“It’s an act of God.”
I forced a smile at the older woman behind the Sojourn Airways counter. “It’s probably not the time for a theological debate, but I’d say it’s more an act of Mother Nature.” I tried to laugh, and it limped out as a sad little ha-ha.
Her flat expression, pulled tight by her graying bun, didn’t so much as flicker. On her purple uniform vest was pinned a button that read: Customer service is our bag. No baggage service fees! “Sir, that’s the official airline designation for weather conditions that are beyond our control.”
“Right, gotcha. Look—” I checked her name tag. “Look, Susan, the thing is that I need to get on a flight to New York ASAP. JFK, LaGuardia, Newark—whichever. I’ll even take Philly if I have to.” I forced another smile. “I can always go for a cheesesteak.”
The grim line of Susan’s mouth was unchanging. “There are no flights in or out of SFO today. As I told you earlier, our system has already rebooked you.”
“For the twenty-sixth!”
“But Christmas is the twenty-fifth!” The desperation I’d been trying to keep at bay with incredibly lame humor sank its claws into me with a mighty swipe.
“Is it? I had no idea.”
Well, at the very least it seemed Susan’s alien leaders had implanted a sarcasm chip even if they overlooked the compassion one. I inhaled deeply. “I realize this end-of-days-style fog has backed everything up, but you can’t rebook me for after Christmas! That’s ridiculous!” I thought of Ava’s round little face, streaked with tears as I’d left for college, and how I’d promised I’d be home for the holidays. “I have plans. I have to get on the next flight out. I have to.”
Susan tapped her computer, not even bothering to look at me now. “I didn’t rebook you, Mr. Yates. The airline did. All flights yesterday were canceled as well, and this is the busiest travel season.” She recited the lines in much the same manner as my mom reading out IKEA instructions as we put together the Billy bookshelf in my bedroom. “There are thousands and thousands of passengers ahead of you. The blizzard on the Eastern Seaboard had already contributed to a huge backlog before this fog set in.”
“But I promised my baby sister I’d be home.” I knew I was whining, and my voice wavered as my throat tightened.
Susan’s mouth turned down as she glanced at me. Her tone softened. “If there was anything I could do, I would do it.”
This unexpected sympathy made it worse somehow. I cleared my throat, the threat of imminent tears a horrifying possibility. Don’t do it, Charlie. Man up. “Okay. Thank you. Do you think I could get out on another airline?”
“I’m afraid they’re all in the same boat.”
She shook her head and waved a hand at the mass of humanity clogging the terminal behind me. “Everyone has the same idea. As I mentioned, there were already dozens of flights canceled before yours. The twenty-sixth is the absolute earliest you’ll be able to get out, and that’s assuming this fog lifts soon and the rain stops. And if it doesn’t start snowing heavily on the East Coast again.”
With a nod, I shuffled away from the counter, dragging my huge, stupidly pink suitcase behind me. I might be a total homo and unashamed of it, but fuchsia was not a color I’d have chosen for my luggage. Ava had picked it with such delight that I hadn’t been able to say no. At least it had four wheels and was expandable, which was handy since it was stuffed with Christmas gifts.
I’d gotten Ava some old-school Transformers building sets and retro Star Wars action figures I’d hunted down. Princess Leia was her favorite, since even at eight, Ava had excellent taste and understood that the classic trilogy was superior like whoa. On eBay, I’d found Hoth Leia, original recipe double-bun Leia, and even a rare Cloud City Leia, along with a bad-ass Boba Fett.
Now Ava wouldn’t get any of it for Christmas morning. I wouldn’t be able to wake up with her at the ass-crack of dawn to open our stockings, then burst into our parents’ room to drag them out of bed because Christmas was way too much fun for sleeping.
A preteen standing by a pile of luggage whined, “It’s not fair!” to her parents, her arms crossed over her chest and tears in her eyes.
Snorting, I muttered, “Since when has life been fair?” Pretty freaking rarely in my estimation, and never when it came to Ava. I escaped into the nearest bathroom to splash water on my face and get my shit together. My cheeks puffed as I blew out a long breath and examined a fabulous new red spot on my chin in the mirror.
I’d gotten a haircut yesterday since my Aunt Wendy was going to do a group portrait for us by the tree with her fancy camera. This was a big Christmas for the Yates family, and now I wasn’t going to be there. I ran a hand over my thin brown hair, which curled at the ends if I didn’t keep it short. Ava’s did too, but it wasn’t quite long enough yet to curl fully.
