Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I Won't Be Home for Christmas, Part Three

Last Christmas, I started a Christmas story. I never finished it. I'm hoping to finish it this month.

Part 1: Gillian was traveling from Chicago to visit Grandma in Oklahoma City with her two sons, Steve (10) and Jack (6), when they got snowed in at their hotel in Kansas City.

Part 2: Gillian remembers better times and meets Henry and Louise Balfour, from Colorado, on the way to Tennessee to see their own grandchildren.

And now, part three:
It felt good to laugh. Laughing loosened something in Gillian that she hadn't realized was tight. In the moment of the tension releasing, she could feel in her shoulders, neck and jaw how stiffly she'd been holding herself. Phillip had called her "my stress puppy" when she got herself tied up in knots like that. She missed having him rub the knots out of her neck with his thumbs. He told her she worried too much. After the emotional roller-coaster of his Halloween and Thanksgiving visits, though, she was realizing that she had plenty of reason to worry.

"I'd better get upstairs. I've got to figure out what to bundle the boys in to traverse the Arctic wasteland out there between us and the diner." She stood and held out her hand to Louise. "It was nice to meet you."

Louise shook her hand, but didn't relinquish the fingers right away afterwards. "Henry," she said, turning to give her husband a meaningful look. Louise looked at Henry, too, unable to fathom what his wife might be trying to hint at. Henry had no such trouble catching his cue and responding.

"I've got a four-wheeler and a sled. If you'll accept the offer, I'd love to give you and your children a ride."

Gillian froze for a moment. She thought it was a sweet offer, and it also scared the heck out of her. These people were strangers, and she and the boys were alone here. Four-wheeling and sledding were among those questionable sorts of activities that her mom friends back home would whisper about disapprovingly in the back of PTA meetings. They were also activities she remembered fondly from her own childhood--a safe kind of dangerous and exciting, if done right.

"I bet your boys would love it," Louise said, just a hint of Tennessee in the word love. Tennessee didn't sound that different than Oklahoma. It sounded a lot like home. "Don't you think they'd love it?"

Gillian had no doubt they would. In fact, just thinking about Steve and Jack red-faced and laughing made her shove her fears aside. After all, it was just her and the boys most of the time. There was no reason to think this was any more dangerous than any other day. The boys could use some fun, and she could use the help.

"Thank you so much!" she gushed. "When do you want us to be ready?"

They agreed to meet in half an hour and Gillian flew up the stairs, key card in hand to tell the boys.

Twenty minutes later, Gillian was standing in the lobby with two boys wearing all their snow gear over their pajamas and jeans.  They were a comedy of growing patterns. Steve's jacket sleeves were too short and his skinny forearms hung out between the sleeve and the top of his puffy gloves. He'd grown that much since last winter and, since Grandma bought him a new coat that he'd receive for Christmas, Gillian hadn't replaced his jacket yet. Jack's snowsuit, which used to belong to his brother, was so long on him that Gillian had folded the legs up twice, making an extra thick layer on her son's lower legs. He had to stand with his legs spread wide because he couldn't rest his feet next to one another.

She stood the boys in front of the hotel lobby Christmas tree and took a picture with her phone to send to Grandma. Maxine, the hotel clerk, even came around and took another one for her so she could have one of the three of them. Gillian squeezed both boys and grinned for the camera. She had to admit that she was looking forward to the ride, too.

A moment or two later, Louise and Henry pulled up on their four-wheeler. Louise was so bundled up that she was only recognizable by her hair, but Gillian knew her voice and introduced her boys to the Mr. Henry and Ms. Louise. Her boys offered gracious thank yous and stood waiting to be invited to climb aboard, though both of them were eyeing the giant innertube sled with obvious excitement.

"So, you first, Miss Gillian." Henry stood next to the innertube and held out a hand which Gillian used to balance herself as she climbed in. She took a spot in the middle back, remembering that the innertube moved better if the heaviest person sat in back. Both boys climbed in quickly and Henry helped to tuck a thick woolen blanket around them. "You all hold on tight now!" Henry said, then hurried back to the four-wheeler and climbed on.

Henry climbed back on to the four-wheeler and his wife wrapped her arms around him. He revved the engine twice, and they were off.  Gillian squealed and both her boys grinned at her as they grasped at the rubbery handles of the innertube and bounced agains the sides and each other. Mr. Henry took the long way around, driving around the hotel twice before heading across the lot to the diner. He circled the diner, too, before parking and Gillian and her boys laughed as they were flung to one side and then the other of the innertube. They were laughing so hard when they stopped that Gillian had tears in her eyes. She hadn't had that kind of fun in years.

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