh carried clearly through the phone's speaker. “You're right. I guess I knew it was going to happen someday. I just didn't think it would be so soon.”
“So soon? Mom, I'm twenty-eight. I've been living on my own for almost ten years now. It's hardly soon.”
“Yes, but I just always thought that … well, never mind. I guess you need to do what you need to do. But we'll miss you.”
“I'll miss you too, Mom. But I'll call and send presents and everything.”
If that had been the only problem, Risa could have dealt with it. But then, the first Saturday in December, when they were snuggling together after a particularly satisfying bout of lovemaking, she'd suggested to Jason that they go visit their storage unit.
“What for?” He nuzzled her ear.
“So I can get my Christmas decorations out and put them up. After all, if I wait until next month, it'll be too late.”
“Christmas decorations? What do we need all that crap for?”
“Crap?” She pulled away from him, stung.
“I didn't mean it that way, I just … I don't buy into the whole commercial thing, okay? Christmas is just a way to convince people to buy stuff they don't really need. And you know I'm not religious. I don't feel comfortable celebrating a holiday I don't believe in.”
“But it doesn't have to be about that. For me it's about nostalgia, and happy memories, and peace on Earth and goodwill to men and all that. Why can't we celebrate that together?”
“Because it's all fake. Nobody really believes in that stuff.”
“Do you really? I've seen what you're like when someone cuts you off in traffic...”
“Is it? How is inviting a total stranger to fornicate with himself in any way related to 'peace on Earth and goodwill to men'?”
“I still don't see what it hurts if I put up a Christmas tree and a few lights...”
“Fine. Then you do it. But I don't want any part of it.”
“Fine. I will.”
And she had, setting up the tree, fussing with the lights, decorating it with the ornaments she'd collected since she was a child. There were some her mother had given her, and a few that had been her grandmother's. Some she'd made herself; the ones she'd made in grade school were starting to look a little worn, but she hung them up anyway. After all, they were part of her Christmas. The somewhat dented tin star at the top was a tradition, too. Grandma Miller had given her that, telling her that it had adorned their family's tree when her father was a child. She treasured it because of that.
But she didn't enjoy the ritual as much as she had in years past. Part of it, she finally admitted to herself, was that she had been looking forward to sharing it with Jason for the first time. She thought he'd laugh at some of her funny little ornaments, or at least be interested in their history. Instead he'd stalked out of the apartment and hadn't returned until after she was in bed and asleep.
Still, the next day, it was as if nothing had happened. Jason had gone back to being his usual warm, loving self, except that he pretended the tree wasn't there. Most of the time, anyway. She'd caught him looking at it once or twice, though, seeming like he was a million miles away. She wanted to ask him about it, but something held her back.
Then came yesterday, when she'd come home early to wrap his presents. She remembered how he'd said he didn't like the “commercial crap” associated with Christmas, so she'd chosen his gifts with care. She'd knitted him a scarf on her lunch hours at work; it had taken her most of the month, but she'd finished it the day before. She bought a digital picture frame and loaded it up with pictures she'd taken on their weekends together: Taos, and Santa Fe, and Elephant Butte, and Roswell. Pictures of the two of them; pictures she'd taken of him; and ones he'd taken of her. Scenery and close-ups. She'd chosen each picture with care, making sure they were the ones that preserved special memories. Another box held a homemade book of gift certificates – good for things like starting the coffee when it was his turn, and washing one load of his laundry, and some for other favors she'd blushed to write out. And finally, last weekend, when he'd had to work, she made a batch of his favorite cookies and put them in an antique tin that had been her grandmother's.
She had just put the last neatly-wrapped box under the tree when he walked in the door. “What're those?” he asked, scowling.
She instantly felt defensive. “What do they look like?”
“Oh, good. I was afraid my wrapping skills were slipping.”
He stalked over to the tree and glanced down at the tags on the boxes. “Dammit, Reese, I told you I wasn't into all that commercial crap!”
“You don't know...”
“I know what I told you. I'm not into Christmas. If you insist on doing it, fine, but don't drag me into it, and don't be expecting anything from me.”
