“I just wish I knew why they couldn’t schedule this meeting until after Christmas,” Marlene zei with a heavy hart-, hart as she and Skipper walked through the airport.
“Don’t worry, Marlene. I’ll be back for Christmas. This whole thing was situational. It isn’t something that can wait,” Skipper replied.
Marlene hugged herself. “I hope so. Christmas wouldn’t be the same without u guys,” she said.
Skipper smiled and came to a stop, sitting his suitcase on the ground volgende to him. “Come here,” he zei taking her door the waist. He looked into her chocolate-brown eyes. “I promise u that I’ll do whatever it takes to be home pagina for Christmas. Now, have I ever broken any of my promises?”
Marlene sighed. “No,” she zei submissively. “I’m just worried. Christmas is only four days away.”
Skipper nudged her. “Well, don’t be. All right?” he zei assuringly. Marlene smiled insecurely and nodded. Skipper pulled her closer. “That’s my girl. I’ll call u when I get to Seattle,” he told her.
“And not a minuut later,” Marlene zei with a grin.
Skipper grinned back and pressed his lips against hers. A few seconden later, someone cleared their throat volgende to them and they parted.
“Sorry, Skipper,” Kowalski zei awkwardly, “we need to board.”
Skipper looked at Marlene. “I’ll see u at Christmas,” he zei with a smile.
Marlene nodded. “Have a nice flight.”
Skipper picked up his bag and joined Kowalski as they, Rico, and Private left to board their flight.
— § —
The volgende morning, Marlene sat at her keuken-, keuken tafel, tabel stirring a cinnamon stick in a cup of hot chocolate, staring a picture of her and Skipper on their first date. It would absolutely just break her hart-, hart if he couldn’t get home pagina door Christmas. Of course, she wouldn’t blame him. There would just be a hole in her Christmas dag if they didn’t come back in time.
Her phone rang and she read “Skipper” on the caller ID. “Skipper?” she answered.
“Hey, Marlene. I just wanted to let u know that I’ve already booked a flight back to Manhattan on the morning of the twenty-third and I should be there sometime in the afternoon,” Skipper replied.
Marlene smiled. “That’s great. I thought u were in that meeting now?”
“We’re taking a ten minuut recess. Thought I’d give a quick call. Everything okay?” he asked.
“If I say no, will u come back now?” Marlene asked with a touch of doubt.
Skipper laughed half-heartedly. “I’m sorry, Marlene. Look, I gotta go. Call u when I can, okay?”
“All right. Bye, Skipper,” Marlene zei disappointedly.
“Not bye, Marlene. See u later,” Skipper replied.
Marlene smiled. “See u later.”
The line went dead and she set her phone down with a sigh.
In Seattle, Skipper tucked his phone into his inside breast pocket and looked down in thought. Kowalski came up to him.
“Was lying to her really the best way to go about things, Skipper? What if u can’t make it of she finds out?” he asked.
Skipper sighed. “I know. But I couldn’t tell her all the flights were cancelled due to inclement weather. I promised her I’d find a way and I will.”
“By doing what, hitchhiking down a frozen interstate?” Kowalski asked crossing his arms.
Skipper narrowed his eyes. “I could use a little support, here.”
Kowalski rolled his eyes. “Fine, but later. We’ve got to get back to the meeting.”
— § —
At about seven o’clock the volgende morning—the morning of the twenty-third—Skipper checked all flights to Manhattan from today until Christmas morning on his laptop. All were still cancelled. Apparently the snow was falling like it was going out of style. How was he supposed to get home? meer importantly, how would he tell Marlene if he couldn’t make it in time?
“Morning, Skipper,” Kowalski zei coming into the small keuken-, keuken in a white tee with Bill Nye pajama bottoms, his black hair in a tousled mess. “Flights still cancelled?” he asked grabbing a coffee cup.
“Yeah,” Skipper zei with a sigh. He watched as Rico came into the keuken-, keuken carrying Private over his shoulder, despite the fact that he was twenty years old. He sat him at the counter and he groggily laid his head down with a moan. “Sleep much, soldier?” he asked with a humorous grin.
Private moaned again.
Skipper chuckled and slid the plate of spek to him. “Here, eat something. It’ll wake u right up.”
Private picked his head up like it weighed five tons. “The bed in my room isn’t mine,” he pouted as he propped his head up on his fist and fiddled with a piece of bacon.
Skipper patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ll get us home pagina soon,” he assured the little homesick cadet.
“How?” Kowalski zei setting his cup on the counter and stirring cream into it. “With the way the weather’s been, it could be volgende week, maybe even longer before a flight opens up. Even then, that doesn’t guarantee that we’ll get a flight straight from here to Manhattan.”
Rico poured a cup of coffee, squirted cream straight into his mouth, and then drank about half the cup full down with it. Kowalski grimaced at him.
“Not even science can figure u out,” he zei taking a sip of his coffee. Rico shrugged and snatched a piece of bacon, holding it in his mouth as he took his coffee and the cream away from the kitchen.
“I do have an idea, but I’m not sure how to make it work,” Skipper piped up.
Kowalski spit his coffee back into his cup. “To figure Rico out?” he asked in genuine shock.
Skipper rolled his eyes. “No, to get back to Manhattan door Christmas,” he corrected.
Kowalski let out a relieved sigh. “For a seconde I thought you’d lost your mind. What’s your idea?”
“Well, there are some open flights at Eastern Oregon Regional Airport, just northwest of Pendleton. It’s only about a four and half uur drive away, but we don’t have our car. It would take a whole dag to take transit.”
“Why can’t we rent a car?” Private suggested.
“Because we’d have to leave it at the airport. Someone would have to bring it back and pay the bill,” Skipper said. “Unless we can find someone with nothing better to do to deliver it, which I’d doubt.”
“Well, Skipper,” Kowalski started, “if that’s all you’re worried about, I’ll drive the car back.”
Skipper looked up at him as he gave him a sincere smile.
“No, Kowalski, I couldn’t ask u to do that. I’m not going to leave u behind,” Skipper insisted tapping at his keyboard.
Kowalski laughed as if he knew he was going to say that. “Skipper, really. Consider it my Christmas gift to you.”
