Skipper checked the time on his phone again. It was nearly twenty till four o’clock. They should be calling for the plane to board any minute. He looked at the flight board, which still indicated that it’d be on time. He was grateful for the Dibbles that were in his pocket and he anxiously munched on them.
“Now boarding the four-twenty to Bloomington, Illinois at Gate 4,” कहा a voice over the intercom. Skipper didn’t even let her finish before gathering his things and making his way to the gate.
He gave his pass to a woman at the gate (which he’d accidentally gotten Cheezy Dibble dust on) and boarded the plane. A flight attendant helped him find his seat, which was अगला to a window. He stuffed his bag in the luggage compartment above it and sat down, looking out at the मार्ग, रनवे as a plane took off.
“Hi!” कहा a voice अगला to him, making him flinch. He turned his head to see a little girl plop down in the सीट अगला to him.
“Hey,” Skipper replied uncomfortably.
“I’m Sarah. What’s your name?” the little girl asked looking at him with brown eyes, much like Marlene’s.
“They call me Skipper,” Skipper answered. The और he tried to relax, the harder the सीट seemed to become.
Sarah giggled. “Why do they call आप that? Are आप in the navy?” she asked.
Skipper smiled. “No, it’s just what they call me. Why so inquisitive?” he asked cocking his eyebrow humorously.
“Mommy says if we never ask questions, we’ll never learn anything new,” Sarah answered.
Skipper considered. “Touché,” he replied. “Your mother is wise. Where is your mother?” he asked, suddenly realizing she was alone.
“We had to book our flight last minute. She was unable to find us a सीट together. She’s in the अगला cabin,” Sarah explained.
“Ah, I see,” Skipper replied.
“So, why are आप going to Illinois? Mommy says I have an Uncle there. I haven’t met him yet ‘cause he travels a lot,” Sarah told him.
“I couldn’t find a flight straight to Manhattan, so I have to fly to Illinois first and book a flight from there,” Skipper explained.
“Why are आप going to Manhattan?” Sarah asked.
Skipper chuckled. She was going to know his life story द्वारा the time this flight ended. “It’s where I live. I flew to Seattle on business, but all the flights back were cancelled due to weather. So I had to come down here to book a flight. My girlfriend’s waiting for me to come घर for Christmas,” he told her. Strangely, it kind of felt good to talk about it, get things off his chest. Even if it was with a complete stranger.
“Ooh, is she pretty?” Sarah asked biting her lip.
Skipper laughed. “Yes, she’s very pretty. She’s beautiful,” he answered, the thought bringing an image of her smiling as he walked through the front door in his mind.
Just then, a woman appeared in the aisle अगला to their set of seats.
“There आप are,” she कहा to the girl. “Are आप all right? I’m sorry I couldn’t get आप a सीट with me.”
“I’m fine, Mommy. I’m talking to Skipper,” she कहा turning to him. “This is my Mommy.”
“Hey, nice to meet you,” Skipper replied to the woman.
She eyed him uneasily, probably uncomfortable with her taking up a conversation with a stranger. Skipper couldn’t blame her for feeling that way. It was only motherly instinct.
“Well, have respect and say Mr. Skipper,” she told her daughter. “Remember our talk about respecting adults.”
“Yes, Mommy,” Sarah replied softly.
She sighed. “All right. When we’re in the air, if आप want to come sit with me, आप can, okay?”
“Okay,” Sarah कहा sweetly as the mother walked back down the aisle. A moment later an elder woman appeared with a flight attendant, who put her carry-on where Skipper’s was. The woman sat down on the other side of the little girl and rested her head back on the seat. She seemed as if she might try to take a quick nap before liftoff, so neither the little girl nor Skipper bothered her.
“So, what do आप do for a living?” Sarah asked.
“I’m a detective,” Skipper answered.
“Ooh! Like on TV?” She suddenly gasped deeply and lowered her voice. “Have आप ever shot anybody?”
Skipper chuckled again. “Not quite like on TV, and yes, I have had to use my weapon on criminals before,” he answered, wanting to accentuate the idea that he only used his weapon on those who committed terrible crimes. “And what do you do for a living,” he joked.
“I’m nine!” she answered with a giggle. She crossed her arms. “What does your girlfriend think about it?” she कहा teasingly.
Skipper smiled and thought for a moment. “She thinks that what I do is good—solving crimes to give peace to those who may have gotten hurt because of it. Bringing justice to wrongdoers.”
She sighed as if she were watching a romantic movie and Skipper rolled his eyes, the heat rushing into his cheeks.
“How did आप meet her?” she asked.
Skipper looked at the wing of the plane out the window, replaying the scene in his mind. “She moved in अगला door to our apartment. One दिन my unit and I were heading out for work and we bumped into her. We introduced ourselves and sort of moved on. A few days later, I noticed she was having trouble with her window that lead out onto the आग escape. I offered to help and we just got to talking. It seemed our personalities were polar opposites, but at the same time, we shared a lot of the same views. We became good फ्रेंड्स for a while, and it just grew from there.”
“Aw, that’s sweet,” Sarah with a grin. “What’s her name?”
“Ooh, that’s a pretty name. I know a Marlene in my सेकंड grade class. I don’t like her, though,” she कहा with a pout.
“Oh, well, why is that?” Skipper inquired.
“She likes to make fun of me. Like telling me I don’t fit in,” Sarah explained.
Skipper thought for a moment. “Tell आप what, अगला time she tries to make fun of you, say that her words would really hurt आप if आप valued her opinion,” he told her with a smile.
Sarah grinned. “Ooh, that’s good. So, what’s your Marlene like?” she asked.
Skipper smiled. “She’s, uh, very stubborn,” he कहा with a laugh, “and sometimes frustrating. She and I can barely go a week without disagreeing on something. But she’s sweet. She cares about other people. She’s a logical-type thinker; she’ll think through a situation rationally before making haste decisions. She’s very level-headed, and knows where she’s going in life. She’s strong and independent, but acknowledges when she needs help. And she’s really smart. She works at a library—she loves reading. I प्यार her outlook on life, even if it’s hard for me to understand sometimes.”
“Are आप gonna marry her?” Sarah asked with a touch of hope, as if she’d been waiting for that to happen for a long time.
Skipper thought for a moment. “Can आप keep a secret?” he asked. Sarah nodded. Skipper reached into his pocket and pulled out a small velvet box. He opened it to reveal a ring that twinkled in the fluorescent light. “I’m way ahead of you,” he कहा with a grin.
Sarah gasped. “Ooh, are आप going to do it on Christmas?” she asked.
Skipper turned the box in his hands, the ring twinkling as he did so. “I want to, if I can work up the nerve. I’ve faced life-threatening situations, and yet, I’ve never been और scared in my life. That’s why I haven’t told anyone. I don’t want anyone getting their hopes up just for me to chicken out.” A thought dawned him and he looked at Sarah. “Why am I telling आप this? You’re too young for this stuff,” he कहा closing the case and putting it back in his pocket.
