“—So, are they going to print like, a million copies starting tomorrow, or what?” Her voice was crackly and dull over the phone. He held it out in front of him to check his service, and nearly walked into a mailbox.
“Um.” He swallowed, and adjusted his backpack on his shoulders. “Uh. Not exactly.”
A beat. A scoff. “What do you mean, not exactly?” Julia was loud, and sounded almost angry. Between her words, he could hear distant background commotion: the indistinct voices of his other friends, also upset; the dog barking once, a chair scraping against the floor. “Q, what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well.” He checked his phone again, this time noticing the battery dying fast. “They said it was too...depressing.”
“That’s bullshit—it’s beautiful!”
“It can be both.” He sighed. “It can be both beautiful and depressing…Which it is. Apparently.” Quentin tugged his hat down further over his forehead. It was almost dark out, and it hadn’t started snowing yet, but the wind coming off the river was brutal, making his eyes sting and his fingers go stiff. Everyone had told him winter in Chicago was worse than New York, but he hadn’t believed them. “They said—”
“Yeah, what did they actually say was wrong with it?”
“They said, uh.” Squinting into the wind, he tried to remember the exact, devastating verbiage the agent he met with had used during their brief meeting. “I have accomplished something—quote, ‘ truly extraordinary ’ in crafting a fantasy romance that made three—quote, ‘ battle-hardened ’ editors so—quote, ‘profoundly despondent’ that they nearly jumped off of Willis Tower.” Julia took a deep breath and he could hear her cringing. “...So.” He stopped at a crosswalk, waiting for the signal to change, and was checked in the side by a short, fast-walking man wearing a suit and no overcoat, who flipped him off as he expertly dodged the oncoming traffic. “That’s four rejections in three days, Jules. I think this is it.”
“No, come on, hey.” He could hear the frown in her voice too, and for some reason that was the first thing all day that actually got to him. Almost instantly there was a lump in his throat. “There’s lots of other publishers. Someone has to love your book as much as we do.”
He sniffed, the biting air stinging his sinuses, and rubbed his eyes with the back of his gloved hand. The signal changed, and he took a step, and then sprung backwards, heart pounding, as a taxi came inches away from hitting him.
“Q? What was that?”
Blinking fast, panting, he continued across the street, his phone buzzing with a low-battery alert. “Uh, nothing. God, right now I just want to get back to the east coast in one piece. Sort this shit out after the holidays.” Julia didn’t say anything for a second, and he checked once again to see if his phone had died. “Jules? You still there?”
“Yeah. I’m just. It’s not gonna be Christmas without you here. I miss you already.” The dog barked again, and then three other muffled voices were hushing it. “Everyone does.”
His eyes stung despite himself. “You have no idea how much I’d rather be in the city with you guys this week.” Half a block ahead, he spotted a subway sign for the blue line, and picked up his pace. “Hey—my phone’s dying and I’m about to get on the subway.”
“Okay. Have a safe flight.” She snorted. “Kady says, ‘see something, say something.’”
Quentin smiled, imagining his friends day-drunk on mulled wine, watching the snow come down over Central Park. “ Thank you, Kady .”
“Tell your mom I say hi.” A pause. “Love you, Q.”
“Love you, too.” And he descended the stairs into the damp, gray subway station. “Talk to you soon. Bye.”
“—I’ll get there, I promise. Relax.” The car lurched around a corner, nearly cutting the curb, and he dug his nails into the leather of the back seat to brace himself.
“Don’t tell me to relax! You relax! There’s a goddamn….polar vortex or...arctic blast or fucking tundra assault or whatever the fuck we’re calling it this year—” She was pacing; he could hear her footsteps echoing between her words, could picture her standing in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows of her new house.
“It’s a regular, normal, non-apocalyptic nor'easter, okay—” He gazed out the window. The sky over Chicago was grey and low-hanging, but it hadn’t snowed in days, not even the usual lake-effect flurries.
“Well it’s going to become apocalyptic if you don’t get here, I swear to god— ”
“Margo, there’s nothing I can—”
“Half our guests have already bailed, El.” She lowered her voice to a whisper, and the pacing stopped. “If it’s just us and Fen’s grandparents for the next five days I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Aw. Have I met her grandparents?”
Margo took a deep breath. He could hear her tapping her foot. “Probably not, they live in Iceland or Sweden or something. Finland, maybe? Greenland? I don’t know—whatever, that’s not the point—”
“You’re the one that married into that shit.”
“I married her , alright? Richer or poorer, sickness and health, sure, totally, all of it—” Quiet again, through gritted teeth. “—I did not marry her Scandinavian garden-gnome relatives!”
Eliot bit his tongue to keep from laughing. Checked his watch. “Fuck, I’m going to be cutting this real close.”
“Don’t say that! ”
“Listen! I will be there... eventually .” The car stopped short, and his bag slid off the seat and onto the floor. He held his phone against his chest, addressed the driver. “Are you trying to fucking kill me?”
The driver looked at him in the rear view mirror and rolled his eyes. Margo was mid-sentence when he put the phone back to his ear.
“ —years , asshole.”
“I said, you’ve been saying that for five fucking years!” She was back at full volume. This was no secret.
“Yeah, well...you didn’t have a castle in the burbs for the last five years.”
“It’s not a fucking castle— ”
“Sure, whatever.” He stared out the window again, at the masses of bodies on the sidewalk all blurring together, thinning as they approached the airport. He ruminated briefly on five years . It hadn’t felt like that long. “You didn’t have a happy, home-making, Christmas elf of a wife, either.”
There was a pause, and he could hear her breathing. “There is….” And she sighed, pained. “ So much fucking gingerbread in this house, El.”
“I can smell it from here.” Another lurch, and his head knocked against the window. He scowled at the driver, but he wasn’t looking. “You should mail some to the studio as a thank you for releasing me from pre-production hell.“
“I’ve been reading pitches all week and I want to die.” The driver laid on the horn and waved his hand at a jaywalking pedestrian dragging two enormous suitcases behind them. Eliot raised his voice, scowled at the driver. “Though preferably not between now and New Year ?” Checked his watch again. “Alright. Just got to the airport.”
“If you die before Christmas I’ll fucking kill you.” There was the distant sound of someone coming down a staircase—she must have had him on speaker—and then Fen was also on the call.
“Hey, Eliot!” Fen was yelling from across the room, and sounded like she had something in her mouth. “Do you like krumkake?”
He climbed unsteadily out onto the curb, smiling despite the bitter wind, and waited for the driver to get his bag out of the trunk. “I don’t know what that is. I’m hanging up now.”
“Don’t do anything stupid.” Margo again. “See you soon.”
O’Hare was a war zone.
Half the airports on the east coast were shut down due to the storm—not Newark, not yet—and barely anything was coming across the northern Atlantic. Security lines were slow-moving, with crying children and over-packed parents, everyone having to strip down out of their winter coats and snow boots, then reassemble themselves on the other side of the scanners. The increased security personnel, all of them looking grumpy to be at work two days before Christmas, didn’t do anything to speed up the process, just glowered threateningly at people who forgot to take their headphones out of their back pockets before they went through the full-body x-ray.
They had glowered at Quentin.
Even an hour before boarding, the gate was already crowded, but he had found an open outlet in the wall between two rows of seats and settled for a moment, before one of the stewards at the desk called his name over the garbled speaker.
“Congratulations, sir.” The steward’s voice was pleasant but flat. “You’ve been upgraded to business class for this flight.”
“Oh. Oh! Great! Thank you!” His arms were full—laptop, backpack, coat and sweatshirt, unwilling to leave them unattended across the gate.
“Of course. We just need to see your boarding pass.”
Quentin scrambled his things around, throwing coats over his shoulder and tucking his laptop under his arm, digging through the front pocket of his backpack. The steward watched him, her eyes tired and uninterested, as he pawed through his belongings, finally remembering that he had stuck his ticket in his sweatshirt pocket.
“Sorry...about...Um. Here it is!” And he handed it to her with a flourish.
She looked at the ticket, then up at him, then back to her computer screen, and down to the ticket again. Her flat, pleasant smile turning down slightly. “I’m sorry, sir, I’m afraid there’s been—”
Just then, an elderly man in coke bottle glasses and a floor-length parka sidled up to the desk.
“—a misunderstanding.” She handed Quentin back his ticket, and looked up at the other man. “Mr. Goldhaber , hello. May I see your boarding pass please?”
Disheveled and deflated, he took a moment to put his things back in his bag, before turning, ticket between his teeth, to take his seat back against the wall.
Someone had taken it.
Someone was sitting in his little spot. Someone dressed like he’d be in business class regardless of whether or not he was upgraded, with a black quilted duffle bag, and a shiny leather attache case. Someone in a crisp shirt and an unbuttoned camel peacoat, his phone in his hand, not even bothering to plug it in.
Quentin’s stomach soured. He’d been talking to this kind of person all week, and had developed a pavlovian response to the kind of watch he was wearing. He’d come to think of it as a decision-maker’s watch, and he felt a pang of disappointment just glimpsing it across the gate.
He clicked his phone on, checked the battery—nineteen percent—and summoned whatever gumption he had left in him, as he dragged himself and his things back towards the outlet in the wall.
“Hey. Hi. Sorry—” The guy in his spot looked up at him impassively, removing a single wireless earbud. “Do you mind, uh. Scooting over a bit so I can, uh.” Quentin lifted his phone, the cord and plug still dangling from it. “Just get a charge? Real quick?”
The guy gave him an indiscreet once-over, and the gnawing sense of self-consciousness that had trailed him ever since landing in Chicago bubbled up through his exhaustion and exasperation. He was keenly aware of his clothes—ratty Columbia t-shirt, baggy jeans, second-hand duck boots, Doctor Who scarf Julia had given him for his birthday a few years ago. It was all shit he had just thrown in his carry on to change into between meetings. Shit he’d been wearing for the better part of three days. Shit he’d been sleeping in, on the couch of one of Kady’s friends uptown.
He’d popped his last hair-tie, too, fiddling with it anxiously on the subway ride to the airport. He knew he looked like a disaster. He felt like one.
The guy just stared at him.
Quentin huffed. “C’mon, man, we’ve got like fifteen minutes til boarding—I’m running on fumes here!” There was a whine in his voice that he wasn’t proud of, but he was over trying to impress snobbish strangers. “Don’t be—”
“Fine.” The guy looked pained to move his duffle two feet to the left, but he did it anyway, and Quentin nearly collapsed, letting all his stuff slide out of his arms and into a pile on the floor. He sat down on top of his coat, trying to ignore the guy watching him, single eyebrow raised, as he plugged in his phone, stowed his boarding pass, and started rummaging around in his bag.
Half the weight of his backpack—at the start of his trip, at least—was made up of plastic baggies full of cereal. The airy, round, chocolate kind, exclusively. He’d eaten almost nothing but the stuff, dry and by the handful, since he’d been in Chicago, but there were still two full sandwich bag’s worth, partially crushed under the papers and chargers and dress shoes, crammed into the bottom of his bag.
He was hungry, not having eaten since before his last meeting. He grabbed the corner of one of the bags, and yanked. And then he yanked harder. And harder. And then—
Quentin had an empty, ripped, plastic sandwich baggie in his hand, and was being pelted, gently, by a plume of cocoa-puffs and chocolate-flavored dust as it arced up out of his backpack, and fell back down onto his shoulders. Into his hair. Into his lap. Around the grey airport carpet.
Onto the guy with the watch, turning slowly to look at him, daggers in his eyes.
Quentin opened his mouth, closed it. Swallowed. Opened again. “I’m so—”
“ Flight number three-zero-five-zero to Newark Liberty International has been delayed by two hours —” The PA system at the gate screeched slightly, and the guy snapped his head up to look at the desk. The steward frowned and tapped her microphone. “ That’s flight number three-zero-five-zero to Newark Liberty, two hour delay. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
A groan rippled through the gate as people shuffled their things and stood up, eager to find a more comfortable place to spend the next two hours. Quentin was completely frozen, watching bits of cereal fall out of the guy’s hair and roll down his shirt. He tried again.
“I’m so—so sorry, can I—”
But the guy stood up, silently, in one smooth movement, a bag in each hand, and disappeared out of the gate. And Quentin was left to pick up his cereal.
It took Eliot ten whole minutes to completely remove the chocolate crumbs from his hair, and his jacket, at the pockets of his bags. Ten minutes in front of the bathroom mirror, muttering to himself about the crazy guy with the fucking backpack full of cereal, getting stared at by a rotating door of men who didn’t wash their hands, and men who washed their hands for too long.
He wanted to call Margo and tell her about the delay, wanted to tell her about the homeless looking lunatic that rained half a box of kids’ cereal down on him, about how crazy the airport was. But he knew that would only make her more anxious.
Instead, he slung his duffle onto his shoulder, folded his coat over his arm, picked up his bag, and exited the bathroom. He had never seen O’Hare as crowded as it was, but he had also never been there forty-eight hours before a major holiday. He was swept up immediately by a stream of people—some of them as bored looking and buttoned-up as he was, but most festive and frazzled—and followed it passively down the terminal, glancing at his phone as he walked.