Skipper gave him a look. “You forgot to go shopping again, didn’t you?”
Kowalski awkwardly sipped at his coffee and looked at the ceiling. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he muttered.
Skipper rolled his eyes. “Nonetheless, I can’t just leave u here in Seattle. It’s either all of us of none of us,” he insisted.
Kowalski thought for a moment. “You know, that guy from the meeting—Max, I believe his name was—he zei he’d be willing to do u a favor after u helped him solve that case. Why don’t u give him a call and see if he’d be up to it?” he suggested.
Skipper pursed his lips in thought. “I’d hate to drag him all the way to Oregon. It’d be a whole nine uur drive for him,” he said.
“Well, if u explain that you’re just trying to get home pagina for Christmas, I’m sure he would love to do it in spirit. Besides, he’d be back before Christmas Eve. Only if u call now, though,” Kowalski urged.
Skipper nodded. “All right, u convinced me. I’ll go find his number.”
He went into his room and dug into the pockets of the suit he’d worn yesterday and pulled out Max Wayne’s number and called him on his cell phone.
“Wayne,” he answered.
“Hey, Max, it’s Skipper. Saw u at the meeting yesterday?” Skipper replied.
“Oh, hey! What’s up?”
“Look, remember when u zei if I needed anything to call?” he asked.
“Yeah, u had something in mind?” Max asked.
“Yeah . . .” Skipper zei slowly. “It’s kind of a huge favor, really, and I’d understand if you’re not up to it.”
“Try me,” Max urged.
“Well, I’d really like to be home, in Manhattan, for Christmas, but all the flights are cancelled due to all the snow. The nearest airport with available flights is at the airport near Pendleton, Oregon. The quickest way to get there is door car, but I’d have to rent one, but then someone would have to bring it back to the rental dealership and I can’t leave one of my unit behind. I was just wondering if—”
“Say no more, pal. I’ll drive the car back for you,” Max agreed.
Skipper smiled, almost speechless. “Wow, really? Thank u so much, this really means a lot to me. I promise I’ll pay for anything there and back: food, gas, the rent, whatever.”
“No problem. But we’d better get going if I’m gonna make it back before it gets too late. That’s a long drive,” Max said.
“Absolutely,” Skipper agreed, “where do u live?”
“Seattle Apartments at 2312 3rd Avenue, I’ll meet u in the lobby,” Max told him.
Skipper jotted down the address. “I’ll be there in half an hour. And thanks again,” he said.
“No problem! It’s Christmas! See u later,” he told him.
“See you,” Skipper zei before ending the call. It seemed his luck was turning.
— § —
To pass the time, Marlene decided to buy a small Christmas boom and some decorations for it to put in her apartment. She walked around the tree, adjusting the tinsel and ornaments, strategically placing small candy canes here and there, and feeling lonely while doing it.
When she finished, she looked over her masterpiece. A crease formed between her eyes when she realized something was missing from it. She snapped her fingers.
“A star!” she thought aloud. She went in thought when she realized she hadn’t bought a ster to put on top. Then a thought came to her: why not just make her own star? It would help pass even meer time.
After laying out as many arts-n-crafts supplies as she could find in her apartment on her keuken-, keuken counter, she set to work.
She worked for about an uur when there was a knock at the door and she answered to Becky and Stacy, her cousins who lived two floors up.
“Cousin!” they exclaimed simultaneously as they hugged either side of her.
“Hey—cousins!” Marlene replied with barely enough time to react to what just happened. “Look at you—here—in my apartment—” She lowered her voice under her breath. “—with no prior notice whatsoever . . .” She shut the door behind them.
Stacy—who was a tan brunette wearing a black sweater with red poinsettias etched all over it, jeans, and brown knee-high boots—turned to her. “Oh, come now, Marlene! u know spontaneity is our middle name! We were talking about who to send Christmas cards to and when we thought of you, we realized we hadn’t seen u in ages!”
Becky—who was a bit lighter-skinned and blonde, and was wearing a white sweater with Rudolph on the front, jeans, and red flats, appartementen with golden-colored bells etched into the toe—looked at the boom in the center of her apartment and squealed with delight. “Aw, Marlene! Look at u in the Christmas spirit!”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Marlene inquired.
“We heard about Skipper being out of town. I’m sorry he won’t be home pagina for Christmas,” Becky zei wrapping her arms around her shoulders and squeezing her tightly.
Marlene pushed away and tucked her hair behind her ear with an uncertain laugh. “No, he called me yesterday. He zei he booked a flight for tomorrow morning and would be back door that afternoon,” she told them.
Becky and Stacy exchanged a knowing look, both frowning.
“Marlene,” Stacy started, putting her hand on her shoulder, “I don’t know how to tell u this, but all the flights have been cancelled to and from Washington.”
Marlene’s face contorted in confusion. “What? No, you’re wrong. Skipper told me he booked the flight.”
“Well,” Becky broke in, “he probably just didn’t want u to worry. He’s probably hoping he’ll find another way. Trust us, Marlene. We looked at available flights when we were trying to decide when to go see other relatives for Christmas. We happened to see that flight schedule. The snow is crazy over there. I’m sorry, Marlene.”
Marlene looked down and pushed Stacy’s hand away. “I’ll be right back,” she zei pushing through them and grabbing her jas off the hook on the wall. Slipping it on, she went out on the terrace and pulled out her cell phone.
— § —
“All right, boys, we’re taking the nonstop to Manhattan at 1430 hours,” Skipper zei as they climbed into the rental van, brushing the snow off their shoulders. It was coming down pretty steadily now.
“Great,” Kowalski zei shutting their luggage into the trunk. “I guess things will work out after all.”
“We get to be home pagina for Christmas!” Private zei happily from the backseat. Rico smiled and offered him a bite of his popcorn ball that he’d doused in chocolate syrup. Private declined the offer door pressing his lips together and shaking his head back and forth. Rico shrugged and took a big bite out of it, leaving the syrup all around his mouth.
“And that is why I bought plenty of these,” Kowalski zei handing a roll of paper towels back to him as he settled in the passenger seat.
“Buckle up, everyone. And Rico, I swear, if u get one stain in this car, I’m making u lick it clean,” Skipper warned.
