I looked out of the bookstore window and couldn’t see across the street anymore. Snow was coming down harder now, the white flakes thicker than they were just fifteen minutes ago. I shivered and trudged back behind the counter. Checking the time on my cell phone, I sighed when I realized I still had another hour of work. With the snow, there was no way I was getting out of here tonight. If my flight hadn’t been cancelled by now, it would be soon.
The shop was dead that afternoon. I would usually call or text someone, but all of my friends from college had already gone home for Christmas. I was stupid and volunteered to stay a week longer and work. I needed the money, but I never imagined I’d get stuck just two days before Christmas.
The bell on the door jingled and I looked up to smile at the entering customer.
“Oh, it’s just you,” I grumbled when I saw my boss, Jacob.
“Nice to see you, too, Kendra.” Jacob’s booming voice filled the quiet corners of the bookstore. “It’s really coming down out there!”
“I had no idea,” I said sarcastically. “I’m supposed to fly home today.”
Jacob came over to the counter. He straightened a stack of coffee mugs before coming back to stand next to me. “I don’t think so, sweetie,” he replied, patting my back.
I rolled my eyes. Jacob was in his fifties and reminded me of my dad with his upbeat personality and cheerful attitude. He was tall and lanky, his head buzzed while a full white beard covered his chin. I often teased him that he looked like Santa’s younger, thinner brother. “How do you know that I’m not?” he would tease back.
Jacob got a string of white lights out from under the counter and plugged them into an outlet. “I need to attract some customers. Do you think these in the window will help?”
“I don’t think a Vegas neon sign would help,” I muttered.
Jacob frowned. “I suppose you’re right.” He drummed his fingers on his bearded chin, the way he always did when he was thinking. “What about cookies and hot chocolate? I could put a table under the awning…” he trailed off and started walking to the front of the store.
“Jacob! There’s a blizzard out there. No one is coming to the store.” I felt a lump in my throat and the knot in my stomach tightened as the reality of not getting home hit me hard.
Jacob spun around. He looked at me with thoughtful eyes. “Well, then, let’s close up now. No point in the two of us staying here if no customers are coming. Do you want me to drive you to the airport?”
I sighed heavily. “I doubt my flight is going out tonight. I’ll be lucky if I make it home by New Years.”
I shuffled slowly to the back of the store. When I got to Jacob’s office I threw on my coat, slung my backpack over my shoulders and started dragging my suitcase through the store. I was on the verge of tears by the time I made it to the front entrance. Jacob was standing there, the door open just a crack, his eyes peering out into the sheet of white.
“At least let me drive you back to the dorms.”
I buttoned my coat and wrapped my yellow and red striped scarf around my neck. As I pulled on my gloves I mumbled through the scarf, “I think I’ll make it faster if I walk. And you don’t want to lose your parking space.”
Jacob opened the door for me and waved cheerfully as I ventured out into the heavy snow. I trudged home with my head down to shield my face from the icy flakes while I imagined what the holidays were going to be like: All alone in my dorm room, with no where to go, nothing to do, no one to talk to.
I tired to walk faster because the snow was piling up quickly. The parked cars had white caps on their heads and the sidewalk already had a thick layer of snow making it difficult to roll my suitcase along. When I finally got to the dorm building I stomped up the front steps, awkwardly lugging my suitcase behind me. After hitting my boots against the side of the building to get the snow off, I went inside the lobby and shook the snow from my coat. The warmth of the room thawed my cheeks and nose, the snow from my coat melting into small puddles on the floor.
As I stood in the common room, I noticed how eerily quiet it was. Not one soul was sitting on any of the couches watching television, studying in the corner or angrily banging the vending machine trying to get their package of peanut M&Ms. I looked around and felt a pang of loneliness in my chest. I longed for someone, anyone, to come down the stairs or through the font door or out of the elevator. Even crazy Diane from across the hall would be a welcomed sight.
I picked up the television remote that was resting on the table and pressed the button. The TV came to life, a winter storm warning scrolling across the bottom of the screen: Logan International Airport: all flights cancelled. Please stay tuned to your local news stations for further updates.
I flipped the TV off and walked slowly up the stairs to my second floor room, paused at the top of the stair well and waited for any sound of life in the building. All I could hear was the gentle hum of the heater and the buzzing that came from the overhead lights. I unlocked my door and went into the room.