Twelve emails in the last hour. He sighed when he saw the number, veering out of the mass of people and into a slow-moving Starbucks line. Three from his assistant—he’d get back to him later—four from various higher-ups—unfair; he was off the clock until New Years—two unsolicited scripts, one Nordstrom holiday sale ad, a credit card statement, a family newsletter from a distant cousin—delete, delete, delete, delete—
It was the cereal guy. Standing in front of him in the Starbucks line, his sweatshirt on, and the rest of his shit stuffed into his bulging backpack. There were already a dozen people in line behind them, and they were all boxed in by displays of overpriced, holiday-themed snacks. There was no escape.
So Eliot took a deep breath. Smoothed his expression. Looked up from his phone and down his nose at the awkwardly grimacing, sort of unhinged-looking guy in front of him. He was blushing a little. That made Eliot feel better. “Hello, again,” he said, raising his eyebrows and stowing his phone.
Cereal guy took a step forward in line, looked down, rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m, uh. I’m really sorry about the whole, um….” He waved a hand in front of him, clearly looking for words, and sighed.
Eliot clenched his jaw, refrained from rolling his eyes. “The whole...bringing the wrath of Count Chocula down upon me thing ?”
The cereal guy mumbled something, looking down, his brow furrowed, and then—
“—Next in line please!” the barista called.
“What was that?” Eliot followed him instinctively up to the counter, where cereal guy was pulling out his wallet, frowning and biting his bottom lip.
“Hi,” —and when he looked up to face the cashier his face broke open into a friendly, if false, customer-service smile. Eliot blinked at him, and at the bored barista— “Can I get a venti mocha cookie crumble frappuccino? Uh, with extra whip and a double shot of espresso, please.”
“That all?” The barista glanced up at Eliot.
“I’m not with—”
“C’mon.” Cereal guy shrugged. “It’s cool. Let me get you back for the...thing.”
The barista raised an eyebrow.
“Um. Tall americano, please.”
Cereal guy handed over his credit card, his smile falling, and said only “Q” when asked for his name, and they shuffled down the counter into the crowd of waiting travelers. They stood next to each other, silently, cereal guy rocking back and forth on his heels, pointedly not looking at him.
“What did you say back there?”
“Hm?” Cereal guy— Q —turned to look at him like he had just noticed Eliot standing there, eyes tired, but friendly. Eliot took a step back.
“In line. You said something I didn’t catch.” Q frowned again, and Eliot cleared his throat. “If you were going to defend your breakfast assault, I’d really like—”
“Oh.” And then Q did something with his face that was almost a real smile, a little twisted and deeply embarrassed, and he blushed again. “I said...it wasn’t Count Chocula.”
Q groaned, rubbing his eyes, resigned. “Oh my god—I said it wasn’t Count Chocula! It was fucking….Cocoa-Puffs, or—Wegman’s brand chocolate oat spheres, or whatever. And I’m—”
“—Q?” another barista shouted over the din of the crowd.
Q almost jumped, lunging towards the counter, almost knocking people over with his backpack as he went.
Eliot grimaced as he elbowed his way back over—a stream of aimless “‘scuse me’s” and “sorry’s” pouring out of him—and took the little red cup he was handed.
“K-e-w,” Q said, looking at the side of his cup, the contents of which were a huge, glorified milkshake that was leaking whipped cream out the top. “That’s a new one.”
There was a beat of awkward silence before Eliot remembered himself. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” Cereal guy— Q, not Kew —cleared his throat. “Oh. Hey.” And he gestured with his cup to a table behind Eliot that had just opened up. “Let’s grab that.”
He watched Q cross the crowded store and sling his bag over the back of the chair, then nod at the one opposite, and shrug as if to say Oh c’mon. Eliot braced himself. Took a deep breath. Joined cereal guy at the little corner table.
Quentin regretted it almost immediately.
“So….” He dropped his straw into his drink, wiped at the overflowing whipped cream with his thumb, licked it off. The guy across from him made a face, small and fleeting and unreadable, and Quentin coughed. “....Newark, huh? Got family in the city?”
“No.” The guy frowned, cupped his coffee in his hands. “I’m visiting friends outside Princeton.”
Quentin sat up straighter, smiled involuntarily. “Oh, no shit! Me too! Well—” The guy visibly recoiled at his enthusiasm. “—Well. Not friends. But. My mom lives in Princeton. You know. Going home for the holidays, and all.”
The guy nodded. “Nice town.”
“Yeah…Can’t beat New York at Christmas, though. I’m gonna miss it.”
“Mm.” The guy sipped his coffee, smiled a little. “I spent a couple Christmases with a friend in Astoria in grad school.” He sighed, raised his eyebrows. “Tried to go to the ball drop once—”
Quentin scrunched up his nose. “Tourist.”
“ But —” The guy raised a finger. He was wearing a lot of rings, something that set him apart from the other suits Quentin had talked to recently. “—We didn't make it in time and just...ended up getting drunk in Rainey Park.” He smiled like this was an accomplishment, and, despite himself, Quentin found himself a little impressed.
“Alright. Very cool. Okay.” Quentin looked down and took a long swig of his drink. “You go to grad school in the city?”
“No, um. A little place upstate, actually. You wouldn’t have—”
Quentin’s phone rang.
“Oh, shit.” It was his mother. “I’m sorry. I gotta take this.” He sighed. “And it’s. Gonna be a while. Um.” Quentin stood, slung his bag back over his shoulder, and pushed his chair in. “Nice to meet you. Again. Happy holidays.” And he left the guy in the Starbucks, his social debt repaid.
Quentin found a mostly empty gate—the screens above the desk blank, a smattering of sleeping travelers in the seats—and called his mother back. She was almost hysterical.
“—I can’t believe this!” She was saying. For the fifth, or sixth, or seventh time.
“Well sorry, Mom, but I can’t change the weather—”
“You could’ve come earlier!” He thought he could hear the oven alarm going off in the background. It could have just as easily been the smoke detector, though. “You could’ve rescheduled your little... Chicago adventure and just come right here and—”
“No, actually, I couldn’t—” He took a deep breath, heard her stop whatever it was that was beeping. “It took me months to get these meetings, Mom, it was now or never—”
“—Well maybe. Maybe now isn’t the time—”
“Oh my god, Mom, seriously? Now ? You didn’t even—” He slumped in his chair, breathing purposefully, rubbing his eyes, trying to calm his voice. “...You didn’t even ask me how things went.”
There was a long pause. He heard something rattling, then the sound of the oven door closing. She was making cookies—stress baking. He wondered briefly when she had picked that habit back up. She sighed. “ Quentin… .” The way she said it—it was the second thing that got to him that day. He swallowed hard. “You and I both know that if you had good news...I would have known about it by now.”
He hated that she was right.
“I’ll get there when I get there, Mom. Bye.” And he hung up despite her protests.
Quentin sat there for a while, staring at the ceiling, trying to collect himself. He wondered, briefly, if the guy was still sitting at the table in Starbucks, then shook his head, and wiped at his eyes. He didn’t need to make an already awkward situation worse, didn’t need to impose himself on some poor stranger for a third time that day.
Instead, he got up, stretched, threw out his empty cup, and set himself wandering through the terminal. A different tinny Christmas song was playing in every store he walked into, and he considered picking up some gifts for his friends before he remembered his overstuffed bags and thought better of it. There would be time to shop in New Jersey before New Years, and he’d need an excuse to get out from under his mother during the week.
He made his way back to the gate with a half an hour until boarding, and sat down in one of the few empty seats. Across the aisle, a nervous looking elderly couple was having an animated conversation. Quentin had just set his bag down, and was hunched over, elbows on his knees, checking his phone, when the old man cleared his throat and raised his voice.
“—He’s young, he’ll know!”
“Oh, no, don’t bother him!”
“It’s fine, it’s fine.” Quentin lifted his eyes slowly, saw the man patting his wife’s knee reassuringly. “Excuse us—”
The woman covered her mouth with her hand. “—Oh, dear.”
“—Can you get the weather on that thing?” The man was wearing wire-rim glasses and a hat with ear flaps, and had one of the thickest midwestern accents Quentin had ever heard. He was pointing at Quentin’s phone.
“Huh?” He sat up straight. “Oh—Yes?”
The man looked at his wife— “I told you.” —then back to Quentin. “Could you tell us what the weather is doing in Brooklyn Heights?”
“Uh.” Quentin blinked, nodded.
“Our granddaughter lives there,” the woman said, embarrassed but smiling. “We’ve never been to New York before but she just moved there and—”
“—and this storm sure is somethin’,” the man cut in. “And we were just curious if it’s giving her the same trouble.”
“Sure. Sure, okay. One sec.” Quentin pulled up the weather for Brooklyn on his phone, and handed it over to the man. He held it at arm’s length, and peered at it through the bottom of his bifocals.
“Oh, lordy.” The old woman glanced at the phone and deflated, frowning, looking even more worried than she had originally. “Lordy, lordy, lordy. That doesn’t look good at all.”
The man gave Quentin his phone back. “Even if we do get there in time, the whole city’s gonna be shut down, isn’t it?”
Quentin shrugged. “I wouldn’t worry about it. They’re usually pretty good with snow removal. And it’s not like Chicago. It’ll melt soon.”
The woman worried the end of her scarf. “Oh, I do hope so. We’ve got a whole list of things we want to do.”
“Oh yeah?” And Quentin couldn’t help but smile. They reminded him a lot of his friends from college, wide-eyed and thrilled to be living in the city for the first time. His chest ached thinking about them all in Kady’s apartment, without him. “Like what?”
“We have tickets for Kinky Boots on Wednesday!” the woman answered almost immediately.
“And we were going to see the Statue of Liberty….” The old man shook his head. “But. Probably not with this weather.”
The woman elbowed her husband gently. “Or the Empire State Building.”
“Probably not. Sorry. But...” Quentin rummaged in his bag and pulled out a piece of paper, then a pen. “There’s plenty of stuff to do indoors. Like...like the museums!” He set the paper on his knee and started listing all the museums he could remember. “There’s the Met and the MoMa and the Guggenheim...Oh, the folk museum is super underrated—”
“—Who puts the Guggenheim before the Natural History Museum?” When Quentin looked up, the guy from Starbucks was standing in front of the empty seat next to him. “Fancy meeting you here.” He raised his eyebrows, nodded towards the chair. “This seat taken?”
“Uh….” Quentin blinked, but the guy was already sitting down, shrugging his bag off his shoulder, crossing one leg over the other. Quentin shook his head a little. “Um. People who aren’t tourists?”
The elderly couple looked at each other. The guy snorted.
“I mean—uh, no offense!” Quentin gestured vaguely with the end of his pen. “There’s nothing wrong with tourists—tourists keep all the cool stuff open for business—”
The couple was nodding, slowly, then—
“Ignore Q here, okay? The Natural History Museum is great. And so is the Frick….” The guy shrugged, blinked slowly in Quentin’s direction. “And the Museum of Sex. If you’ve got time.”
They both recoiled slightly, and the woman blushed. “Oh,” she said, giggling slightly, pointing a tentative finger between Quentin and the guy. “Do you two...know each other?”
“Of course,” the guy said, and when Quentin turned to look at him, he was smiling lazily, amused. “Are you going to introduce me to your new friends Q?”
“Oh, uh.” Quentin opened his hand out towards the couple. “This is...um.”
“I’m Paul!” The old man reached across the aisle and took Quentin’s hand in his, shaking it with a friendly aggression he had come to associate with midwestern men of a certain age. “And this is Paula!” His wife smiled and waved at them both.
“I’m uh, Quentin.” He said, still shaking Paul’s hand, but glancing over his shoulder at—
“Eliot.” The guy smiled, coolly offering his hand to Paul, who released Quentin immediately. And then the guy— Eliot . Eliot, Eliot, Eliot —was blinking as his whole arm was jostled up and down. “It’s—a pleasure. And—” He extricated his hand, flexed it once before folding it around his knee. “—You shouldn’t bother with the MoMa unless you’re a big fan of...abstract expressionist...nonsense.” He cleared his throat. “And climbing stairs.”
There was an evil glint in Eliot’s eye when he looked back over at Quentin, who was genuinely offended on behalf of his favorite museum. “They’ve got Starry Night. ”
“Yeah, and a lot of stairs!” Eliot was smiling at him—clearly teasing, clearly trying to get him back for his ‘tourist’ comments—and Quentin couldn’t really help but smile back.
So the flight got diverted to Pittsburgh.
Because fucking of course it did. Not half an hour into what was supposed to be a three hour flight tops, did the pilot come on over the speaker—” Uh, ladies-and-gentlemen ...” —and announce that Newark had finally been shut down. A commuter flight from Boston had skidded gently and anticlimactically off the runway, and the woman in the seat next to him turned green at the news. Eliot had rolled his eyes, and tried to use the pitiful in-flight wifi to find a hotel.
Pittsburgh, it turned out, was the last airport in the northeast still operating, and was therefore completely overrun by holiday travelers stranded by the storm. Even international flights were being told to overshoot their east-coast destinations, and put down in western Pennsylvania.
All of this to say, of course, as Eliot found out mere seconds into their descent, that every hotel within twenty miles of the airport was completely booked. So he widened his search radius.
