Snowed In: Part VI, Accumulation

In case you missed it: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V

I hoped Jocelyn hadn’t seen any change on my face. If her boyfriend was trying to ditch her, I needed to keep her occupied. That was my first instinct.

“The singing competition?” I asked. “He told you about that?”

“Yeah, he said you tried out after college for that show, and you made it through the auditions.”

Why had my dad told her about that?

“Did he say what happened next?”

“Only that you didn’t make it on TV. But he was proud of you.”

I gulped down some more wine. I could see shadows out in the snow.

“Well, what really happened was…I got there, and everyone else was so talented and ambitious and committed to becoming a star. I chickened out and left after a couple days.”

I had never said that part of the story out loud. Everyone just thought I failed, but I knew it was even worse. My brother was right, I had auditioned because I was trying to win my dad’s approval, and once I got to the next stage, I realized that wasn’t going to be enough.

“What did you sing for your audition?”

Why was Jocelyn so interested in this? Normally, I would have avoided this conversation at all costs, but now I was trying to fill time.

“Midnight by Yaz.”

“I don’t know that song. How does it go?”

I started singing. About halfway through, tears started trickling down my face, and I didn’t care.

Midnight, it’s raining outside, he must be soaking wet
Everyone is sleeping tight, God knows I tried my best
Darling, you know it looks bad
Just lost the best thing that I ever had, well
Still I don’t know why I did him wrong, no
It’s too late, now, he’s gone to say

Baby, oh, no, can’t leave me now
Said, think about it, please
‘Cause I love you, and I need you
And I should have thought of that before I did you wrong

Jocelyn stood up suddenly and ran from the dining room. I followed her to the den, where we found the room empty.

“Where the hell are they, Elise?”

“I have no idea. I was in the dining room with you, Jocelyn.” I wiped the tears from my face.

How the hell had Jack snuck everyone out without us hearing? There was a deck attached to the den—maybe they went out that way. Their escape would be a challenge with the kids, so maybe we still had time to catch them.

“Let’s go!” I yelled and ran to the coat closet. We both grabbed our jackets and headed outside.

The snow had piled up as high as the top of my boots. We could see fresh, deep footprints on the steps. I looked to my right to the neighbor’s driveway. The headlights were on, the engine was running, and it looked like Jack was helping the guys clear off the car. In the lights, I could see how fast and heavy the snow was coming down.

“No time for the steps,” I whispered to Jocelyn. “We can cut across the yard, but we have to be careful.”

I reached out and grabbed her hand.

Not only did I want all of them gone, but my mind had shifted, and I could no longer bear the thought of Dean leaving Jocelyn behind. It was a shitty thing for him to do, regardless of her messed up scheme. I could see why Jack was helping Dean, but I didn’t want it to end like this.

The walk from our front step to our neighbor’s driveway included large rocks and tree roots, which were hiding beneath the snow. Had we lived in the house longer, I might have been more familiar with the location of these obstacles. Plus, I was feeling the effects of the wine.

“Maybe he was coming back for me,” Jocelyn said. “He just wanted me to finish up with you.”

We both knew that was a stretch.

I stepped on something and almost fell. “Watch out here, I think there are some stones.”

I wondered if they could see us from the driveway. The car had been backed in, and its headlights were pointed toward the road. With all the snow, I thought there was a chance we might surprise them.

“I need to sit down a minute,” Jocelyn said. She was flushed, like when she first arrived at the house.

“We need to keep going.”

“I can’t.” She was brushing snow away, creating a place to sit on one of the stones.

“Stay right there, I’m heading up to stop them,” I said.

I looked back once at Jocelyn sitting there in the snow. She looked so alone yet peaceful.

As I got closer to the driveway, I shouted, “Hey, you guys forgot someone!”

The three men turned to look at me trudging through the snow. The car was pretty much dug out.

“Elise,” Jack started to say something, but I cut him off.

“Jack, how will Jocelyn get home if they leave her here?”

“She seems pretty capable of handling herself,” he said.

I had reached the car. I could see that the fake mechanic dude was using our shovel to create a path in front of the car.

“How do you guys think you’re going to drive away in all this snow?” I asked.

“Oh, we’re getting out of here, don’t you worry,” said Dean.

“Let me get Jocelyn, she’s right down there,” I pleaded, motioning to the property line between the two houses.

“Look lady, she might have gotten to you, but I’m done. I don’t think she knows whether she’s lying or telling the truth anymore.”

Dean and the other guy jumped in the car. I could see the kids in the back seat. They looked terrified.

I pounded on the driver’s window, “You are putting these kids’ lives at risk!”

Dean rolled down the window a crack, “Don’t you tell me what to do with my kids. Now move the fuck away!”

I stepped back and fell on my ass. I wanted so badly to just lie down in the snow and stay there. As Jack leaned over to help me up, the car started moving forward.

“Jocelyn!” I screamed and ran back the way I came, with Jack behind me.

Jocelyn was gone.