“I can get you presents if I want to!”
“Fine. But I'm not going to open them, so you might as well just take them back to the store right now.”
“No. I don't care. I don't want any part of it, and if you thought you could force me into it, you're wrong.”
“I'm not trying to force you into anything, I just thought...”
“I don't want your damned presents! You can't buy my love with … with things.” His gesture toward the stack of wrapped boxes went wide, striking a limb of the Christmas tree and sending a fragile glass ball flying to shatter against the wall.
There was an instant of frozen silence, just long enough to ignite Risa's anger. “That doesn't give you the right to destroy my things!”
“I didn't want that damned crap in my apartment in the first place.”
“Our apartment,” she corrected him. “Remember? I pay my half of the rent every month, and both our names are on the lease.”
“Well, I'm sure you can change that.” She'd never heard his voice sound so cold. “Because I'm outta here. If this stuff means more to you than I do, then you're not the girl for me.” And he'd grabbed his keys and jacket and left, slamming the door behind him.
She'd been sure he'd be back as soon as he'd had a chance to cool off, but when three hours passed and there was still no sign of him, she got angry. Walk out on her on the day before Christmas Eve, would he? Well, if he expected to find her there waiting for him when he finally came back he was wrong, and if he expected her to spend Christmas alone he was even more wrong. There was one place where she'd always be welcome on Christmas Eve, even if she showed up at five in the morning. She threw a handful of things in her duffel bag, grabbed her iPod, and was northbound on I-25 before she even had a chance to think about it.
Too bad she hadn't thought to check the weather forecast first.
She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her sweatshirt, then sat up and looked around her. Surely there had to be some tissues somewhere? The bathroom. She shuffled into the cubicle, grabbed a handful of tissues, and blew her nose. Wetly.
Once she washed her face she felt a little better, but then her stomach let out another rumble, reminding her of her broken promise to it of breakfast in Trinidad. She glanced at the clock on the nightstand. Nine forty-two. Breakfast in the lobby until ten, she remembered the desk clerk saying. If she hurried, she could make it. She ran a comb through her hair, reached for her toothbrush...
Er. She'd grabbed Jason's by accident. For an instant, she felt her eyes fill with tears again; she shook her head impatiently. “Well, he won't be needing that, now, will he?” She tossed it into the wastebasket and reached for her toothpaste, remembering the old Girl Scout trick of brushing her teeth with her finger.
Except that she'd grabbed the antibiotic ointment instead of her toothpaste. Oh, great. Giving up on the idea, she threw on clothes and stuffed her feet into her cold, wet shoes.
When she opened the door the first thing she noticed was that the parking lot, which had been all but empty when she'd pulled in not quite six hours before, was now jam-packed with cars. That must mean that the pass was still closed.
It was still snowing, too, she noted, though not as hard as before. And it looked like there was a good six inches of fresh stuff on top of her car. She wondered if she even owned a snowbrush, and if she did, whether it could possibly be anywhere in the car.
A scraping sound nearby caught her attention, and she turned to see the desk clerk from the night before running a snow shovel down the sidewalk. At least, she was pretty sure it was the same guy, though now he was clean-shaven. She couldn't tell whether he'd combed his hair, though, because he was wearing a red and white Santa hat. With an enormous jingle bell tied to the end.
“Good morning!” he said, smiling.
“Morning.” She wasn't sure how good it was just yet. “I take it the road's still closed?”
He nodded. “Yeah, it's pretty bad. A semi jackknifed up there last night, and I guess it took out a bridge support on one of the overpasses, so they can't open the road back up until they get that stabilized.”
“Any idea how long?”
“They think maybe late tonight, early tomorrow morning. I went ahead and put you down for another night, by the way. Same rate.” He winked at her, and she couldn't help smiling back.
“So am I too late for breakfast?”
He peeled up the sleeve of his jacket to look at his watch. “No, not quite. And even if you were, Mamacita would take care of you. Tell her I said so. I'm Miguel, by the way.”
“Risa.” She shook the hand he extended. “So your parents run the motel?”