He widened his search while the plane was being taxied to the gate.
And widened his search while waiting to disembark.
And widened again at the baggage claim. Until finally—
“This is the Cranberry Inn of Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania! How can I help you tonight?”
Eliot was standing, phone against his ear, watching out the high airport windows, as the snow fell in big fat flakes onto the taxis in the pickup line. He sighed at the cheer in the woman’s voice.
“Hi, yes, do you have any rooms available for tonight?” It was either this or the Motel 8 downtown.
“You have excellent timing, sir! We have just two rooms—” There was indistinct whispering on the other end of the phone. “Whoops! Make that one room left! Would you like to make a reservation?”
Eliot rubbed his face, and braced himself as he joined the line of people outside, waving down the taxis. “Yes, thank you.” A car rolled up, and Eliot just chucked his baggage into the back seat with him. He held his hand over his phone and leaned towards the driver. “The Cranberry Inn, please. And….” The woman on the phone was talking about hot chocolate and caroling. “...Take your time.”
The drive was slow and harrowing, but the inn, as much as he hated to admit it, was fucking adorable. There was a roaring fireplace in the lobby, and a fir tree in every corner, and garland on the windows, and front desk, and stairs. The woman that checked him in gave him a candy cane with his room key—a real key, made of metal and everything—and told him that the pub in the basement was open until midnight.
“And Phil in the kitchen’s been roasting turkeys all week!” She waved at him, smiled wide and friendly, as Eliot climbed the stairs up to his room.
There was a ceramic Christmas tree on the dresser, and the comforter had snowmen on it. He dropped his bags at the foot of the bed, threw his coat into the armchair in the corner, pocketed his key, and immediately left the room, heading down the stairs again. He needed a drink.
The pub—a low-ceilinged, wood-paneled basement joint—was decorated not unlike the rest of the hotel, all Pocono kitsch and rustic holiday clutter. A dusty piano was covered in a snowy Christmas village set, and there was a taxidermied elk head draped in tinsel over the bar. It felt comfortably crowded with what Eliot was sure was every guest the inn had, all thirty of them, and he sat at a well-worn barstool, checking his phone.
One missed call from Margo, and a follow up text: Newark is shut down?? Where the fuck are you??? Did they send you back to Chicago???? Call me???????
He sighed, and put his phone back in his pocket. He didn’t have a plan yet, didn’t want to worry her. She’d never be caught dead in a place like this, but then again, neither would he. Usually.
He was about to flag the bartender down, when someone else sidled up to the counter, wedged himself between two stools, and drummed his fingers nervously on the bar. Eliot wouldn’t have recognized him if it wasn’t for the holey Columbia t-shirt.
He leaned forward, whispered into the guy’s ear. “Are you following me or what?”
“Shit!” Cereal guy— Quentin —jumped, backing clumsily into one of the barstools, nearly knocking it over. Eliot watched him, elbow on the bar and trying not to laugh, as he steadied himself and cleared his throat.
“Uh. Hi.” Quentin chuckled self-consciously, and swayed just slightly as he stood. “Maybe—maybe you’re the one that’s…following…um—”
He was already tipsy. Eliot was jealous.
Mercifully, the bartender finally noticed them. She had a toothpick between her teeth, and was drying a glass as she approached. “Can I interest you in… another glass, of our house-made eggnog?” At least she wasn’t as jolly as the woman at the front desk.
“Yes, please.” Quentin said, almost immediately, finally just sitting on one of the stools that was giving him such trouble.
The bartender looked at Eliot.
“No, thank you.” Eliot turned towards her and folded his hands. “I’ll have a gin and tonic.”
Quentin wrinkled his nose once the bartender had left. “Real festive.”
“I’m not trying to be festive—”
“I mean it is Christmas. You should at least try .”
“—I’m trying to be...inebriated.” The bartender returned with their glasses, and before she could walk off again, Eliot put his hand on the bar and said, “Keep my tab open, please.”
Quentin downed half his eggnog in one mouthful. “Rough flight?” And he licked his lips. “You know this is like, fifty percent bourbon, right?”
“Apart from how the plane didn’t land where it was supposed to…No. My flight was fine.” Eliot stirred his drink, inspecting it. There was a handful of cranberries at the bottom. “You?”
“I, uh.” Quentin snorted. “I was sitting between Paul and Paula.” He smiled, tired. Eliot raised his eyebrows. “I asked if either of them wanted to switch with me, right? But...they were perfectly alright to, uh. Have me in the middle.”
Eliot took a long swig, making awkward, aggressive eye contact with the elk head. “That is—” He exhaled. “—Absolutely incredible.”
Quentin nodded, almost giggling, leaning his elbow on the bar and propping his chin up in his hands “Are your friends as freaked out about this storm as my family is?”
Eliot’s stomach turned, thinking of Margo pacing around her big house, trying to shrug off Fen’s relatives—Fen trying to keep everyone calm and happy and full of exotic baked goods as the snow piled up and transit shut down. He knew he should call them. He took another swig.
“No, no—They’re fine. It won’t be the end of the world if I miss Christmas again.”
Quentin frowned. “Again?”
“I’m a busy man;” Eliot shrugged. “They’re busy people; I live halfway across the country. It’s just another day of the year. Honestly I wouldn’t mind camping out here for a while.” Eliot eyed the piano as a drunk looking man in an ugly sweater hovered around it conspiratorially. “Well maybe not…. here . But. Compared to the past year, this is practically a vacation.”
“Yeah.” Quentin was slouching ungracefully over the bar, leaning towards Eliot even further as he talked. “I mean. I had two weeks off in June, but uh. I was...” Quentin furrowed his brow, touched a finger to the dusting of nutmeg on the top of his eggnog, and licked it. “I was unemployed, so. I dunno if it was exactly...a vacation.” He shrugged sloppily and took another sip of his drink.
“Hey.” Eliot sat up straight and rested a hand lightly on his shoulder. Quentin looked at his arm. “If you didn’t have anyone breathing down your neck about deadlines, then it was a vacation.”
Quentin took a deep breath, licked his lips. “I mean. My mom wasn’t...thrilled, exactly.”
Eliot blinked at him. “So you’re going home for the holidays to…. brag about how well you’re doing now, right?” There wasn’t a chance in hell that this was the case, but Eliot wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“No. My, uh—” Quentin shook his head, and looked down. “No. Not exactly. It’s just. It’s been a while, since I spent Christmas at home.”
Eliot drained his drink and tried to get the attention of the bartender. “No shame in that.” When he looked back down, Quentin—more puddle than man on the scuffed hardwood bar top—was staring up at him.
And then there was a loud creaking sound, as the drunk man with a crocheted reindeer on his chest opened the piano lid and sat down at the bench. He cracked his knuckles, and Eliot winced, watching as Quentin also braced himself for the worst.
But it wasn’t terrible, actually. It wasn’t even a little bit bad. It was good. It might have even been very good, if it wasn’t so loud in the tiny room, and the man wasn’t trying to sing the words to the Charlie Brown Christmas song, despite clearly not knowing them.
“I like this song.” Quentin yawned, and tried lamely to right himself, suddenly aware of how close his elbow was to Eliot’s drink. “I haven’t watched this movie in like...ten years.”
Eliot went back to looking for the bartender, but she was nowhere to be found. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it all the way through.”
“Oh it’s great. Just.” Quentin tipped up his cup to get the very last drops of eggnog. “It’s just really... Christmasy.”
Eliot was in no position to judge, or to analyze, or to give advice—and he wasn’t going to. But Quentin had melted back into the bar, and every time he glanced down at him, Eliot felt a twinge of empathy that he chalked up to atmosphere. Clearly this guy needed cheering up. And cheering up was just about Eliot’s specialty.
And then he watched as Quentin suddenly clocked the elk head, apparently for the first time, and recoiled in his seat.
Eliot smiled, sighed, and leaned forward, so he was almost talking right into his ear. “Taxidermy has always creeped me out.”
Quentin seemed to remember himself all of a sudden, sitting up straight and brushing the hair out of his face. “Yeah.” He was still scowling up at it, but his ears were pink. “Me too.”
“Do they even have elk out here?” Eliot checked his watch casually. Just shy of midnight.
“I don’t, uh...I don’t think so.” He turned to face Eliot, a little more alert looking than he had been. “Hey, do—”
Eliot’s phone buzzed. Of course.
“Hold that thought.” He checked it. Margo. “I have to take this. Sorry. I’ll be right back.” He dropped a twenty on the bar, clapped Quentin on the shoulder, and left the noise of the pub.
“There’s a bus stop down the road.”
“I booked a ticket last night while I was. Um…” Quentin put the phone on speaker and set it on the dresser while he buttoned his shirt. It was his nice one, not exactly comfortable for traveling, but it was the cleanest thing he had.
“While you were what ?” He could hear Julia’s coffee maker in the background. It was early, but at least they were in the same time zone. It was nice that she had called to check on him, even if it only made him more depressed.
“Nothing. While I was nothing. The point is I have a bus—”
“Q...?” The sound of a spoon stirring in her favorite mug. “What kinda trouble did you get up to last night?”
“Nothing! I just. You know—I told you about the cereal, right?”
“And I told you I would have paid a million dollars to see that, right?” Kady’s dog was barking to be walked. He missed that damn dog.
Quentin rolled his eyes and hoped she could hear it. “Yeah, well. I keep running into the guy that I...cerealed. And, uh. There’s a bar at this little hotel. And he was there. And we just, you know. We—”
“You got drinks with the guy you cereal assaulted?”—There was a beat, and Quentin could hear Alice and Penny laughing—“Is he cute?”
“ What ?” He fumbled with the zipper of his backpack.
“Is airport cereal guy hot? What’s his name? Does he live over here or in Chicago? Did you get his number?”
“I don’t know—I don’t know—uh, Eliot—Hey, cmon!” Quentin sat on the foot of the bed and flung himself backwards, staring at the ceiling. Julia was laughing now too.
“Oh please. As if this isn’t textbook Quentin.” Alice and Penny were still giggling in the background.
he checked the time. “It’s not—what’s that supposed to mean—” He rubbed his face and sighed. “Don’t get too excited.”
“What, is he straight?”—Alice, distantly: “ Is he married? ”— “Is he straight and married?”
“No! God, no…I don’t. I don’t think so?” Quentin shook his head. “No, it doesn’t matter anyway, okay? He, uh. Um. He kinda...Uh. He bailed, okay?”
“He took a call and like. Just. Left…Whatever—It doesn’t matter.” He checked the time again, and sighed. “Okay, I gotta go. Bus is leaving in an hour and I don’t know if the sidewalks are cleared or—”
“They won’t be.”
“Haven’t you been checking the weather?”
Quentin stood and pulled on his coat. “Not really. I’m kinda resigned to it at this point.”
“There’s more snow coming. It’s supposed to hit the city by early afternoon.”
“Well, shit. That explains a lot. Alright. That sucks, but—”
“Please be careful, Q.” God. Julia’s sincere voice. “And call your mom? I know this whole thing is sort of less than ideal but...she’d be really bummed if you didn’t make it. At least one person deserves to get you for Christmas, okay?”
Staring up at the ceiling of that cozy little inn, he briefly wondered if his deciding to go to his mother’s had somehow caused the storm. If some magical, paranoid, karmic butterfly-effect was at work, trying to teach him something about dream-chasing and faith-having and boat-rocking. He was already exhausted and it wasn’t even nine in the morning yet.
“Okay.” He said. “See ya.”
The bus was stuffy and crowded, and Quentin got there early, shoving his bag under the seat in front of him and sitting in the very back. For a few minutes he scrolled through his phone, thinking about calling his mother. He had texted her the night before, after landing in Pittsburgh and deciding to just stay the night, and she had replied with a curt and uncharacteristic “ Okay .” She probably thought he was doing it on purpose, that he had engineered his layover with the express point of not making it home. He felt guilty about it for a split second, then mad, then exasperated.
The seat next to him stayed open as the minutes ticked on, and then the doors to the bus closed, and the driver kicked on the engine, and they inched forward out of the bus terminal.
And then the bus came to a screeching halt, everyone lurching forward in their seats, as the driver groaned and opened the doors again. In his periphery, Quentin could just see the top of someone’s head as they ran along the side of the bus, and scrambled up the steps.
“—Thank you— holy shit —um—thank you—” someone were saying, as the doors closed behind him. Quentin leaned across the empty seat next to him, and into the aisle.
And then made immediate, unwavering eye-contact with a rumpled, panting Eliot.
Quentin leaned back in his seat, sinking into it slightly, almost hiding, as if the seat next to him wasn’t the only open one left. He heard Eliot shuffling down the aisle as the bus started again, and then he fell into the empty seat, bags in hand and ticket-window receipt between his teeth. Quentin watched him out of the corner of his eye, stuffing his duffle under his feet, balling up the ticket and zipping it into his case—huffing, brushing the hair out of his face, settling himself.
“ Jesus .” He turned to look at Quentin, who was staring straight ahead. “Did you know this was the last bus out of here today? Because I sure fucking didn’t. Until—” He lifted his wrist, checked his watch. “—eleven fucking minutes ago.”