Sarah sighed irritably. “Too young for this, too young for that,” she कहा indignantly. “I’ll have आप know I think I know how आप feel.”
Skipper refrained from laughing. “And how could आप know how I feel?” he asked.
Sarah turned and sat आगे in her सीट and buckled her seatbelt. “Well, Mommy and I go to the fair every year. There’s this one ride that always scared me. Mommy told me there wasn’t anything to be afraid of, but I didn’t believe her. She told me I could go when I was ready. Last year, I decided to give it a try. When it was over, I realized I never really had anything to be afraid of. All that time, I was scared of nothing.”
“Well, a ride at the fair and a marriage proposal are two very different things,” Skipper pointed out.
“Not really, if आप think about it. Mommy tells me that any fear is the fear of the unknown. Like a fear of heights is the fear of not knowing if you’ll fall या not. या a fear of spiders is the fear of it biting you. आप don’t know if it will. Mommy says we shouldn’t fear the unknown, because if we fear the unknown, that’s like being afraid of the future. We’ll never know what comes next, and we can’t keep being afraid of that. We just have to face it head on and hope for the best,” Sarah explained. She looked at him. “Maybe that’s what आप should do. Do आप प्यार her?”
“Of course,” Skipper answered.
“Does she प्यार you?” Sarah asked.
Skipper nodded slowly. “Yeah,” he answered.
Sarah shrugged. “Then what are आप afraid of?”
Skipper stared at the back of the सीट in front of him as he thought about what Sarah said. A few मिनटों later, a voice came over the intercom.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We’ll be taking off shortly, so please securely fasten your seatbelts and ensure your सीट is in its upright position. We hope आप enjoy your flight, and thank आप for choosing Oregon Regional Airlines.”
Skipper fastened his seatbelt and relaxed as he waited for takeoff.
— § —
“I’m sorry. The number you’re trying to reach is unavailable. Please leave a message after the tone.” Beep.
“Hey, Skipper, it’s me. I was just hoping to catch आप while आप were in Scottsbluff, but I guess आप still have your phone off. Just checking in to make sure nothing else came up. प्यार you. Bye,” Marlene कहा ending the call. She sighed.
“No answer?” Becky guessed coming into the रसोई, रसोईघर where she was.
“No,” Marlene कहा in disappointment. “I hope nothing came up.”
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Becky कहा pouring hot water from the coffee maker into a coffee cup. “Want some hot chocolate?” she offered with a smile.
“Sure,” Marlene accepted with a sigh. Becky grabbed another coffee cup and filled it. “Becky?”
“Yeah, Marlene?” Becky replied.
“Thanks for keeping my mind off of things. I’ve been really worried Skipper won’t make it home. It was sweet of आप and Stacy to stay with me while I’m going out of my mind,” Marlene कहा with a laugh.
Becky smiled. “Don’t worry about it, cousin. We couldn’t let आप be all alone during the holiday season,” she कहा pouring a packet of hot चॉकलेट mix into each cup and adding a spoon. She slid one cup to Marlene.
Marlene started stirring her hot चॉकलेट with the steam rising to her face.
“So, how long have आप two been dating, now?” Becky asked.
“Almost three years,” Marlene answered.
“Wow, ya’ll haven’t talked about getting married?” Becky asked searching her cabinets for marshmallows.
Marlene turned to her with wide eyes. “What?” she asked with a nervous laugh. “Marriage? I-I don’t know. I don’t even think he’s thought about it.”
“What about you, Marlene? Have आप thought about it?” Becky asked with a teasing smile.
Marlene shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t know . . . I guess it’s crossed my mind a couple of times. I would never bring the topic of marriage up to him, though.”
“Why not?” Becky asked in surprise. “I mean, I know he’s all commando and everything, but the whole point of dating is to find someone to spend your life with. If he wasn’t planning on marrying you, I doubt your relationship would’ve lasted this long.”
Marlene considered. “I guess that’s true. I guess I’m just afraid.”
“Of what?” Becky asked as if there couldn’t possibly be a logical answer. She finally found a bag of marshmallows and tossed it on the counter, waiting for Marlene’s reply.
Marlene pulled the marshmallow, मार्शमॉलो bag open and plopped one in her drink. “I guess I’m just afraid that if I bring it up, he’ll get scared of the idea of committing. I don’t know if he’s ready for that,” she कहा staring at her drink.
Becky rolled her eyes. “Marlene, let me ask आप something. Do आप प्यार him?” she asked.
“I have no doubt in my mind,” Marlene answered without hesitation.
“Does he प्यार you?” Becky followed up.
Marlene stirred the spoon in her cup for a moment. “Yeah. I think so,” she answered.
Becky made a buzzer sound with her voice. “Wrong answer. The answer is yes, he definitely loves you. I can tell द्वारा the way I’ve seen him look at you, sometimes without आप even knowing it. आप should have nothing to be afraid of. If it’s been three weeks, then I could see him getting a little scared. But three years? I’m not saying get married tomorrow, I’m just saying आप should have no problem talking about it at this point.”
Without waiting for a response, she grabbed one marshmallow, मार्शमॉलो for her hot चॉकलेट and another to pop in her mouth as she left her to think. Marlene watched the marshmallow, मार्शमॉलो float around in her hot chocolate. Becky may have had a point, but that didn’t make the thought any less frightening.
— § —
Private waited as Rico passed through the metal detector in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. The security personnel here were being a little और thorough than the past airports. They were checking all of the snacks in his bag to ensure none of them were drugs.
“You had to bring every snack आप could think of,” Private कहा irritably.
Rico spread his hands. “What?”
Finally, they finished, and gave Rico his duffel.
“Here आप go,” the security guard कहा giving him a strange look. “By the way, some ठगना, हेराफेरी leaked onto your pretzels,” he added before returning to his post.
Rico made a momentary look of panic, but then thought for a moment. Private watched as he started to grin and rolled his eyes. “Come on, Mikey,” he कहा picking up his bag and walking toward their अगला gate.
“Who’s Mikey?” Rico asked following him.
Private rolled his eyes again. “Forget about it.”
— § —
“Attention, passengers. This is your captain speaking. We’ll be landing shortly, so please have a seat, fasten your seatbelts, and return your seats to their original upright position,” a voice announced over the intercom.
Skipper buckled his seatbelt and looked outside at the dark clouds as they passed under the wing of the plane.
“Hey, Mr. Skipper,” Sarah कहा as she returned to her seat. She’d left about halfway through the flight to sit with her mother. She plopped in her seat.
“Hey, kiddo,” Skipper replied. “Enjoy the flight?”
“Yeah, my Mommy and I brought playing cards and we played Crazy 8s. I won most of the games,” she कहा with a giggle.
“That so?” Skipper कहा with a smile as she fastened her seatbelt. “Bet आप wouldn’t have that kind of luck if आप played me,” he challenged.
“Nah-uh!” Sarah protested crossing her arms. “I’m a pro at Crazy 8s,” she bragged with a smile.
“Okay, then. I’ll bet we have time for one game,” Skipper said.
