Our second runner-up in the 2022 Great American Fiction Contest: An unexpected detour on Christmas Eve brings two strangers together, transforming their lives in unexpected ways

Neon vacancy sign

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Sugar snow was falling when she left Minneapolis late, bound for Des Moines, hoping to beat the storm. All evening the temperature edged up; now great dollops of frosting flop from a thick sky, coating her car, layering slick the road. Sensible people had turned off the highway long miles since.

She is traveling a stretch of empty Iowa, full of farm field, dotted only seldom with a house, a barn, a filling station. Her dashboard clock glows ghostly green, 10 p.m., on Christmas Eve.

Candle Anderson is driving alone, entertaining a haunting image, one from a book read years ago. That writer told a story of pioneers in the prairie north, early settlers in those years when hard work, tenacity and luck had to be enough to surmount a large, raw life. One farmer, mainstay to his small barnacle of a community, must make a long journey in snow so heavy and deep that his oxen can’t pull a sled through it, so the only passage is on skis. Odds are heaped against him, but they always have been, and he goes. Come spring, he is found by another farmer, found seated on the moldering haystack where he had stopped those long weeks back for the short rest that such extremes do not allow. In Candle Anderson’s mind, he sits there even now, with some northern city having grown up around him, a grim monument hunkered mid-town, haystack replaced with a park bench.

She can entertain this image because she is not an early pioneer, and she’s just left an all-night convenience store where she was told there is a motel up the road, and it is always open. Forget Des Moines; she wouldn’t even make Ames in this weather, not tonight.

It’s a mom-and-pop motel that she’s seen each trip without much noticing. She could not have come up with the name, which shines faintly now just ahead: “Lawson Family Lodge.” The vacancy sign is on; she pulls into a lot that’s been recently plowed, probably by the truck that’s the only other vehicle there.

The office is dim. She comes in thinking she’ll have to raise someone from inside, from holiday and family, from a warm bed, a hot toddy, a cozy couch, watching It’s a Wonderful Life. Better, whatever, than dragging up front to check in a stranded traveler. But she hears a voice call, “Be right there,” and she can just see through a doorway a young man bent over a desk, haloed in lamp light.

She thinks this kid must need the money badly to be working Christmas Eve. Then she guesses, no, he’s family, this is his mom and pop’s motel and he has no choice. Great, she thinks, he doesn’t want to be on duty on Christmas and he resents it and I get treated to his sullen teenage attitude. He’s already let me know I’m no priority. She thinks about her nephew, Tom, the sweet, eager, curious, friendly little boy, turned sulky adolescent sack of hormones. Seldom home, then holed up in his room after greetings that suggest he’d as soon be at your funeral. She reflects, not for the first time, that there are worse things than being kept from family festivities, and that waiting out a snowstorm in a quiet motel room with a good book is not one of them.

Now the kid was coming out, saying he was sorry to keep her waiting, a nice-looking kid, smiling.

Well, she thinks, maybe he feels sorry for me, stuck out here on Christmas Eve. I wish he wouldn’t. This isn’t a pitiful situation.

He was saying, “I had to get a thought written down before I lost it. You know how that is?”

She did. She was surprised he did. He was maybe sixteen, about the same age as Tom.

“Writing a letter?” she says, not expecting an answer. Was small talk even worth a try with these kids?

“Yeah,” he says. “Sort of. For my brother.”

She tells him she needs a single room, one night, offering her credit card as he turns the sign-in book toward her. She fills in the information and slides the book back to him. He looks over what she’s written down, pauses, and she readies herself for The Question, which he does ask.

“Your name is Candle?”

“Yes,” she says with a tight little smile, considering leaving it at that and daring him to pursue it, but she decides to close out the topic quickly. “I was born by candlelight. Power outage.”

“Yeah?” says the kid, brightening. “Neat.”

“Not really,” she says. “More like inconvenient. I never hear the end of it.”

“Oh,” he says, clearly disappointed. “Well, it’s a nice name. I like it.” She still needs the receipt and the room key, so she decides to change the subject. “You were writing to your brother? He’s away at Christmas?”

“Sort of,” he says, tearing off the receipt and handing it to her, and she thinks, he’s just like Tom: Sort of. Kinda. Ya know. Teen eloquence.

The boy lifts the room key from its peg and says, “He’s in the hospital. It’s only a few miles away, but, yeah, he’s away.”

Her tone is a practiced combination of kind and perfunctory, meant to foster distance. “Well, I hope he’ll be home soon.”