“Uh, yeah.” Quentin cleared his throat, and leaned his head on the window. “I got my ticket last night, actually, after— ah! ” The bus dipped into a pothole, jostling everyone, knocking his forehead against the glass. He sighed and sunk further down, until he was eye-level with his knees, folded up against the seat in front of him. Crossing his arms, he finally glanced up at Eliot.
“ What ?”
Quentin, half embarrassed but too tired to care, sighed. “You said you were coming right back.”
Eliot, who had been glancing down at him, looked away.
“Well.” Eliot said, folding his hands in his lap, crossing one leg over the other. “I had a pretty busy night.”
“Yeah.” Quentin shifted again, reaching for a magazine on the floor. It looked dusty and stepped on, but he needed a distraction.
“Yeah. My friend’s Swedish—or, um…. French Canadian or….whatever. Who the fuck knows at this point—either way—” He took a deep breath, looked back over. “My friend’s in-laws arrived last night, right? And I was supposed to be there before then as a buffer of sorts. Keep them distracted, at least.”
“But I wasn’t . Obviously . So instead I got the pleasure of being put on speaker and left at the whims of half a dozen elderly people that might as well have all been speaking dwarvish— ”
Quentin smiled despite himself, suppressing a laugh.
“—None of which matters to you, of course, but .” Eliot glanced away, scanning around the bus, looking just slightly uncomfortable. “I just wanted you to know that when I finally got them to hang up last night at around two in the goddamn morning...I did actually, feel kinda like a dick. For leaving you to the pianist with the pom-pom sweater.” Eliot extended a hand, and once again Quentin noticed his rings. “Apologies.”
Quentin shook his hand, smiling a little. “Don’t feel too bad. That twenty covered both of our drinks.”
“Oh, well, then. You’re welcome, too.”
The sky was low and grey, the bus was stifling and noisy, the passing scenery was flat and white, and the going was painfully, impossibly slow. Mile by mile, the bus swayed and lurched and fishtailed down the highway. The snow hadn’t picked up again yet, but the highway was still only barely plowed, with high snowbanks in both shoulders, and slick grey slush covering the pavement. The vehicles on the crowded road crawled along together, one giant caravan, through the endless farms of central Pennsylvania—past billboards for amish furniture markets, and leather good outlets, and livestock outlets.
Eliot wrinkled his nose as they passed a seemingly endless farm full of squat chicken coops and snow-capped veal hutches. The bus advertised free wifi, but every attempt to access it on his laptop had failed, so he sat reading a terrible horror movie script on his phone, trying to ignore the smell of whatever the person in front of him was eating.
Every few minutes, Quentin would shift in his seat, and wipe the fog off the inside of the window with the sleeve of his sweater, revealing more of the same unending fields. Other than that, Quentin seemed to just sit there, staring intently at the seat in front of him, doing nothing at all.
After almost an hour and a half into their trek, Eliot also noticed that Quentin was looking glassy-eyed and green around the gills.
“So….” Eliot began, putting his phone in his pocket and cracking his knuckles. “How’re you holding up…?”
Quentin swallowed a few times, hard, and glanced over at him without moving his head. “I, uh. Mmm— ” The bus rocked over a chunk of ice, and Quentin groaned, facing forward and taking several deep breaths. “I used the last of my dramamine on the plane.”
“It was a pretty bumpy ride, yeah.”
“Yeah...” Eliot could see his jaw working. “I’m going to ask you super politely not to vomit on me, okay?”
Quentin looked over again, a sarcastic, nauseated grin on his face. “I’ll do my best. But no promise—” The bus braked hard, and his hand flew from his lap to the armrest between them, instinctively grabbing a fistful of Eliot’s sleeve.
He pulled his hand back almost immediately, a faint blush tinting his otherwise sallow face. “Sorry—sorry, I—”
“Oh no, please.” But Eliot had also recoiled, and was rolling up the cuffs of his sleeves. The bus was warmer, all of a sudden. “Whatever keeps you from…you know. Be my guest.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Quentin hung his head and breathed slowly. “I think I’d rather die than—”
“ Attention— ” The driver came on over the bus’s staticky PA system. Quentin’s head popped up and then he moaned a little, and assumed the crash position again. Eliot felt the urge to pat him on the back or something, but shook it off. “—We’ll be stopping for half an hour in Mount Pleasant. We should be there in about five minutes.”
“Thank god ,” Quentin mumbled to his knees.
Thank somebody , Eliot thought, pulling his phone out again and opening a map to check their progress. It was almost noon and they had barely left Pittsburgh’s greater fucking metropolitan area. It would be a miracle if they made it to Philly before midnight. He checked the weather. It was already snowing in Lancaster.
The bus meandered off the highway and pulled into a strip mall in the middle of a small town. They poured out into the parking lot and moved as a herd towards the chain coffee shop, and the Chinese restaurant, and the convenience stores. As soon as he stepped off the bus, Quentin took a deep breath, and despite the near-zero temperatures, immediately regained the color in his face.
“Better?” Eliot asked, slinging his bag over his shoulder.
“Yeah. God.” He shook his head, and tugged on his collar. “That sucked.”
“Looked like it.” Eliot stood and watched Quentin waver slightly as he pulled on his backpack, the green, spacy fog rolling back across his face. He bent at the waist, hands on his knees, and went back to breathing heavily. Eliot succumbed to an impulse, and rested the tips of his fingers on Quentin’s shoulders. “Come on.” Eliot gave him a little tap. “Coffee?”
Inside the coffee shop, half of the bus was either huddled over their hot beverages, or standing in line for the bathroom. The two of them stood at a counter along the back wall, Eliot sifting the sediment out of a burnt espresso with his teeth, and Quentin bent over a steaming cup of herbal tea. His hair, hanging down around his face, was coming dangerously close to taking a dip.
Eliot found himself glancing over at the steam and the hair in Quentin’s face, before blinking and returning to the map on his phone.
Quentin mumbled something into the styrofoam. Eliot didn’t look up. “Come again?”
“If I get back on that bus….” He took a sip of the tea, then grimaced as it burnt his tongue. “I’m going to fucking die.”
“Yeah, I’m not too hot on the idea either.” Eliot took another gritty sip of his coffee, didn’t look at Quentin’s absolutely pitiful face. “But I’m not coming up with a lot of other options—”
“Hey-oh! New York!” They both turned, the bell over the door to the shop ringing, as Paul and Paula, bundled to their ears, shuffled in.
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Eliot whispered into his coffee.
“How the fuck—” But Quentin was cut off by Paul bellowing again.
“Paula look, it’s our New York boys!” He threw his arms up, hip-checking a few other patrons, as he made his way across the shop to slap both of their shoulders.
“Hello dears!” Paula waved with one hand, unwinding her scarf with the other.
“Uh, hi.” Quentin smiled, disbelieving, as Paul took off his gloves and clapped him on the back again. “How are—”
“Were you two...on the bus?” Eliot leaned his elbow on the counter, pointing at Paula.
“Oh, gosh, no.” Paula shook her head. “I don’t have the stomach for it.”
Quentin sighed, sipped at his tea.
“No, no.” Paul had sidled up between them, while Paula got in line. He nudged Quentin in the ribs with his elbow. “After we lost track of you in Pittsburgh—” Eliot snorted, tried to cover it with a cough. “—we just couldn’t find a hotel in the area for love or money.”
“Yeah it was pretty rough going there—”
“We even called this little bed and breakfast situation out in the booneys but whoop !” Paul snapped his fingers. “Someone else booked the last room right as we got a hold of them.”
Eliot had to cover his mouth that time, nodding sympathetically, and making conspiratorial eye-contact with Quentin across Paul’s broad shoulders and puffy coat.
“So finally we just thought—and pardon my French—to hell with this!” Paul turned over his shoulder towards his wife, standing at the cash register. “Grab a couple crullers if they’ve got ‘em, dear!”
Paula shot back an enthused thumbs-up, and Paul returned to his tale.
“So we called in a favor from a friend of a friend of ours who lives out here, and—bless her, honest to god—she drove all the way into the city in her big old truck in the middle of the night, and brought us back to her place.” Paul punctuated the end of his story with a twitch of his moustache, and beamed at the two of them.
Quentin nodded slowly, mouth open. “That’s—that’s great! Uh, so. How are you getting Brooklyn from here?”
“Well, our friend does—oh, thank you dear.” Paula had reemerged behind them with a dozen donuts, and two coffees, handing one to Paul.
“Donuts, gentlemen?” and she proffered the box to them. “I got the last chocolate glazed!”
“No, thank you, though.” And Eliot shook his head as Quentin and Paul both reached for a jelly-filled, Quentin looking nearly ecstatic.
“I was telling our new friends how Marrianne saved our keesters last night,” Paul mumbled, powdered sugar dusting his moustache and coat.
“Oh yes.” Paula wedged herself in between Paul and Quentin at the counter. “Are you boys getting back on that bus?”
“We’re sure as shoot trying not to,” Eliot said, then blinked and cleared his throat as Quentin looked at him, almost startled.
“Yeah...It’s pretty miserable, but we have to get home some—”
Paula thumped Paul playfully in the chest, sending a plume of powdered sugar into the air. “Paul! I’m sure Marrianne could help them out! Why didn’t you say anything?”
Paul shrugged, taking another bite of his donut.
“Sorry, what?” Eliot had nearly shoved Paul away from the counter, and had his arm out in front of Paula like she was going to drop something vital into his hands.
“She does rentals, dear!” Eliot looked up, and caught Quentin’s eye. Paula grabbed Eliot by the wrist and pinned his hand down on the counter, then pulled a pen out from her purse and scrawled a phone number on his palm. “Pardon me, dear, but I threw out my receipt.” Eliot winced. “There you are. Give her a call, tell her we sent you—Get the friends and family discount!”
“Thanks—” And then Quentin was wrapped in what looked like a bone crushing hug, as Paul brushed himself clean, and picked up the remaining donuts.
“Merry Christmas,” Paula said, patting Quentin on the cheek, before turning to squeeze Eliot’s arm. “You two take care of each other, now.”
Eliot paused for a moment, blinking, as Paul helped Paula re-wrap her scarf. “Oh, no, we just—”
“All’s I’m saying is...mind the storm,” Paula said, muffled behind all the fabric. And then she winked at him, and was tugged along at the elbow by Paul, back out of the coffee shop and into the cold.
Quentin looked at him, a strained smile on his powder-dusted face. And then he coughed, and looked down, and dunked the tea bag in and out of the water a few times. “Um.” He swallowed hard. “Call that a Christmas miracle or what?”
“Yeah.” Eliot looked down at the numbers in a bubbly, precise script on his hand. “Guess so...”
The temperature of the room dropped, then, as people started streaming out the door back towards the bus. Quentin popped the lid onto his tea, pocketed his receipt, and hiked his bag up onto his shoulder.
“Well. Looks like the bus is leaving.” Quentin nodded, forced a smile again. “Nice to uh—”
“Are you fucking stupid or something?” Eliot crossed his arms, confused, and watched Quentin scowl. “Didn’t you hear them? There’s a rental car place in town. You don’t have to get back on the barf-mobile.”
Quentin was stepping backwards slowly, hesitantly, towards the door. His hands in his pockets and his brows knit together. “I can’t—”
“You can , though, actually.” Eliot held his palm out to show him the number, like he was offering him a gift. “You literally, actually, can just…call this number, and—”
Quentin rolled his eyes, glanced over his shoulder at the emptying shop, chewing his lip. “I can’t drive!”
Eliot looked at him and took an unconscious step in his direction, hand still outstretched. “ Okay ?”
Quentin threw his hands up, jostling his tea out of the spout in the lid, sending it dribbling down his arm. He sighed, and shook out his hand. “I grew up in Queens—I’ve never lived out of the city—none of this matters because I can’t rent a fucking car if I don’t have a license—”
Eliot exhaled, relieved. It was fine. He was just stupid. “Jesus—” he huffed. “—do you want to drive with me to Princeton?”
Quentin’s face went blank, and then his eyes narrowed. “ What ?”
Eliot crossed his arms again, and leaned his hip on the counter. “I really don’t see what’s so complicated about that ques—”
“That’s at least a six hour drive.” Quentin checked his watch.
“Better than twelve on that bus.”
Quentin opened his mouth, and looked out at the bus again, with all its passengers in line to board—
“You—you don’t know me!” He stood up straight, wrapped his hands around the strap of his bag defensively. “I could...I could be a serial killer or something.” The lights dimmed in the coffee shop as the employees behind the counter took off their aprons and started sweeping the floors. Quentin swallowed. “Or you! You could be a serial killer!”
Eliot smiled and picked up his own bag, and started for the door. He held it open as the storefront’s neon lights flickered off, and a few flakes from the flurry outside made their way in. Across the parking lot, the bus whined and began to drive away. “Q...I think we’re both going to have to take that gamble.”
“—Are you crazy? He could be a serial killer!”
“Okay, that’s what I said, but…I don’t know….”
“ Q ….”
“ Jules… .”