“You’re on,” Sarah कहा pulling the deck from her कोट pocket.
— § —
“And I win!” Sarah कहा putting her last card on the discard pile.
“Ah, आप got me,” Skipper कहा with a smile, placing his remaining cards on the pile. Sarah took the cards and put them back in her pocket.
“Told आप I’m a pro,” she कहा smugly.
“That आप did,” Skipper acknowledged.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ll be beginning our descent, please ensure your seatbelts are securely fastened and that your seats are in their upright position and prepare for landing. We hope आप enjoyed your flight, and thanks again for choosing Oregon Regional Airlines,” the captain announced over the intercom.
Skipper fiddled with his fingers in his lap, praying that nothing would go wrong while he was in Illinois. There was some turbulence and he gripped his knees without realizing it.
“Do आप not like flying?” Sarah asked, observing his tension.
Skipper laughed nervously at himself. “No, I don’t mind it, usually. I’ve just been having some bad luck lately, so I’m a little anxious.”
Sarah laughed. “Mommy doesn’t believe in bad luck. She says that anything that happens is because it’s supposed to happen. That Fate knows what it’s doing.”
Skipper scoffed. “Well, it seems like Fate is trying it’s darndest to ruin my and my girlfriend’s क्रिस्मस to me.”
“I don’t know about that,” Sarah replied. “Maybe Fate doesn’t want to ruin your Christmas, but just make it something आप didn’t expect.”
Skipper thought about that for a moment. Then he looked at her. “You’re a pretty smart kid, आप know that?”
Sarah shrugged indifferently. “I know,” she कहा with a grin. Skipper smiled back as the plane started it’s final descent to the runway.
The plane landed and there was another announcement giving the passengers permission to grab their carry-ons and deboard. Sarah got up and turned to Skipper.
“Hope आप have a good Christmas, Mr. Skipper,” she said.
“You, too. And, uh, thanks,” he कहा unbuckling his seatbelt.
“No problem,” she कहा before walking down the aisle to meet her mother.
Skipper stood and saw that the elderly woman was having a hard time getting to her bag overhead.
“Allow me, ma’am,” he कहा reaching up and grabbing it for her.
“Thank you, dear,” the woman कहा with a smile, taking the bag from him.
“You’re welcome,” Skipper replied grabbing his own bag. “Have a Merry Christmas.”
The woman smiled uneasily. “I’ll try. You, too, son.”
Skipper cocked an eyebrow. “Try?” he inquired.
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” the woman कहा as they started walking toward the plane’s exit. “I’m just trying to find my daughter.”
“Well, ma’am, I’m a detective with connections. I might be able to help,” Skipper offered.
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to keep from getting घर on Christmas,” the woman said.
Skipper hesitated. He could go घर and let this woman खोजिए for a needle in a haystack on her own, या he could help bring a family together for क्रिस्मस and maybe still make it. He knew he couldn’t do the former. “Really, ma’am, I’ll make it घर just fine. I’d be happy to help,” he told her as they began to descend the airstairs.
“Well,” the woman started, “I haven’t seen her in a few years. She moved to Chicago and I haven’t heard from her since,” she कहा with a sigh. “I’m an old woman. I don’t have many years left. I want to see my daughter for Christmas.”
Skipper held his hand out for her as she descended the last few stairs and she took it. Her hand was cold. He saw her sad, lonely face and knew there’d be no way he could back out now. They started walking toward the terminal.
“Don’t worry, we’ll find her together,” Skipper promised. “I’m Skipper, Misses . . .?”
“Just call me Cinthy,” she said.
The two of them walked to baggage claim and waited for their luggage. Skipper grabbed his and offered to carry hers, but she declined.
“I may be old,” she said, “but I can manage.”
They continued through security and came upon the waiting area द्वारा the ticket desks.
“Would आप mind waiting just a मिनट while I check on something?” Skipper asked.
“Of course, dear. I’ll be right here,” Cinthy कहा sitting down with her bags. “I’ll watch your luggage if आप like.”
“Thanks,” Skipper कहा setting his bags down अगला to hers. He turned and walked up to the flight board and started looking it over, searching for flights to Manhattan. The अगला one was scheduled to leave at one-fifteen in the morning, the अगला was at five-thirty, nine-forty, one-fifty in the afternoon, six-ten, and ten-thirty. He put the times in his phone. Then he turned around to return to Cinthy and froze. She wasn’t where he’d left her, and his bags were sitting in the chairs. He looked around to see if he could spot her and rummaged through his bags.
“That conniving con-artist,” he growled through his teeth. That little witch with a capital B चुरा लिया the extra cash and his laptop he had in his carry-on. Skipper angrily zipped the bag up and threw it over his shoulder. “‘Looking for my daughter,’ she said. All just a lie to steal my valuables.” That’s when it hit him. He patted his pocket where he’d kept Marlene’s engagement ring to find it empty. “Oh, hell no,” he कहा grabbing his other suitcase and sprinting for the door.
He came out into the night air and frantically looked around. Then he spotted her several yards down the sidewalk getting into a taxi.
“Hey!” he called running for her. She looked at him in surprise and climbed in, shutting the door behind her. The taxi started to pull away before Skipper could get to it. “No!” he screamed in defeat. He saw another taxi and opened the back door. “Drive!” he ordered the driver.
“Where to?” he asked.
“After that cab, up there!” Skipper कहा pointing toward the cab almost reaching the highway. “I’ll double the fair if आप don’t lose it!”
“Yes, sir,” the driver replied throwing the car in gear. Ensuring no one was in the way, he pulled the car आगे with a jerk and swerved around other cars that angrily honked their horns. He got to the cab just as it pulled into the highway and pulled out behind it, cutting off another driver in the process which earned them a rather derogatory sign in the rearview mirror.
“Keep following it,” Skipper said.
“You got it,” the driver replied.
Skipper simmered in the backseat as he stared down the tail lights of the cab. He couldn’t believe he actually fell for her story. As he leveled his heartrate, he started piecing together how she came up with her plan. She was sitting right अगला to he and that little girl, Sarah. He told her he was a detective, and showed her Marlene’s engagement ring. She must’ve been paying और attention than he’d thought. She assumed that he might offer to help her since he was a detective, and that’s exactly what she did to get close enough to pick his pocket. This was unbelievable, and embarrassing. He was the law and he’d just been bamboozled and robbed द्वारा a lady old enough to be his mother.
They drove for nearly ten मिनटों when the cab pulled into Quality Inn & Suites and parked द्वारा the curb in front of the door.
“Park a few spaces back,” Skipper said. He watched from a distance and waited for her to come out. When she didn’t, he slid to the door. “Wait here, keep the meter running.”
He pulled himself out of the cab and walked to the idle cab he’d followed there, but just as he reached it, some other woman stepped out with a child. He’d followed the wrong cab. He kicked the snow that was on the sidewalk. She could be anywhere now. He plopped back in the cab and rested his head back in the seat, running his fingers through his thick black hair. He laughed incredulously.
“Take me back to the airport,” he sighed. He was tired, hungry, and sick of everything getting screwed up.
