Home for Christmas
By Elizabeth Motes
Benedict Fisher hadn’t yet changed into his nightclothes because he couldn’t stop checking his phone for weather updates as the storm raged outside the hotel window. When the snowfall began that afternoon, he had been delighted. What better weather for Christmas Eve? He even took some pictures of the snow as it gathered in clumps outside, though his phone couldn’t really capture it. That evening, he sat by the window with his tea to look outside, thinking it would bring some of the peace that Christmas was supposed to bring. Instead, the snow was getting worse and worse, now pounding against the window.
He turned on the local weather channel. The weatherman advised staying off the roads and not leaving your homes. The problem for Ben was that home was a plane ride away, assuming his flight wouldn’t be canceled by the weather.
His wife had called him earlier, when the snow wasn’t as bad. Even then, she had been worked up about the weather and him getting home and if he was safe at the hotel. At the time, he had told her she was being silly, but as the wind grew stronger, he decided it wouldn’t hurt to be proactive.
He phoned the front desk, thinking that hearing from a local might settle his nerves.
“Hello,” Ben greeted when the front desk answered. “I was wondering about all this weather we’re having.”
The man at the desk clicked his tongue. “It’s pretty bad, isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t really know. I’m only visiting.” He scratched the back of his neck. “So what’s the protocol for bad weather? I don’t feel particularly safe up here with all these windows.”
“Ah. Yes.” A pause. “You can come to the lobby and sit down here.”
“The lobby?” he repeated. “The lobby’s covered in windows.”
“Isn’t there any plan for bad weather?”
Another pause. “You can come to the back room,” the man offered. “There’s no windows. You can wait in there if you feel unsafe.”
A batch of snow thudded against his window. “I think I’ll take you up on that.” Then he added, “You should offer that up to other guests. They might not think to call.”
“I’ll do that,” he said. “That’s a good thought.”
They exchanged goodbyes and Ben hung up, glad that he had thought to call. He looked around the room for anything he should take with him. His phone, certainly – he’d had the foresight to keep it charging the whole evening. His wallet. That should do. He’d only be down there until the storm died down, or at least didn’t get any worse. And he doubted he would be alone.
Grace was curled up in her bed with her headphones, trying to drown out the storm outside. She had debated texting Cameron when it was clear the snow wasn’t letting up, but she decided against it. There were a lot of things she had considered writing Cameron during the trip, and all of them had gone unsent. She definitely wasn’t going to bother her about the weather. As long as she could make the drive tomorrow, there wouldn’t be any problems.
Still, she wasn’t used to the snow. Or snowstorms. Cameron had mentioned there might be snow, but she hadn’t said anything about what to do in a storm.
The hotel phone ringing out of nowhere did nothing to ease her anxiety. Grace jumped and answered the phone.
“Good evening,” the man said. “I hope you’ve been enjoying your stay so far. With the weather as bad as it is, we’re letting concerned guests come to a back room on the ground floor. You’re welcome to join if you would like.”
“Oh.” Shit. So it wasn’t just her own paranoia keeping her scared. “Are a lot of people doing that?” The man hesitated. “A few others.”
“This is free, right?”
“Okay. Thank you.”
She hung up and sat back on the bed, again thinking of writing Cameron. She would probably tell her the weather was nothing to be worried about and that she would be fine in her room. Grace nearly reached for her phone, but then she thought of Cameron enjoying her time with her family on Christmas Eve, maybe opening a gift. This wasn’t worth bothering her over.
Grace got up, grabbed her backpack, then pocketed her phone. Double-checking that she had her hotel key, she headed out into the hall and took the elevator to the ground floor. She wasn’t sure where the back room was, so she went to the front desk and asked. The man gave her a sympathetic smile and told her to follow him. They went out of the lobby through a hall to a door that was clearly not meant for guests. He opened the door for her.
The space looked like a breakroom for employees, with two round tables and chairs scattered around. A counter and fridge stood against the other side of the room. The wooden cabinets and orange chairs gave the room its only color in contrast to the gray walls and floor. It was a dull room, but there weren’t any windows, and the cabinets looked to be attached to the wall.
Though the man on the phone had overstated the number of people worried about the storm. There were only two people seated at one of the tables – a middle-aged man and woman. Off to the side, a younger man sat in a chair against the wall, reading a newspaper. He wore the hotel’s uniform and didn’t look up when she entered.