“Si, my parents and two of my three brothers. My little sister helps out too, sometimes.”
“What about your other brother?”
“Oh, he's the black sheep of the family. He went off to college and never came back.” He laughed at his own joke.
“Say, there wouldn't happen to be a store that's open anywhere near here, would there?”
“Oh, sure, there's a K-mart just a few blocks away. Go down to the light and turn left, and it'll be on your left in a block or so.”
“Are they open today?”
“Si, until four. I called and asked. You're not the first person who needed to do a little shopping thanks to being caught here unexpectedly.”
“I forgot my toothbrush,” she admitted sheepishly.
“Well, they'll have those there.”
“I hope they have snowbrushes, too.” She looked over at her car. “I don't think I have one in the car.”
“They should have them, unless they've run out. But you should go and get your breakfast, first.”
“I will. Thanks.”
“You're welcome.” He went back to his shoveling.
When she opened the door to the lobby, the smell of bacon and coffee wafted out to greet her, making her mouth water. The lobby was mostly deserted, but she could see that it must have been busy earlier. Paper plates and cups littered the tops of small tables, and a trash can in the corner was stuffed with the same. On a side table stood a pair of chafing dishes, plates of fruits and sweet rolls, and a waffle maker with cups of batter nearby. Opening the chafing dishes, she found bacon and sausage and hash browns and eggs and loaded a plate.
A short, dark-haired woman bustled around, picking up plates, wiping tables. “Are the eggs still warm enough?” she asked, looking at Risa's plate. “I can make you some fresh if they're not.”
“They're fine. But thank you.”
As she ate, she watched the Weather Channel. The snow was supposed to end by evening, they said, but with a possible accumulation of up to another two to three inches, with more at higher elevations. Great. At this rate, they'll never get the pass open.
“Where are you headed?” the woman, who must be Miguel's mamacita, asked her.
“Ah. Home for Christmas?”
“Yeah. My parents live in Lakewood.”
“It's always nice to spend Christmas with the ones you love.”
“Yeah.” Tell that to Jason, she thought, determined not to cry again.
She finished her food and took her plate to the trash can, wedging it in carefully. “I don't suppose you have a snowbrush I could borrow?” she asked Mamacita. “I need to run out and buy a toothbrush.”
The woman laughed. “Yes, a lot of people have been needing those this morning. We usually keep a few around, but they were all gone by seven o'clock. Let me see if we still have that spare snowbrush.” She rummaged around behind the counter and finally came up with one. “Here you go.”
But when she went outside, she found her car already mostly cleaned off. She stared at it, dumbfounded. Miguel? It had to have been. Gratefully, she climbed in.
The K-mart was just where Miguel'd said it would be. She found a toothbrush and some toothpaste, and a snowbrush, and picked up some more soda and some packaged food she could put into the microwave for lunch and supper. On a whim, she added a pair of inexpensive snow boots – her shoes were thoroughly soaked and squished when she walked – and some dry socks. Feeling pleased, she headed back to her room to spend the day trying not to think about Jason.
* * *
By eight o'clock that evening, she was thoroughly bored. She'd spent the afternoon watching endless cooking shows on cable television, but all that had done was to make her hungry for more than the meager meals she'd purchased. Jason would never let her watch cooking shows at home. He always said she was a good enough cook without that. But she enjoyed them anyway, and watched them whenever she could.
But once she'd done that for several hours, she'd had enough. There was little else on television that appealed to her, and although she was able to connect her laptop to the motel's free wi-fi, she caught up on reading her e-mail and Facebook pretty quickly. Everyone was full of holiday cheer, and Risa just wasn't feeling that cheerful. In fact, despite her best efforts, she succumbed to a few more bouts of tears. Finally after about seven thousand games of solitaire, she decided to head down to the lobby to see if she could get another little packet of coffee for the room's coffeemaker.
Miguel was on duty at the desk again. “Don't you ever sleep?” she asked him, laughing.
“Si, I sleep. I had a nice long nap this afternoon.” He was no longer wearing the Santa hat, and she noticed that when his hair was neatly combed, he was not unattractive.