How many times have I wished for a single room so I could have privacy and not have to worry about a roommate? I thought to myself. Now, all I wanted was for my roommate to come bursting through the door like she always did, her loud, high-pitched voice piercing the quiet. I closed the door and sat on my bed. I took out my cell phone and called home, telling my parents not to worry, I was safe and warm and had plenty to eat. My mother informed me that the weather channel said the storm would pass by midnight and flights should be up and running by the next morning. I ended the call with a cheerful lilt to my voice so my mother wouldn’t worry, but when I hung up I felt awful. Even if the storm did pass and I went to the airport I’d be on stand-by and probably wouldn’t make it home in time for Christmas. Why did I ever think going across the country for college was a good idea?
Shivering in my drafty room, I longed for the warm California sunshine, the sweet scent of the orange trees in the backyard, my mother’s sticky cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. I wanted the crazy chaos of my house during the holidays, my siblings and their families all together in our house, the banter, the laughter, the tangible excitement in the air.
I slumped back on my bed, pulled the quilt my mother had made for my sixteenth birthday around my body and started to cry. I was homesick and lonely. I wished now that Jacob hadn’t closed the store early and sent me home. Home. My dorm room wasn’t home. I wasn’t going to home for the holidays this year. Instead, I was homeless.
As the evening wore on, a dark melancholy settled over me. I had a few cups of Easy Mac stashed on my bookshelf, so I made that for dinner. Clad in sweat pants, my favorite t-shirt from home and thick socks, I snuggled under my blankets and tried to read the book I planned to take to the airport. The words swam on the pages and my mind wandered towards home. I finally gave up reading for the night, tossed the book to the floor, and crawled deep under the covers.
By the time I got up the next morning, it was past noon. I could tell without even pulling the window shade up that it was still snowing. After getting out of bed, I padded downstairs to the vending machine and had a brunch of packaged cookies.
I was walking back to my dorm room when suddenly I heard pounding on the lobby door. With my heart in my throat, I looked towards the door. I saw a figure through the window all wrapped up in a scarf and hat, coat and gloves, and there was something familiar about him. I walked over carefully and the gloved hand waved to me through the glass. It was Jacob!
I rushed over to the door and pulled it open. A blast of cold air hit my face and I gulped. Jacob pushed past me, his arms loaded with shopping bags.
“Whew! It’s nasty out there!” Jacob’s cheerful voice filled the empty room. “Kendra, help me with these bags. And I’ve got more stuff outside in my car.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked incredulously as I took three bags from Jacob and carried them over to a small table.
Jacob set his bags down. “I decided to move my Christmas Eve party here. Some of the roads are still closed and your dorm was closer for my guests than my apartment.”
I chuckled and watched as Jacob rummaged around in his bags. “You invited people here for a party?”
Jacob nodded and looked around the room. “I thought this would be big enough. You can help me decorate while we wait for the others to arrive.”
Jacob went outside and came back balancing three boxes, then instructed me which bag held the decorations.
“Who did you invite?” I asked rummaging through a bag.
“Just Marge and some of her friends,” Jacob said casually as he pulled a chair over to the wall.
I handed Jacob one end of garland and he secured it to the wall.
“Marge? You mean the homeless lady who always camps out by the bookstore?”
Jacob hung up a red bow and smiled. “Yep! I invite her to my Christmas Eve party every year. She always brings some interesting friends.”
“Jacob!” I protested. “You can’t bring a bunch of homeless people to my dorm building.”
Jacob looked down at me from the chair he was standing on. “Kendra, who’s going to know?” he asked indicating the empty room.
I shrugged. He was right. No one was going to know and I knew it wasn’t against the rules to invite people over. However, the thought of a bunch of homeless people hanging out in my dorm building made me a little uneasy.
I didn’t say anything else to Jacob for the next hour as we hung decorations around the room. There was green garland and sparkling white lights, bright red ribbon and colorful round ornaments Jacob hung from string. Soon, the room was cheerful and festive and I felt a little of my grumpiness melting away.
When we finished with the decorations, Jacob moved a few tables so he could set up the food. He had platters of cold cuts and cheese slices and bags of fresh rolls from the bakery. There was macaroni salad, crisp fruits and veggies and creamy dips. A few pies and cakes rounded out the spread along with an assortment of iced sugar cookies.