Rico thought for a moment. “Okay!” he zei with a smile that, much to the team’s worry, seemed legit. Then again, Rico had done stranger things.
Just as Skipper started the engine, his phone rang in Skipper’s thick winter jas pocket. He read Marlene’s name on the screen and answered as he pulled out of the lot.
“Hey, Marlene. Everything all right?” he answered.
“Skipper, I was just wondering, are u still booked for that flight tomorrow?” Marlene asked, ignoring his question.
Skipper took a breath as he prepared himself to lie again. “Yes, Marlene. Everything’s going to work out fine.”
“Skipper, I’m looking at the flight schedule to and from Washington on my phone right now. All of them are cancelled,” Marlene replied.
Skipper pushed his head back into the zitplaats, stoel in defeat. He had to remind himself he couldn’t close his eyes of he’d crash.
“I’m really sorry, Marlene,” he zei slowly. “I just didn’t want u to worry. And u still don’t have to, I’ve found an alternative. I’m driving to an airport near Pendleton in a rental. A friend will drive the rental back while we take the flight nonstop to Manhattan. I should be there sometime tonight.”
There was silence for a moment.
“How do I know you’re telling the truth this time?” Marlene asked. Skipper could hear the tears in her voice. “As much as I want u home pagina for Christmas, I don’t want u to give me false hope.”
Skipper listened to her shaky breathing through the receiver and looked at the snow on the side of the road. “I’m telling the truth, Marlene. u can trust me.”
Marlene waited a moment before replying. “All right. I believe you,” she zei slowly. “But don’t lie to me again. I do trust you, Skipper, and I don’t want that to change.”
Skipper nodded as if she could see him. “You can trust me, Marlene,” he repeated. “I gotta go. Love you.”
“Love you, too, Skipper,” she replied before disconnecting the line.
Skipper dropped his phone back in his pocket and turned into Seattle Apartments, where a chaotic scene was unfolding. There was an ambulance parked in front of the building with a small crowd of people around taking foto's and video. Skipper parked door the curb several feet back and turned to his team.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he zei getting out. He jogged down the sidewalk and moved around the onlookers when he saw Max about to get climb into the back of the ambulance.
“Max!” Skipper called, jogging to the back of the ambulance. Max poked his head back out and his face fell in shock, as if he couldn’t believe he was there.
“Skipper,” he zei jumping down and putting his hands on his shoulders, “look, man, I am so sorry. It’s my wife, she’s going into labor! Can u believe it? I’m going to officially be a Dad! When it happened, I completely forgot. I’m gonna—”
“Max! If u don’t get in this ambulance right now I’ll drive it up your—!”
“Coming, darling!” Max called back into the ambulance. “Look, I gotta go. I’m so sorry. I wish u luck!” he zei climbing back into the ambulance.
“It’s fine,” Skipper called back half-heartedly. “Congratulations.”
Skipper shrugged his way back to the busje, van and slumped into the seat, resting his head on the headrest with his eyes shut.
“What happened, Skipper?” Kowalski inquired.
Skipper started laughing. “Just my luck happened,” he zei sitting his elbow on the windowsill and resting his forehead on the palm of his hand. “Max’s wife is going into labor. Now. Of course, it had to be now! It’s been nine months, it couldn’t wait another day?” he asked no one in particular—perhaps Cruel Fate.
“What are u going to tell Marlene? u zei u wouldn’t lie to her anymore,” Private asked from the backseat.
Skipper stared absent-mindedly out the windshield as the ambulance left the parking lot and the commotion died down.
“I don’t know, Private,” he zei quietly.
Kowalski looked at him sympathetically and sighed. “You won’t have to tell her anything because we’re going to that airport,” he said.
Skipper scoffed and shook his head. “And what about the car, Kowalski? They might charge just a bit extra to get someone to go to Oregon to pick it up,” he zei looking at him irritably.
“Because,” Kowalski zei sternly, “I’m going to bring the car back.”
“No,” Skipper zei looking out the window, “I already told u that’s not happening. There’s no way I’m leaving u behind, especially on Christmas.”
“And there’s no way I’m going to stand door and let u crush Marlene and yourself when I could’ve done something. Now, Rico’s cooking all the food, Private’s homesick, and me? I’m just there for the fun. No one really needs me there.”
“Maybe not, be we all want u there. I’m not leaving u in Washington and that’s final, Kowalski,” Skipper insisted.
“Skipper, if we’re going to make that flight, we need to drive now. Really, I have no problem waiting here for a flight to open up. I’ll take the first one back the Manhattan. If it’s after Christmas, so be it! Let me do this for you, Skipper!” Kowalski pleaded.
“No! I’m not! And I believe I outrank you, so what I say, goes!” Skipper argued.
Kowalski unbuckled his seatbelt and angled himself toward him. “Oh, don’t u throw that up to me! This is not work, and we are not at the precinct! It’s Christmas, for Einstein’s sake! I’m trying to help you, but you’re just too hardheaded to let me!”
Skipper angled toward him. “And I’m telling u that Christmas is a time to be together, to be with the ones u care about! You’re one of those people I care about, Kowalski! I’m not leaving u behind!”
“And you’re one of those people I care about, Skipper! You’re absolutely right! Christmas is a time to be with the ones u love, and the one that loves u is about to have her hart-, hart crushed into the snow because u broke your promise to her and didn’t make it home pagina for Christmas when u know I could’ve gotten u there!”
Skipper was about to respond, but the image of Marlene crying on Christmas because he broke his promise to her—because he was too stubborn to accept Kowalski’s help—when all he had to do was say yes to Kowalski to be there. She was looking vooruit, voorwaarts to him being there and her one fear was that he wouldn’t make it. He promised her he would and he was already coming close to breaking his promise to her. He broke eye contact and looked at the dashboard.
“Even if I agree to this now,” he zei softly, “I’m not sure how easy it’ll be for me to just let u leave at the airport.”
Kowalski smiled. “Well, in that case, I hope that thick winter jas weighs u down so I can outrun you.”
Skipper looked at Kowalski as he relaxed back in his zitplaats, stoel and buckled his seatbelt.
“I guess it’s settled then. We should get going,” he zei turning back to him with a warm smile.