“Thanks for brushing off my car, by the way.”
“Oh, that wasn't me. That was the Christmas elves.” He winked. “So how can I help you?”
She explained what she wanted and he pulled a couple of packets out of a box behind the counter.
“Here you go. That ought to keep you going until morning.”
“So … I hope you don't mind me asking, but is everything okay?”
She looked up into brown eyes that were full of concern. “I – it's just ...” Her eyes flooded once again.
“I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked. It's just that … you looked so sad.” He held out a tissue.
“It's okay.” She caught the tears before they ran down her cheeks. “My boyfriend broke up with me yesterday.”
“Oh, I'm sorry.” He put a hand on hers. “And just before Christmas, too. Pobrecita.”
“It was partly my fault,” she admitted. “He told me he wasn't into the whole Christmas thing, but I didn't listen and got him presents anyway, so he got mad and left.”
“Maybe he'll come back once he cools off?”
She shook her head. “I doubt it. And even if he does, I'm not sure I want him back. I mean, Christmas is my favorite time of the year. I don't think I could stand to spend the rest of my life with someone who hates it as much as he does.”
He nodded. “That would be hard. I don't think I could do it. So why does he hate Christmas so much?”
“I wish I knew. He says it's because it's so commercial, and because he doesn't feel right celebrating a religious holiday when he's not religious.”
“But it doesn't have to be commercial, and you can still celebrate the spirit of the season without being Christian.”
“That's what I told him, but he didn't agree.”
Miguel shook his head. “Well, you never know. It's Christmas. A miracle could happen.”
“It could. But I'm not going to count on it.” She pulled her hand away from his and picked up the coffee packets. “Thanks for the coffee.”
She was halfway to the door when he said, “You know what you should do?”
“You should come to midnight mass with us. We always go, my whole family. Well, except for whoever has to stay here and mind the front desk.” When she hesitated, he added, “It'll make you feel better, I promise. Besides, it's better than sitting here and crying your eyes out over Mr. Grinch.”
She gave in to the puppy-like expression on his face. “All right. Can I get directions to the church?”
“You could just ride with us if you want to. That way the elves don't have to clean your car off again.” He grinned.
She smiled. She couldn't help it. His grin was just too infectious. “All right. What time?”
“We'll leave here at eleven-thirty. Okay?”
“All right. Eleven-thirty. See you then.”
* * *
The church was larger than she expected, but it was already more than half full when they arrived. She'd ridden over with Miguel and his little sister Lucia; his father and two brothers had come in another car. Mamacita remained behind to mind the desk.
The service was not quite what she expected, either. For one thing, about half of the prayers were in Spanish; she'd picked up a few words here and there but was by no means fluent. And she certainly hadn't expected there to be a mariachi band in place of an organ. Once she got used to the idea, she rather liked it, but it was still strange to her.
But Miguel was right. It did make her feel better. The simple message of “peace on Earth” echoed in her heart, as did the spirit of hope and rebirth. Her future was uncertain; she didn't know if she wanted Jason to continue to be a part of her life or not, or if she would even get that choice. But she did have control over whether and how she celebrated Christmas, and it was not something she was willing to give up. And with or without Jason, she knew her life would go on.
Afterward, she stepped out into a night sky that was full of stars. “Hey, it stopped snowing!”
“See? I told you miracles can happen on Christmas!”
“Yeah, now if they could just get that pass open...”
Miguel laughed. “See, God? You give her one miracle, and she just wants more.”
“All right. I guess I shouldn't be greedy.”
Somehow she and Miguel ended up in the car alone. “Was I right?” he asked. “Did it help?”
“It did. Thank you.”
“You're welcome.” His phone chirped. He pulled it out and sneaked a peek at its screen, then smiled.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Mamacita's making hot chocolate for us when we get back,” he said. “You'll join us, won't you?”
“Sure, why not?”
Back at the motel, he pulled around the side of the building. “We park back here when the lot's full,” explained, holding her door open for her. “Watch your step, it's a little slippery.”
She took two steps and would have ended up on her rump if he hadn't caught her. “A little slippery? Try a lot slippery!”