She pretends to study the receipt, doesn’t meet his eyes as he turns back. He offers to show her the room, but she takes the key from him, saying no problem, she’ll find it. When he offers to help with her luggage, she says she’ll manage fine, no trouble. Pushing out the door, she calls, “Thanks a lot,” a little too brightly, feeling guilty at feeling relieved.

* * *

Matt Lawson bites the head off first. He always does. Reindeer or Santa, it’s the humane thing to do. Of course, with a star or a bell, it doesn’t matter, they don’t have heads and humaneness isn’t relevant. He and his brother had worked it all out a few years back on an endless winter day.

After biting off the legs, he puts the reindeer torso back on the plate, drinks some milk, and turns the page in his notebook. He is on the fifth page of notes on things to tell his brother.

Not much had happened in school but he’d written it down. And he’d tell him what an expert he’d become at plowing the motel parking lot, just weeks into having his license.

Now he writes down “Christmas cookies.” He could tell Charlie about making those with Mom, both of them drinking a little too much wine. They had giggle fits and burned a few cookies. Dad was tending the front desk and doing paperwork that night, but now and then he’d pop in, saying, “Two drunks walk into a bar” and telling a different joke each time. It might be two Swedes or a priest and a rabbi or a guy and his dog, a guy and his duck, on and on. Dad knew more jokes than almost anybody Matt could think of who wasn’t a comic. He didn’t make them up, but he could memorize them. Charlie had the same gift for joke-telling, not as good but coming along. Matt was better at stories than jokes, better at writing down than memorizing, but his dad’s jokes always cracked him up. Mom and Charlie, too. Mom said Dad’s sense of humor was his best trait and his worst, but that was one of her jokes. Matt would have to ask his dad to repeat a few of those walks-into-a-bar jokes so he could write them down for Charlie.

He’d have plenty to tell him about this snowstorm. One of those tricky ones, the kind they can’t predict accurately. The snow was wetter than expected, with slush taking down tree limbs, power lines, making roads slick. That’s why Mom and Dad were still at the hospital with Charlie. Snowed in. He’d tell Charlie the whole story of being here alone on Christmas Eve, and he’d make it interesting; he’d make it sound like fun.

A storm like this usually brought in a few stuck travelers, and Matt had rooms ready, but they were still empty and it was nearly ten at night. He could make up some characters, invent maybe a crazy trucker. Maybe foreigners, that would be interesting. People from a country without snow, maybe South America. Actually, they had some folks like that during a blizzard a few years ago — where were they from? Somewhere south of Mexico, driving in Iowa, of all places, in winter, of all times. Their story was full of possibilities, but they had kept to themselves, said little, went to their room and stayed there, a couple with two tired little kids. He’d have to be careful not to make up guests too close to the description of that family. Charlie would remember them and might guess that Matt was scamming him. Not that Charlie and Matt didn’t scam each other, but you had to do it with some finesse, show some respect for the other guy’s intelligence.

So Matt would tell his brother about the big storm of Charlie’s first Christmas away, and he knew he could weave that story well.

He starts to make notes about a bunch of stranded musicians, a country western band, no, maybe a blues band, definitely with a beautiful girl singer. Then, through the doorway of the inner office where he sits, through the big front windows in the lobby beyond, he sees headlights as a car turns in and stops.

Well, maybe someone will stay the night after all. Maybe the people will be interesting or at least inspire stories for his notes. Maybe they’ll stay and talk a little, wanting company, being company, at Christmas. He thinks how he wouldn’t mind that and he’s glad they hadn’t burned all the cookies.

* * *

Nicer than she expected, the room, for the price, the location. Soft colors, warm and rather homey, for a motel. Shower works, toilet works. Uh hunnn, comfy bed. Candle sinks in, stretches, wiggles her toes.

She must try June again. The last call, she had thought she still might make it. Late and tired, but tonight. Now she’d have to tell her she was safe and dry for the night but going no farther. Apologies from me, assurances from June, both of us knowing it’s my fault for leaving late, taking the gamble. You always have to push it, Candle, she’ll be thinking, but not saying, since it’s Christmas. And I’ll be thinking, not saying, Junie, you wouldn’t take the tiniest risk if your life depended on it. So you live a boring life with a dull man and a sullen kid. She probably wouldn’t say it even if it wasn’t Christmas. She loves her sister.

She toys with the idea of telling her she didn’t get as far out of Minneapolis as she did, so it would make the most sense to just head back home tomorrow. She believes her absence would be as welcomed by them. Neither can say such things, though, such hurtful things. They are the only family each has, and holidays come, and there they are, not saying hurtful things, not saying much at all. Especially Tom, who once was, and it seems so long ago, a buddy.