Skipper pressed his lips together and looked at Rico and Private in the backseat. Private was fiddling with his fingertips and looked away when Skipper turned to him. Rico was holding a large chip halfway to his mouth, which was hanging open, and he was looking between Skipper and Kowalski. When Skipper looked at him he awkwardly finished the chip's journey and a loud crunch reverberated throughout the van. Skipper looked at him bitterly and Rico held the bag out to him, offering him a chip. Skipper shook his head and looked at Kowalski.
“I really don’t know what to say, Kowalski. ‘Thank you’ just doesn’t seem to be enough,” he zei softly.
“Don’t worry about it,” Kowalski replied. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky and a flight will open up soon.”
“And of course that’d be my luck,” Skipper zei buckling his seatbelt and starting the engine. “Go through all this trouble and then a flight opens up.”
“Well, better not to take the chance,” Kowalski zei as Skipper started pulling out of the parking lot. He stopped to wait for traffic.
“I owe you, Kowalski,” Skipper zei looking at him with serious eyes. “More than u know.”
Kowalski smiled. “Enjoy your Christmas with Marlene, Skipper. That’s all the payment I’ll need.”
— § —
“All right, peoples! Let’s keep things moving!” Julien commanded as the zoosters decorated the apartment building’s cafeteria they’d rented out.
“You could help, u know,” Roy asked irritably as he set a candle on a table.
“I am helping! I am being the technical supervisor guy. I’m good at that,” Julien zei smugly. Roy rolled his eyes and continued setting a candle in the middle of the tables. He turned as Marlene walked in with Becky and Stacy.
“Ah! Hello, ladies!” he zei approaching them with open arms. He took Becky and Stacy’s hands. “Enchante, mademoiselles,” he zei kissing each of their hands. Marlene rolled her eyes as Becky and Stacy exchanged a humorous glance.
“Hey, Julien,” Marlene said, “we just came down to see how things were coming, maybe help out a little.”
“Well, of course!” Julien replied. “We are always welcoming three lovely ladies to the party,” he zei suavely, causing Becky and Stacy to smile and Marlene to cock an eyebrow. “Anyway,” Julien continued, “any word from the guys?”
Marlene shifted her weight uncomfortably. “They’ll be here sometime tonight,” she zei trying to hide her anxiety.
Julien knit his eyebrows. “You don’t seem too sure about that,” he observed.
“They’ll be here,” Marlene insisted before walking off.
Julien looked at Becky and Stacy inquisitively, but they just held their hands up like they didn’t want to say anything and followed her.
“Marlene,” Stacy zei tenderly placing a hand her shoulder as she rummaged through a box, “are u sure u want to be down here? I can tell you’re really worried about this.”
“I’m fine,” Marlene insisted. “I just need something to distract me.”
Becky and Stacy exchanged a glance, and then they smiled as the same thought crossed through their minds.
“Then we’ll help,” they zei simultaneously.
Marlene cocked an eyebrow and watched as they crossed the room to where a radio was sitting idle on a table. Becky hit a button and adjusted the frequency, then turned it up loud enough to fill the room with Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. Everyone turned as Becky and Stacy started moving to the beat.
“I say it’s time for a break!” Becky called. The two crossed the room back to Marlene and each took an arm as they dragged her to the center of the room.
“Whoa, no, guys, I don’t really feel up to—”
“Come on, Marlene!” Becky insisted.
“The only way to make time fly is to have some fun!” Stacy added as they started dancing with her. Soon enough everyone else dropped what they were doing and joined in. While Julien took Stacy and shared a dance with her, Becky continued to encourage Marlene to let loose. Marlene glanced around at everyone around her having a good time and without realizing it, she too was moving to the beat.
With a smile, she decided to forget her troubles, and she danced with all her friends.
— § —
“I’m gonna kill him! I’m gonna kill him!” Skipper zei hitting the steering wheel as they sat idle on the side of the frozen interstate.
“Well, u know Rico gets hungry when he travels,” Kowalski said, trying to calm him down.
“But we’re already running behind! It seems like everything that could go wrong is going wrong! Is he done yet?” he asked trying to see Rico out of Kowalski’s window. He could just barely see him crouched door a bush, holding his stomach.
Kowalski sighed. “Maybe. Look on the bright side, at least u managed to pull over first,” he said.
Skipper gripped the top, boven of the steering wheel with both hands and rested his forehead on his knuckles. He felt a hand on his shoulder, but he didn’t look to see who it was.
“Don’t give up hope, Skipper,” zei Private’s voice. “I’m sure we’ll find a way. We always do, don’t we?”
“There’s a first time for everything, Private,” Skipper zei irresolutely.
Private exchanged a glance with Kowalski as Rico climbed back in the car, his face a sickly green.
“How do u feel, Rico?” Kowalski asked.
Rico put his zitplaats, stoel back and turtled into his jas with a moan.
“I’m going to take that as well enough to verplaats on,” Kowalski zei nudging Skipper to put the car in gear.
Skipper sat back and started them moving again. “What time is it?” he asked with a sigh.
Kowalski checked his watch. “Nearly eleven,” he answered.
Skipper scoffed. “We still have just over two hours to drive. There’s no way we’ll be able to pick up our tickets and get through security before the flight leaves.”
“Sorry, Skipper . . .” Rico mumbled in the backseat.
Skipper looked at him in the rearview mirror and sighed. “It’s all right, Rico. It’s not your fault,” he said, “mostly,” he added under his breath.
Kowalski thought for a moment and smiled. “I know, maybe some Christmas muziek will help cheer u up.”
He turned on the radio and turned up the volume. He nearly facepalmed when he realized what was playing.
. . . a long road back, and I promise you.
I’ll be home pagina for Christmas.
u can count on me.
Please have snow, and mistletoe
And presents under the tree—
Kowalski awkwardly reached over and changed the station. He smiled; this one wasn’t so bad. He frowned when the chorus started.
. . . tuning up all the Jing-Jing-Jinglin’ sleigh bells
And rehearsing jolly Ho Ho Ho’s
Oh, don’t u know that one way of another
I’ll be coming home pagina for Christmas day!
