“The lights should come on in a minute or two,” came a loud but unamplified voice from the far end of the arrivals hall. Allie sighed and kicked the baggage carousel, the rubber toe of her boot bouncing back at her.
“Unbelievable,” Marcus said. He was not the type to deal well with this sort of setback. Allie was trying to remain unemotional. There was nothing they could do about it anyhow, and getting all angsty was not going to make it easier to take.
“The back-up generator should just automatically come on,” the voice continued. But so did the darkness. It was weird, Allie thought, to be in such a public space, such an institutional space, in such total darkness. As if they didn’t belong there, as if they’d become distracted somehow and gotten left behind, locked in, trapped in the darkened space after everyone else had gone home. But they weren’t alone, not at all. The arrivals hall was filled with other urban refugees just like themselves. A hundred, maybe two hundred people, whose flights had been cancelled, who had come a long way on an icy road through a white-out of a blizzard, only to have their holiday plans pulled out from under them.
“I’m sitting,” Marcus said. He dropped onto the baggage belt. “It’s not like this thing is going to come on anytime soon.”
Allie dropped down beside him and watched the pinpoints of light roam the arrivals hall as thwarted passengers flipped open their cellphones, using them to call for a ride home through the storm, or to navigate through the darkness. It was eerie, the faces illuminated in blue-grey LED, the empty baggage carts that creaked and bumped, waiting to be useful.
“When the power comes back,” the voice said, “we’ll get the belt moving again and get your bags out to you. They’re just on the other side of that wall there.” The wanderers in the dark stirred at this, turned as one organism to face the long wall that stood between them and their luggage, luggage that now was going nowhere but back home, or maybe to an airport hotel.
“We do apologize for any inconvenience,” the voice concluded uselessly, sorrowfully.
Marcus stood up. “I don’t think they’re actually sorry, do you?”
Allie squinted at him in the dark. Or, at least, she thought she was squinting at him. The darkness, pierced though it was by cellphone light, was pervasive.
An airport in the light was one thing. People kissed and cried and swore and stamped and sighed as if no one could see. They were self-contained private islands of one or two or five unto themselves.
But an airport with the lights out, now that was altogether different.
At first, the separate islands of cellphone lights and baggage carts bobbed through the darkness alone, but soon enough they came together, drawn to one another by some social need to band together, greater than the sum of their parts.
Allie could feel, rather than see, Marcus drift away toward the group that was forming near the rubber flaps that separated the arrivals hall from the baggage handlers. A corona of light soon joined them.
Allie sat for a minute longer on the conveyor belt. Their trip to Toronto would be delayed by 12, maybe 13 hours. She’d easily been able to rebook a flight for the next morning. So tonight they’d travel back home across icy treacherous roads and sleep in their own bed. They’d get to her mother’s before eleven, and that was what mattered.
Ginger, her sister’s only child, was dancing in The Nutcracker. This was as unlikely as if Allie herself had been cast as the sugar plum fairy. Not because Ginger was ungraceful—she wasn’t, not at all. She had a long dancer’s body, delicate and strong-limbed, and a sweet, expressive face that was so much like her sister’s, it sometimes took Allie’s breath away.
Her sister, though, hadn’t seen her own child’s sweet face for months now. Coming up on a year, Allie thought. She couldn’t keep track of where her sister was. Some consciousness-raising cult in New Mexico maybe, or a vegan retreat in Saint Lucia. Allie didn’t understand her sister, couldn’t understand how you could have a child, especially one as lovely as Ginger, and then just leave her, for months at a time, for no really good reason, just to follow your own ever-changing whims. But then, Melissa had always put a high priority on herself, trying lives on until she found the one that fit. So far, Melissa’s cast-off lives lay in heaps behind her, discarded clothes on a fitting-room floor, as she continued to search for the outfit that would make her.
Allie, on the other hand, had always put a high priority on following the rules, on doing what was expected of her. Her suitcase, for instance, was neatly packed with exactly the right Christmas presents for her mother and her niece. She’d bought white paper and colourful ribbon and a rubber stamp and a stamp pad, and she had perfectly and uniformly wrapped each carefully selected present. She imagined them piled up beneath her mother’s artificial tree, sweet clouds of presents beneath candied puffs of ribbon.
A commotion near the mouth of the baggage carousel interrupted her imaginings. Allie stood. She thought she could hear Marcus above the din. She could almost make him out in the pale cellphone light. She navigated their luggage cart closer to the carousel.