There was a second of silence as Quentin and Julia held their standoff. He was standing by the window of a stripmall car-rental place while Eliot filled out the paperwork at the counter across the room. Mostly he was explaining how he knew Paul and Paula (“See this? She wrote this. On my hand. In the Dunkin Donuts down the street. Half a goddamn hour ago!”) to the unamused elderly woman in flannel pants behind the counter.
Julia sighed. “If it wasn’t so fucking weird...it would almost be cute.”
“I told you before. Of course this kind of shit would happen to you.” He could hear Kady and Alice whispering in the background.
“I don’t know what you’re—do you have me on speak—?”
“ Of course you’d meet a hot airport rando and of course you’d keep running into him in increasingly adorable ways and of course he’d turn out to be some kind of winter weather white knight!” He could picture Julia sitting on the kitchen counter, arms folded, check-mate.
“I never….” Quentin cleared his throat and stepped closer to the window, covering the receiver with his hand. “I never said he was hot.” Alice and kady were laughing, loud and clear. She did have him on speaker. Great. “Besides, I still don’t get what you mean by ‘textbook’ me. I don’t make a habit of—”
“I’ll remind you that you asked Alice out after a single hour of tutoring—”
“—It was fifteen minutes,” Alice interjected from across the room.
“—After fifteen minutes.” He could hear the smile in Julia’s voice, mocking as it might have been.
Quentin stared out the window—his view partially obstructed by paper snowflakes taped to the glass. “Yeah…. and ?”
“ You— ” Alice, her voice raised. “—Imprint like a baby duck! You’re good at being rescued. Little bit damsel—” Penny was laughing now, too.
“ I’m not—I’m not even going to dignify —I am not —that’s not very feminist of—I—oh my god—I’m really not—okay, okay bye ! Yeah. Merry Christmas—and tell Penny to fuck off—okay. Love you. Bye.” And he exhaled, returning his phone to his pocket.
Outside the snow was falling in delicate and unrelenting sheets, specks of white dusting the sidewalks and blowing in drifts across the pavement. There were two cars in front of the strip mall—almost identical to the one they had been dropped off at just half a mile away—and all the other stores were closed. The rental place had been closed too, Marrianne having only come in as a favor to Paul and Paula, disrupting the quiet white stillness of a holiday afternoon.
Quentin looked down at his phone out again, and started a text message to his mother. Problems with the bus. Still outside Pittsburgh. Catching a ride with a friend. He looked at it for a moment, deleted a bit. Catching a ride with an acquaintance . He frowned. Getting a car with a guy I met on the plane. He looked out the window again, sighed, and started over. Still outside Pittsburgh. Problem with bus. Solving it, don’t worry. See you tonight.
“Well that was grueling .” Quentin jumped when Eliot appeared beside him, stuffing a receipt and his half of the paperwork into the pocket of his bag.
“Let me know, uh—just tell me how much it was and I’ll Venmo you my half.”
“Don’t worry about it. It was just a couple hundred bucks.” Eliot leaned in towards the paper snowflakes on the window casually, hands in his pockets. Quentin’s stomach turned. “Besides I think I’ll keep it for the week. Have an escape plan for if the relatives get a little too—”
“Then I’ll cover gas.”
Eliot turned his head to look at him, one eyebrow raised. “Fine. If it makes you feel better.”
“This is...quaint.” Eliot had two fingers on one of the snowflakes, holding it flat against the window. On it, in tiny, untidy handwriting were the words New Bike! They all had little phrases printed on them, mostly in scrawled crayon. Things like Xbox , and Puppy , and a very neatly written Complete Lord of The Rings Book Set Including The Silmarillion. The few written in pen scattered between them said things like Cadillac and Pay Off The House and Mom Healthy.
“Got your truck.” And they both startled as Marianne threw the front door open, jangling the bell hung above it. “Y'all admiring our holiday wish window?” She was wearing a red plaid hunting cap and hand a set of car keys in her hand.
“Yeah, it’s really—”
“Wanna make a wish?” It sounded like a threat.
“No, really, thank—” Eliot began, reaching for the keys, before they were yanked away and replaced by two pre-cut paper snowflakes, and a red pen.
Quentin, who had been watching Eliot the whole time, wondered where she had been keeping those.
“I asked,” Marrienne rasped. “If y’all wanted to make a wish.”
They took the pieces of paper from her and stood in front of the window, the light outside dimmed through real and fake snow, and Quentin tried hard to think of something to write.
Story of his life, really.
While he thought, Eliot took the pen, and scribbled something short and fast on his snowflake, before sticking it to the window well above most of the others. Quentin had to crane his neck to read what it said, while Eliot waved the pen in front of his face, and Marienne stared them down.
In looping, slanted script, Eliot’s snowflake read: Some Goddamn Peace
Eliot had struck through his “goddamn,” and something about that—
“Here.” And there was a pen in his face. “Chop chop on that wish.”
Marienne was still withholding the keys, squinting disapprovingly at Eliot’s snowflake, and standing between them and the door. Finally, desperate and unable to come up with anything better, Quentin scrawled a single word onto the piece of paper, slapped it on the window, and darted for the door.
Eliot took the keys from a distracted Marienne, and they were halfway to the car before they heard her call from the door, “ ‘Miracle’ is a little bit vague, don’t you think?”
In the parking lot, with the snow dotting their faces, Eliot looked at him for a second, his eyebrows furrowed, before looking back at the vehicle he had just rented, and sighing.
“Well.” And Eliot tossed the keys in the air as he walked, nudging Quentin, stopped dead in the snow as soon as he saw it. “All aboard.”
It was a truck. It was a big truck. It was a manual shift, jet black, mean-looking, fuck-off huge truck , . It barreled through the storm, through the big heavy white flakes that stuck to the windshield and piled up on the side of the road in dense, ever-growing piles. It blanketed the houses and fields and reduced PA route 22 to four tire-wide divots, stretching on for miles and miles and miles.
The two-lane state road through the backyards of suburban nowhere Pennsylvania was at least moving, which was more than could be said for the highway they had given up on an hour ago.
Eliot had been riding the clutch, stuck somewhere between first and second gear, for nearly the entire time. Quentin sat in the passenger seat, backpack clutched in his lap, knuckles so white you’d think he was the one driving, chewing his lip silently.
The engine made a terrible squealing crunch as Eliot braked into a turn, and Quentin grimaced.
“Manual transmissions, uh”—and the truck groaned again as it accelerated—”scare the shit out of me.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Eliot could see Quentin staring at his hand, wrapped around the gear shift. He let his eyes drift, just for a second, trying to read his face, before a chunk of ice in the road jolted his attention forward again.
“Yeah, well—” The truck jerked forward, and he fiddled with the clutch, and sighed. “ Jesus —it’s been a while. But.” And finally, after miles, they reached a patch of recently plowed road, and they both sighed as the ride grew smoother. “But it’s like riding a bike.”
“Hm.” And Quentin visibly relaxed. “Bike’s can’t stall out, though.”
“Fair.” And Eliot rolled his shoulders back, sat up straighter. He could hear Quentin’s nervous breathing. “Funny thing...for whatever reason...back in college...it used to drive the city boys absolutely wild.”
And then Quentin visibly tensed.
“...Yeah?” Quentin asked, swallowing, eyes forward.
“Yeah. Something about...hand-eye coordination, maybe. Or...I don’t know—”
“Physical control.” Quentin offered, before freezing where he sat, and it took everything Eliot had not to turn at look at him.
The cab of the truck was quiet for a long moment, while Eliot smiled out at the whirling snow, and Quentin searched hopelessly for a way to make himself invisible. Eventually he gave up, and resorted to scanning through radio stations, looking for something that wasn’t static. Eliot just kept driving.
“Do you think it’s just the storm or—maybe we’re really that far away from—but they have to have some FM for like emergency—we’re not even getting any—this thing doesn’t have satellite or—so are you not, like—are you not a, uh...a city boy?” Quentin cleared his throat and turned off the radio.
Finally Eliot registered that he wasn’t just rambling nervously about FM stations. “Hm?”
“You, uh.” Quentin coughed again. “You said that, uh. That the, the...the manual shift. Drove the—”
“Oh.” Eliot took a deep breath and cursed his big mouth. “Well...I am now.”
“Yeah, but you weren’t.” And the way he said it wasn’t a question.
“No...The way you talked to Paul and Paula and Marienne. That was—”
“That was being genial.” And Eliot did his best to gesticulate, with both hands occupied.
Quentin smiled. “That...that was some real midwest shit.”
“People from out east aren’t allowed to say that. Especially New Yorkers.”
“Oh, sorry, fine, I’ll leave it.” Quentin looked out the window, fiddling with the zipper on his backpack, but Eliot could hear the laugh in his voice.
He sighed again. The windshield was fogging up. “No, no. It’s…Um. I grew up— oh fuck me .”
Quentin whipped his head back around, eyes wide. “ What —”
And then the mile stretch of plowed road came to an end, and the truck lurched into the opposite lane, blown, like the drifts of snow, across the road.
“This is ridiculous. I can’t see the fucking road. We need to pull—”
“There was a church we passed about a half a mile ago?”
Eliot ground the truck back into second gear. “—Absolutely fucking not.”
“Well I don’t know where else we’re going to—”
“Oh thank fuck. Look. There’s a perfectly good Waffle House right up there.” In the distance, a barely visible yellow glow seared through the blizzard.
Quentin was digging his nails into the leather seat. “There is no fucking way that place is open.”
“Oh...” and Eliot, finally risking it, tore his eyes away from the road for just a second to look at Quentin, and shook his head. “ City boy . ”
“—Okay, but where the fuck are you ?”
“Beyond….the bathroom of a Waffle House?” Eliot pinched the bridge of his nose and looked out the window into impenetrable white. “I have no fucking clue. Pennsylvania….somewhere? It’s slow going, Bambi, but we’re making progress and we—”
“ We ?” He could see her in his mind, hand on hip, pacing. “Did you pick up a fucking hitch-hiker or something?”
Eliot held the phone away from his ear, and huffed. “Yeah, you caught me, that’s exactly it. No, Jesus, I picked up—I met this—” He sighed, and leaned against the wall between the hand dryers, free hand in his pocket. “It’s cereal guy.”
“Are you fucking kidding me.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Cereal guy that turned up at that podunk hotel? Cereal guy that practically threw himself at you at the bar? That cereal guy?” Eliot winced. Her recounting of events was reductive, but not strictly incorrect.
“Yeah. It’s not—”
“So, what? You’re taking a bus?”
“Bailed on the bus. Rented a car. You’ve really got to—”
“You’re driving ? Through a blizzard ? With cereal guy ?”
Eliot took yet another breath. Through the bathroom door he could hear the two-person restaurant staff chatting, a coffee maker percolating. And through the phone, in the pause that followed Margo’s interrogation, he could hear what he thought was It’s A Wonderful Life . Fen, he was sure, had it on in the background while decorating cookies or basting a turkey or just sucking on a candy cane while her relatives played cards. He could practically smell it.
But it was probably just the waffles.
“His name is Quentin and he’s doing enough worrying for everyone, believe me. And he”—deep breath—”ya know, seems nice enough...”
“ —time a bell rings, an angel gets —” said a distant Zuzu Bailey, and then Margo, “Oh, please.”
“Don’t even think about it.”
Eliot scoffed. “I have no idea what you’re ta—”
“Fine!” Margo threw her hands up. He could hear it. “Fine, fine, fine! Whatever ! It’s fine ! I just don’t want you to die in the blizzard of the century because you got kicked out of a Waffle House for defiling both an anxious dweeb and the men’s room! ” Her voice echoed in the background. It’s A Wonderful Life got louder.
He cleared his throat, caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, fixed his hair. “I’ve got class, Margo.”
“I’m hanging up now—”
“Wait!” He heard her take a deep breath, swallow. “Please, for the love of fuck...be safe.” There was a waver in her voice that he knew too well, and it made his stomach turn. “I know I did a lot of bitching last night, but the only thing shittier than—” and she lowered her voice. “Shittier than spending the holidays with my freaks-in-law...would be spending New Years identifying your body.”
“I will. I’ll keep you absolutely up to date. And…” He checked his watch. “I might need you to call in a favor for me later.”
“...What kind of favor?” Any bit of warmth she had mustered up was gone from her voice immediately.
“TBD. See you soon. Love you, Bambi.” And he pocketed his phone and smoothed the front of his shirt.
They were playing Christmas music in the restaurant, tinny and staticky and almost intrusively loud, an incongruous mix of choral hymns and modern poppy remixes, curated so poorly that while Eliot had been in the bathroom, three different covers of Last Christmas had played one after the other.
At least there wouldn’t be any more of the awkward silences that had settled in the truck.
When he returned to the table, Quentin was stirring his cup of coffee absently, gazing out the window, his hair loose around his face.
“Hm?” Quentin looked at him, almost startled, and shook his head, blinking. “Oh, yeah, um. Actually…” And he took out his phone and handed it to Eliot. “So they closed the highway.”
“All of them.”
“Right. So.” And he pointed vaguely to the route he had mapped out. “Even if all the other state roads are clear...that’s eight hours. To Princeton.”
Eliot nodded, picked up his coffee, took a sip, blinked, and put it back down. “Great.”