The woman had been chatting with the man, but she stopped and turned at Grace’s arrival with a bright smile. She looked to be in her fifties, with thin, light blonde hair that reached midway down her neck. She wore a blue sweater but still kept her arms close to herself to keep warm.
“Hi there!” She waved at Grace.
The man nudged her with a knowing smile. “See?” he said. “We’re not crazy. The young people are worried, too.” He had combed back hair and wore a white shirt tucked into jeans.
The woman gestured at the chair next to her. “Come sit.”
Grace sat where she had indicated, relieved not to have to make the decision herself.
“I’m Ben,” the man said. “Benedict Fisher. But you can call me Ben.”
“I’m Grace,” Grace said.
The woman held out her hand to Grace. “Evelyn,” she introduced. Grace shook her hand. “Grace?” Ben repeated with amusement. “On Christmas Eve? That’s a riot.”
She shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so.” It obviously wasn’t intentional on her part.
Ben leaned back in his chair and went on, “I called down to the lobby when I saw the snow getting so bad. I asked what we’re supposed to do if it gets worse. He didn’t have a clue!” He chuckled. Grace glanced at the employee with the newspaper, hoping he wasn’t the one who Ben called. “It’s just strange, I think, that a hotel wouldn’t know what to do in a storm. But we’re fine here.”
“I came down as soon as they called me,” Evelyn chimed in, clutching her hands together. “I wasn’t going to be able to sleep with the weather like this, anyway.”
“Are you a student, Grace?” Ben asked. She nodded. He must have already quizzed Evelyn on her life. “What do you study?”
“Sociology and philosophy.”
Ben pursed his mouth. Evelyn said, “That sounds interesting. Do you have any plans for after graduation?”
“I’d like to be a guidance counselor.”
“Oh, that’s so nice,” Evelyn said. “Helping kids.”
“I never got around to having children,” Ben said. He focused back on Grace. “A guidance counselor. You know, you could probably take a sociology degree to law school. If you wanted.”
“I know,” she said.
“You might scare off kids with those piercings, anyway,” he added with a short laugh. “I have a son,” Evelyn cut in, glancing back and forth between the two. “Max.” She said his name pointedly, like she didn’t want him to be left out of the conversation.
“How old?” Ben asked.
“Sixteen.” She looked at Grace for a moment. “A bit younger than you.”
“Maybe she’ll counsel him one day,” he mused.
Evelyn didn’t respond to that, and neither did Grace. She was fine to let the conversation fade off. Taking advantage of the break, she checked her phone for any messages. Nothing.
Evelyn prided herself on giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, but she really didn’t care for Benedict, especially how he spoke to Grace, so she kept an eye on him as the three sat in the gray break room. Well, four of them, counting the employee sitting away from them. He hadn’t spoken a word since any of them arrived but just continued flipping through his newspaper. Maybe he was wise for that.
Grace was peculiar herself – though Evelyn would never suggest as much – with her dark blue hair and nose piercings, as Ben pointed out. Evelyn never understood the appeal of false hair coloring, and she was almost tempted to ask Grace about it, but she wouldn’t at the risk of sounding rude.
She might have found the courage to ask if Ben wasn’t wanting their attention at every moment. Even when quiet, he drummed his fingers on the table, or glanced around the room, or sighed loudly, as if she and Grace had to be aware of his presence at all times. Between him, the occasional drop of water from the sink faucet, and the employee turning the pages of his newspaper, Evelyn was peeved with all the noises. At least it distracted her from the storm.
She was about to ask the employee or Grace for the time when Ben spoke up again. “So where are you all from?” he asked, placing his elbows on the table with revived interest.
Evelyn answered first to spare Grace. “Alabama,” she said. “I’m up here visiting my sister for the holidays. The only way I could make the trip work was to travel during Christmas, so here I am.”
“I could have pegged you for a southern woman,” Ben teased. “What about you, Grace?”
“I go to school in Pennsylvania,” she said. There was a pause as they waited for her to explain what she was doing at a cheap hotel on Christmas. “I’m visiting here to see my girlfriend.”
A little too much detail for Evelyn. She didn’t respond, but Ben spoke.
