Christmas Eve at the Exit
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Art by Jason C. Eckhardt
Will Santa know how to find us?” Anne-Marie asked as she hopped out of the van.
“Of course he will, honey,” Rachel said, just like she’d said every time they’d stopped.
Anne-Marie didn’t answer. She slammed the door hard enough to shake the entire vehicle, and hurried across the empty ice-covered parking lot. Somehow she kept her balance and didn’t fall, despite the pink tennis shoes she wore. Her red mittens hung off a string threaded through her pink coat. She’d lost three pairs so far, which Rachel figured had to be some kind of quiet rebellion.
Eight hundred, maybe nine hundred, miles to go, she thought to herself. She hadn’t been willing to check the GPS. She wasn’t sure if it transmitted the van’s location.
Even though she had never even seen the van before she removed it from a storage unit in Winnemucca, Nevada. Even though the van, its license plates, and that storage unit weren’t in her name. Even though she had taken a taxi to the units from that weird hotel and casino.
She’d left a trail. It was impossible not to. If someone had followed her, they would have figured it out. She’d had to leave Anne-Marie with the casino-provided babysitting service, which frightened Rachel more than anything. Then the taxi driver kept talking about how unusual it was to have a woman take a cab to a storage unit. He pressed his card into her hand, told her to call him if her ride didn’t show up.
I know you’re in trouble, little lady, he’d said through teeth broken so long ago the cracks had turned yellow from the cigars he smoked. So you just call me and I’ll make sure you get back to the hotel, no problem.
She’d thanked him, trying not to cry. She hadn’t wanted him to notice her. She hadn’t wanted anyone to notice her. She wanted to be invisible, even though she didn’t look like she belonged.
She belonged in Boise, with her trendy blue ski parka and five-hundred-dollar athletic shoes, not in small-town Nevada where she was so obviously a tourist that everyone asked her if she needed directions.
In the end, she hadn’t needed the cab driver. She used the key she’d been mailed to open the storage unit, then followed the instructions pasted to the van. Three different identities inside, each with a different credit card, an entire wad of cash, birth certificates for her and Anne-Marie, and directions to their new place.
Plus seven different preprogrammed cell phones, one for each state. They were numbered. Every time Rachel crossed a state border, she was supposed to toss out the phone she had been using, and take the next one. She’d thrown the first away near the Bonneville Salt Flats, heart pounding, and somehow that—not the abandonment of her own car, the use of a new identity, the loss of all her possessions—had finally convinced her there was no turning back.
She still had the feeling she was being followed. She liked to attribute that to the fact that all modern cars looked alike, so the dark blue SUV she saw in Salt Lake might have had nothing to do with the dark blue SUV that cut her off in Rock Springs. Or the beige sedan that seemed to dog her trip from North Platte to Kearney.
She ran a hand through her wedge-cut dark hair. She’d bought and paid for that wedge cut, as per instructions, at a beauty shop in Cheyenne, where the kind sad-eyed woman there also gave her a pencil for her eyebrows—to thicken and darken them—and taught her how to alter the shape of her face with blush, foundation, and the right kind of lipstick.
The wind blew hard here in Omaha, carrying with it a chill she hadn’t felt in a decade. Her brand-new ski parka felt too thin despite its state-of-the-art promises. Of course, the radio had been telling her that she was driving into a holiday “polar vortex” that filled the air with cold that could kill in less than an hour.
She was glad for the van, glad for the clothes she wore, glad for the interstate with its protective traffic, but she hoped to be off the road soon. She was afraid for Anne-Marie and afraid for herself, and the weather didn’t help matters.
She shrugged on her gloves, and carefully followed her daughter inside. The ice was so thick that it added another layer to the parking lot. The lot had been well tended; the snow from a massive storm two days ago—one that had been ahead of her all the way—was piled alongside the edges of the lot, taking up at least one row of spaces.
Anne-Marie watched her from inside. Her blond hair wisped out of her blue-and-pink cap, her round cheeks were bright red with cold, and her blue eyes twinkled in the Christmas lights framing the glass door. She looked like a child waiting for Santa Claus instead of a little girl who had no idea how much her life had already changed.