“I just. My mother called asking—I figured I’d let you know too, I—I’m sure you’ve already worked it out, but—”
“No...this is good. That way takes us right through Bethlehem tonight.” Quentin raised an eyebrow at him. “I know, I know, a little….on-the-nose, but I’ve got…acquaintances. There. In Bethlehem.”
“Oh, perk up. If we’re very lucky they might even have a room for us at the inn.” Eliot took another mouthful of coffee without thinking, and had to work very hard at not spitting it out.
Quentin smiled at that, genuinely, and leaned far enough back in his chair that he was staring at the ceiling. “I’ve just had...a very weird week.”
“Oh, do tell.” Eliot handed their menus back to the waitress before she could say anything, and held up two silent fingers. She eyeballed Quentin, and looked back at Eliot, who just shook his head, before walking away.
“Bad week, I mean, I guess. It was a bad week. Personally. For my career. Just...bad.”
“Mm? Busy at work? What do you do?” Eliot slipped his phone out of his pocket and took a very stealthy photo of Quentin, starfished in his chair across the table, and sent it to Margo.
“I’m…” Quentin scrubbed at his face before sitting back up and stretching. “I’m a writer?” But it sounded more like a question.
“That’s a lie.” Quentin looked around the table briefly, finally noticing the missing menus.
“I’m a temp. And a waiter. And a dog-walker. And I’m…trying to be a writer. That’s uh. That’s why I was in Chicago. Trying to….talk to an agent or a publisher or...and editor or...whoever. Somebody.”
“And?” His phone buzzed. Margo.
“Uh...no luck so far.” He stirred at his coffee again, but didn’t drink any. “But. Whatever. You don’t want to hear—uninteresting.” He waved a hand around, clearing the air in front of him. “Deeply uninteresting.” Finally he took a sip of his coffee, grimacing. “What about you?” And Quentin blinked at him, and shook a strand of hair out of his eyes.
It took Eliot half a second to register the question. “Oh. Well. It’s all probably as uninteresting as the writing and dog walking…”
“No, c’mon, you listened to my bitching.”
“True. Um.” And he gesticulated vaguely around his coffee mug. “I do development work. For a little film studio. Lost of reading terrible scripts and sitting through terrible pitch meetings and…” While Eliot talked, Quentin leaned forward, resting his chin in his hands.”...and, um...and screening terrible actors’ terrible reels….”
Quentin smiled. “I dunno. Sounds pretty interesting to me.”
“Well.” Eliot cleared his throat, watching Quentin try again to get his hair to cooperate. “Grass is always greener, I suppose.” He leaned back in his chair, craning his neck to get a look into the kitchen, and ran a hand through his hair. “I envy the...solitude, I guess. Of writing.”
Again, Quentin laughed. “I live in a two bedroom with...three and a half?...other people. And a dog. I would kill for some solitude.” He groaned. “Ugh—” and he blew a strand of hair out of his eyes. “—and a hair tie…”
The waffles arrived, steaming and sweet-smelling, and while Quentin dove into his head-first, Eliot took the chance to check his message from Margo: ok fine he looks pretty harmless. Followed immediately after by: but he’s not That cute.
“—Oh, I love this song.” Quentin had stopped mid-pour, syrup bottle still in hand, to sit and listen, eyes closed, to Silver Bells . “My friend Penny knows it on the piano. First year we all lived together we just sat around all Christmas Eve afternoon and drank shitty eggnog from the carton.” He set the syrup down and sighed fondly. “Spiked with, uh, Captain Morgan, I think.
Eliot forked a triangle of dry waffle. “We did too. Me and my friend Margo. In grad school.”
Quentin’s whole face lit up, and Eliot nearly choked. “ Seriously ?”
“Yeah,” he coughed. “Except...neither of us could play the piano so we were just... wailing along with Mr. Bublé— ”
“I’m sure you’re a great singer.”
“Oh, I am—” and Quentin laughed while Eliot tried to swallow down a phantom piece of waffle. “—but we were trashed on cranberry martinis.”
There was a second of silence between them as the song took its time fading out. Quentin bit his lip, and smiled looked down at his empty plate, a light pink flush tinting the tops of his ears. Eliot told himself that it was a lot warmer in the restaurant than it had been int he truck. He set his fork down next to his half-eaten waffle, and looked out the window, and tried not to think about Margo’s threat from earlier. Kicked out of a Waffle House for—
“We’re really not making it tonight, are we?” Quentin’s smile had turned sour, and he sat hunched in his chair, not even a waffle to distract him.
“Barring an incredibly convenient, if deeply concerning, move on behalf of global warming…” And he saw Quentin’s shoulders move, a small huff of amusement. “I’d say that’s a safe bet.”
Quentin exhaled, long and slow. “Yeah. Alright. I think I just hit acceptance.”
“Oh, fascinating. I’m definitely still at anger.”
“Yeah, I was at anger for like...mm...half an hour? At the Pittsburgh baggage claim. And the whole bus ride was just, like, Faustian levels of bargaining.” He sniffed, swallowed, crossed his arms. “And it’s been pretty solidly depression since then.” Uncrossed his arms, sipped his coffee. “—God that’s awful—But yeah, I think I just felt the acceptance set in.”
“Good to know I have a lot to look forward to.”
And then the still white of the storm outside was pierced by radiant orange light.
They spotted them through the window at the exact same time; three snow plows traveling in a line, lights flashing and flinging snow to either side of the road, moving at a laughably slow pace, but eastward, nonetheless.
“We should go,” Quentin said, but Eliot was already standing, pulling on his coat and slapping another crisp twenty on the table between their plates. “Wait, I said I’d pay for—”
“Oh my fucking god! ” Eliot was already halfway to the door, walking backwards. “It’s a waffle , let’s GO! ”
Quentin thanked their waitress while Eliot held open the door for him, and then they were back on the road, following the fleet of plow trucks east, towards Bethlehem.
It was just barely sunset, the storm turning orange around its edges, before they had to stop for gas. They were somewhere outside of Hershey, and the wind had slowed but the snow hadn’t, and Quentin was shivering as he stood between the truck and the gas tank, watching the cost of a full tank steadily increase. Hands deep in his pockets, he looked up from the numbers on the pump. Through the staticky haze of snow he watched Eliot inside the station, walking up and down the few aisles and talking animatedly on his phone, before hanging up, and immediately calling someone else.
The gas pump clicked, finally, and Quentin put the nozzle back, grimacing as he thought about a week’s worth of tips burning in the engine of the obscene truck. He shook his head, balled up his receipt, pulled up his hood, and crossed the parking lot into the station.
It was almost stiflingly warm inside, and it smelled like burnt coffee, and one of the more unfortunate versions of Last Christmas was playing, soft and tinny, out of a radio on the counter.
Eliot was in the far corner, still on the phone, staring unseeingly into the swirling depths of the slushie dispensers, and as Quentin browsed around the snacks, he he could hear him talking from across the store.
“—well we don’t have much in the way of choice, do we?—” Quentin picked up a bag of Chex mix, sauntered lazily down the aisle. “—no, I know, he’s a total freak, but I do feel kind of sorry for the guy—”
Quentin’s stomach dropped.
Dazed and blinking, he took whatever was in his hands and made his way quickly to the cashier. Head down, he handed his credit card over to a the menacing man with an unlit cigarette behind his ear, and didn’t realize until the transaction had been completed that all he was left with was a bag of ranch dusted sunflower seeds, pizza flavored Pringles, a peppermint patty, and seven fewer dollars than when he walked in.
Eliot was right behind him when he turned around.
“Shall we?” he asked, when Quentin startled at his presence.
“Shit—” and he bent down to pick up the quarter he had dropped. “Yeah, great. Um. Let’s go.”
“Good news!” Eliot hollered over his shoulder as they struggled back to the truck. “We’re not sleeping in a barn tonight!”
“Oh—okay?” Quentin hauled himself into the truck and dropped his bag of distracted snacks on the floor. He was still trying to put things together in his mind as Eliot wrenched the truck into gear and started back down the barely visible road.
“I had a friend call in a favor.” And Eliot rested his arm on the clutch as he fiddled with the radio, almost all of it deadened by the storm.
“Great…” Was he really that bad as reading people? Was he deluded?
“At this rate we should be just over two hours to—”
“I could’ve gotten back on the bus, you know.”
“You didn’t have to like...take pity on me, or—I don’t—you don’t know me, or—”
“What—what the fuck are you talking about? I don’t mind—”
“—I heard you on the phone with—”
“—If I didn’t want you to come with me I wouldn’t have—”
“—Talking about feeling bad and—
“No, what did you—?”
They both stopped, holding their breaths, the truck staggering along over snow drifts and chunks of packed ice. The radio was stuck between stations, with some honky-tonk tune barely audible over the static. They passed a sign marking the miles until Hershey, Intercourse, and Reading, and an abandoned, nearly snow-covered Amish buggy on the side of the road.
“I heard you…” Quentin started gently. “On the phone with your friend. In the gas station.” He swallowed, stared out the passenger window. “‘Guy’s a freak but I feel bad for him,’....you said.”
There was a long pause. Eliot took a deep breath.
“He is. And I do...a little. But the good news is...he’s not in this fucking truck.”
Quentin looked at Eliot across the cab, feeling somehow both claustrophobic and miles away at the same time. Eliot didn’t chance taking his eyes off the road.
“Bad news is...he is our host for the night.” And Eliot grinned. “The freak. In Bethlehem.”
There was another awkward silence, both of them looking straight ahead, eyes on the white, unchanging road.
“I would’ve felt like the biggest asshole in the world if I let you get back on that bus,” Eliot finally said, casually, like it was nothing at all. “You looked like you were going to die and. Well. It’s Christmas and, um….” He glanced away from the road for half a second, just long enough to catch Quentin’s eye and smile a little. “And I uh...I bond fast anyway.”
Quentin was thankful, suddenly, for the attention that the road required, as he felt his neck and face get warm even in the poorly insulated cab.
“Now would you do me a favor and find literally any other radio station?” Eliot waved his hand vaguely around the center console. “I can’t listen to this for another two hours.”
It was well past dark when they rolled to a stop at the end of an unplowed driveway in front of a narrow brick town house in suburban Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The snow was up past their knees as they trudged to the door, but the porch was swept clean, and the light had been left on.
Eliot rang the doorbell, and folded his hands.
The door swung open.
“Happy Hanukkah, Hoberman!” And Eliot smiled, forced and overly cheery.
“You’re two weeks late, but thanks I guess—” The man that opened the door was wearing a flour-covered plaid shirt, a “Kiss The Cook” apron, and thick rimmed glasses with a schmear of green frosting on the left lens. He was also standing on his toes and craning his neck, trying to peer over Eliot’s shoulders. “—Where’s Margo?”
Eliot sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Sorry, buddy. Just us boys tonight.”
“But she said—”
Eliot elbowed Quentin in the side. “Quentin, this is Josh, my best friend’s college ex-boyfriend—”
“Oh fuck off Eliot.” Josh crossed his arms and scowled. “We were friends too.” Quentin shook some snow out of his hair, and caught a whiff of the warm air inside the apartment—homey and sweet and inviting.
“Right. Sure. Anyway.” Eliot took a deep breath. “Josh, this is Quentin. I met him at an airport 48 hours ago, we got a drink, I saved him from a bus, and now we’re on a road trip.”
“Hi—” “Hi—” Quentin and Josh both said at once, and Quentin had to jostle his arm past Eliot in the doorway to shake Josh’s hand.
“You’re both enormous nerds, I’m sure you’ll be up all night like preteens at a sleepover talking about...dungeons and magic and... Catan—” Eliot waved an airy hand and bounced slightly in place. “—or whatever the fuck, so can we please come inside now Josh , there is a blizzard after all— ”
Josh stepped out of the doorway and herded them in, groaning and rolling his eyes and telling them where to put their shoes. “Sorry about the mess,” Josh offered, gesturing vaguely around the apartment. “Make yourselves at home.” And then something beeped, and he disappeared around a corner.
“Uh...holy shit.” Quentin was stuffing his scarf into the sleeve of his coat, but stopped in his tracks as soon as he looked around.
Eliot took Quentin’s coat from him, hung it on a hook near the door, and crossed his arms, surveying the room. “Ah, yes. It’s like being in college all over again.” He took a deep breath, closing his eyes. “I’ve missed it a little. My waistline, on the other hand...”
Every flat surface in the apartment—and many surfaces that were not flat—were absolutely covered in cookies. Several additional surfaces of varying shapes and sizes seemed to have been constructed specifically to be covered in cookies. It was glorious, and it was horrifying.
Eliot selected one from a towering pile of powdered sugar-dusted spheres, and took a bite. Immediately his eyes fluttered closed again. “Your lemon snowballs are still better than mine, Hoberman, you bastard!” And Eliot smiled and waved Quentin over to the platter, gesturing for him to take one.
“Could you not?” Josh hollered from back around the corner. Quentin dropped his cookie. “They’re for a thing .”
Eliot swallowed the last bite of his, and brushed the crumbs off his hands. “What thing ? Didn’t you hear? There’s a storm. Christmas is canceled.”