“Very romantic,” he said, eyes lit with amusement. “Isn’t your family going to miss you at the holiday?” Grace answered, “I’m staying with Cameron over the break. My parents are fine with it.” The hotel boy flipped his newspaper.
Evelyn decided to try to ease some of the awkwardness. “Well, none of us are spending Christmas Eve with our families,” she comforted. “We’re all stuck in a little hotel in the middle of a storm.” She had a realization. “That’s a bit like Jesus, isn’t it?” She smiled at the thought.
“Very true,” Ben agreed. “At least Jesus had gifts brought to him.” He gave a little shrug. “There’s a church here in town, Evelyn, if you’re interested in attending tomorrow.”
“My flight leaves tomorrow morning,” she said.
“Ah,” he said. “I’ll be going in the morning. Will your son be meeting you?”
“My – Max, yes.”
Grace’s phone made a buzzing noise, and she grabbed it off the table to check it. Ben took note. “Is that the girlfriend?”
Grace looked up in surprise, then said, “Yeah, actually.”
Evelyn didn’t want to pry, but she couldn’t stop herself from saying, “You should write to your parents. They’re probably worried about you with this weather.”
She nodded but didn’t say anything.
“Have you gotten in touch with your husband, Evelyn?” Ben asked, not before giving Grace a brief look. “I’m assuming you’re married.”
“I spoke with him before I came down here.”
That was a bit of an exaggeration. She last spoke with her husband several hours before then, well before the storm hit. It guilted her to no end, but there was some relief in not having to spend Christmas with him. Not that Ben or Grace made such good company themselves. Maybe this was her punishment.
Ben said, “You can borrow my phone if you need to call him.” He patted his pocket. “Or your son. I’ve already called my wife.”
“Thank you,” she said. Eager to change the subject, she asked, “What brings you up here, Ben?”
“I’m a journalist,” he explained, perking up at the question. “I was doing a story here. Stories don’t stop for the holidays, of course.”
“What story?” Grace asked.
Evelyn caught the hotel boy peering over his newspaper.
“A road rage incident,” he said with contempt. “Bad accident. This snow didn’t help. But I’ll spare you the details of that.”
“Wouldn’t that be local news?”
“It’s one of our locals,” he said. “She was taking a trip for the holidays.”
Evelyn stared at her hands and said nothing to encourage the conversation. It was too grim a topic for her. Of course Grace was now taking an interest.
“I’ll check out your story,” Grace said.
Ben, for once, said nothing.
Cameron had texted Grace a few minutes earlier. Happy christmas eve! Can’t wait to see you. Grace finally wrote back. You too! Is it snowing where you are?
Cameron: A little. You?
Grace: It’s snowing here a lot
Cameron: Will you be good to drive tomorrow?
Grace: Yeah, no problem, it’ll melt by then
Cameron: cool 🙂
Grace’s fingers hovered over the keyboard, but she put her phone back down.
Another fifteen minutes passed in a comfortable quiet, though Evelyn kept waiting to hear the unrelenting wind finally die down. In ordinary circumstances, she would have enjoyed getting to know the strangers around her, but the storm had her nerves on edge as it was.
She couldn’t stop thinking of Grace’s situation. Poor girl away from her family at Christmas. It probably wouldn’t hurt if she broke things off with her girlfriend. Sometimes family had to come first. She considered striking a conversation with the hotel boy, but he had been so quiet that it felt rude to disturb him.
So Evelyn sat back in her chair and hummed softly to herself.
The silence was growing more and more uncomfortable, so Ben decided once again to step in. “What’s your girlfriend like, Grace?” He always thought he was pretty open-minded about that sort of thing.
Grace blinked at the sudden question. “She’s nice,” she said. He waited for her to elaborate, and she shrugged. “I don’t know. She feels like home to me, I guess.”
“That’s sweet.” Ben noticed Evelyn’s obvious discomfort.
After a brief pause, Evelyn turned to Grace and said with unexpected seriousness, “You know, your family will always be there for you. No matter what.”
Grace stared at her with a frown. “I don’t know if…”
“They will,” she insisted. “That’s what parents do.”
Grace stared off towards the gray wall. Then she said, “They don’t want me staying with them while I’m dating Cameron.”
Whoops. Ben had known better than to press her about her parents. Evelyn’s face reddened and she pressed her hands together.
In a soft voice, she asked, “How could they do that? They’re your parents.”