Rachel pushed the door open, heard the bing-bong of electronic notification, and saw a twenty-something dark-skinned man behind the desk. His appearance momentarily startled her. She’d lived in Idaho for so long that she had forgotten how diverse the rest of the country was.
He looked at her and grinned. The expression softened his face, and made the red-and-green silk scarf around his neck seem appropriate. “I assume this little one belongs to you?”
“She does,” Rachel said with a smile that she had to force. She put her hand on Anne-Marie’s shoulder and guided her daughter toward the tall front desk, festooned in garlands.
A real Christmas tree took over a corner of the lobby, filling the air with the scent of pine.
“She and I have been discussing Santa,” the young man said. His nametag identified him as Luke.
“She and I have as well,” Rachel said. “She thinks he won’t find her because we’re very far from home. I told her that Santa is magic, and can find everyone.”
“Yes, he can,” Luke said, leaning over a little so that he could see Anne-Marie on the other side of the desk. “And people like me, we help Santa when he needs it.”
Rachel’s stomach clenched. She tried not to look frightened by that admission, but it was hard. She wanted to ask Luke who else he would help if need be, but she didn’t.
She wanted to seem as normal as she could for a woman who brought her daughter to a chain hotel off I-80 on Christmas Eve.
“What’s the largest room you have?” She really couldn’t afford it, but it was Christmas, and she wanted the room to be festive somehow.
“We have a choice of everything,” Luke said. “We’re empty at the moment, although I expect the usual travelers and truckers after ten.”
She smiled. His good mood, surprising for a man working on the holiday, was infectious. He smiled back and tapped at the computer keyboard. As he did so, the Christmas lights woven into the garland above him winked off the tiny sparkly red-and-white candy canes in his pierced ears.
“When do you get to go home and celebrate?” she asked as she pulled out her wallet. She was pleased that her hands weren’t shaking.
“I’m here all night, ma’am,” Luke said, sounding distracted. He was still staring at the screen in front of him.
“Will Santa find you?” Anne-Marie asked, her voice a little shaky.
Rachel braced herself for him to say something disparaging like, Santa hasn’t found me for years, honey.
Instead, Luke reached to one side of the computer and grabbed a real candy cane. He kept it under the lip of the desk, then looked up at Rachel, a question on his face. She nodded her approval.
His smile became real then and he leaned over the desk again, offering the candy cane to Anne-Marie. Anne-Marie took it like it was the most precious thing she’d ever received.
“Santa doesn’t have to find me,” he said. “I’m one of Santa’s helpers.”
Anne-Marie clutched it to her pink coat. “Really?” she asked breathlessly.
“Really,” he said.
She backed away a little. “Can I put this on the tree?” she asked Rachel softly.
But Luke heard. “It’s okay, hon,” he said as he tapped the keyboard some more. “The tree has enough candy canes on it. That one’s for you.”
Anne-Marie frowned. Rachel smiled at her, encouragingly. The last thing she wanted was for her daughter to be this wary. Had she taught Anne-Marie that? Or had Anne-Marie learned it through observation?
“You can put it on our tree when we get upstairs if you want,” Rachel said.
Anne-Marie nodded seriously, and clutched the candy cane to her chest. Luke was looking at Rachel over the computer.
His questioning gaze startled her.
“We’ve been setting up a small tree at nights in the hotel rooms,” she said, feeling as if she were giving him the secrets of her soul.
He grinned. “That’s wonderful,” he said. “Great thinking.”
She braced herself again for more questions, like she’d had at the other hotels. When will you get to your destination? Are you spending Christmas with your family? Where’s your husband, sweet thing?
But he didn’t ask them, and she didn’t volunteer. Her heart was beating hard, the wallet in her hand feeling like an accusation. She had to remember which identification she was using. It was hard, because she looked at them all every night.
The instructions told her to change identification only if she felt she needed to, and she wasn’t sure what that meant, especially since she felt like she needed to change identification every minute of every day.
“We have a suite,” Luke said. “No one’s booked it. I think it’s late enough that I can give it to you at a lower rate.”