“Yes, sir,” the driver कहा pulling out of the parking lot.
Skipper looked at the meter. It was reaching four dollars, which mean he owed the cabbie eight to follow through with his promise to double the fair. He reached for his wallet in his back pocket to find it empty. He shoved his tongue in his cheek. She’d taken his wallet, too. He was in a city with no cash, no credit cards, and therefore no way of paying this taxi driver या buying an airplane ticket.
“Actually, uh, आप probably should pull over,” Skipper कहा regretfully. He didn’t want to tell him that he couldn’t pay him and owe him और than he already did. The driver pulled अगला to the curb. “Look, I was just robbed at the airport. Sh—uh, he took my wallet and extra cash,” he explained. “I thought I’d get it back द्वारा following that cab, but it was the wrong one. I—I don’t have any money.”
Within the अगला thirty seconds, Skipper was trudging down the sidewalk with his bags in the night, shivering from the cold. He wasn’t sure which way the airport was, but he just followed the direction he saw planes taking off and coming in for landing. It didn’t take long for him to get to the point where it felt as if his ears might fall off and he decided to take a break in a भोजन करनेवाला, डिनर he spotted across the street. He took a सीट at the bar and set his bags under him. The sign on the door indicated that it was closing in half an hour, so there was only a couple other people seated on either side of the room.
“Hey, can I get आप anything?” asked a waitress asked from the other side of the counter. She was wearing a red तहबंद, एप्रन and a Santa hat over her brown, curly hair, the white cotton ball at the end hanging अगला to her round, friendly face.
“What’s free?” Skipper asked without meeting her eye. He hated to seem like he was a man who couldn’t even afford a decent cup of coffee.
“Water,” the waitress कहा regretfully.
Skipper set his jaw and nodded. “I’ll take that, I guess,” he कहा quietly.
The waitress left for a moment and came back with a glass of ice water and set it in front of him on a napkin. Skipper tried not to look too nauseated. Drinking a cold water when he was already turning into a popsicle wasn’t too appealing, but his mouth was already dry from having not drunk anything since that morning. He took the glass in his numb fingers and had to take it with his other hand when he realized it was shivering. Slowly, he brought it to his lips and forced a large gulp down his throat, but quickly had to set it back down when it just made him feel और nauseated.
“Are आप sure आप don’t want a coffee?” the waitress asked as another shiver went down his spine.
Skipper shook his head. “No. Someone चुरा लिया my wallet, I don’t have any money, and I’m from out of town.”
The waitress exhaled and looked around. Then she went to the coffee maker and made a cup of coffee. “I’m not supposed to do this,” she whispered, “but, hey, it’s Christmas. And it looks like आप could really use some warming up,” she कहा with a smile, sliding the cup to him.
Skipper looked from the cup to the waitress. “Are आप sure? I don’t want to get आप fired,” he whispered.
She shook her head. “Please, it’s Christmas. My boss is too busy to ever find out about one या two cups of coffee,” she assured with a wink.
Skipper took the cup in his hands and instantly felt warmth envelop his fingers and slowly work its way to his arms. He didn’t even care that it didn’t have sugar as he sipped on it and felt the warmth slide down his throat. He shivered again, but with pleasure of how good the heat felt as he started getting the feeling back in his face.
“Thank you,” he कहा with a sniff—partly from the cold and partly because everything that happened that दिन was really starting to sink in. There was no way he was getting घर द्वारा Christmas. He’d failed Marlene, his team, and himself.
The waitress leaned on the counter द्वारा her elbows in front of him. “Want to talk about it?” she asked, obviously realizing he’d had a rough day.
Skipper looked at her, then back at his coffee. “Well,” he started with a sigh. He wasn’t one to talk about his problems, especially with strangers, but then again, he did tell a nine-year-old about his girlfriend. “I had to leave Manhattan last मिनट for a meeting in Seattle, and I promised my girlfriend I’d be घर द्वारा Christmas. But then all the flights leaving Seattle were cancelled due to weather conditions. So, I had to rent a car and drag my unit of three to Pendleton, Oregon to catch a flight to Nebraska, where I was going to catch a flight to Manhattan. Which, द्वारा the way, meant one of my unit had to sacrifice a flight घर to drive the rental back to Seattle and wait for a flight there. I missed the flight to Nebraska, and I took a flight here, where I was robbed of all my money, and—” He paused and looked at the counter— “my girlfriend’s engagement ring. I was planning on proposing to her on Christmas.”
“Wow,” the waitress कहा with a surprised laugh, “sounds like the world’s against you.”
“That’s pretty much how I feel,” Skipper replied before drinking the rest of the coffee in one go. He pressed the cup to his cheek, trying to salvage every bit of warmth it had. “And now, not only can I not propose to her, I can’t buy a plane ticket because all my credit cards were in my wallet.”
“Well,” the waitress replied, “if I had any money, I’d give it to you. But if I had that kind of money, I wouldn’t be working here. और coffee?” she whispered.
“Please,” Skipper कहा giving her the cup. “And if आप have any sugar cubes, that’d be great, too.”
The waitress took the cup and filled it with coffee and grabbed a bowl of sugar cubes and gave them to Skipper.
“So, what are आप gonna do?” she asked.
Skipper held the cup under his chin so the steam would warm his face. “I guess I’ll call Kowalski—the one that had to stay in Seattle—and ask him to take a pitstop here to pick me up. I don’t see much other alternative.”
The waitress thought for a moment. “Well, I don’t know how desperate आप are, but I might have a solution for you.”
Skipper plopped two sugar cubes into his coffee. “With how my day’s turned out, I’m up for nearly anything.”
The waitress made a doubtful face. “I guess I should ask this first since आप seem indulged in that warm coffee: How tolerant are आप to cold?”
The waitress—who had finally introduced herself as Judy Fate—had kindly offered him a ride to Pepsi Ice Center just a few मिनटों away since the भोजन करनेवाला, डिनर was closing up. Skipper used the opportunity to call the airport to रिपोर्ट the thief, but their flight manifest for his flight had no record of any “Cinthy” या anything close to it. Of course, Skipper thought, Why would she use her real name if she was planning on hustling me? He also cancelled his credit cards. When they got there, they entered Skipper in the competition Judy had told him about and joined the crowd, where he put on his ice skates.
“I can’t believe I’m being reduced to this,” he muttered.
“Well, to be honest, I didn’t think you’d agree to it. I think it’s sweet that you’re doing this to get घर to your girlfriend,” Judy replied.
Skipper sighed as he moved his foot around on his ankle to see how the स्केट felt. “Thank आप for helping me,” he कहा putting his foot down. “I’m sure you’d probably rather be घर with your family right now.”
Judy laughed. “Actually, this is a और appealing alternative, and not just because of all the eye candy,” she कहा eyeing some attractive men a few yards away with a grin. She turned back to Skipper. “My family together in one room? Never ends well. Someone always starts a fight. Even on Christmas. I’m always the one who just goes outside and waits it out in the snow,” she explained.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Skipper replied.