Doesn’t matter any kind of weather
u know that I’ll always find a way!—
This time Skipper reached over and changed the station as Kowalski fiddled with his fingers in his lap.
. . . my own in a big red bow!
Santa, can u hear me?
I have been so good this year.
And all I want is one thing:
Tell me my true love is near!
He’s all I want! Just for me!
Underneath my Christmas tree!
I’ll be waiting here.
Santa that’s my only wish this year—
Kowalski reached over and switched the radio off. “Maybe later,” he zei with a nervous smile, internally cursing at himself. Of course, the old ‘every station reminds me of my problems’ gag. What a cliché.
— § —
Around half after noon, Marlene and her cousins were elbow deep in flour and cookie dough.
“I’ll get the cookie cutters,” Marlene zei before realizing there was flour all over her hands. She laughed. “Probably should’ve grabbed them before getting the dough ready.”
She grabbed a towel from volgende to the sink and wrapped it around her hand, using it to open a cabinet and pulling out a jar of holiday cookie cutters.
Becky took it from her dumped the contents onto the counter. “Ooh! I want the mistletoe!” she squealed taking that particular cutter and pushing it into her cookie dough. Stacy grabbed an angel and pressed it into hers.
Marlene looked over the cookie cutters and spotted a snowman and took it in her hands. It reminded her of this one time she had a sinus infection near the holidays. She was miserable and couldn’t do much of anything than eat, sleep, and watch television. Skipper would come check on her when he wasn’t busy with anything. One of those times, he came in and surprised her with a big bucket of snow. The two of them made a tiny snowman together. It left her fingers numb, but she had fun doing it. She pressed the snowman cutter into her dough and promised herself that one would be for Skipper when he returned tonight.
“Everything all right, Marlene?” Becky asked pushing a gingerbread man into her dough.
“Yeah, I just thought of something is all,” Marlene replied pushing a ster into hers.
“Well, think about the cookies!” Stacy said. “We’re doing this to keep your mind occupied from certain things and certain people,” she told her giving her a stern look.
Marlene nodded. “Right. The cookies. And thanks for trying to help,” she said.
“No problem, cousin! Think fast!” Becky zei poking her cheek, leaving a spot of flour behind.
“Hey!” Marlene zei trying to reach her face, but she held her wrist. Marlene used her free hand to throw some at her, but some of it landed on Stacy as well.
Eventually the three of them were covered in flour, there koekjes, cookies forgotten.
— § —
“Yes, I was planning a flight to Manhattan at two-thirty, but I’m not going to make it. Can u tell me when the volgende nonstop to Manhattan is?” Skipper asked someone at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport as he sat idle in traffic just twenty minuten away, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.
“Just a moment,” the woman on the other end said, “looks like the volgende nonstop to Manhattan isn’t until nine-twenty tonight, sir.”
Skipper shoved his tongue into his cheek. “You’re sure there’s nothing earlier?”
“Well, if you’re in a hurry, there’s a three-ten to Scottsbluff, Nebraska and u can take a flight straight from there to Manhattan and be there just after midnight,” she suggested.
Skipper considered. “Can u hold on a moment?”
Skipper muted his receiver and looked at Private and Rico in the rear view mirror. “The volgende nonstop is at nine-twenty tonight, but she zei there’s a three-ten to Nebraska and take a flight straight from there to Manhattan.”
“Fine with me,” Private answered.
Rico just held up a water bottle, as if in toast, and then downed the rest of it. Skipper took it as a yes.
“Ma’am?” he zei into his phone after unmuting it.
“Yes, sir?” the woman answered.
“Thank u for your help,” Skipper said.
“You’re welcome, sir. Have a wonderful day, and a Merry Christmas!” the woman replied.
“You, too,” Skipper zei before hanging up. “Come on, we’re almost there!” he shouted at the traffic in front of him moving just a couple car lengths every half hour. There was an accident that’d occurred ahead because of the ice and the policemen had to gradually direct traffic into the right lane.
Rico reached a Hershey Kiss around his seat. “Kiss?” he offered.
Skipper rolled his eyes. “No,” he declined. Then he thought for a moment. “Yes,” he zei holding his hand back to him. Rico dropped a Kiss into it. He unwrapped it and popped it into his mouth. He let the chocolate melt in his mouth.
“Skipper, it’s only one-thirty,” Kowalski said. “We’re not too far off. In fact, I think I see our exit right up there,” he zei pointing down the road.
Skipper thought for a moment. “Hey, Private,” he called.
“Yes, Skipper?” Private called back.
“Do me a favor. Climb to the back of the busje, van and find my suitcase. My badge is in the small pocket in the front. Get it for me,” he told him.
“Um, okay,” Private zei unbuckling his seatbelt. “Why?”
“Just do it, all right?” Skipper replied.
Private climbed between the seats and rummaged through the luggage in the back. A couple minuten later, he produced Skipper’s badge and he turned around. “Here it is.”
“Climb back in your seat,” Skipper said. Private did as told and buckled himself back in. He handed Skipper his badge. “Thanks. Now everyone hold on.”
The team exchanged a glance.
Kowalski looked at him warily. “Why do we have to hold on?”
Skipper smiled. “Let’s just say I’m glad we had to get in the right lane,” he zei as he pulled the car to the right and started driving down the emergency lane.
“Skipper! This is illegal! I shouldn’t have to tell u that, you’re a cop!” Kowalski scolded.
Skipper clenched his teeth. “I know that, Kowalski. I’m not proud of it, but it’s Christmas, and I made a promise to Marlene. If I get pulled over, I’ll just toon ‘em my badge and verplaats on.”
“Skipper, you’re abusing your shield! That’s illegal, too!” Kowalski argued.
“You think I don’t know that, Kowalski?” Skipper zei turning at the Exit. “It’s once in seventeen years of service! Let it go.”
Kowalski laughed incredulously and ran his hand over his face. “Could u at least slow down? The flight leaves at three-ten not in ten minutes. That’s another law you’re breaking, door the way.”
Skipper rolled his eyes. “Fine,” he zei easing off the gas. But before he got the chance, a flash of blue and red lights blinked behind them. Skipper was expecting that to happen with the policemen dealing with the accident on the interstate. He pulled over and waited for the officer to come to his door before rolling down his window.