We’d Skyped the other night, and she’d proudly run a brush through her couple inches of growing hair. She’d gained weight too, and I couldn’t wait to hold her and feel her solid and healthy in my arms.
I had to suck in a breath, the ache to see her and my parents again a hollow burn in my chest. I grimaced at my reflection. My eyes were already red from the prior night’s insomnia. I never slept well the night before taking a flight due to my paranoia that I’d miss my alarm somehow.
Ava and I had the same eyes: a deep, warm blue, easily bloodshot, and not good at hiding emotions. Our grandpa always said that even though we were ten years apart, we should have been twins.
I’m actually going to miss Christmas. I’m going to break my promise.
The fear that I’d been trying to keep at bay roared up, and I squeezed my eyes shut. I knew it had only been a dream, and that dreams weren’t prophecies or visions, or any of that shit. Yet I shuddered as I remembered the dream hospital I’d finally been able to reach after missing Christmas because I’d kept driving down the wrong roads, taking endless turns.
The dream—nightmare—doctor had said the relapse had happened too quickly, and there was nothing they could have done. My parents had already left because Ava was gone. I was too late. My baby sister was dead and I hadn’t been able to say goodbye.
Choking down a swell of nausea, I closed my eyes and breathed in and out.
It was only a dream. She’s okay.
I splashed my face again, getting water all over my hoodie and not caring. Of course they were out of paper towels, so I wiped my hands on my jeans.
I aimlessly walked the terminal, squeezing between clumps of fellow dispirited would-be passengers and their mounds of baggage. My messenger bag tugged at my neck, and I impatiently adjusted it on my shoulder. It was Saturday morning, and school was out for kids, exams were over for college, and winter vacation was here. Too bad we’d apparently be spending it at San Francisco International Airport, or for me, back in my empty dorm.
Fa la la la la.
A bank of TVs blasted CNN, and I stopped to watch the anchor with suspiciously gleaming teeth put on his serious face beneath a swoop of perfectly coiffed hair. Pulsing red letters took up half the screen, screaming: WEATHER ALERT!
“We’ve just survived snowmageddon in the east, and now it’s the West Coast’s turn! Torrential rain has hit the Pacific Northwest, extending down into Northern California. And it’s FOGmageddon for San Francisco!”
I rolled my eyes. The media’s impulse to add “-mageddon” to otherwise non-threatening words needed to be taken out back and shot, along with “gate” suffixes. Watergate was a million years ago. Get over it, people.
The smug bastard on TV actually smiled. His name was probably Chip, or perhaps Blaine. “Along with the rain, the fog in San Francisco has reduced visibility to the extent that officials are advising folks to stay home. Forget pea soup—this stuff is molasses!”
With a sigh, I trudged on. Might as well catch the AirTrain to the BART station. The thought of hauling ass—and my giant suitcase—back to a ghost town campus was seriously depressing. I reminded myself this wouldn’t be the worst Christmas I’d ever had, but it was cold comfort. The last two yuletides jointly held that title, and I prayed they would never be defeated.
I found the AirTrain sign, along with another: Rental Car Center. I stopped in my tracks, barely avoiding getting rear-ended by a luggage cart and a man who muttered a curse as he wheeled around me. I called out an apology as I stared at the sign, my pulse increasing with a hum through my veins.
Was it possible? Could I make it back in time if I drove? There was rain and fog here and snow out there, but surely in the middle I could make up some time? If I powered through on Red Bull and Twizzlers, I could do it.
Yanking out my phone, I googled the driving time from San Francisco to Norwalk, Connecticut.
43 h (2,952.6 mi) via I-80 E
It was basically straight across the country through Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and finally into Connecticut. Which sounded insanely exhausting, but was totally doable. Factoring in stops for eating and a few hours of sleep in the backseat here and there, I’d get there with time to spare. I could make it home for Christmas morning.
Adrenaline zinged through me with this new plan of action, and I hurried to the AirTrain platform. The loop through the terminals to the Car Rental Center was interminable, and I drummed my fingers on the plastic handle of my suitcase until the woman crammed between me and the door gave me an understandable death glare.
I practically dove down the concourse, dragging my suitcase along. Amazingly enough, there were hardly any people at all in the rental area, and I grinned as I approached the first counter. I wouldn’t even have to wait! This was clearly an amazing plan, and perhaps even an Act of God. It was meant to be.
NO VEHICLES AVAILABLE
I blinked at the sign. Okay, next counter. My heart sank a little when I saw a sold-out sign there too. Onto the next. And the next.
