He was out of the room for the moment fetching a late dinner from some nearby fast food place or, if none were open this late, a gas station. He’d gone on foot, leaving the car keys sitting on the nightstand next to the bed, insisting as he always did that he loved the cold because it made him feel alive, a saying that Fran did not find profound, especially when it meant that she had to be cold too.
Quincy had only been gone for about twenty minutes, but Fran was already feeling bored and lonely in the bland room by herself. Christmas was only three days away and it seemed like there was nothing on TV except for Holiday specials, which she was definitely not going to watch. Fran considered herself a born wanderer, which she believed to be a big part of why she was abandoning her family, so she decided she’d do a little wandering in the hotel until Quincy came back with the food. Before stepping out into the hall, Fran slipped her feet into her sneakers and ran a brush through her shoulder-length brown hair a few times since she never knew who she might run into while wandering. For example, she’d met Quincy while wandering at an outlet mall, and look how that had turned out. Of course, she’d also met her husband Forrest while wandering at a county fair. But she supposed she didn’t regret that either. They’d had some very good times together. It’s just that it was time to wander again.
There was nothing to see in the upstairs hallway except for a few vending machines and an ice machine so Fran rode the elevator down to the first floor. She had expected the hotel to be busy so close to Christmas with people on the road traveling to visit their friends and families, but the only person in the lobby was the dark-haired girl working behind the front desk, sitting in front of a computer with her head propped on her hand and struggling to keep herself awake with a colorful online puzzle game.
Fran decided that the girl behind the desk was her best chance for turning up something interesting, at least until someone else showed up, so she walked over to the desk and leaned her elbows on it, folding her hands together and smiling. “Long night ahead?”
The girl blinked up at her and sat up straight, twisting her head to one side to stretch her neck. “Yeah,” she said. “It’s what time? Almost 11? I’m here until 5 in the morning. I’ve got a long way to go.” She gave a tired laugh.
“That’s tough, Mya,” said Fran, reading the name off of the girl’s nametag and hoping she was pronouncing it right, though she wasn’t sure how else it could be pronounced. “A job like this would drive me crazy. I have to stay active.”
“I hate it too,” said Mya. “But I need the money. I’m barely making it as it is and there’s nothing else available anywhere.”
“That’s sad,” said Fran. “What would you do if you could do anything you wanted?”
“That’s easy,” said Mya. “I’d move home.”
“I meant what would you do, though,” said Fran.
“I wouldn’t care what I was doing if I could move home,” said Mya. She sighed and retied her ponytail. “I can’t even get home to visit for Christmas. No car, no money.” She paused. “But it works out nice because I can work on Christmas and the other girl who works this shift can be with her family here in town.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Fran. “I’d better get back to my room. My boyfriend’s probably back with dinner by now.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Mya.
“Likewise,” said Fran, and she returned to the elevator. She didn’t hold Mya’s opinions against her. Some people were just wired differently and that was fine.
Quincy was not back in the room. The suitcases were lying on the floor next to the window where he’d dropped them before he went for the food. The beige bedspread was still rumpled where Fran had been lying on it earlier while she’d been flipping through the channels on the TV. Fran went into the bathroom and looked in the shower, just to see how nice it was. It was fine. She walked back into the main room and over to the window, pulling the curtains aside and looking down into the parking lot. Snow flurries swirled down out of the black sky. As full as the lot was, she was surprised there weren’t more people up and around in the hotel. She supposed they must all be asleep already. She pulled her cell phone out of the pocket of her jeans to see if she’d somehow missed a call from Quincy explaining why it was taking him so long to come back. There were no messages. She considered calling him, but she didn’t want to seem like a worrier. She knew Quincy hated how his wife was always calling him to find out what he was doing. His wife had been calling him over and over since he and Fran had left, leaving dramatic messages that were sometimes furious, sometimes desperate, sometimes weepy. Quincy had started deleting them without listening to them.
Forrest had only called Fran twice. The first time he hadn’t left a message, and the second time he’d said, “Just wondering where you are” in a bored voice and that was it. And neither call had come until she’d been gone for close to 24 hours. “That’s why you’re leaving him,” Quincy had said, which wasn’t exactly right, but Fran hadn’t tried to correct him.
The hotel room was so quiet. Fran kept thinking about Mya at the front desk and how sadly unadventurous she was, how small and narrow her world was. It was sweet that she felt such a strong connection to her home, but it was pitiful too. How was she going to take advantage of all of life’s opportunities that were just sitting there waiting for her to experience them when she couldn’t take one step away from home without wishing she could take it back?