“License and registration, please,” she asked. She was a stout African American woman with her head covered in a thick hat that covered the top, boven of her small ears. Her nametag read MEREB.
Skipper showed her his badge. “Ma’am, I’m police. I need to be somewhere.”
Mereb examined his badge. “That’s a New York Police badge, sir. Why are u in Oregon? meer importantly, why are u in Oregon trying to use your New York badge to get out of a speeding ticket?”
“I—I’m tracking a lead, ma’am,” he lied.
Mereb narrowed her eyes. “And who are they?” she asked pointing to the other three in the car.
“They’re my unit. They came with me,” Skipper answered.
Mereb set her jaw in thought. “Let me get your badge number and bevestig this. Which precinct do u work for?”
Skipper blinked. “Ma’am, we’re in a hurry here. If we don’t go now, we could miss our lead.”
In the passenger seat, Kowalski fidgeted. He hated Skipper lowering himself to lying to a policemen, especially when he was one himself, but he understood why he was doing it. He made a promise to Marlene, and he never broke his promises. He sighed.
“Officer,” he called. Mereb leaned down so she could see him. “Please. If we don’t catch this lead and solve this case, we can’t go home. My son wants me home pagina for Christmas, and I want to be there,” he lied.
Mereb looked down for a moment, and then sighed. “Fine. Consider this a Christmas warning. Go on,” she zei before walking back to her vehicle without waiting for a reply.
Skipper looked at him. “Thanks,” he zei with a grateful smile. “I’m sorry I lied . . . again.”
Kowalski looked at the road in front of them. “Don’t worry about it. It’s Christmas,” he zei looking toward him with an understanding smile. “We should go. But, uh, go the speed limit, all right?” he added with a grin.
Skipper put the car in gear. “Fine, if u want to take the fun out of everything,” he zei with a laugh.
Private pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m really confused, are u two still mad at each other of are we okay now?”
Skipper and Kowalski laughed. Private propped his head up door his fist.
“I’m taking that as a yes,” he muttered.
— § —
At the airport, Skipper, Rico, and Private grabbed their luggage from the rental, which consisted of one suitcase and one carry-on each, and started their goodbye’s to Kowalski.
Private hugged him. “I’ll miss you, Kowalski! I hope u make it home pagina for Christmas!” he told him.
Kowalski patted his back. “Don’t worry about me, Private. I’ll see u soon.”
Rico grasped his hand and pressed his shoulder to his, using his other hand to pat his back. “Miss you, buddy,” he said.
“Miss you, too, Rico,” Kowalski zei patting his back. They parted and Kowalski turned to Skipper, who was looking at the ground.
“Can u guys, uh, give us a minute?” he requested.
Private and Rico exchanged a glance and nodded as they gathered their luggage and made their way inside the airport.
“Look, Kowalski, I—”
“I know what you’re going to say, Skipper,” Kowalski interrupted. “You don’t need to—”
“No, u don’t know what I’m going to say,” Skipper zei looking at him with crisp, blue eyes. He crossed his arms and didn’t meet his eye. “I know I’m not perfect. There are things in my past I wish I could change. I just wanted u to know that—” He paused and finally made eye contact. “I wanted u to know that what you’re doing for me now is . . . It’s something I could never repay, not fully. I really don’t know how to thank you, Kowalski. I don’t deserve a friend like you.”
Kowalski smiled. “I don’t believe that. Besides, Skipper, we’re brothers. Whether u deserve one like me of not, you’re stuck with me,” he zei bracing a hand on his shoulder.
Skipper smiled and they embraced. “I hope to see u in Manhattan real soon,” he zei over his shoulder.
“You, too, Skipper. Now, go. Marlene’s waiting for you,” he told him pulling away.
Skipper nodded and grabbed his luggage. “See u on the other side of the nation, Kowalski,” he said.
Kowalski gave a salute and Skipper ran off into the airport.
He found Private and Rico waiting in line to get their tickets. Rico was munching on a granola bar.
“Where are u getting all this food?” Skipper asked. Rico opened up his duffel bag to reveal all kinds of snacks. Skipper rolled his eyes. “Of course. Got any Dibbles? I’m starving,”
“Regular of spicy?” Rico asked through his granola bar.
Skipper cocked an eyebrow. “Uh, regular, I guess.”
Rico reached into the bag and despite it’s jumbled mess, he pulled out a bag of Cheezy Dibbles as if each thing had it’s own specific place and handed it to him. Skipper accepted it in and opened it, popping a Dibble into his mouth.
“What time is it?” he asked between crunches.
Private looked at his cell phone. “Just past two. We might just make it,” he zei with a smile.
Skipper licked cheese off his fingers and rolled up the top, boven of the bag before putting it in his jas pocket. He picked up his luggage and they moved vooruit, voorwaarts with the line. Skipper looked at the flight board and found the Pendleton to Scottsbluff. volgende to it read “ON TIME” in big letters. Skipper smiled. “I’m on my way, Marlene,” he zei softly to himself.
At the desk, a woman sat behind it wearing square, black glasses with her blonde hair tied back in a knot. She was wearing a red Christmas sweater with tiny reindeer all over it, running in different directions.
“Three for the three-ten to Scottsbluff, Nebraska, please,” Skipper requested.
“Photo identification, please,” the woman requested in a Bronx accent. Skipper, Rico, and Private all handed her their driver’s licenses. After processing them, she said, “Twelve hundred thirty dollars, sir. Cash of credit?”
“Credit,” Skipper zei with a sigh. This was eating up his savings. He scanned his credit card and paid the bill. The woman told them to be through the gates prior to ten minuten before departure. Soon after, the three of them were moving toward the volgende security checkpoint with their boarding passes.
After getting through the metal detectors, they found their gate just as they were almost finished boarding. Skipper checked the time on his phone; it was just a few minuten until three.
“Hey, u two go ahead and board, I just want to call Marlene for a few seconden before we take off,” he told them. Private and Rico nodded and gave their boarding passes to the man at the gate and continued on to the plane.
Skipper took out his cell and dialed Marlene.
“Skipper?” Marlene answered.
