Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Worst Christmas - Part 1 by Diane Burton

The Worst Christmas

Part 1

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.

Wait. 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.”

Return tomorrow for Part 2 of The Worst Christmas.


Leah St. James said...

OH...NO!!! Killer of a cliff-hanger, Diane! I was cringing through the whole sliding-downhill thing. Been there, done that, although thankfully not actually into a ditch. Your description of the ABS system compared to her white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel is perfect! Love the touches of humor, too ("Who knew Illinois had hills?" :-)), and the comparison to the itty-bitty mother-in-law! Great story so far.

Brenda Whiteside said...

Can't wait to see what they do. I hope they get to stay and avoid that unpleasant family!

Margo Hoornstra said...

Quite the set up here, Diane. And all of what Leah said. I sure felt it all, too. Lived it really. You’ve shown Jim is a real keeper. What Brenda said, too. ;-) Looking forward to tomorrow.

Rolynn Anderson said...

Way to leave us the ditch as well as regarding the no vacancy. Can this Christmas be saved? Way to go, Diane!

Diane Burton said...

Thanks, Leah. With all the snow we have in West Michigan, I sure know what driving in it feels like. I'm glad you liked the comparison btwn the brakes & her fingers. :)

Diane Burton said...

Thanks, Brenda. How could an innkeeper turn them away?

Diane Burton said...

Thanks, Margo. Driving in snow is no fun.

Diane Burton said...

Good question, Rolynn. Yep, Jim is a keeper.

Jannine Gallant said...

Really well-drawn characters, Diane. But I want Mariana to suck it up and stand up for herself! Looking forward to tomorrow!

remullins said...

I'm invested and want to know the rest. At first I wanted her to smack Jim up the side of the head - then he seemed to redeem himself a bit with how he handled the wreck and Nate.

Christine DePetrillo said...

One of my biggest fears is ending up in a ditch on a snowy road. Way to really put us there. I could feel the tension!

Vonnie Davis said...

I wanted to tell Mariana to stop being such a complainer. Geesh, she needed a chill pill. Then I realized she was nerved-up over spending time with the in-laws. I'd have been a shade grumpy, too, if I had that to face. Now I understand her. My first MIL brought out the worst in me, too. It's not a happy way to feel. Good beginning. I liked how you gave me a quick insight into each character. I'm not good at writing that; I introduce them slowly. I like your way better. Unfortunately I seem to take 200 words where you've done it in 30. Yay you!

Alicia Dean said...

Love this! I am connected to all the characters already. Interesting set-up. I feel for Mariana for sure. Looking forward to Pt 2!

Alison Henderson said...

GREAT job, Diane! I started tearing up along with her when she crashed. Who among us hasn't felt exactly like that?

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

GREAT start to a story!
Can't wait to see what happens next

Diane Burton said...

Jannine, I wondered if readers would find her whiny. I hope you'll see why.

Diane Burton said...

Thanks, Robin. Hubs sleeps as soon as I start driving--after I've stayed awake to keep him alert. Makes me cranky, just like Mariana. :)

Diane Burton said...

Thanks, Christine. When I lived in Missouri, slid on the ice and slid into a ditch, backwards. Since it was during the day, all my neighbors saw my car and made comments. LOL

Diane Burton said...

Thanks so much, Vonnie. I like developing my characters slowly. When you have 75-100k words, it's so much easier than in a short story. You guys have really challenged me with the anthology each year.

Diane Burton said...

Thanks, Alicia. Your comments always make me smile, because you taught me how to write better.

Diane Burton said...

Pam, I always appreciate your comments and blessings.

Diane Burton said...

Alison, so sorry. I just saw your post. I cried, too, when my car went into the ditch. Thanks for your comment.