“Sorry. Guess the elves didn't make it around to this side of the building. Here.” He extended an arm and she grabbed it.
She found herself looking forward to the hot chocolate. Now that the cloud cover was gone, the temperature had dropped even further, and the night air had gotten downright nippy.
Miguel pulled open the lobby door with a grand flourish, and she went in. But instead of finding the whole family gathered there for their hot chocolate, there were only two people inside, Mamacita and a man, sitting on the couch near the fireplace.
Then the man stood up and turned toward her, and she saw that it was Jason. And he was wearing the scarf she had knitted for him.
Her heart stopped. She didn't know whether to be happy or angry. “Jason? What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you.”
For the first time, she noticed that his eyes looked every bit as red and scratchy as hers. “But...you said...”
“I know what I said. I was awful. And I'd deserve it if you never forgave me. But I got to thinking and, well, you at least deserve to know the reason why.”
“Why you hate Christmas?”
He nodded, ushering her over to the couch.
She glanced around, but Miguel and Mamacita had disappeared. She sat, keeping Jason at a distance for now. “How did you find me?”
“I figured there was only one place you could have gone, and that was to your mother's. And when I got here and the road was closed, I just checked all the motel parking lots until I found your car.”
The silence grew until she could almost feel it pressing on her. Jason finally cleared his throat. “I – this is hard for me to tell you. I've never told anyone before but … but you need to know.”
He stared into the fire with that faraway look on his face again. “It happened the year I was nine. Dad had gotten a bonus at work, he said, and he was spending it all on presents for Mom and me. Every day, there were new packages under the tree, until they wouldn't even fit under the tree anymore. It was going to be the best Christmas ever. I remember bragging to my friends that my pile of presents was bigger than all of theirs put together.”
He risked a glance at her. “I was insufferable, actually. But I was a kid, and I was excited.
“Then, when we got up on Christmas morning, I found that Santa Claus had brought me even more presents during the night. I got so excited I threw up. Mom wasn't impressed.
“We opened presents for an hour without stopping. I got a bicycle, and a skateboard, and a radio-controlled car, and … I don't even remember what else. But I was a kid in heaven. I'd gotten everything I'd asked for and then some. So had Mom.
“After we were done opening presents, Mom started cooking dinner and found out she was out of butter. Dad offered to go out and try to find her some. And then … and then he just kept going. He never came back. To this day, I don't know where he is.”
He turned, and she could see the tears in his eyes even though he still wouldn't look at her. “There was no bonus. There wasn't even any job. He'd been laid off back in November, and had pretended to keep going to work so Mom wouldn't know. All of the presents … he bought them with a credit card. One that Mom had to try to pay off after he was gone. There was no savings, nothing.
“We took back as many of the presents as we could once we found out, but … it still took Mom years to pay off that credit card. And after that … after that, neither one of us could stand to celebrate Christmas ever again.”
Risa tentatively reached for his hand, and when he didn't pull it away, she wrapped hers around it. “Jason, I'm sorry. I didn't know...”
“Of course you didn't. I never told you. I didn't think you'd understand. But I was wrong.” He turned his hand so he could squeeze hers back. “I never thought I would ever want to do the whole Christmas thing again, but, well, when I saw all the love you put into decorating that silly tree, I started to wonder. Only, when I saw the presents under the tree, I kind of overreacted.”
“Kind of?” Risa laughed through her tears.
“Okay, I was an idiot. I am sorry. And I'm sorry I broke your ornament. I'll replace it, if I can.”
She shook her head. “I'm not sure you could replace it. And that's not what matters anyway.”
“No, you're right. It's not.” He finally looked at her. “When I came home this morning and you were gone, I gave up hope. And then I thought, what the heck. If I was going to ruin the best thing I'd ever had, I might as well see what I had ruined it for. So I opened the presents.”
He reached out and cupped her cheek in his hand. “When I saw all of the love you had put into the things you got for me, I … I felt about this big.” He held up a forefinger and thumb a quarter of an inch apart. “I should have known you wouldn't try to buy my love, and that you wouldn't spend money on a bunch of stuff we really couldn't afford. You made this, didn't you?” He held up the end of the scarf.