So she pushes off from the lulling bed to make the call, but there is no phone in the room, not anywhere. They must assume everyone has a cellphone, she thinks. She did, till last week. That delivery truck ran over hers in the parking lot at work. Some broad hints from June told her the replacement would be under the tree.

June had said to pick up a cheap pay-as-you-go phone to get her by till a replacement would come along (hint, hint), and she’d said sure, and she still had her land line at home. But Candle had found that she liked having a phone vacation, some time not being perpetually connected. It reminded her of being a little girl on summer vacation.

She had noticed that the motel office still had a pay phone. That means a call from the office, dealing with that kid again, or maybe this time drawing one of the parents. Fine, there’s a choice. Would you rather deal with the kid who has a sick brother or the parents of the hospitalized son? At Christmastime, yet.

She decides on the kid, because it’s always easier. You can pull rank on a kid, confuse him with fancy footwork, generally sideline and dismiss him when he’s on the spot to take care of business and keep the customer happy. She can show him how tired she is, how cranky, how harried, and he’ll be happy to let her make her call and happier to see her leave. As she pulls her boots back on and slips into her coat, she’s hoping hard the kid is still there.

* * *

When Charlie went down, Matt was sitting in the near-empty bleachers. Late autumn sun scattered patches of gold across the field, giving ground to more shadows by the minute, sharpening the air. He didn’t always watch the team practice, but he’d stayed to do some work on the school paper, and football practice was nearly over so he waited to catch a ride home with Charlie. Actually, Matt, with a three-day-old driver’s license, was hoping Charlie would let him drive.

It had been a good practice, judging by the way the guys were horsing around when it was over. The coach and some of the guys were halfway to the locker room when Milt Hoffman grabbed up a water bottle and passed it, high, to Charlie. A couple of the other guys took off toward Charlie, to grab him or chase him or intercept the pass, but Charlie did catch it. He spun around to take off running and crashed headlong into the goal post, which stood firm like a stubborn question. He’d already taken off his helmet, so it had to hurt like a sonofabitch. It was such a lame move, he must’ve been embarrassed. His teammates roared. Good move, Lawson! and Hey, Charlie, what grace! and a chorus of loud groans rose from the field. Charlie tucked the bottle under his arm and trotted toward them, sheepish grin, rubbing his head.

Matt didn’t remember leaving the bleachers, but he was already on the field when Charlie sank to one knee. He saw him shake his head, heard the other guys’ comments begin to change, saw Charlie rise and then fall flat, and stay down, and Matt was at his side.
Charlie seemed dazed so Matt asked questions. How do you feel, Charlie?

What hurts? Charlie gripped Matt’s hand and told him he couldn’t see, said it calmly, reporting a symptom. His head hurt. He felt cold. Woozy. He said keep talking, Matt, don’t stop talking to me. Matt? Keep talking.

So Matt talked. While Charlie passed in and out of consciousness, Matt talked. While the coach sent someone to the phone and another for blankets, Matt talked. When the ambulance came and the medics worked on Charlie, Matt kept talking.

In the ambulance, at the hospital, right up to the emergency room door, Matt said whatever he could think of to say to his brother. He told him everything that was happening, he told him stories, told him jokes, even quoted, jeez, some lines from “Invictus,” a poem he only knew because Charlie had had to memorize it for school and had driven him nuts with spontaneous, melodramatic renditions of it for weeks. “You’re the master of your fate,” said Matt, “Charlie, you’re the captain of your soul.”

While Charlie was taken away for tests, Matt spoke to him in his mind, and when they set him up in intensive care, Matt came in talking, sat down, and stayed, talking while Charlie lay limp and quiet, until his parents convinced him that Charlie would want him to get some sleep.

* * *

Candle comes through the door, ready with a tight smile, but there is no one in the lobby or the little office, though the light is still on in there. Good, she thinks, no need to bother anyone. I’ll make my call and be gone before anyone knows I’m here. The pay phone is in a corner, some distance from the counter, and she’s feeding in coins when the kid reappears from somewhere inside. She gives a quick wave meant to signal that she doesn’t need any attention, turning her back on him as she huddles over the phone, hoping she looks intent and in need of privacy. This has her facing the window, and in the reflection she can see him turn and head back the way he had come.