“Yeah, it’s me. Just letting u know I’m boarding a plane to Nebraska now, and I’ll catch a flight to Manhattan from there. I’ll be there sometime in the middle of the night,” Skipper told her.
Marlene sighed with relief. “That’s great! I’m so glad. I can’t wait to see you.”
Skipper smiled. “You, too, Marlene.”
“Last call for boarding at Gate 14,” zei a voice over the intercom.
“Look, Marlene, I need to go. I’ll see u later,” Skipper said.
“All right, Skipper. See you,” she zei hanging up.
Skipper turned his phone off and tucked it into his pocket. He turned to head for the gate when he realized he didn’t have his boarding pass and felt a momentary sense of panic, but sighed with relief when he realized he’d dropped it a few yards behind him. He picked it up and turned back, his stomach turning over when he saw the man at the gate pulling the door shut.
“Wait!” he called breaking into a sprint for the door. “Wait, this is my flight.”
“Sorry, we just boarded. u should’ve came earlier,” the man—who was much larger than Skipper, door the way—said looking down at him.
“Sir, please, I had to drive all the way from Seattle last minuut because the snow is too heavy up there for any flights. My girlfriend’s in Manhattan, I promised I’d be there. Please,” he begged.
“I’m sorry, sir, the gate is closed. They’ll be pulling the airstairs away from the plane now. There’s nothing I can do,” he said.
Skipper scoffed and put his face in his free hand. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he zei under his breath. “Thanks anyway,” he zei turning and trudging back through the airport. Let’s see here, Skipper thought, Kowalski sacrificed going home pagina for Christmas for nothing, four hundred ten dollars down the drain, wasted time, and another plan to get home pagina failed. He went back to the ticket desk.
“Can I help you?” asked the woman with the glasses.
“Yes,” Skipper answered in an urgent tone, “I missed the flight. I need to know of flights that will land me in Manhattan door tomorrow.”
The woman worked at her computer for a moment. “Well, the snowstorms have been getting worse throughout the northern regions. Many flights have either been delayed of cancelled. The earliest I see is a four-twenty to Bloomington, Illinois, take a flight from there to Manhattan,” she explained.
Skipper let out an anxious breath. “How long will that take?”
“About five to six hours, if u go straight through,” she answered.
“And the cost?” Skipper asked with a wince.
“Just you?” the woman followed up. Skipper nodded weakly. “Probably looking at about six hundred dollars.”
Skipper nodded slowly. “I guess there’s no way I’m getting my money back for this, right?” he zei holding up his boarding pass.
The woman shook her head. “No refunds. Sorry.”
Skipper nodded again. “Figured. Thanks,” he zei turning and walking to a waiting area. He set his was-to-be carry-on bag on the ground and sat down a couple seats away from a man talking to someone on the phone. He seemed upset. Skipper pulled out his phone and turned it back on, and then called Kowalski.
“Hello?” answered Kowalski’s voice.
“Hey. It’s me,” Skipper replied.
“Skipper? Shouldn’t u be on board?” Kowalski asked.
Skipper closed his eyes. “Kowalski, this isn’t easy to say, but I missed the flight. I let Private and Rico board, and I was just going to call Marlene for just a minuut to let her know I was going to be there soon, and door the time I turned around, they were shutting the gates. I feel like the biggest idiot on earth. I’m so sorry, Kowalski. u sacrificed going home pagina for me, and I blew it.”
He heard Kowalski sigh. “Don’t worry, I’m not mad. To be honest, I feel too sorry for u to be upset. I know u were so happy to have a way back to Manhattan. Did u check to see if there were any meer flights available soon?”
“Yeah. She zei my best bet to get to Manhattan as quick as possible is to take a plane to Bloomington, Illinois, and then to Manhattan. I don’t have enough money for that.”
“How much money do u have? I thought u had quite a bit saved up,” Kowalski asked.
“I did,” Skipper zei feeling the outline of something in his pocket, “but plane tickets are expensive. I’m down to about four hundred bucks.”
There was a brief pause. “Well, as much as it pains me to suggest this,” Kowalski zei regretfully, “Julien has meer money than he knows what to do with. Why don’t u ask him for some money to buy the plane tickets?”
Skipper busted out laughing. “Oh, whew! That’s funny, Kowalski. I guess that’s one way to get me to laugh at a time like this.”
“Um, actually, I was serious. I’d offer some money myself, but um,” he started with a laugh, “I kind of still owe Alice for that hole I blew in her uithangbord from that experiment gone wrong, heh. She isn’t letting it slide just because it’s Christmas.”
Skipper sighed. “I don’t know, Kowalski. I’ve never had to ask anyone for money before, let alone Julien. What makes u think he’ll help me, anyway?”
“While u two may have your differences, I assure you, he’d want u there for Christmas. And maybe u could tug his hart-, hart strings a little door telling him u want to be there with Marlene,” Kowalski suggested.
Skipper cringed at the thought of asking Julien for help—especially financial help.
“Come on, Skipper. slikken your pride this one time. For Marlene,” Kowalski urged.
Skipper tensed as he forced the words out. “Fine. I’ll—call Julien,” he finished through his teeth. “Goodbye, Kowalski.”
“Over and out,” Kowalski zei before ending the call.
Skipper took a deep breath and searched through his contacts for “Man Child.” But just before he sent the call to Julien, the man that was on the phone when he’d sat down scooted volgende to him.
“Excuse me,” he zei in a hillbilly-sounding accent. Not one you’d expect from a man in Oregon.
“Um,” Skipper zei awkwardly looking around to ensure he was talking to him, “do I know you?”
“No,” the man zei shaking his head. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear, did u say u wanted a flight to Bloomington?”
Skipper’s hart-, hart fluttered. “Y-es? Can u help me?”
The man laughed. “Gomer Cummings,” he zei holding out his hand. “I was supposed to fly to see my brother, Bo, for Christmas, and he zei he was in DeKalb. Why, I thought he meant DeKalb, Illinois, but naw, he meant DeKalb, Texas. Sure makes a whole lot meer sense since we’re southern folk, u know? But now I got this ticket and ain’t got no use for it. The lady at the bureau says no refunds. If u want it, you’re welcome to it. I’d hate to see my money go to waste,” he zei holding out his boarding pass to him.