“Don’t worry about it,” Judy कहा with a dismissive wave of her hand. “The competition’s about to start, I guess आप should, ahem—get ready,” she कहा awkwardly.
“Right,” Skipper कहा standing up and balancing himself on the ice skates. He self consciously looked around and reminded himself he was doing this to get home. In accordance with the rules, he shucked off his जैकेट and pulled off his shirt. “Guess I’ll see आप when it’s over.”
“Good luck,” she कहा looking at the ground with a grin.
“Way to be subtle,” Skipper कहा with a roll of his eyes and a smile. He turned and waddled toward the rink, where all the other contestants were waiting, which consisted of shirtless men and women in spaghetti-strapped shirts.
“Welcome, ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer कहा into a microphone that projected his voice through a small speaker. “I will briefly go over the rules and then we will begin the contest. Everyone will स्केट in the rink until they can’t stand the cold any longer. For men, आप must be shirtless, and for women, tank tops या spaghetti-straps only,” he explained, failing to hide his disappointment. “There will be no pushing, clipping, punching, kicking, या otherwise any harm done to another, even द्वारा accident. If आप do, it will result in automatic disqualification. If आप fall and injure yourself, we will not be held responsible, and आप will be disqualified. Someone will come out to assist आप away from the rink to wait for an रोगी वाहन, एम्बुलेंस या otherwise treat the injury. The last one skating wins one thousand dollars! Any questions?”
Nobody कहा anything.
“Great! Then time begins when the last man enters the rink!” the announcer said.
The contestants began filing into the rink and skating out across the ice. Skipper counted around twenty competitors. He skated out into the rink as others began दिखा रहा है off their skating maneuvers, such as spinning, jumping, and skating backwards. After a few मिनटों of skating, he started rubbing his hands together and blowing into his cupped fingers. A woman in a black tank skated up अगला to him.
“Hey,” she said. “I’m Sherry. Mind if I स्केट with you?”
“I guess,” Skipper replied. “Name’s Skipper. Might I ask why?”
“I was looking for someone to talk to get my mind off the cold, someone that wasn’t too busy दिखा रहा है off,” स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी कहा looking at the people figure skating in the center of the rink.
“Well, I could certainly use something to keep my mind off the cold. What do आप want to talk about?” Skipper asked.
“What are आप gonna do with the money if आप win?” she asked.
“Well, I’m from out of town and someone pickpocketed my wallet, so I have no money for a plane ticket home. Someone I met here referred this to me and I figured I had nothing better to do with my time anyway,” Skipper explained. “What about you?” he asked.
“My car needs a new part. I don’t have that great of a job and a child to feed, so I was hoping I could use the prize money to buy it,” स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी answered. “Where आप from?”
“Manhattan,” Skipper answered.
“Wow, long way. What do आप do?” she asked.
“I’m a detective,” Skipper answered.
She seemed impressed. “Wow, detective. So, like N.C.I.S. या something?”
Skipper laughed. “Why does everyone ask that? My life is not a TNT drama,” he कहा with a roll of his eyes.
“CBS, actually,” स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी corrected with a grin.
Skipper shook his head. “Whatever,” he replied.
“So what brought आप to Illinois?” स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी asked.
“Long story,” Skipper replied, feeling a bit tired of explaining it to everyone.
स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी looked back to the center of the rink. Only about a third of the contestants had दिया up. “Looks like we’ve got time,” she said.
Skipper sighed and explained his situation. स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी whistled.
“Wow, looks like luck is not on your side,” she said.
“That’s one way of putting it,” Skipper replied irritably.
“Well, maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe things will work out,” स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी encouraged.
“I don’t see how it’ll work out unless I win this money for a plane ticket,” Skipper कहा rubbing the गूसबम्प्स off his arms. He crossed them, tucking his fingers in his underarms.
स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी tucked her hands in her jeans pockets. “Well, tell me about your girlfriend. आप कहा आप were hoping to marry her?” she inquired, trying to change the subject.
Skipper told her about Marlene, how they met, what made him decide to ask her out, and finally his decision to buy an engagement ring.
“I had it engraved on the inside and everything,” Skipper told her.
“Aw, that’s so sweet. Did आप call the airport? If they can give आप her full name, maybe आप can get an address या something,” स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी asked.
“Yeah, but she gave me an alias. They had no record of her on that flight,” Skipper answered. “She’s probably pawned it off द्वारा now, anyway. She could sure as hell get a pretty penny for it.”
“I’m sorry,” स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी said. “Maybe आप can buy another one and propose on New Year’s,” she suggested.
Skipper shook his head. “I don’t have enough money to buy another right now. I’ll probably have to wait until अगला Christmas,” he कहा disappointedly.
Skipper shuddered from the cold. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold out.
“Hey, look, we’re in the final eight,” स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी said.
Skipper looked around at the other six remaining competitors—five men and one woman. Then he looked at the window where the crowd of spectators was watching, cheering the finalists on. He saw Judy giving him a two thumbs up and a grin. He pushed on.
“Tell आप what,” स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी said, “if it comes down to us, I’ll give in and let आप win the money.”
Skipper looked at her. “What about your car?” he asked.
स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी sighed. “I’m sure it’ll last a little longer. If push comes to shove, I’ll just borrow a little from the bank,” she said. “I would hate for आप and your girlfriend to be apart on Christmas. I know if getting to my son meant winning this money, I would want someone to do the same for me.”
Skipper smiled gratefully. “Thank you,” he कहा softly.
“Ah, don’t mention it,” स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी कहा looking at the ice beneath her.
“So what’s your son like?” Skipper inquired.
“Oh, he’s a very bright boy,” स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी कहा with a smile. “He’s in eighth grade now, making all A’s. Well, with a B in algebra,” she कहा with a laugh. “He wants to be a vet when he grows up.”
“Really? Why’s that? He does know where the thermometer goes, right?” Skipper asked with a lopsided grin.
स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी laughed. “Yes, he knows. He’s always loved animals. He had a dog recently, but it passed away from old age. He was heartbroken. He’d had him since he was a puppy. I can’t afford to take in another pet right now, and it’s killing me,” she कहा with a mournful look in her eye.
Skipper looked down. He remembered when he was young and wanted a dog, but his mother was highly allergic. Then he moved into his apartment, which doesn’t allow dogs.
“Oh, but don’t feel guilty about the prize money, please,” स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी said, पढ़ना his thoughts. “It’s not just the getting the dog, I’d have to feed it, and bathe it. A thousand dollars wouldn’t last me long.”
Skipper considered. “I guess.” He watched as another competitor left the rink, shivering and rubbing his arms. “So, got hypothermia yet?” he asked with a grin.
स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी laughed. “I know, right? This contest seems a bit dangerous to me, but hey, when आप need money,” she कहा with a shrug.
“Yeah, people come up with the craziest things nowadays,” Skipper replied.
“You think if we हटाइए faster we’ll generate heat?” स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी suggested doubtfully.