Her first attempt results in dead air on the line. She hangs up, tries again, and this time gets the recording that says all circuits are busy, asking her to wait awhile before trying again. She redials immediately, gets the same recording. After two more tries, she decides to go back to her room, but as she hangs up the phone and turns, damn, the kid’s at the counter, smiling, saying, “Circuits are busy, right? I’ve been trying to get through, too. Probably a lot of lines down. My cell doesn’t get through, either. One reason we kept the pay phone is because we heard land lines can stay on even when the cell towers won’t. But this weather seems to have messed them all up.”

She says she’ll come back later, but he says you can wait here if you like, have a Christmas cookie, and he pushes a plate forward on the countertop.

She’s all ready to say no, thanks, but he does something that makes her hesitate. He sets a reindeer cookie on its feet, a sugar sprinkled reindeer, and he makes it buck a little on the counter. Tom used to do that, give the animal cookies a little motion, a little magic. She hears herself say how nice, thank you, and she accepts that cookie from him. As the boy picks up a Santa, she bites the head off the reindeer, says ummmm, and notices he’s smiling, nodding in approval. It’s a little overbaked, but it does taste good.

* * *

In the hospital, they put a probe through Charlie’s skull to monitor pressure, because his brain might swell and that might mean surgery. His brain did swell, and that made him more restless and vocal, and they told Matt it would be better not to talk to him, not to stimulate him, while he was in that condition. So Matt spoke to Charlie in his mind and made notes for later, when Charlie would feel better. It was scary for a couple of days, but the swelling never got bad enough to operate, and then the swelling went down and Charlie was resting comfortably again. Matt resumed talking to Charlie, but Charlie wasn’t waking up. All of his medical tests and vital signs were good and he could be waking up any time, they said, but a head injury is tricky. No guarantees.

Matt and his parents took turns staying with Charlie so someone would always be home to take care of business, Mom or Dad taking the van back and forth, Matt using Charlie’s truck. Matt started a notebook of things he wanted to tell Charlie the next visit and pretty soon his parents started keeping notebooks, too. Matt was missing a lot of school, but he was keeping up with the work, so no one was complaining.

Lawson Family Lodge had only a dozen rooms, but they took care of it all themselves and, with Charlie gone, there was more for the three of them to do. Still, there were some quiet hours most evenings, good for bookkeeping, homework, adding to the notes for Charlie. And Mom and Dad had insisted they do Christmas things — cookies, decorations, a big tree in the den and a little one in Charlie’s hospital room, each with presents.

One afternoon at the hospital Matt was telling Charlie about this family that had stayed at the motel and how they had a kid, maybe three years old, and he looked just like the old guy at Pelky’s store, Mr. Pelky. Kid had the same wrinkly face, same wispy white hair, looked just like him, only little. Matt was going on about this kid and suddenly, simply, Charlie said, “Jesus, Matt, some people are trying to sleep.” Just like that, and when Matt looked up, Charlie was looking right at him, and then he said, “Hey, you wearing my football jersey, Matt? Take it off! Come on, take it off!” which was odd because Charlie was always pretty matter-of-fact about Matt borrowing his stuff, but he sounded really irritated. Then Charlie drifted right off again.

Matt sat frozen with relief, holding still and at attention, the way you do when you don’t want to break a spell, with a grin broadening on his face till it almost hurt. He waited awhile to see if Charlie might say something more, but he knew now that Charlie would be okay. He had spoken, he knew who he was talking to, and he could see. After a while, Matt set his notebook on the bedside table, placed his pen on top, and went to call Mom and Dad, stopping on the way to the phone to tell everyone at the nurse’s station about Charlie. They sent up a group cheer, a quiet one, like a stage whisper, out of respect for the patients, but they were all happy someone was getting better.

Charlie was cranky, and his memory had odd gaps, especially about the incident that had landed him in the hospital. He remembered that last football practice, but not the water bottle pass or his injury. Nothing really until a few odd bits and pieces in the hospital. A nurse adjusting something above his head. Mom touching his face. Dad pulling the blanket higher under his chin and saying something that Charlie couldn’t quite catch but in a reassuring tone that gave Charlie a sense of safety and peace. He also remembered Matt being there, but he insisted he hadn’t heard him talk. That made Matt feel bad for a while, until he noticed that Charlie was making references to stories that only Matt had mentioned, and only while Charlie was “out.” Hey, Matt? Did you talk to that new girl at school yet? Hey, Matt, are these the Christmas cookies from when you and Mom got drunk? So Matt knew he heard, even if Charlie didn’t. And the doctors said Charlie’s irritability and quirky memory were normal and should improve as he healed.

* * *

Candle wakes to a Christmas morning that’s clear as crystal, diamond bright.