Marcus was standing on the baggage belt, directing traffic. Bags were being handed out through the rubber flaps in a jagged rhythm, and Marcus directed each one into the waiting hands of some fellow passenger eager to help. An older man, tall, with a flashlight, directed a thin beam toward Marcus’s hands, and a steady stream of jokes toward the assembled travellers.
The bags went out, human-chain-style, until they clumped and clustered on the floor, an archipelago of suitcases. Those who weren’t involved in ad hoc baggage handling cruised the floor, phones held aloft, checking the tags, shouting bingo when they found a case that belonged to them.
“Allie,” Marcus shouted. He’d spotted her. She could just make out the incline of his head as he nodded at the bag that was passing through his hands. She moved toward the cellphone aurora, received the suitcase, stowed it on their cart.
She watched him continue to direct traffic, peremptory as always. “Here,” he’d say, and swing another heavy bag into waiting hands, “pass these out, along. Make some room.” It was all direct commands with him and he was so confident, so sure that he was right, and that people would do what he said. Why wouldn’t they? Allie wondered what it was like to feel that certain all the time. She was more timid, more into consultation. “Why don’t we,” her sentences often began, or “Let’s just...” It was holding her back at work, she knew. She’d been told. She would stay a middle manager forever with that kind of talk. But she genuinely did care what others thought, wanted them to buy into whatever decisions she made. It seemed like a good strategy, but in practice, more often, people like Marcus got where they wanted, got somewhere.
Like right now. Marcus was getting to the end of the luggage. The floor was strewn with suitcases, the lights that once had come together to shine on his endeavours now bobbed freely, separately, as would-be passengers sought reunion with their things. A man from the airport hopped up on the conveyor belt and, with a bullhorn, began shouting last names and destinations, hoping to make another few matches.
“Too little too late,” Marcus said. Allie imagined him jerking his head toward the bullhorn man. “Where was he with his flashlight 10 minutes ago?”
Allie was suddenly exhausted: The thought of driving back the way they’d come, white-knuckled, freezing, through a foreground of madly swirling snow became too much to bear. She wanted simplicity, she wanted ease. She wanted, if not to go forward, then at least not to go back.
“Why don’t we just check into a hotel,” Allie said. “That way, we’re close, and we don’t have to drive through the storm again. If we can get out first thing in the morning, we can still make it there in time to see Ginger dance, at least.”
“That’s crazy,” Marcus said. “We’re going home. It’s not that bad out.”
Allie wanted to ask Marcus how he knew what it was doing outside. They hadn’t seen so much as a window since checking in an hour before. But Marcus knew the way he always knew. It wasn’t that bad out because he said it wasn’t.
Allie sighed and squared her shoulders. She pushed the cart.
Outside, the snow still fell. Allie manoeuvred the cart, finally pulling up beside their car. Marcus expertly fitted the suitcases into the trunk.
On the highway, they crept along until Marcus got the lay of things, and started to gather speed. Allie tried to close her eyes. She wanted desperately not to see the swirling snow, wanted not to strain to see the road beyond. But she felt guilty, as if she should bear witness to the storm, to Marcus’s driving, to the ordeal he was facing. She pursed her eyes and clutched the armrest, her whole body rigid.
“Relax,” Marcus said. He reached out a hand toward her, laid it gently on her thigh. “Don’t be like this.”
“Be like what,” she said.
“You know,” he said.
“Don’t you think you should have both hands on the wheel,” she said.
“It’s not that bad,” he said, “I told you.” But he withdrew his hand. Allie’s leg went cold where his warm hand had been. She reached over to turn up the radio. Something about the mid-term elections in the States, and how the now partisan house was affecting the war in Iraq.
That’s what we’re on our way to, she thought. A partisan house. She imagined their downtown duplex. It was already divided in two, and then divided in two again. Herself on one side, Marcus on the other, mutely shaking their fists at each other across the expanse of the kitchen floor, each attempting secret backroom deals with the cat, or trying to persuade the mailman to take one side or another. Marcus succeeding, the blunt force of his personality easily overcoming her ordered rule-following.
How could two people so diametrically opposed live together, she wondered, not for the first time, and why would they? She didn’t know where Melissa was, hadn’t spoken to her sister in at least a year because they simply had nothing to talk about. They, who had so much that was the same in their pasts, had nothing in common. They didn’t see eye-to-eye on much. Their childhood, their mother, Melissa’s daughter or her choices. With Marcus it was different. She knew him, she understood him, she curled beside him each night. But it was also the same. He was separate the way Melissa was. He needed that in a way Allie just didn’t understand. How could you need to be apart from people? The people who were your family, most especially. How could you stand to stand alone when they were so close by?