“No, because then we’ll sweat and be wet and cold,” Skipper pointed out.
स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी laughed again. “Of course, why didn’t I think of that?” She watched as two और left the rink and just as she turned to count who was left, the last contestant skated up to them, skating backwards.
“Hello madam, gentlemen,” he कहा looking from स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी to Skipper. He had a thick Russian accent. “Getting rather cold in here, isn’t it?” he taunted with a grin.
“You kiddin’ me?” Skipper responded dropping his arms to his sides. “I प्यार the cold,” he lied through his teeth—literally, because his jaw was beginning to lock shut from the cold.
The man laughed. “I am thinking your lips are turning blue, friend,” he said, still grinning.
“Ooh, look who knows his colors,” Skipper replied. He wasn’t about to be tormented द्वारा some Rusky.
“Well, I’m about to turn into a popsicle, so I’m gonna go,” स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी कहा skating off toward the exit, not wanting to be in the middle of it.
“Just आप and me, friend,” the Rusky कहा skating a वृत्त around him. “You may as well give up now. Ice is my element. I consider forty degrees a nice spring morning.”
Skipper narrowed his eyes. “I’m not giving up that easily,” he told him.
The Rusky laughed. “Then things will get interesting, hm? If you’re so bold to challenge me, why don’t आप शामिल होइए me in the center of the rink where it’s coldest,” he कहा skating toward the center of the rink with outstretched arms, still facing him, “and we’ll heat things up—or should I say cool them down?”
Skipper hesitated. He was already coming close to his breaking point. But he wasn’t about to be called out a chicken द्वारा this flashy Russian babushka. He skated to the center of the rink and he laughed gruffly.
“So he has pride,” he said. “I find that honorable in men.”
“Why thank you,” Skipper replied, refusing to let this guy get to him.
“Looks like we’re down to our last two competitors,” he heard the announcer say in the near distance. He and the Rusky looked over as the crowd cheered and banged on the plastic glass that separated the rink from the lobby. Skipper swore he saw some people placing bets.
The Rusky skated toward him and literally started skating circles around him. “As we speak, your internal temperature is dropping. Your nose and fingers are no doubt numb with cold. How much longer can आप stand it?” he taunted.
Skipper started to realize there was no way he was going to outwait the cold with a Russian. There was, however, another way he could be disqualified. He just had to probe him to do it himself.
“You like skating, Rusky?” he asked.
He grinned and stopped circling him, sliding a few feet away. “I come here with my wife very often,” he answered.
“Bet आप can’t स्केट better than my girlfriend. She’s the best figure skater in New York,” he lied with a challenging grin.
The Rusky laughed. “Well, I am the best skater in all of Russia,” he कहा conceitedly.
“Really? What a high proclamation. Why don’t आप prove it?” he challenged.
The Rusky grinned. “Feast your eyes on this,” he कहा pushing forward. A सेकंड later, he launched himself into the air द्वारा his left foot, turned twice, and landed on his right foot, skating backwards.
Skipper laughed. “My girlfriend learned that one when she was three,” he taunted. The Rusky narrowed his eyes.
“Then why don’t आप tell me a हटाइए your girlfriend does the best, and I दिखाना आप it better,” he said.
Skipper grinned. Now it was his terms. “Well,” he said, “one हटाइए that always wins them over is this: She can spin into a jump and land on one foot and immediately somersault into a corkscrew spin,” he told him, trying to hide that he pulled it off the चोटी, शीर्ष of his head.
The Rusky laughed. “Easy,” he said. He skated around in a large वृत्त to gain momentum and started to spin. He jumped into the air and landed on one foot, and somersaulted. But when he tried to land, his स्केट slipped out from under him and he hit the ice, crying out in pain. Skipper smiled as he held his wrist to his chest and started cursing him in Russian. The announcer skated out into the rink as the crowd cheered and banged on the window.
“And we have a winner!” the announcer कहा into the microphone. Two other men skated out and helped the Rusky to his feet.
“This is not fair!” he shouted. “I was tricked द्वारा that паршивый американская!”
The announcer wrapped a blanket around Skipper’s shoulders and led him to the exit of the rink.
“I don’t know what आप did, but I think आप just made an enemy,” he कहा eyeing the Rusky warily.
Skipper smiled and sniffed. The thought of being able to buy a plane ticket to get घर to Marlene brought him a little warmth.
“It’s okay. It was worth it.”
— § —
Private and Rico boarded the ten-fifteen to Manhattan. Luckily, despite it being last minute, they were able to buy seats that were अगला to each other.
“So, what do आप think Skipper’s doing right now?” Private asked.
Rico sucked on two Tootsie Pops at the same time—each a different flavor. He answered Private, but it all came out in a slur because of the lollipops.
“I know आप know I can’t understand आप like that,” Private कहा giving him an unamused stare.
Rico took the pops out of his mouth. “Prob’ly eatin’,” he answered.
Private rolled his eyes. “Just because you’re hungry doesn’t mean everyone is, Rico,” he said.
Rico pouted and popped the lollipops back in his mouth.
“He’s probably lonely. I hope he gets घर soon,” Private कहा worriedly. “Do आप think he caught a flight to Manhattan?”
Rico thought for a moment, tapping his chin between the lollipop sticks. “Mm-mm,” he answered with a shake of his head.
Private crossed his arms and pouted. “Doubter,” he muttered.
Rico laughed and grabbed him in a headlock, rubbing his knuckles on his head. “I ‘ust ‘iddin’,” he कहा through his lollipops.
— § —
Judy squealed. “You did it!” she कहा throwing her arms around him. “I’m so happy for you!”
Skipper sniffed. “Yep, I did it,” he कहा with a shiver. He didn’t fully realize how cold he was until he came into the warm lobby. Someone brought him a hot चॉकलेट in a styrofoam cup.
“Compliments of Pepsi Ice Center!” the woman said.
Skipper took it from her. “Thanks,” he कहा bringing the steam to his face and sighing as it warmed his nose.
Judy led him to a seat. “Did आप see the look on that guy’s face? He was और upset than the time my mom found a bunny eating her hydrangeas,” she laughed.
Other people walked द्वारा to congratulate him as he started undoing the laces on his skates. The announcer walked up to him and put a hand on his shoulder, holding out a check with the other hand.
“Congratulations, Mister . . .?”
“Skipper,” he answered.
“Congratulations, आप are the winner of one thousand dollars,” he कहा as Skipper took the check from him. He turned to a man holding a camera. “Smile!”
The announcer grinned as Skipper smiled as if he’d just passed gas and the man snapped the photo.
“Have a Merry Christmas,” he कहा before turning to the crowd and clapping his hands together. “All right, everyone! We close these doors at midnight sharp! Anyone still in the building will be forced out! Let’s move, people!”
Skipper shucked the blanket off his shoulders and pulled on his कमीज, शर्ट and jacket. He took the hot चॉकलेट back from Judy and sipped it with a sigh. “Would आप mind driving me to the airport?” he asked Judy with a sniff.
Judy smiled sadly. “Come on,” she कहा flicking her head toward the door.