And the next.
Of course there were no lines. There were no damn cars left. I kept going just in case, but each rental company I passed was out of vehicles.
As I approached the last one—one of those cheap car places stuck in the back corner—my feet dragged and my shoulders slumped. For all of fifteen minutes, I’d thought Christmas and my promise to my sister could be saved.
As I neared Expedition Car Rental, my heart skipped a beat. I peered closer, scanning the area. There was no sign. There was no sign! In a burst of excitement I raced the rest of the way, barreling into the counter. The young woman behind it jerked her head up from her computer.
“Hi! Sorry to startle you. I need a car. Do you have a car?” I forced myself to take a calming breath and read her name tag. “Sorry, Sook-Yin. I really need a car.” I smiled what I hoped was my most charming smile, because I didn’t need Sook-Yin refusing my patronage on suspicion of me being on crack or meth or huffing the nitrous oxide from whipped cream bottles.
She tilted her head and gave me a regretful closed-lip smile. “I’m so sorry. I just rented our last vehicle.”
Panic and disappointment combined to make my mouth dry and chest tight. “Please. You have to have another one. I’m begging you. I will get down on my knees. I’ll pay extra. I’ll pay whatever you want. Please. I need a car. Or truck. SUV. Minivan. Motorcycle. Anything with wheels and an engine.”
“I’m very sorry.”
I dropped my head to the counter with a dull thunk. “I can’t believe this is happening. Please let me wake up in my dorm and realize this nightmare was just my subconscious being a bag of dicks as usual.”
Sook-Yin made a sound that might have been a stifled laugh, but her tone was sympathetic. “I really am sorry. Hold on, let me check our other area locations. You might get lucky.”
Other locations! I hadn’t even thought of that. I lifted my head and watched her type, holding my breath. Please, please, please, please…
She sighed and tucked her dark hair behind her ear. “Nope. But I’ll check the other companies for you.”
My lungs burned as I waited, my hands in fists to stop from drumming my fingers on the counter. The CIA should forget waterboarding—watching someone else search for information on a computer when you’re dying to know the answer is pure torture. Sook-Yin tapped, her eyes scanning the screen, and my heart pounded. There had to be one freaking car left to rent in the Bay Area. There had to be. I’d go to Oakland. Jesus, I’d bus it to Modesto if I had to. Please, please, please, please…
Then she gave me the head tilt/sad smile again, and I knew it was hopeless. She didn’t have to say it. I tried to smile back. “Thanks for checking. It was really nice of you.” My brain whirled. What about Greyhound? Sure, it was the busiest travel time of the year and the buses would be loaded with people who couldn’t get flights, but maybe. “I guess I’ll try the bus.”
She winced. “I’ve heard they’re overbooked. And there was that mechanic’s strike? There aren’t enough buses, apparently.”
“I guess the trains are sold out too.”
“Do you want me to check?” Her gaze shifted to something behind me, and she smiled. “Excuse me for a second. Ah, there you are,” she said to someone. “Did you find the Starbucks?”
“Yes, thank you. I’m caffeinated and ready to hit the road.”
My whole body seized. It couldn’t be. It was not possible.
I slowly turned and…wow. Gavin Bloomberg—still as annoyingly tall and hot as ever—was actually standing there in a fitted brown leather jacket with a blue travel mug in one hand and a little rolling gray suitcase resting by his suede Pumas. He blinked at me, and after a moment his lip curled.
“Charlie?” He appeared as horrified as I felt.
Of all the car rental places in all the freaking world… I concentrated on a civil tone. After all, we were eighteen and officially adults now. “Gavin.”
“Uh…hi.” He stared at me the way he might a piece of gum after walking around on it all day and prying it free from the bottom of his shoe, with little pebbles and a bunch of shit dried into it. He ran a hand through his thick, short hair, and even under dull fluorescents I couldn’t help but notice the rich auburn highlights. His sideburns were longer than when I’d last seen him at graduation in June.
I was weirdly struck by a memory of the summer we’d met, and how almost every day we’d stretch out in the sun by the pond, and he’d close his eyes while I watched his hair dry, the whole time aching to touch.
“Do you guys know each other?” Sook-Yin asked.
I nodded. “I guess. Not really. I mean, we went to high school together.” This was definitely a nightmare, but sadly I was all too awake. Time to evacuate. “Well, I should go.”
“Wait!” Sook-Yin’s face lit up. “Are you both trying to get to the same place? Maybe you could drive together?”