She nodded. “It's a little uneven on that end,” she pointed.
“Nobody ever made anything like this for me before.” He was suddenly very interested in the uneven stitches. “And that's when I knew that … that I had to try to get you back, no matter what. Please tell me there's a chance. Please?”
The look he gave her made her glad she was sitting down, because she wasn't sure her knees would have held her if she'd been standing. Unable to speak, she simply nodded.
The next moment, she couldn't breathe, because Jason was squeezing all of the air out of her lungs. The kiss that followed was equally breathtaking in its own way.
When he finally pulled away, she was amused to see that his face was as wet with tears as hers. “I love you, Risa.”
“I love you, too.”
“I'm so glad. I don't deserve it, but I'm glad anyway. Here.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of paper towels. “I made you something. Careful, the edges are kind of sharp.”
Mystified, she unrolled the wad of toweling. Inside was a flat piece of metal that had been cut into the shape of a heart with a pair of tin snips, by the look of the edges. Dots had been pressed into the metal all the way around the edge as decoration, and in the middle, the words “Jason & Risa, First Christmas Together” had been engraved, along with the year. Somehow, he'd managed to punch a hole in it and thread a ribbon through it. “You made this?”
He nodded. “You're probably gonna need a new ice-pick, though.”
She hugged him. “I love it! I can't wait to hang it on the tree – together?”
He nodded, with a shy smile that made her want to melt again.
They were kissing again when Mamacita came into the room. “So are you two ready for your hot chocolate yet?”
They broke apart, laughing. “I think some hot chocolate would be lovely, don't you, Jason?”
“Yes, please,” he said, looking almost like a little boy.
There was more to it than just hot chocolate, of course. There were plates of cookies and nutbread and little pastries. Mamacita put some Christmas carols on the radio, and Lucia giggled as her father sang made-up words to some of them. When Jason got up to refill her mug, Miguel came over and sat down on her other side for a moment.
“Everything is okay?” he asked softly.
“I don't have to take that boyfriend of yours out behind the woodshed and teach him a lesson?”
“Well … not right now, anyway.” She grinned.
“Good. Feliz navidad, Risa.”
“Merry Christmas. And thanks.”
The party broke up soon after that, with Risa and Jason making their way back to her room. Once they were there, Jason closed the door and locked it behind them. Then he took a slip of paper out of his pocket and handed it to her. “I'd like to redeem this, please.”
She recognized one of the handmade gift certificates she'd made for him. Unfolding it, she read, “Good for one session of 'kissing and making up', even if we didn't fight first.”
Laughing, she launched herself at him, kissing him hungrily as her fingers fumbled at his shirt buttons.
They kissed. And made up. And then some.
By the time they were ready to get out of bed in the morning, the parking lot was all but empty. Mamacita confirmed their guess when they went to the lobby for breakfast. “Yes, they finally got the pass open about five o'clock.”
“So...” Risa looked at Jason. “Which way shall we go? On to Denver, or back to Albuquerque?”
He grinned. “Let's go surprise your mom."
And they did.
When I read the prompt, I instantly had a vision of a girl driving through a snowstorm in the middle of the night. Why is she driving? I wondered, then decided that it was because she'd had a fight with her boyfriend. The rest just sort of followed. I decided to set the story in northern New Mexico because that section of I-25 is very desolate and lonely, and it made a nice metaphor for how Risa was feeling.
Obviously, I've driven I-25 between Denver and Albuquerque way too many times. And yes, one time they actually did close the pass right in front of us, pretty much the way I describe it in the story. Except that we didn't have to have the nice officer come and explain it to us. I modeled “The Dunes” motel after the one we stayed at that night, which was actually called “The Sands,” but as far as I know, neither Miguel nor his Mamacita work there. The K-mart's right where Miguel describes it, too.
Oh, and at the end? Mamacita's timing, when she comes back into the lobby when Jason and Risa were kissing, wasn't accidental. She was watching the surveillance camera monitor in the back room!