The two of them walked outside and headed to where Judy had parked her car. But on the way, Skipper spotted स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी leaning against an old beat up Ford कूप with the हुड, डाकू propped up a few spaces down. She wore a thick कोट over a sweater now, and was on the phone with someone, and she didn’t seem happy. Skipper moved closer, but she didn’t notice.
“. . . done for. I don’t know what I’m gonna do. The rent is due this week, Gabe needs new shoes,” she कहा with a frustrated sigh. “Of course this has to happen now. How long will it be before आप can come pick me up? . . . All right. Thanks,” she कहा before hanging up. She looked around and saw Skipper standing there and straightened. “Hey,” she said. “Congratulations.”
Skipper gave his hot चॉकलेट to Judy, stepped up to Sherry, and looked at the car’s engine. “Car finally went out, hm?” he asked.
स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी shifted awkwardly. “Yeah,” she answered quietly without meeting his eye.
The check in Skipper’s hand suddenly felt heavy, even if it was just a small slip of paper. He thought about Marlene, walking through the front door on क्रिस्मस Eve, being with everyone for the holidays. Then he thought about a woman with no ride, no money, a rent left unpaid, and a mother and child’s घर reprimanded. A child with old beat up shoes having to walk to and from school every day. He looked down at the check, and then at Sherry. He held it out to her.
“Here, take it,” he told her, looking at his last chance of getting घर slipping away from him once again.
स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी shook her head and stepped back, holding her hands up in rejection. “No, I can’t. I—”
Skipper stepped आगे and took one of her hands, placing the check in her palm and closing her fingers around it. She looked at him with her eyes glossing over.
“What about your girlfriend?” she asked in a shaky voice.
Skipper shoved his hands in his pockets. “I figure it’s आप take the money so आप can fix your car and take care of your child, या fly घर and leave a single mother here with no transportation to get to work so she can feed her only son. I refuse the latter,” he कहा with assuring eyes.
स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी looked down at the check and her lip quivered. Then she looked at him as a tear fell down her cheek. “Thank you,” she managed. She stepped आगे and wrapped her arms around his abdomen. Skipper wrapped his arms around her and patted her back. A few सेकंड्स later, she pulled away. “I’m sorry,” she कहा wiping her tears. “You just have no idea how much this means to me.”
Skipper smiled. “You’re right,” he said. “But my mom would have. After my father died, she had to raise me single-handedly for eleven years. We had our rough times.”
स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी sniffed. “I hope आप find another way home,” she said. “Someone like आप deserves to be घर for क्रिस्मस with the woman he loves. She’s a lucky woman,” she कहा with a smile.
Skipper forced a smile. A man that breaks a promise to his girlfriend. Real lucky. “I wish आप luck, Sherry.”
“Sherry Destiny,” she replied. “If you’re ever in Bloomington again, look us up. I’d be happy to see आप again, maybe introduce आप to Gabe.”
Skipper nodded. “I’ll do that,” he promised. “I should go.”
स्पेनिश सफेद मदिरा, शेरी nodded. “Bye, Skipper,” she said. “Thanks again.”
Skipper shook his head. “Don’t mention it,” he कहा before turning around to rejoin Judy, who was waiting a few yards away.
“Wow,” she कहा giving him his hot चॉकलेट and walking alongside him back to her car, “that must’ve been hard. That’s got to be the nicest thing I’ve ever seen anyone do for someone else, especially someone they don’t even know.”
Skipper sighed. “Well, that’s the whole reason I became a detective. I care about other people, and it irks me when good people are done wrong. I couldn’t let her life fall apart just because she couldn’t afford a car part,” he explained climbing into the passenger seat.
Judy climbed into the driver’s seat. “So, where will आप go, now?” she asked buckling her seatbelt.
Skipper buckled his. “I don’t know,” he कहा propping his elbow up on the armrest and putting his face in his hand. “Know any good allies? Or—homeless shelters?” he asked, only half-joking. “Just take me to the airport. I’ll figure something out.”
Judy bit her lip and sighed. “Well, if आप don’t mind sleeping on the couch, आप can crash with my brother and me,” she offered.
Skipper shook his head. “No, thanks, I couldn’t.”
Judy rolled her eyes and crunk up the car. “Well, I’m not letting आप sleep in an alley, and I’m not taking आप to the airport when आप have no money. It’s no bother.”
“Really, I’d rather not impose,” Skipper insisted looking over at her.
Judy looked back as she pulled out of the parking space. “You’re not imposing, Skipper. I insist आप spend the night with us.”
“But आप just met me,” Skipper argued.
Judy stopped the car and looked at him with an irritated expression. “Skipper, I’ve seen आप without your shirt. I think we’re past formalities,” she कहा refraining from grinning at the memory.
Skipper narrowed his eyes and sighed. “Fine,” he कहा relaxing back in the seat, crossing his arms. He exhaled. “Thanks,” he कहा regretfully. He hated that she had to help him—and that he actually really needed it.
“Don’t worry about it,” Judy कहा pulling out of the parking lot.
— § —
Marlene laid in बिस्तर staring at the ceiling. She glanced at the clock. Just a few मिनटों until one in the morning. Skipper would call when he got there, right? For the umpteenth time, she checked her phone to ensure the volume was up and that the battery was full. He कहा he’d be घर tonight. She kept feeling as if something happened again.
She walked into the रसोई, रसोईघर and set her phone on the counter. After making a cup of hot cocoa, she sat at the counter with a sigh. The picture on the fridge caught her eye again. It was enough to almost make her smile.
“Merry Christmas, Skipper.”
— § —
Kowalski laid in the बिस्तर of the hotel room he’d rented, snuggling with the covers. His phone rang and he stirred, shoving his head under the तकिया and letting it go to voicemail. It rang again and he groaned. He looked at the clock, which read just after ten, and he answered the phone.
“Whoever this is, this had better be important,” he answered irritably.
“Kowalski, it’s me,” answered a voice.
“Me who?” Kowalski asked. He was too tired to try to figure out whose voice it was.
“Um, Skipper? Best friend and brother since grade school? Wow, आप really were sleeping weren’t you?” Skipper replied, remembering how tired he gets after long drives.
“Oh, no,” Kowalski कहा overly-sarcastically, “I was busy doing my nightly workout.”
“I’m sorry, Kowalski. I just wanted to tell आप this as soon as possible. Look, I’ve kind of been robbed,” Skipper started, but Kowalski cut him off.
“What do आप mean ‘kind of’? Either आप were robbed या आप weren’t, Skipper,” he said.
“Okay, fine. I was robbed. I don’t have any money. I need आप to take the अगला flight out to Bloomington, Illinois,” Skipper replied.
Kowalski yawned. “I’ll try, Skipper, but a lot of flights are still cancelled because of weather.”
Skipper cursed under his breath. “Just wait until one opens up, okay? I kind of—need आप right now,” he admitted.
Kowalski suddenly became fully aware. “All right, who is this, and what have आप done with Skipper?”