I heard a commotion at the door. I turned to see Marge, dressed in an old black jacket with a few teeth missing from her smile, and her friends entering the building. The small group clustered into the entryway of the building until Jacob motioned for them to come in. As I surveyed this motley crew shivering from the cold, I felt warmth spreading through my chest. They were just as lonely as I was and they deserved a Christmas party more than I did.
I greeted each guest as they stepped into the warmth of the room. There were older men, some plump and short, others tall and gangly. There was a young woman holding the hand of a shy child, a woman who looked the same age as my mother and a teenage girl with dark stringy hair hanging in her face.
Jacob clapped his hands together and everyone looked up at him expectantly “Welcome! Marge has brought a good crowd this year. I just want you all to know that you can stay tonight as long as you like and don’t forget your gift before you leave. There is plenty of food so take as much as you like and Merry Christmas!”
There was a mumble among the group of Christmas greetings and then a swarming around the food table. I watched as each one of Jacob’s guests piled their plates high with meat and cheese, rolls, salad and desserts. While they mingled and ate, I watched the teenage girl stand in the corner, not participating in the festivities.
I fixed a plate of food and nervously took it over to the girl.
“Would you like something to eat?” I asked holding up the plate.
She took it carefully from me and nibbled at a roll.
“I’m Kendra, what’s your name?”
She looked up me with untrusting eyes. “Marissa,” she whispered.
“You can come and sit down, there’s plenty of room.” I waved my hand at the empty seats around one of the television sets.
“You live here?” she asked.
I nodded. “I’m here for college. I can’t fly home for Christmas, so I’m stuck here.” I regretted my words as soon as I said them.
The girl ate a few more bites and her tense shoulders began to relax. “Thanks for the food,” she said and walked passed me towards the couch.
Jacob was making his rounds at the party, talking and laughing. I noticed stack of envelopes in his hand and as he talked to the guests he handed them one. I wondered what the mysterious envelopes contained.
I got a plate of food and talked a little to Marge and the rest of the guests. As the night wore on the voices grew louder, there was more laughter and cheerfulness in their conversations. They talked of past Christmases and favorite holiday traditions and memories. There were twinkles in their eyes as they told of their hopes for the future, their dreams of where they wanted to be a year from now.
I soon noticed that I looked at these people in a different way than I did just a few hours ago. They were people just like me, with nowhere to go for the holidays. Jacob brought us together and made us friends. He gave us what we wanted most at the holidays: a home. He gave us a place where we felt like we belonged, where we were warm and sheltered from the outside storm; a place where we felt loved.
As the party wore on I snuck upstairs to my room. I pulled an old shopping bag from under my bed and began filling it with various items: an old children’s book I brought with me from home, a scarf and matching gloves, socks, a bottle of lotion, sweatshirts, an old canvas bag, toothpaste, a few bars of soap. I looked around my room and searched for something else. My gaze fell upon the coat my mother bought me before I left for college. It was yellow, my favorite color, and fuzzy inside so it was warm. It was long and fell just to my knees, the pockets lined with thick fleece. I took it off the hook, threw it over my arm and headed back downstairs.
I waited until the party was coming to a close before I handed out my gifts. I stood at the door and gave each person a hug as they left the party, their arms full of grocery bags with leftover food, water bottles and the secret gift from Jacob. I gave out my gifts as they headed out the door into the dark, cold night where the snow had finally stopped falling. When Marissa started to leave, I stopped her before she could escape out the door.
I lifted the yellow coat towards her. “This is for you.”
She looked at the coat and then to me. I saw her eyes soften as she took the coat and put it on. She smiled as she buttoned it up and stuck her small hands into the pockets.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
After the last guest had left Jacob and I cleaned up the mess. An hour later I was exhausted and it was late, but I didn’t want the night to end. Jacob and I sat on the couch and replayed events from the party.
“What was in the envelopes you gave out?” I asked, my curiosity getting the better of me.
Jacob seemed embarrassed as he answered, “I gave them all a night at a hotel. And tomorrow morning they’ll all get a good breakfast before they have to leave.”
“That must have cost a fortune!” I exclaimed, astonished at this man’s generosity. “Your bookstore must be doing better than I thought it you can afford all that.”
Jacob shrugged, “Let’s just say I have some family connections.”
“In the hotel business?” I asked.
Jacob shook his head and winked, “No, in the Christmas business.”