Allie imagined Ginger in her costume, her hair in high ringletted pigtails, her smile shining. Allie tried to imagine herself in the audience, where her mother would be, where Melissa should be. She stared through the windshield at the snow that continued to howl. She tried to look through the snow, look past it, as Marcus had tried to teach her to do one rain-stormy road trip when their relationship was still new and she could still take direction from him. But all she saw was more snow. And more.
She turned the radio down again. “We’re not getting out of here this weekend, are we?”
He glanced at her, then back at the road. “It doesn’t look that way,” he said kindly. “This isn’t the kind of snow that’s going to just stop.”
Allie pushed her lips together and out. She wanted to cry, but not in the car. She wanted a luxurious cry, with muted lights and soft covers and a hot bath at the end of it. Not this stupid tin can rolling over icy roads in the dark, cutting clumsily through squalls and flurries. She let her breath out through her nose heavily.
“Sorry baby,” Marcus said.
Inside the house, the air was cool. Allie could see short puffs of her own breath hanging before her. She checked the thermostat. The furnace was out. Marcus disappeared into the basement.
Allie took the suitcases right upstairs, unpacked the presents she’d bought and wrapped and brought them back down. The Christmas tree she’d decorated while Marcus worked on his laptop took up most of the front room. There was not much under it: a lone gift bag from Marcus’s brother and his wife in Regina and a heap of needles that rejuvenated itself hourly it seemed, no matter how often Allie swept or vacuumed. Allie clicked the lights on, smiled as the tree bloomed. She arranged the gifts beneath the boughs. To Mom, the tags read, lots of love, Allie and Marcus. To Ginger, Merry Christmas, Auntie A and Uncle M.
Allie sat back on her heels. She heard the furnace roar to life, then felt Marcus’s hand on her shoulder.
“Looks good,” he said. “Drink?” He didn’t wait for her answer, poured her a glass of wine. He sank onto the couch and patted the seat beside him. Allie clicked off the overhead lights, and eased down onto the couch.
“You OK?” Marcus asked.
“I wanted to get there,” Allie said.
“I know,” Marcus said. “And you tried. But that blizzard doesn’t care what you want.”
Allie nodded, sipped her wine.
“We’ll mail the packages on Monday,” Marcus said.
“They won’t get there before Christmas,” said Allie.
“Then they’ll open them after.”
Allie hated it. The not getting there. The gulf she felt...didn’t feel...felt between herself and Marcus. Her sister, who got to create messes and then move on, away from them, while people like Allie stayed behind to sweep up. Missing Ginger on stage and the brave disappointment she imagined on the girl’s face. The basic wrongness of presents that arrive after Christmas. None of it obeyed the rules she’d agreed to.
She called her mother. “We’re snowed in,” Allie said, her voice giving under the strain. “We won’t make it. Not even tomorrow. It’s supposed to snow like this all weekend.” She could hear voices, excitement, squealing coming down the line.
“Oh Allie,” her mother said over the clamour. “I’m so sorry.”
“I know,” Allie said. “I so wanted to be there. I wanted to see Ginger dance. I wanted to see you.”
“I know, love,” her mother said. “But guess what?” She didn’t wait for Allie to guess. “Melissa’s here!”
“I didn’t know cults celebrated Christmas,” Allie said. “Does this mean you’ll be making tofurkey, instead of the real thing?”
“Don’t be unkind, dear,” her mother said. “Your sister came a long way to see us.”
“I know Mom. You’re right, I’m sorry.” Allie looked at Marcus, rolled her eyes. Melissa’s home, she mouthed at him. He stood up at once, refilled her wine glass. Allie took it gratefully.
“Kiss Ginger for me,” she said. “And yourself. And—give Melissa a good sincere handshake. Merry Christmas to all,” she said.
“And to all a good night,” her mother concluded, their old family joke.
Allie stared into the tree, the lights blurring like tail lights reflected on rain-wet pavement.
“It sounds like it’s just you and me, then,” Marcus said. He patted the space between them. Their plump tabby scrabbled up, turned three times and lay down. “Why don’t we watch a movie,” he said. “Let’s just make some popcorn and get under the blanket.”
Allie looked at him. He tried so hard, sometimes. She snaked her hand out over the cat and closed it over his.
Stephanie Domet is a writer-broadcaster in Halifax. Her first novel, Pawnshop Blues, has been serialized in the bottom-writing of The Coast. Her second novel, Homing, will be published by Invisible in April 2007.