The price he quoted to her made her heart pound harder but, she reasoned, she’d planned to pay that much anyway, the moment she walked in the door.
All she could feel was the money going out. She wondered how much of it she would owe later.
But she couldn’t think about that. Not yet.
“Credit card?” he asked, extending one hand while the other still tapped on the keyboard in front of him.
Her fingers twitched, and she swallowed hard. Then she pulled out the card on top, checked the name, made sure it matched the driver’s license in the front of this wallet, and set the card in Luke’s hand. He shifted the card so that it fell between his thumb and index finger—clearly a maneuver of long standing—and then slid it through the card reader.
He had to be able to hear her heart. Everyone had to. Even Anne-Marie, who had moved to the Christmas tree as if it held the secrets of the world.
She hadn’t asked after her father. She hadn’t even asked where they were going.
That wasn’t natural, was it?
Rachel didn’t know. She’d never done anything like this before.
All Anne-Marie had asked was about Santa Claus, over and over again. That, Rachel believed, was normal.
“Your card,” Luke said, still without looking up. He was holding it out.
Rachel’s breath caught. She expected him to finish that sentence: Your card . . . didn’t run. Do you have another?
But he didn’t. He was just handing it back to her. He hadn’t even asked to see ID.
“Your key,” Luke said, holding a little folder with a black credit-card-sized square and a room number hand-written inside. “You’re on the third floor. Just take the elevator up. Would you like help with your luggage?”
Rachel didn’t see anyone who could help, besides Luke himself. She was about to say no when she glanced at Anne-Marie, still staring at the tree.
“Yes,” Rachel said. “Yes, please.”
The van had a compartment in the back built for the spare tire and for some repair equipment. When Rachel found the vehicle inside the storage unit, she had taken the tire out and placed it flat on the van’s carpet, then added the repair equipment on top of it. Later, at the hotel, she had taken out the bag of Santa presents she had bought before leaving Boise and placed them inside that little compartment.
Then she’d added the suitcases she’d bought just that afternoon at the local Walmart, plus the new overnight bags. And stepped back to look at her handiwork.
So much new stuff, such a lack of familiarity. Only Anne-Marie’s favorite toys remained, mostly because Rachel hadn’t had the heart to toss them out.
She’d bought a little tree too, with the lights already attached.
Even though the two of them were running away, she had vowed that her daughter would have Christmas.
Luke had come out with her, leaving a woman Rachel hadn’t seen when she checked in to watch the front desk. And Anne-Marie. The woman was watching Anne-Marie too. The woman looked tired and stressed, and something in her disheveled blouse and wrinkled skirt screamed shift’s end, a fact confirmed by Luke just before he left the lobby.
“It’s just a minute, Sherrie,” he had said to the woman. “I promise. Then you can go home.”
“Always just one more minute,” Sherrie had said. “I gotta get to the stores before they close.”
“Kmart’s open until ten,” Luke had said, and in his voice was just a bit of contempt. Because he thought Sherrie should shop at Kmart or because she did shop at Kmart?
Rachel couldn’t tell, and truly didn’t care. She just didn’t want the woman to see her—at least not much.
Luke, well, Rachel was taking a chance with him. This was the first time since she left Winnemucca that anyone other than herself and Anne-Marie had seen inside the van.
Anne-Marie was still inside the lobby, holding the candy cane and staring at the tree. She wouldn’t even sit down. She had asked Sherrie if she believed Santa would find them.
“You’d be surprised what Santa can find,” Sherrie had said.
Rachel pulled the Santa bag out of the hidden compartment. “Is there any way to put this behind the desk for a few minutes without Anne-Marie seeing it?”
Luke grinned at her. “No wonder you weren’t worried about St. Nick. He’s already been here. Anything good in there?”
“If you’re seven, like pink, and have always longed for at least one more Barbie,” Rachel said, rather surprised she could banter. She had thought the ability to banter had left her years ago.
He smiled at her. “She’ll remember this trip forever . . .”
# # #
Read the exciting conclusion in our current issue, on sale now!
"Christmas Eve at the Exit" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Copyright © 2014 with permission of the author.
Keep these great mystery stories coming all year long ... Subscribe now!