Plows have worked all night and the roads are clear. Her call had finally gone through around 3 a.m. and she’d been surprised to hear her nephew Tom pick up. He had said, “Are you all right? Are you sure you’re all right?” and only after she had assured him did he put his mother on. Junie had worried, too, and Arthur, even June’s husband, hesitant Arthur, had taken the phone to tell her to drive carefully but drive toward their house, because Christmas was waiting. All three had stayed up, each one a light in the window. Her throat tightened now as she remembered. She was surprised by the strength of their concern, but more startled by the pull of her response. It was like the sudden discovery of a tether to the heart, only noticed with a tug from the other end. No, not so much sudden discovery as sudden remembering, with sharp surprise at how deep the knot and, still, how tightly tied.

She closes her eyes and pictures the house where Christmas is waiting. She sees the photos, all of children, in neat frames on the living room wall. There are the ages of Tom, from stunned newborn to charming boy to self-conscious adolescent. And there is the shot of June and Candle at the lake, five and seven, standing with heads poking out of one blanket, wet spiky hair and goofy grins. And there, long-ago Arthur, that sober little red-faced boy, trapped in a snowsuit in Manitoba.

As Candle drives back out on the road, she is thinking about the story she has to tell, about the two brothers, one in a coma, the other desperate to maintain the connection between them. She knows that the injured boy is safely through the crisis, getting better by the day and going home soon, and that family and friends are ready to help him heal. But she will save that information, save it a long while, until she has set the hook with the suspenseful part. She will start the story with June and Arthur, but she will wait until Tom is near enough to hear. She knows he will be drawn in by the drama of this story of Matt and Charlie, both around his own age, and the worried parents. There is no aunt in the story, no anxious aunt with her own notebook for bedside vigil, but she thinks she might add one, if she can make it convincing. Somehow, she will let them know that she would be there, if something like that happened to Tom, or June, or Arthur. She doesn’t know yet how hard she hopes they will say the same to her.

* * *

The one guest has checked out, and Matt is pulling things together, packing up the truck to join his parents and Charlie at the hospital. More cookies, and all the presents from under the tree. He puts a sign in the window that says “Back at” with a clock with moveable hands that he sets for five o’clock. He considers whether to leave the “vacancy” sign on. Would someone interested in a room want to hang around till five? He decides to leave the sign off till they get back. He does leave the light on in the little inner office, where he stops to pick up his notebook. He hadn’t slept much the night before, but he feels fine. It had been late when he got through to his parents and the guest reached her family, and still they stayed in the office talking. He told the woman all about Charlie and she seemed really interested, asked a lot of questions. He had the radio on low with holiday music for background, and they ate Christmas cookies and, between them, they drank half the carton of milk. It was nice. She was nice. When she headed for bed, she thanked him for making her Christmas Eve memorable. That’s what she said, and she took his hand and said Charlie would be fine, especially with a brother like Matt. After she went to her room and Matt put the dishes in the kitchen, he took a moment to make notes about the one guest on Christmas Eve, the one with the strange name, Candle. Then he set the alarm, went to bed, and dreamed about stories, real and imagined.

In the morning, the woman checked out and thanked him again and asked if it would be all right if she called some time, to see how his brother was doing, how he was doing. He liked that she wanted to do that. She had told him she had a nephew his age. Tom, his name was. He’d written that down. They wished each other a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, she got in her car and drove away, and Matt began collecting the things to take to the hospital.

Five minutes later, she was back. “I’m sorry,” she said. “About something I did. Something I said.”

He couldn’t think what that might be.

“When you asked about my name, remember I told you I was born by candlelight? That wasn’t true. I’d like to tell you the real story.”

He smiled to encourage her and said okay, because he was interested.

“I was named Candle for the same reason my sister, who was born in March, is named June.” She studied him a moment, but he didn’t get it. “The names don’t have to do with birth,” she said, “but with conception. My sister was conceived in June. I was conceived by candlelight.”

Now he understood, and he looked a bit embarrassed, but he was laughing. “Really?”

“Yeah.” She was laughing, too. “My parents would tell that to anybody, any time. It was an endless embarrassment to me and my sister. When we were kids. You can imagine.”

He could. So then she said, “I wanted to tell you because I thought it might be a good story for your notebook. For your brother.”

Yeah, he said, he’d write it down right away, and he thanked her, and they shook hands and laughed some more. Then she said this time she really was leaving, so he could get going to be with his family, and she said goodbye, heading for the door. The last thing she said was this, and he wrote it down, too.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the real story before, but the reason is, you know, it’s not the sort of thing I say to a stranger.”

Matt tucks the notebook full of stories under his arm and heads out.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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