The Worst Christmas
She peered through the snow-spattered windshield at the neon sign and hoped like hell there was room at the inn. The red glowing sign on the billboard for The Willow Inn, two miles ahead, barely penetrated the blowing snow caught by the headlights. It reminded Mariana of scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey. As much as she liked snow for Christmas, this storm had caught her unawares. The weather report she’d watched last night hadn’t mentioned the intensity. Apparently, the storm’s path had shifted, too.
The wipers scraped the glass, proof that Jim hadn’t replaced them like she’d asked before they set off on this trek. The song “Over the river and through the woods . . .” always made her think of going to her grandparents’ farm for Christmas, not into downtown Chicago and a high rise. Even though she’d grown up driving in snow, she hated it. Feared it. And there she was creeping along on a country road at five miles an hour.
“Wake up, darn you.” She didn’t dare take her hand off the steering to poke her husband’s arm. “Wake up, Jim. The storm is getting worse. I told you we should’ve stopped at the Holiday Inn we passed. But, no, you wanted to keep going.” Then he made her drive while he snored away. “Couldn’t you have stayed awake to keep me company?”
“Huh?” Jim struggled awake, the way he did every morning—jaw-cracking yawns, throat clearing, grumbles. The man was not a morning person. But here it was eleven-thirty at night, and he’d better pay attention.
“I told you we shouldn’t drive any farther tonight. That we had plenty of time to make it to your mother’s in the morning.”
He straightened and scrubbed his hand down his face. “Wow. It’s snowing. Pretty bad, huh?”
“Brilliant observation, Sherlock.” Mariana hunched over the steering wheel, squinting to see the neon sign through the patches of clearing amid the frost on the windshield. The defrost wasn’t working properly, as she’d told her husband three weeks ago.
“Why aren’t we on the highway?” he asked.
“I saw a sign for an inn. I just can’t drive any farther.” They climbed a hill so slowly she feared the tires wouldn’t grip, and they would slide backwards. Who knew Illinois had hills? “The storm is more than pretty bad, damn it. It’s wicked dangerous. I told you—”
“Mom, could you give the I-told-you-so’s a rest?” Their backseat driver—aka, Nate—must have looked up from the game on his cell phone long enough to yawn in imitation of his stepfather. “He knows you didn’t want to go to Chicago. I didn’t, either, but nobody asked my opinion. I could’ve stayed home with Grandpa, you know.”
They crested a hill, Jim pointed. “There, see that white sign? The Willow Inn. Quaint.”
“Thank God.” Mariana tried to slow, but the car gained momentum as it traveled downhill. In her agitation over her son’s comment, she hadn’t watched the speed. Okay, she told herself, I can do this. Years of driving in winter weather kicked in. Slow, no braking hard, take it easy.
The driveway came up faster than she expected. Automatically, she hit the brakes hard. The car slewed to the right then left. A red light on the dash flared as the ABS kicked in. The brakes automatically gripped and released. Her hands, knuckles white, gripped but didn’t release the steering wheel. Her heart clutched. She wasn’t going to make it. She pressed harder on the brakes. Thudding vibrated through the wheel.
“Mom! You’re going to put us in the ditch.” Panic flared in Nate’s voice.
“You’ve got this, babe. You’re doing fine.” Jim laid his hand on her thigh. Despite her anger at him, his calm voice helped her more than she could say. “Nate, calm down. Your mother is a good driver. We’re not going—”
Several things happened at once. The front of the SUV plunged to the right. A ditch. A deep ditch. She’d missed the driveway. The seatbelt tightened. The airbag exploded, jamming her glasses into her nose. Fear overwhelmed pain as she realized what she’d done. She’d buried the car in a ditch. After batting the airbag down, she turned off the engine. Blessed silence.
“Is everyone okay?” she cried. “Jim? Nate?”
“Yeah.” Jim swatted his airbag out of the way. “Nate?”
“Told you so.”
“Nate.” Jim never shouted at her son, even when he deserved it. His quiet, steel-clad voice was worse.
“Yeah. I’m okay. Sorry, Mom.”
Tears ran down her face. Frustration, anger, fear, despair. A sob wracked her chest.
“Babe?” Jim released his belt and leaned over to her. “Are you hurt?”