He could practically hear Skipper rolling his eyes. “This isn’t a joke, Kowalski. I’ve never been in a situation like this before. I don’t know what to do.”
“How are आप going to make it through the rest of the night?” Kowalski asked with concern.
“Don’t worry about it, I’ve got it covered,” Skipper answered, not wanting to admit he was sleeping over at someone’s house whom he just met. “Call me when आप get a flight, okay?”
“Copy that,” Kowalski said. “Oh, and Merry Christmas,” he said, realizing it was क्रिस्मस Eve where Skipper was.
“Yeah. Merry Christmas, Kowalski. And I’m sorry you’re still in Seattle. It’s all my fault,” Skipper कहा guiltily.
“It’s all right, Skipper, I’m not mad at you. I just wish आप could’ve made it home. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more,” Kowalski replied.
“You have nothing to be sorry for, Kowalski. आप should get some sleep. I’ll see आप soon,” Skipper said.
“Bye, Skipper,” Kowalski replied. The line went dead and he flopped back on his pillow, pulling the covers to his chin.
In Bloomington, Skipper sighed as he put his phone back in his pocket. Judy pulled into a parking lot of an apartment building.
“We’re here,” Judy said. “Look, I’d appreciate if आप could keep a low profile. The last thing I need is rumors circulating about me bringing a strange man home,” she requested.
“Of course, I understand,” Skipper replied.
Judy snuck him up to her apartment and unlocked the door. They entered to a man sitting on the black leather सोफ़ा, सोफे eating Doritos and watching some cartoon about penguins. He had short, curly brown hair that fell over his ears and a small round belly with a round face to match.
“You’re such a child, Derek,” Judy कहा as Skipper closed the door behind them.
Derek turned to her and locked eyes with Skipper, who shifted awkwardly. “What, आप can bring a guy घर but I can’t bring my girlfriend here?” he asked irritably.
Judy shucked off her जैकेट and hung it on a hook. “It’s not like that, Derek. He’s sleeping on the couch, which you’re getting Doritos all over,” she कहा crossing her arms.
Derek looked from his Doritos to Skipper. “So what is he doing here, then?” he asked suspiciously.
“Look, we’re both tired. We’ll talk about it in the morning. Turn the TV off and go to bed,” Judy ordered.
Derek clicked off the टेलीविज़न and stood up, rolling down the चोटी, शीर्ष of the Doritos bag. “Fine, but if he steals one thing—”
“He’s not going to steal anything, Derek,” Judy assured him. Derek looked between them and sighed. Without saying anything else, he walked across the room and turned right, the sound of a shutting door shortly following. Judy turned to Skipper. “That’s my brother. We’re living together while we put ourselves through college.”
“Well, don’t be too upset at him. He’s smart not to trust me yet. He doesn’t know me,” Skipper said.
Judy exhaled. “You can hang your जैकेट on the hook, there,” she कहा pointing to the दीवार अगला to where she hung hers. “The bathroom is right there,” she कहा pointing toward a door across the hall from where Derek went to his room. “The kitchen’s obviously there,” she कहा pointing behind him past the breakfast island, “if आप get thirsty या something.”
Skipper nodded slowly and looked down. “Thank you. For everything,” he कहा looking back up at her.
Judy smiled. “You should get some sleep. I’ll go find आप a blanket and a pillow,” she कहा walking down the hall and taking the अगला door past the bathroom.
Skipper laid his bags under the कोट rack and hung his कोट on the hook. Then he slipped his shoes off, sat down on the couch, and took in the room. In front of the सोफ़ा, सोफे was a coffee तालिका, टेबल with two coasters and a box of tissues on it. To the left of the सोफ़ा, सोफे was a red recliner, and a small flatscreen टेलीविज़न sat against the दीवार across from him. On the far side of the room to the left, there were two bookshelves only partially full and an office डेस्क and chair. In the adjacent corner, two tall shelves full of चित्रो sat against the wall.
“Here आप go,” Judy कहा coming around the सोफ़ा, सोफे and handing him a folded up blanket with a तकिया on top. “I hope आप sleep well.”
“Thanks, you, too,” Skipper replied accepting the items from her. “When should I expect आप to wake up?”
“I have to be up द्वारा nine so I can be at work द्वारा ten,” she said. “Derek should be up about the same time.”
“Wow, आप have to work on Christmas?” Skipper asked unfolding the blanket.
“Just क्रिस्मस Eve. We’re closed क्रिस्मस Day. I get to make time and a half if I work tomorrow, and I need the money. We’ll be closing early, though,” Judy explained. “See आप in the morning,” she कहा walking back toward the bedrooms.
“See you,” Skipper replied. He turned to her. “Judy?”
Judy turned just as she reached her bedroom door. “Yeah?”
“Merry Christmas,” Skipper कहा with a smile.
Judy smiled back. “Merry Christmas.”
Judy went into her room and closed the door. Skipper sighed and ran his hands over his face. He couldn’t believe that not only did he fail Marlene and himself, he was reduced to accepting charity from someone he barely knew. On चोटी, शीर्ष of that, he was going to end up spending क्रिस्मस on his own, without any of his friends. He got up and switched off the light. Then he stretched himself across the सोफ़ा, सोफे and adjusted his head on the तकिया and pulled the cover to his chin. He sighed.
“Merry Christmas, Marlene.”
— § —
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We’ll be arriving in Manhattan shortly. Please fasten your seatbelts and return your seats to their original upright position. And thank आप again for choosing Nebraska Regional Airlines.”
Rico yawned and stretched his arms. He looked over at Private, who was still sleeping. He nudged him, but all he did was stir. Rico sighed and buckled his seatbelt for him. Then he did his own.
About twenty मिनटों later, the plane came to a stop अगला to the gate and an announcement was made giving the passengers permission to collect their belongings and deboard the plane. Rico shook Private’s shoulder, but he was out. He sighed, slung his and Private's bags on his shoulder, and then picked Private up bridal style to carry him off, earning him strange looks from the other passengers at the sight of him carrying the twenty-year-old man. He simply smiled and used Private’s limp hand to wave at them.
In the airport, he sat him down at a chair at baggage claim and slapped him across the face.
He woke with a start. “Skipper?” he कहा looking around only to find Rico in front of him. “Oh, it’s just you,” he कहा with a disappointed sigh. “Wait, how did I get off the plane?” he asked when he realized he was in the airport. They turned at the sound of a little girl’s voice nearby.
“Look, Mommy! That’s the man that was carried off the plane!” she कहा pointing at him with a giggle. The mother ushered her along.
Private glared at Rico. “Really?”
Rico spread his hands. “What?”
Private rolled his eyes. “Never mind. Let’s just get our luggage.”
After they grabbed their luggage and went through security, they waited outside for a cab.
“I’m going to call Skipper in the morning,” Private कहा with a yawn. “Illinois is an घंटा behind us, right?”
Rico nodded. “Yup.”
A taxi pulled up to the curb and Rico and Private climbed in.
“I hope he caught a flight. Maybe he’s waiting for us at the apartment right now.”