“Nope.” Josh reappeared, a tray of sugar cookies shaped like snowmen in his oven-mitted hand. “Buddy of mine has a monster truck. Party’s still on at her place.”
Eliot cocked his head, licking the powdered sugar off his lips. “You’ve got...other friends?”
“Again: fuck off. Do you want to crash here or not?”
“Thanks—” Quentin finally interjected, clasping his hands behind his back and trying not to bump into anything. “—This is...really generous of you. Really. Thank you.”
Josh looked at Eliot, then Quentin, then back at Eliot. “See. That’s how you do it. Here.” And he extended the tray out towards Quentin. “Have a snowman, pal. Welcome to Hacienda de la Hoberman.”
The kitchen was a sugar dusted war zone: a pot on every burner, assembly lines of rolled out dough waiting to be cut, unbaked sheets of cookies ready to go in the oven, rotating timers going off every five minutes, and rows of cooling racks quickly filling up.
Josh put a tray of gingerbread bells onto the oven rack the snowmen had just vacated, then reached into the counter above the oven and retrieved a handful of containers.
“Go nuts,” Josh said, pointing back at the living room.
“You’re too kind.” And Eliot put his hands up. “But I’m really trying to watch what I—”
“Very fucking funny.” Josh pressed the stack of containers into Eliot’s hands. “Please?”
“Keep ‘em separate or does it matter?” Quentin asked, already carefully stacking peanut butter cookies into a blue tin.
“Not those!” And Quentin froze. “They’re still cooling. They’ll get condensation on the inside of the tin—they’ll get soggy—”
Josh shepherded them both back into the living room and they set to work, filling boxes and tins ad tupperwares from each of the last four decades with hundred and hundreds of cookies. They worked elbow to elbow with a terrible made for TV movie playing in the background as Josh produced cookies faster than they could box them. Slowly though, the end tabled and ottomans and sideboards cleared; and then the couch cushions, and the bookshelves, and then the milk crates and makeshift tables and upturned boxes, all once piled high, reemerged.
Just after nine-thirty, a fog-horn wail came from the end of the driveway, and Josh, weighed down like Santa himself, gave them the final run down.
“Help yourself to whatever’s left, wi-fi password is taped to the router, spare pillows in the linen closet upstairs—” He pointed his keys at Eliot. “—do not sleep in my bed—”
Josh rolled his eyes. “And I probably won’t be home until tomorrow so, uh. Merry Christmas, I guess.”
He shook Quentin’s hand again, and gave Eliot a stiff, awkward farewell hug, and then he was out the door into the storm, still raging on.
And then they were alone in Josh Hoberman’s house.
Quentin collapsed on the couch, swiping crumbs off of it and onto the floor. He leaned his head back, and closed his eyes. “If I never see another cookie for as long as I live...I think I’ll be alright.” He sat for a second, taking deep breaths of the apartment’s sweet air. “Right?” And then there was the sound of the refrigerator door opening and slamming shut. “Eliot?”
In the kitchen, miraculously clean and absent of cookies entirely, Eliot was standing in front of the fridge, a stick of butter, an egg, and three whole lemons in his hands, staring into the packed freezer.
“Son of a bitch took the pot brownies with him.”
“What?” Quentin rubbed his eyes, and sat down at the kitchen table.
“Hoberman makes gourmet edibles and there were some in here before. I checked. He must have taken them to the monster truck rally—”
“I think only the one friend had a monster truck, actually—”
“Whatever, would you grab me a bowl?”
Quentin stood up automatically, and started opening cabinets at random. “Wait, why?” And, yawning, Quentin leaned his forehead against the fridge.
“Because,” Eliot said from behind him, sounding like he had something between his teeth. “I can’t stop thinking about those lemon snowballs.”
When Quentin turned around, Eliot had a scrap of paper in his mouth and was tying Josh’s “Kiss the Cook” apron around his waist.
Quentin blinked at him slowly, mouth open in confusion. “You’re not...you’re not gonna...you’re not making cookies right now….are you?”
“Well not until you get me a bowl, no.” He pointed over Quentin’s shoulder. “Top shelf, to your left, the big metal one.”
Quentin handed him the bowl, and went back to searching the fridge, poking around until he found a bag of baby carrots and half a container of hummus. He stood for a second, watching Eliot zest and juice a lemon, momentarily distracted. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, and he had taken his watch and rings off, and when he needed to look at the recipe he held the wrinkled paper flat with his middle and pinkie finger, and—
“Would you mind turning that off?” Eliot said, glancing over his shoulder.
“Hm, what?” Quentin nearly jumped.
“The movie,” and he nodded vaguely towards the living room. “Or change the channel or something. I hate this one.”
Quentin shuffled, bag of carrots still in hand, into the living room, and searched lamely for the remote before just turning the TV off. When he returned to the kitchen, Eliot was trying to open a bag of confectioners sugar with his teeth.
“You’re gonna—” Quentin chuckled, dropped the carrots on the table and reaching for the bag. “Gimme—you’re gonna fling that stuff all over.”
Eliot handed over the bag, and Quentin dug around in the drawers for a pair of scissors, and then Eliot said, “It was one of mine,” very casually.
“That terrible movie.” He took the bag from Quentin’s hand, and started pouring it into a measuring cup. “Followed it all the way from heinous script to abhorrent casting right through disastrous production.”
“Why?” Quentin crossed his arms and leaned against this counter.
“Well because it was my job, mostly. But also...oh I don’t know. The bones of it were good, I suppose. It’s classic Christmas, you know? Hope and redemption and optimism and...and just a cloying, awful love story wedged in for no good reason.” He dumped the sugar into the bowl with the lemon and started whisking furiously, not even looking at it. “And it had this just god awful country music soundtrack. Jesus, one note and I just get flashbacks to these endless production meetings with this slime ball of a director that leered at all the assistants.” He shuddered, and reached for the flour. “Anyway.”
“Anyway.” Quentin sat back down at the table and ate a couple carrots, trying to remember the last vegetable he’d consumed, and finding himself too tired to think that hard. Instead, he sat with his chin in his hands, and closed his eyes, listening to the sounds of Eliot’s mixing and measuring.
“Last time I made these,” Eliot said, quiet, like a confession. “I was still living with Margo.”
“Mm?” Quentin hummed.
“We were in our two-bedroom by the river in Archer Heights, and she and Fen were still just dating, just barely…” He pulled a pair of baking sheets out from the cabinet under the sink, and started rolling the dough into little balls. “And then she had to go get herself domesticated.” He chuckled a little. “Wife...cat...house with a picket fence and everything.” He sighed. “In fucking New Jersey.”
“I don’t know what I’d do,” Quentin said, slow and sleepy. “If my friends moved halfway across the country.”
“Well, if you ever find yourself in such a situation...don’t wait five years to find an excuse to visit. It’ll just get harder.”
“Five years?” And Quentin opened his eyes, but Eliot didn’t turn around.
“Yeah. I’ve had work to keep me busy. For better or worse.” Eliot continued, silently, rolling the dough balls in powdered sugar and spacing them meticulously on the sheet trays. Then the oven dinged that it was hot, and the trays were slid in, and a single timer was set, and Eliot sauntered into the living room, grabbing a bottle of scotch and dropping his apron off on the sideboard as he went.
Quentin followed him, hypnotized a little bit by how comfortable he seemed. They sat on opposite ends of the couch and both put their feet up on the ottoman. Eliot flicked off the lid of the scotch, and it went flying in Quentin’s direction, and then he held the half-empty bottle up over his head.
“Cheers,” he said, smiling lazily. “To...orphans of the storm.” And he took a long swig straight from the bottle. Quentin watched his Adam’s apple bob as Eliot hissed and coughed. “Christ, that’s cheap.” Wiping at his nose with the back of his hand, he examined the label and scoweld. “Drink,” he said, reaching the bottle across the couch.
Quentin took it, and lifted it himself. “To our gracious host.” Before downing a mouthful that burned all the way up into his sinuses. “God, okay—take it back—” But he didn’t have to tell Eliot twice.
“To the people we’re supposed to be with.” Eliot drank, and Quentin was reminded of his mother.
Staying the night with a friend, he typed out fast, with Eliot waving the bottle at him. See you in the morning . And then he turned off his phone.
Quentin drank, unthinking.
“You were supposed to toast something,” Eliot chided him. “Did you not pick up on the pattern?”
“Ok fine...um.” And he leaned the mouth of the bottle against his chin. “To...um.”
“C’mon. Anything. Don’t tell me you’re out of ideas so soon?”
“No, no. Uh.” Quentin thought and thought and thought, and the same thought kept coming back to him. “To, um. To a prosperous New Year.” And he took another whithering sip.
“Boring.” Eliot grabbed the bottle and blew across it, making it whistle. “To creative integrity.”
Quentin chuckled. “Yeah...okay, gimme.” The bottle was approaching empty, but he held it in the air anyway. “To the American publishing industry. May it burn hot and fast, all the way to the ground.”
Eliot sat up and took the bottle out of Quentin’s hand. “Damn. Bitter?” And Quentin shrugged, grinning. Laying back in his corner, Eliot tried and failed to balance the bottle on his forehead. “To the family—” He downed the last dregs of the scotch and sniffed. “—we love to hate, and hate to love and—”
“You don’t talk to your family,” Quentin interrupted him, and then he frowned, surprised at himself.
Eliot stopped mid sentence and stared at him, mouth open, empty bottle still in his hands. The apartment suddenly felt very quiet, and very small, and Quentin noticed that he was now slouched almost in the middle of the couch.
“Nope.” Eliot held Quentin’s eye as he reached down and grabbed the lid off the floor, twisted it back on to the bottle, and set it on the ottoman between their feet. “You do, but you wish you didn’t.”
Quentin bit his lip, and tried to look at something that wasn’t Eliot, staring him down, but couldn’t manage it. He swallowed. “My dad died this spring. Wouldn’t be going to my mom’s if...if I had the choice.”
Eliot just kept looking at him, and the temperature in the room just kept rising, and the walls kept getting closer—and then the timer on the oven went off.
Eliot jumped off the couch, leaving Quentin stuck where he was, approaching tipsy and knowing he’d be very drunk very soon, and embarrassed by his lack of filter. He heard the oven door open and close, and then Eliot returned, and sat a little closer than he had been.
“My dad’s a bastard,” he said, cracking his knuckles and folding his hands behind his head. “What’s your book about?”
Quentin had whiplash. “Um...uh….” He shook his head, turned so he was sitting cross-legged on the center couch cushion, facing Eliot. “...What?”
“This is a terrible elevator pitch.” He leaned his head back against the couch and closed his eyes, and moved his shoulders a little bit, settling in. “Go on. Spin me a yarn. Unless you want to keep talking about our parents?”
Quentin swallowed. “No, no, um.” He rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath. “It’s...um. It’s about...magic.”
Eliot grinned a little. “Like Harry Houdini, David Blane magic, or elves and dragons magic?”
“Um...the um...the latter.”
“Yeah. It’s um…” He waved his hands around in front of him, searching for the words. “Like, high fantasy...epic romance...kings and princes and knights and...stuff, um—Arthurian Legend riffing...magical realms versus the real world….and uh…” Quentin paused, and Eliot raised and eyebrow. “Real, um—kind of, C.S. Lewis-inspired—”
“So.” Eyes still closed, Eliot cocked his head towards Quentin. “Again, your pitch needs some real work. Gotta tighten it up a little.”
Quentin swallowed, looked down at his hands.
And then there was a hand resting lightly on his knee.
When he looked back up, Eliot was looking back, head still tilted, eyebrow still raised, and eyes heavy-lidded, but open.
“Lucky for you, that’s kinda my job.”
When he woke up, the sky through the living room window was powder blue and blindingly bright. He was still in his clothes from the night before, and his mouth tasted like lemons and sugar and liquor. His neck hurt where he had fallen asleep with it bent at a wrong angle. His eyes were dry, and his throat was sore, and he had a very small headache at his temples, and Josh Hoberman was standing over him, hands on his hips, with a look of unsurprised disappointment on his face that Eliot hadn’t seen since college.
Also, Quentin was asleep, snoring softly, with his head in his lap.
Josh smiled down at him sardonically. “They plowed all the roads. You can get out of my house now.”
Eliot yawned, and bounced his knee to jostle Quentin. “Hear that, Q? The roads are clear. It’s a Christmas miracle.”
Quentin sat up with a start, eyes wide and hair mussed, looking up at Josh like he didn’t know where he was.
“Have a nice party, Hoberman?” Eliot rubbed his eyes and stretched. “I do hope you made enough cookies for everyone.”
Josh sighed and shook his head. “Not quite, but we made do.”
They both sat staring at him, blinking slowly, at a loss for words.
“Um…” Quentin sniffed, fought back a yawn. “Thank you...again...for...mm...couch.”
Josh nodded at him. “Anytime, buddy.” And looked back at Eliot. “Alright. It’s almost eight—”
Eliot scoffed. “Are you fucking kidding me—?”
“—Better get on the road before you hit traffic—”
“—Eight in the morning— ?”
“—Headed towards the city!”
“What’s wrong with you—?”