Grace said nothing.
“You don’t do that to someone you love,” Evelyn continued, her voice rising. “You put a roof over their heads no matter what.”
Grace didn’t seem apt for a response, so Ben said to Evelyn, “You seem like a good mother.” But Evelyn just sniffed and didn’t say anything.
Grace finally looked back at her and said, “Thank you.”
Now Evelyn was quiet. Ben debated letting the conversation drop entirely. Maybe the quiet would be better.
Then Evelyn said, in nearly a whisper, “I don’t have any living children.”
Grace’s brows creased. Ben watched Evelyn in confusion.
“My son…” Her voice caught. “Max. He killed himself five years ago. He was sixteen.” She cleared her throat and said in a sharper voice, “Sometimes I talk about him to others as if he’s still alive. It’s just…nice to imagine for a few moments.”
Ben didn’t know what to say. He’d never heard anything like that.
Grace hesitated, then reached over and lightly patted Evelyn’s arm twice. “I’m sorry.”
“He’s in a better place now,” Ben added, figuring she would appreciate the religious sentiment.
“I preferred it when he was here with me,” Evelyn snapped without looking at him. She shook her head. “Sorry.”
Grace gave him a hard look as well. Well, he had to say something to Evelyn, and it was an awkward situation given that she had lied to them in the first place.
“Let’s not talk about this anymore,” Evelyn said, her expression colder than he had seen before. A few seconds passed in silence, and then Grace focused her attention on Ben. “What does your wife do?”
She certainly had that question ready. “She teaches,” he told her. “Middle school.” There was a pause. “She’s very good at it. Great with the kids.”
“You must miss her,” Evelyn offered. Her cheeks were still pinched red, but her gaze had softened. “I do,” he said. It occurred to him that Grace and Evelyn were both on their way to see their loved ones. Ben had left.
The hotel kid with the newspaper – Ben had forgotten he was even there – cleared his throat. “I didn’t hear about the accident.”
“The accident you’re writing on,” he said. “I didn’t hear about it.” He stared another moment over his paper. “Small town. You usually hear about that sort of thing.” Then he went back to reading, not bothering to wait for Ben’s response.
Evelyn shifted in her chair and Grace shot him a curious glance.
Ben had the realization that he would never see these people again. And the storm had likely died down – or would soon – and even if he had lied to them, Evelyn had first. So having nothing to lose, he admitted, “I’m here visiting a friend.” He was aware they were both watching him now but he didn’t meet their stares. “It’s complicated. But sometimes…” He struggled for some kind of justification but couldn’t find any.
They were all silent, and Ben didn’t know what he had expected, but he felt a spike of anger. He wasn’t the first of them to lie. Why was he being condemned?
Grace checked her phone, then said, “I think the snow is dying down.” She stood from her chair and grabbed her backpack from the ground. “I’m going to go back to my room.”
She left without any goodbyes, and the door shut loudly behind her.
Evelyn followed in her lead. “I think I’ll be going too,” she said to Ben, only casting him a brief look before standing. “It’s getting late.”
She hesitated a moment before moving, as if needing permission, then headed to the door. She thanked the hotel kid and left.
Ben sat at the table without moving.
The hotel kid folded his newspaper and stood. “Show’s over,” he said with a shrug. “The storm’s died down. You should go back.”
Ben opened his mouth to say something only to find he had nothing more to say. He let out a long sigh, then got up and left the room. In the lobby, he realized the sounds of the wind had gone completely, leaving only snowflakes falling outside.
Grace felt much more comfortable back in the hotel room, and not just because the worst of the storm had passed. If she had known she was going to spend the evening chatting with two strangers about their personal lives, she would have braved the weather alone in her room.
She felt bad for Evelyn. She wished she could have said something better to help. She normally didn’t tell people about her parents, just for the sake of preventing the influx of well-meaning but awkward sympathy. She had even struggled to tell Cameron. When she found out, she told her she was always welcome to stay at her house when she needed to, leading to her trip in the first place.
Cameron told her not to, but Grace had thanked her over and over. Not just out of gratitude. It was her attempt at saying the other thing that she couldn’t say.
She glanced at her phone on the bedside table. There were some things that shouldn’t be left unsaid. She picked up her phone, and in a burst of uncharacteristic courage, wrote what she had been meaning to say.
Grace: I love you.