Fran flopped down on the bed and flipped her phone open. She hadn’t intended to call Jeanie until at least a week had passed, but she had to do something or she was going to go crazy waiting for Quincy to get back.
Jeanie picked up after two rings. “Fran! Where are you?”
“I dunno. A hotel somewhere. We’ve only gone, like, six hundred miles. We’re just enjoying ourselves. What’s going on there? Did they find my car? Have I been on the news?”
“Well,” said Jeanie. “Yes.” Her voice sounded strange.
“What is it, Jeanie? Why did you say it like that? Do they think I’m dead?”
“No. There was a news report a few nights ago about you being missing and finding your car and so on. But then the next night they interviewed Forrest and he said you’d probably just abandoned the family and run off with another man. And then they interviewed your parents and they agreed, although they seemed a little more upset about it than Forrest did.”
“What do you mean by that?” Fran sat upright on the bed with her back against the headboard and bit her upper lip until it hurt.
“I’m not saying he wasn’t upset,” said Jeanie. “But he didn’t seem upset. He, uh, made a joke about returning your Christmas gift.”
“He made a joke about returning my Christmas gift during a televised interview about me being missing? What if I was kidnapped or dead somewhere?”
“You’re fine, though,” said Jeanie. “It seemed like he knew that, somehow.”
“Did you tell him, Jeanie? How else would he know?”
“Stop it, Fran. I didn’t tell anyone anything. If anyone asked, I was going to say I had no idea what could have happened, you were a devoted wife and mother, all that like we talked about, but no one has asked, because everyone seems content to think you just ran away and don’t want to be found. So they’re not bothering to look.”
Fran snapped her phone shut and squeezed it in her hand like she was trying to crush it into powder. Where was Quincy? What could possibly be taking him so long? Sometimes he was so incompetent it made Fran want to slap him across the face over and over until he straightened up.
She flipped her phone open again and dialed her home number, trying to calm her breathing before Forrest answered.
“Hello?” It wasn’t Forrest. It was Fran’s 10-year-old daughter Leann.
“Hi, Leann. It’s your mom. What are you doing up so late?”
“Watching dad play cards with his friends.”
“Dad’s playing cards?”
“Yep,” said Leann.
Fran was at a loss. She ground her teeth together. “Leann, I might be coming home from my trip soon. I could be home in time for Christmas. Isn’t that good news?”
“Dad told me you were gone for good,” said Leann. “He said you had a new boyfriend and you ran away to live with him.”
“That’s not true,” said Fran. “I love you too much to do something like that.”
“You do?” asked Leann. She sounded surprised.
“Put dad on the phone,” said Fran. “I need to talk to him.”
“Dad!” Fran heard Leann shout. “Mom wants to talk to you!”
“Who?” shouted Forrest, and all his friends burst out laughing.
“It’s Mom,” said Leann.
“Who?” Forrest shouted again, and his friends laughed even harder this time.
“Da-aad,” whined Leann, clearly enjoying her role in the comedy even if she didn’t understand why it was funny. “I saa-aii-dd it’s Mo-oo-oom!”
Fran snapped the phone shut before she had to hear Forrest’s terrible joke for a third time.
Mya looked startled when Fran strode up to the desk in her coat and hat with her suitcase in hand.
“Are you checking out?” asked Mya as if such a thing would be a personal failure on her part.
Fran pulled Quincy’s car keys out of her coat pocket and jingled them back and forth. “We both are. You and me both. Get your coat. How much do you need to take with you? We can stop at your house briefly if you need to.”
Mya’s mouth hung open. “What are you-?”
“I’m taking you to your family!” said Fran. “For Christmas. That’s what you want, right? Well, I’ve got a car and I want to take you. So what’s there to think about? Let’s go!”
“But I have this job,” said Mya, gesturing around her at the computer, the telephone, a few filing cabinets. “I can’t just leave the desk unattended.”
“Yes you can!” said Fran, pounding her fists on top of the desk. “Nobody cares! And anyone who does will get over it!”
Mya stood and pressed the heels of both hands to her forehead. “I don’t know, I don’t think…I can’t…”
“You can!” said Fran, almost shouting. “Just get your coat and walk! Or forget the coat, there are always more coats, but there are only a few opportunities, Mya, real opportunities!” She paused. “It’s Christmas, Mya. Don’t you want to be with your family on Christmas?”
As Fran pulled Quincy’s car out of the lot, Mya pointed across the street to a figure walking hunched against the wind with two white paper bags in his hands. “Isn’t that your boyfriend?”
“Who?” asked Fran, and both women laughed as she stomped the accelerator.