My brain was so dumbfounded at Gavin’s unexpected presence that I hadn’t even processed that he’d obviously rented a vehicle. Oh. My. God. Of course he’d snagged the last car. Of course. Because he got everything he wanted.
Gavin glanced between me and Sook-Yin. “I’m going back to Norwalk.”
“Me too. But we can’t…” I waved a hand between us.
Sook-Yin’s brow creased. “But it’s the perfect solution, isn’t it? I can add another driver to the contract. I’ll even waive the extra fee. You’re already paying more since you’re under twenty-five. Obviously it’s up to you, though.”
“Uh…” Gavin stared at her with dawning horror in his brown eyes.
I shared that horror. There was no way—no effing way!—Gavin Bloomberg and I could drive to Connecticut together. It was impossible. It was unthinkable. It was the worst idea ever.
But fuck me. It was my shot.
As much as I hated it, this was my way home for Christmas. Gavin and I could split the driving and gas, and we could totally make it for the twenty-fifth with tons of time to spare.
“I can’t…it’s…” Clutching his travel mug, Gavin stared at me.
“I promised Ava I’d be home for Christmas.”
The hard edges of Gavin’s gaze softened, and he exhaled. After a long moment, he nodded. “Then I guess we’d better get going.”
“I’m so glad this worked out. What a small world. Can you give me your license?” Sook-Yin started entering my info, apparently oblivious to the tension in the air. “Wait, do you two actually live on the same street?”
Gavin and I nodded silently.
“Wow, what are the odds?” Smiling, she printed off a new contract. “Do you go to the same school out here too?”
“No. He’s at USF and I’m at Stanford,” Gavin answered.
I blinked. He knew where I went? Mom’s voice echoed in my mind.
“Hon, guess who’s going to Frisco for college too?”
“Please don’t call it Frisco.” I rolled another T-shirt and squeezed it into my pink suitcase. “And no, who?”
“Your friend Gavin! Isn’t that wonderful? I’m so glad you’ll have someone from home out there with you.”
The fact that Gavin was most certainly not my friend—and had not been my friend since Pete Stiffler’s party at the beginning of ninth grade—had been lost on my mom. In her defense, her plate had been pretty fucking full the last few years, and I’d never even hinted at a problem.
“I just need you both to sign here, and initial here, here, and here.” Sook-Yin circled spots on the contract.
Gavin picked up the pen, passing it to me when he was finished. The plastic was warm from his fingers, and my stomach danced the way it used to when Gavin was close by. I felt fourteen again and hopelessly out of my depth.
After marking my last initial, I passed the contract back to Sook-Yin, who ripped off a copy and slid it into a narrow folder. She handed Gavin a key. “Here you go. It’s in spot C-thirty-seven, but since it’s the last car left, it won’t be hard to find. It’s a Jetta, but don’t worry, I only charged you economy class. Have a safe drive, and happy holidays!”
We smiled and thanked her, and I followed Gavin to the garage. In silence, we rode the elevator down, and in the subterranean concrete maze, the only sound was the rumbling drone of our suitcase wheels and the odd car driving by. The Jetta waited, navy blue and four-doored, boxy with its sedate and practical German engineering.
A man chewing gum approached from the little Expedition office, which was more like a shack. He wore coveralls and a baseball cap. “Got the last one, huh?”
I smiled tightly. “Yep.”
We inspected the car, circling it to make sure there were no dings or scratches. Gavin signed the form, and the guy started the engine. “Tank is full, and you’re ready to go. Have a good one.” He shuffled off.
Gavin popped the trunk and eyed my pink monstrosity. “Are you moving back or something?”
“No.” I stubbornly didn’t explain further and hefted up the suitcase.
After fitting in his little gray case, Gavin closed the trunk. “I guess I’ll drive first?”
“Sure.” It was all very civil and so freaking bizarre, oh my God.
I went around to the passenger side, buckling my belt and pushing the seat back for maximum leg room. I was only five-nine compared to Gavin’s ridiculous six-one, but I still liked to stretch out. Especially since we were going to be in this car for forty-three hours—and that was with clear weather and no traffic jams. I barely resisted the urge to whimper. Just getting out of the Bay Area took forever in good conditions, let alone FOGmageddon.
After adjusting the mirrors, Gavin backed up. Neither of us spoke as he navigated the winding levels of the garage, and at the exit he stuck the provided parking ticket into the machine. The mechanical arm jerked up to let us pass, and home had never felt so incredibly far away.
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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