Quentin was already at the door by the time Eliot finished berating Josh about the hour and hauled himself off the couch. He pulled his shoes on, and handed Eliot his coat.
“Drive safe,” Josh said, clapping Quentin on the arm, before pointing at Eliot. “Tell Margo I said hi.”
“Unlikely!” Eliot called, already halfway out the door.
They drove and drove and drove, sticking to the state roads running parallel to the already congested highways, through white blanketed farmland and neat sparkling suburbs, the both of them silent and sleepy.
“Oh shit,” Quentin whispered as the crossed the New Jersey line. “Mom called me five times.”
“Well you’re going to see her in about half an hour. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“Yeah. You’re right.” He sighed and rubbed his face. “I’m nervous—why am I nervous ?”
Eliot had been trying not to acknowledge the anxious ache in his own stomach for the last hour, chalking it up to a day of eating nothing but sugar and booze, and staying up too late, and a lack of caffeine. But the closer they got to Princeton, the more uneasy he became.
“Moms give me a lot of anxiety. I’m meeting in-laws today.” Sure, he thought. Maybe that was it. Fen’s Finnoscandweigian family
“I guess.” And Quentin took a very deep breath, and didn’t say anything for the rest of the ride.
They pulled into the driveway of the little brick house, and the GPS announced that they had arrived, and he reached into the back seat to grab his bag, and then he sat there, staring out the windshield, hands in his lap.
“Um...we’re here?” Eliot threw the truck into park and leaned back.
“Yeah. Guess so.” Quentin had kicked open the door and was dangling one leg out of the cab when he stopped like he had forgotten something. “Hey, um…” Balancing half inside and half outside, Quentin turned back.
Eliot’s heart was in his throat.
“Um...Thanks.” Quentin smiled, small and sad, and mumbled, “Merry Christmas,” before practically falling out of the truck and fighting his way up the unplowed driveway.
Eliot put the truck back into drive.
Margo was still in her pajamas when she opened the door, and she cried when she saw him. Fen had been up for hours, apparently—preparing the specific meats and breads and jellies her family required for a proper holiday breakfast—but she still squealed when he walked into the kitchen. Not long after, nearly a dozen small older relatives in matching sweaters poured out of the guest rooms, and the Christmas celebrations began in earnest.
There was breakfast, and the regimented, laborious task of opening the imported presents one by one, and the singing of unknown carols in an exotic language, and a lunch even bigger than breakfast, and—
“Hey.” Margo leaned over and tapped his arm, midway through the recounting of either some traditional myth or family vacation story. It was hard for him to tell at that point. “C’mon.”
She dragged him by the arm out of the cozy little den with its roaring fire and meticulously decorated tree, and into an office she had fashioned into a library. She sat on the desk while he sank into an overstuffed leather armchair.
“You look like shit,” she said, crossing her arms and smiling down at him.
Eliot scowled. “Thanks. I had a rough night. Or...weekend. Or...hmm. What day is it?”
“Yeah, so I gathered—”
“Then why do you look like someone shit in your figgy pudding?”
He raised his eyebrows, tried to look awake and aloof. “I think Fen might have actually made some of that—”
“ Eliot ?”
He sighed, tapped the tips of his fingers on his knees, looked up at her, bit his tongue, looked back down.
“Oh, god…” she groaned, rolling her eyes. “Don’t tell me. It’s fucking cereal guy.”
Eliot tried very hard to maintain a vague and impassable expression. Margo say right through it.
She scoffed. “You can just call him tomorrow!”
“I...never got his number.”
“...Or his last name…”
She blinked at him and pinched the bridge of her nose. “So...what do you have?”
“Um…uh...” He exhaled, casual. “His mother’s address?”
There was a long beat where she just stared at him, her face unreadable. He looked around, trying to avoid eye contact, trying to read the header on the papers on her desk, trying to see if he recognized any of the books on the shelves behind her.
“Okay,” she finally said, snapping him back to attention. “Get your coat.”
“I need a break from them. Fen will understand. Let’s go. Let’s go get your cereal guy.”
They were almost out the front door when they were spotted by the smallest, oldest in-law, tottering around the kitchen with a plate full of sausages, humming to herself.
“Where are you off to, dears?” she asked, in a round, sing-song accent.
“Pharmacy,” Margo answered immediately. “He needs imodium.” Eliot did his best to keep a straight face, but elbowed her in the side anyway.
“Well I’ve certainly got some in—”
“ Prescription strength ...imodium.”
The old woman recoiled. “Oh dear…” she tutted, shuffling back to the den. “Oh dear, oh dear…”
And Margo and Eliot were out the door.
Quentin had been sitting across from his mother, listening to her recount the business of their distant relatives and her friends from work—in painstaking, intimate detail—for almost two hours. She had stayed up all night waiting for him, despite his last text, and had been a frantic, maternal combination of relieved and furious when he knocked on the door. Before she hugged him, she made him brush his teeth and change his clothes, and then they had sat down at her kitchen island with a cup of green tea and a slice of dry fruit cake for each of them, and they hadn’t moved since.
His head hurt. He needed caffeine. He needed to sleep.
He wanted to go home. He wanted to see Julia and Penny and Alice and Kady and her little yappy dog and the snow-covered skyline and their shitty Charlie Brown tree and their stockings hung on the radiator and—
And—he realized, with a terrible, shocking lurch, as he stared as his sad breakfast and tried to tune out his mother—he wanted to see Eliot again.
“...Did I tell you we got a Christmas card from your father’s brother which is just bizarre considering...” He checked his phone under the table, and was disappointed before he realized none of his friends would be awake yet.
“Hello?” His mother leaned over and tried to catch his attention. “Are you awake in there?”
“Hm?” Quentin looked up, and absently sipped at his lukewarm tea.
“Do you want to tell me about your little Christmas adventure now?”
“Oh, um.” He swallowed, tried to get the taste out of his mouth. “Right. Well. You know. My flight got grounded, so I stayed over in Pittsburgh. Got a bus, got off the bus, we rented a car—”
“Yeah, okay, pause.” She held her hands up like she was stopping traffic. “What do you mean you rented a car? You don’t have a license. Do you have a license? Who’s we ? ”
Quentin sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Um. A guy I met in Chicago. And then again in Pittsburgh. Twice.”
Her mother crossed her arms. His ‘little Christmas adventure’ story was starting to feel like an interrogation.
“Uh...he rented it. The truck.” He sighed again, not looking at her. “My friend El—
And then the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it!” And Quentin nearly fell out of his chair.
His heart was pounding as he opened the door, and then it stopped completely when Julia nearly tackled him to the ground, her arms tight around his neck.
“Oh my god,” he breathed, hugging her back, blinded by her scarf in his face. “What are you doing here?”
“Don’t act so surprised” She said, and then she whispered into his ear, “Your mom hates us anyway.”
“No she doesn’t. Wait, us ?”
Julia finally released him, and the rest of his friends were standing on the front step, giftbags in hand, smug smiles on their faces. They filed in, kicking their shoes off and handing Quentin their coats, just as his mother finally came around the corner to see what was going on.
“So what do you call this exactly?” she asked, arms crossed.
“Pineapple upside-down cake and tofurkey,” said Penny, holding up a Trader Joe’s bag and smiling.
“A shih tzu.”And Kady’s dog barked as if on cue.
His mother rolled her eyes, and they followed her back into the kitchen.
Later, they sat on the floor in the living room underneath the pre-lit but undecorated tree. His mother, reminding him that she hadn’t slept all night because of his “antics,” had gone upstairs for a nap. Downstairs, his friends continued the interrogation where his mother had left off.
“I...I don’t know,” Quentin said, biting his lip and shrugging.
“You don’t know this guy’s last name?” Penny asked around a mouthful of cake.
Quentin shook his head. “It just...never came up.”
“I can’t believe you slept at a stranger’s house with this guy—who is also a total stranger, by the way—and didn’t send us a photo of his license or something.” Alice was leaning against the coffee table, a stern look on her face. “You did….” And the sternness melted into a childish giggle. “You did just...sleep, right?”
“Yes, jeez. God.” Quentin rolled his eyes. “I’m not that desperate.”
“False,” said Kady, her dog asleep in her lap.
“Whatever. It...doesn’t matter.” Quentin looked down at his hands. “It doesn’t matter! He lives in Chicago and I don’t have an agent there and he’s off with—”
“But you like him,” Julia said, practically cooing.
“Yeah, well, I like a lot of people.”
“Slut.” And she ruffled his hair.
“I dunno,” Alice sighed. “A man that buys you waffles and drives stick shift. You could do a lot worse, Q.”
“Oh my god, I said it didn’t matter!” Quentin stood up, cracking his back. “Anyone want more wine?”
“He bought you a drink too! That sounds like a move, like right off the bat.” Penny was still waving his fork at him.
“Yeah and he listened to you talk about your fucking book all night.” Kady shrugged. “That’s pretty serious—”
“Guys!” Quentin put his hands up. “Yeah, he was very nice, and generous, and funny and sweet and saved me from the bus and practically read my whole novel in one sitting but—and I really cannot over stress this point: None. Of that. Mat—”
And the doorbell rang again.
They all froze. Except for the dog, who barked once.
“Don’t panic…” Alice said, leaning back to look out the window. “But it looks like there’s a fucking SWAT vehicle in front of your house.”
“Oh my god.” Quentin could feel his pulse in his face. “Everyone...shut up.”
They all stared back at him, including the dog.
He stood in front of the door for a second, taking a deep breath, and then another, and then another, and then the doorbell went off again, and he could hear his mother coming down the stairs, so he opened the door just enough for him to get through, and stepped out into the cold.
“Hi,” Eliot said, looking down at him, breath turning to fog. “You’re not wearing any shoes.”
“Nope!” Quentin said, too loud, and swallowed. “What’s up?” Behind Eliot, he could see all of his friends’ faces pressed against the living room window.
“I...um…” They were standing close together, wedged into the small shoveled square in front of the door. Quentin could feel the warmth coming off of him, and smell the sweet air that had seeped into his coat from Josh’s house. “I forgot.”
“I got you something.” Eliot dug around in the pocket of his coat while the chill and a guilt settled into Quentin’s bones. “Here,” he said, and handed him something wrapped in a black gas station shopping bag.
“Thanks...um...you didn’t have to—” But Eliot held up a hand, and Quentin peeled back the bag.
It was a package of black hair ties.
“It’s stupid, but….” Eliot chuckled to himself, shrugged. “It was either this or a decent cup of coffee and, uh, obviously I couldn’t find one of—”
“I have something for you, too,” Quentin said, gift in one hand and the other balled into a fist at his side. “But—one sec—” And he ripped a single hair tie out of the package with his teeth, and threw his hair up fast and messy, and dropped the rest of the package through the mail slot in the front door. And then he stood on his freezing toes, his socks already soaked through, grabbed Eliot by the collar of his coat, and kissed him.
Almost immediately the front door burst open, and someone sitting in the truck rolled down the window and whistled, and Quentin didn’t care. Eliot’s nose was pressed into his cheek and as cold as his own, and his hands were freezing on the back of his neck, and still Quentin didn’t care. There was someone coming up the driveway and he could hear his mother scoffing and he just did not care.
Eliot smelled like gingerbread and tasted like really, really good coffee, and he was wrapping his coat around him and pulling him in close and that’s what mattered and—
“Alright, break it up—”
Quentin sighed as Eliot pulled back, but he was still trapped in the warmth of his big brown coat. A woman was standing next to them.
“If you’re not careful you’ll get stuck to each other like that kid and the flagpole.” The woman crossed her arms and grinned, wicked.
Eliot cleared his throat. “Quentin, this is Margo.”
She nodded at him, and Quentin smiled. “Um,” he said, feeling himself flush as he noticed his mother in his peripheral. “Eliot, this is…everybody.”
Everyone stood very still for a moment before Margo finally broke the silence.
“Hey, no offense, but I have a very big house and a surplus of Norweigian deserts that I—”
“Norweigian?” Eliot interjected, raising and eyebrow. Quentin reached his freezing hands further inside Eliot's warm coat, and felt him shiver when he rested them on the small of his back. Eliot smiled down at him, eyebrow still up, conspiratorial.
“Yeah,” Margo said. “Norweigian. Who would’ve—”
“Oh.” And Penny elbowed his way to the front of the group. “I love krumkake….”
Later that night, Quentin’s mother sat between Fen’s grandparents, all of them cheerfully bemoaning international travel, while the rest of them gathered in Margo’s library, drinking wine and playing cards. There were things that weren’t being said, of course. Things about time and distance and money and life. These things were being forgotten for the moment, while a tin of wafer-thin cookies were passed around the room, and Fen fiddled with the record player, and Penny and Alice and Kady gambled away their chocolates. Instead, Margo and Eliot and Quentin and Julia sat against the bookshelves and talked about the things that mattered. Like the impossibly homey feeling of a basement bar in a Pittsburgh bed and breakfast. Like the generosity of unabashed midwesterners. Like the mounting sentiment of small gesture. Like the remorse of five Christmases spent in absentia, and the weight of a promise never to let it happen again. Things like how good the now was, and how distant the then would be; and how nice it was to sit among friends, hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder, at the end of a very, very long Christmas.