Skipper eyed the boarding pass as if it were a juicy tenderloin. Then he looked at Gomer. “Are u sure? u don’t even know me.”
“Well, u look like a man that wants to be home pagina on Christmas, and I got no business in Illinois,” he replied, pronouncing the ‘s’ in ‘Illinois.’ “Take it.”
Skipper took the pass in his hand. “Thank you, sir. I really don’t know what to say.” His eyes glossed over.
“Aw, it wasn’t that big a thang, mister. No use leakin’ your eyes ‘bout it,” Gomer zei putting a hand on his shoulder.
Skipper shook his head. “No, u don’t understand. u just saved me from doing something horrible! Thank you!” he zei throwing his arms around him.
Gomer awkwardly patted his back. “No—problem, mister. I, uh, really should go, now.”
Skipper let go. “Sorry,” he zei with a sniffle. “Merry Christmas.”
“You, too,” Gomer zei with a smile. He stood up and left him.
Skipper looked at the boarding pass in his hands and smiled. “I’m on my way, Marlene.”
— § —
Three thousand feet up, Private walked through the cabins of the plane, looking for Skipper. When he couldn’t find him, he went to Rico, who was sitting in an aisle zitplaats, stoel eating a bag of airline peanuts.
“Rico, have u seen Skipper? I can’t find him anywhere,” he said.
Rico shook his head and threw back another handful of peanuts.
“You don’t think he didn’t board, do you?” Private asked shifting his weight with worry.
Rico shrugged. “Sure he’s here somewhere,” he zei passively. He offered him some peanuts.
Private shook his head. “No, I’m going to call him on the airline phone. If he’s still in Pendleton, he’ll answer.”
He turned on his heel and found a phone on the uithangbord of the plane. He dialed Skipper’s number and waited as the dial tone droned in his ear.
“Hello?” zei Skipper’s voice.
“Skipper, it’s Private. Where are you? I can’t find u on the plane, and I know your cell phone isn’t working up here,” Private said.
“I’m sorry, Private, it’s one thing after another. After my call with Marlene they shut the gates on me. They wouldn’t let me through. I’m taking a four-twenty to Illinois and I’ll catch a flight to Manhattan from there,” Skipper explained. “Just stick with going to Scottsbluff and keep going to Manhattan from there. All right? Don’t worry about me.”
“Oh, well, I wish u luck. I would hate for u to not make it and on top, boven of that, be all alone for Christmas,” Private zei uneasily.
“Will u shh!” Skipper scolded. “I’ve had enough bad luck without u jinxing me!”
“Sorry, Skipper! Do u want me to knock on wood?” Private asked.
Skipper sighed. “No, I’m sorry, Private. I’m just anxious. Every time I find a way home, it goes wrong.”
“It’s okay, Skipper. I understand. Be careful, okay?,” Private told him.
“I will, Private. Enjoy the flight,” Skipper replied.
“I’ll try. u as well. Bye, Skipper. I’ll—see u in Manhattan?” Private zei with a touch of hope.
There was a pause. “Yeah. See u in Manhattan, Private,” Skipper’s voice replied, although it didn’t sound like he had much confidence in it. The line went dead and Private hung the phone back on the uithangbord and returned to Rico to explain the situation.
“You really believe he’s gonna make it?” Rico asked with his mouth full of peanuts.
Private thought for a moment. “I hope so.”
— § —
“Do u want to build a snowman?” Becky sang as she, Stacy, and Marlene packed snow together, all bundled up in warm clothing, thick coats, hats, gloves, and scarves.
“Or ride our bikes around the halls?” Stacy joined in.
“I think some company is overdue, I’ve started talking to the pictures on the walls!” Marlene chimed.
“Hang in there, Joan!” they all zei together.
“It gets a little lonely, all these empty rooms, just watching the hours tick by,” they sang together. They commenced a series of tic-toc’s and then broke into laughter as their snowman reached completion. Stacy left to find some arms for it.
“Gosh, I love that movie,” Marlene zei with a smile as she started assorting rocks on the head of a snowman to make a smiley face. “Anybody have a spare carrot?” she asked with a grin.
“The one dag I don’t keep a stash in my back pocket,” Becky joked.
Stacy came back with two long, thin sticks and stuck them in either side of the midsection.
“Yay! Now he can like warm hugs!” she zei cheerfully.
Marlene smiled. “I have a couple carrots in my fridge. I’ll be right back,” she zei walking toward the apartment building.
When she got to her room, she went into the keuken-, keuken and extracted a carrot from her fridge. She shut the door and froze when she saw the picture of her and Skipper stuck on the refrigerator door door a magnet. It was a foto from her twenty-ninth birthday. Skipper had taken her out on the terrace and kissed her, and someone had followed them and snapped a picture. She and Skipper were a bit embarrassed when they saw it, but Marlene couldn’t find it in her hart-, hart to wis it. She smiled at the memory, but it quickly faded. Even though Skipper had told her he was on his way this very minute, she couldn’t help but feel that something had went wrong, of was going to go wrong. She pushed the thought from her mind.
Back outside, Becky and Stacy had started a snowball fight with a few other residents from the apartment building Marlene recognized as Mason, Phil, and Roger. Marlene stuck the carrot in the center of the snowman’s face, but quickly had to take cover behind it when Stacy started attacking her with the fluffy, white ice.
“Hey!” she cried. She scooped up two snowballs and launched them from behind the snowman. One caught Stacy in the shoulder and the other just barely missed Phil. Becky started chasing her around the snowman, throwing snowballs as she went.
“I’m gonna turn u into a snow-woman!” Becky threatened with a laugh.
Marlene threw a snowball at her. “Well, I’m turning u into a snow angel because I kill this game!” she shot back, stumbling over her feet.
Becky laughed and was about to launch another snowball at Marlene when she noticed Mason aiming a snowball at her and she moved out of the way. The snowball flew past her and hit the snowman in the head, knocking off the nose that Marlene had just gave it. Marlene, Becky, and Stacy exchanged a glance.
“Baby unicorn killer!” Stacy cried charging toward him with a snowball in each hand.
“I don’t even know what that me-e-eans!” Mason cried as he took off running with the ladies chasing after him, throwing snowballs as they went.