Head down, she cried harder. She wanted to go home. Home to the cozy farmhouse, the live tree with family ornaments, and the homey decorations. Home where she belonged. Not on the road in the middle of an Illinois blizzard.
She never wanted to drive four hundred miles to her mother-in-law’s condo in downtown Chicago, where everything was perfectly matched by an interior decorator. Where Jim’s perfect, size two, itty-bitty mother would give a tight smile and stilted welcome to her size sixteen daughter-in-law who towered over her by almost a foot. And his sisters—who took after their mother in size and attitude—would snicker behind her back, often not bothering to hide their disdain of the country bumpkin their baby brother had married.
Jim enveloped her in his warm arms while she cried even harder. He always knew the right thing to do and say. “It’s okay, babe. We’re okay. Don’t cry.”
“Yeah, Mom.” Nate leaned over the front seat and patted her shoulder. “Don’t cry. We’re okay.”
Despite the cold seeping into the car, she wanted to stay where she was—in her husband’s arms, with her son close by.
“So. Are we going to sit here all night—in the cold,” Nate groused, his concern for her gone. “Or go inside where it’s probably a lot warmer?”
Practicality was her son’s middle name. He’d had to be. All those years they’d been alone after his father died. He’d been a great kid. Loving, kind, thoughtful. Not the snide, sarcastic teenager he’d turned into the past year. As much as she appreciated his practical approach, she could do without the attitude.
“We’ll deal with the car in the morning,” Jim said, Mr. Practicality himself. “Nate’s right. We need to get inside. C’mon, Nate, throw our jackets up here.”
“But what if there’s no room?” she whimpered, as he helped her into her heavy jacket.
Jim ignored her question and opened the passenger door. Rather, he tried to open the door, but the snow prevented it. Mariana looked out her window before trying her door. It opened. A blast of wind and snow hit her in the face. She flinched, ducking her head into her coat, turtle-like. Tipped as they were, gravity shut the door.
Jim angled sideways to put on his jacket then pulled up her hood. “I’m going to have to crawl over the gearshift. Nate, get out and help your mother first.”
Nate grumbled at Jim’s directions but followed them. When he widened the opening of her door, he gasped. “Mom? You’re bleeding.”
“Babe?” Jim took her chin between his thumb and forefinger and turned her head toward him. Now, with the interior light on, he could see where her glasses had cut into her nose. He grabbed a tissue out of the console, took off her glasses, then gently wiped the bridge of her nose and down her cheek. “There now. That’s not too bad.”
When she winced, he added, “Sorry. Okay, you have a good gash there. We’ll put some snow on it to take down the swelling. There’s certainly enough of the white stuff out there.” He chuckled at his joke. She didn’t.
Her nose felt like the size of an elephant’s trunk. Crying made the damage from the airbag worse. Supporting the door on his hip, Nate scooped up a handful of snow. “Here, Mom.”
She gave him the look, and he dropped the snowball with a sheepish grin.
“You folks okay?” A bear of a man, clad in a heavy parka, a scarf wrapped twice around his neck, and a hat with furry flaps, bore down on them. “Thought we heard something out here. Wife sent me out to look.”
“Mom drove into the ditch,” my oh-so-helpful son announced.
“I can see that. Your car slewed sideways, so you aren’t sticking out in the road. That’s good. C’mon, little lady. Let’s get you out of there.”
Nobody, not even Jim, called Mariana little lady. Since her son stood off to the side, acting like a dunce, she took the big man’s hand. With the SUV leaning to the right, climbing out was not an easy task. It was for the big man. With one pull, she flew out of the car and into his arms, nearly bowling him over. His big hands on her shoulders steadied both of them.
“Uh, thanks.” Snow—up to her knees—filled her boots. When she tried to back away from the man, she lost her balance. Fortunately, Nate came to his senses and grabbed her flailing arm. Between the big man and her son, she avoided a face plant in the snow. Rather, a butt plant.
While they helped her onto higher ground, Jim crawled across the console. Before the big man could help him, Jim lunged out of the car. He did the face plant. Nate slid down into the ditch to help him. So did the big man. “Thanks. Appreciate the help. Jim Thacker.” He held out his hand.
While they shook hands, Mariana said, “Please tell me you have a vacancy.”
He hesitated. “Wish I could. We’re full up.”