There were footprints leading to our stairs. We followed them and headed up to street level in time to see the car driving slowly in the other direction. There was no sign of Jocelyn.

Jack informed me that he had no interest in looking for Jocelyn. He went in the house, and I walked all over our property, falling several times, calling out Jocelyn’s name.

After I don’t know how long, I finally went inside and told Jack everything, including the parts I had been leaving out for years.

*****

A couple days later I called my dad. I asked him if he had been seeing a young woman who told him she was pregnant. He claimed he had no idea who this woman was—just some scam artist, probably. And then he closed the subject. I resigned myself that I would never know who or what to believe.

Next, I spoke with my mom. She wouldn’t say if she had written a letter to Jocelyn—she said there were some things she might never be able to discuss with me. But when I offered to help her get away from dad and that maybe the two of us could take a break from drinking, she took me up on the offer.

Finally, I called my brother, and we mended our relationship. I didn’t tell him about Jocelyn specifically, but I told him I had seen our dad from a new perspective. I even got him to ease up on Mom.

We never saw or heard from Jocelyn or Dean again. Jack and I lived in that house for 25 years, and I always wondered if she might come back, but she didn’t.

We weathered the pandemic in that house, raised two kids together, and did our best to always tell each other the truth.

But you can only know your own story, right? And that’s a fact you learn to live with, hopefully—sometimes the hard way.

Thanks for reading Snowed In!

Midnight lyrics by Alison Moyet

Snowed In: Part IV, Trust

In case you missed it: Part I | Part II | Part III

Trust is this invisible thing that holds families and societies together. It allows people to count on each other. When you have it, you don’t think too much about it. But when you lose it, you start questioning everything.

Could we trust these strangers in our house?

Could I believe my husband?

And you: Can you trust me? What if I’m one of those unreliable narrators? What if I’ve conjured up one or more of these characters in my head? I promise you I haven’t, but why should you believe me?

When I was a kid, I thought my life was pretty normal. When you feel safe and solid, you don’t think to yourself, I feel safe. You just feel that way. For seventeen years, it never crossed my mind that I might be standing on a rotting foundation.

Sure, I wished my dad were around more. He stayed late at the office a lot and went on frequent work trips. But he consistently showed up for my school choir concerts. He was the one who encouraged me to try out for solos. When I started acting in musicals, too, he was so proud of me and always brought flowers to my performances.

On the day I was leaving for college, my dad was supposed to be there to say good-bye, but he couldn’t get back in time from a conference. My mom sat down next to me on my bed, packed suitcases and boxes at our feet.

“I hate having to tell you this, but I think it’s time you knew,” she said. “Your dad has been having affairs for years. Whenever he’s late or stuck somewhere, it’s usually another woman. He’s probably with the latest one right now.”

“Wait, what?! You’re kidding, right?”

“I should have left him years ago, but I couldn’t. I kept thinking he would come to his senses and stop. But it’s just who he is.”

“How do you know?”

“Oh, Elise, I’m not going to present you with the evidence. But I could. He knows that I know. We’ve fought about it many times.”

How had I missed all this? I felt so stupid. And betrayed.

She went on: “He won’t deny it if you ask him. I told your brother two years ago before he went to college, and your dad came clean to Matt when he asked.”

“You told Matt two years ago?” Suddenly Matt’s emotional distance since going away made sense.

“I didn’t want to tell you then. You had two years of high school left, and it was so important to you when Dad came to your performances. I couldn’t destroy that.”

“So, you just destroyed it in retrospect,” I hissed. Tears were streaming down my face. I was gasping for air and thought I might pass out.

“We both love you, Elise. Nothing can change that. Your dad is still your dad.”

Mom put her arm around my shoulder, and I threw it off.

“You do know that I have friends coming to pick me up for a three-hour drive, right? Great timing, Mom.”

“I think it’s best this way. Now, if you don’t want to talk to me or your dad for however long, we won’t all be under the same roof.”

On the drive to school, I cried and cried to my two best friends. We all shared a dorm room, and they had to deal with me on many a sad, drunken night. I almost flunked out that first year, but eventually I got my act together.

I never really stopped talking to my parents. I refused to confront my dad about it, and he said nothing, either. I did talk with my brother. Matt told me he had decided to cut them both out of his life entirely. He hated Dad and he couldn’t stand that Mom was putting up with this shit, even after we had both left home.

When I was 21, Matt broke off contact with me. He thought I was still trying to win Dad’s approval. He called me pathetic. It’s been a little over ten years since we’ve spoken.

Mom and Dad still live together, but their marriage is over. It’s just a convenience thing, them sharing the house. It’s a miserable place to visit, so I go for a couple days once a year at most. Mom drinks a lot. She often asks about Matt; she can’t believe he’s not talking to me. Dad, on the other hand, seems light and free. I guess he finally has full permission to do as he pleases.

Sometimes I wonder how many half-siblings I might have out there. Is Jocelyn a child of my dad’s, here to check me out? If so, why go to all this trouble? Why not just send me an email, or knock on the door and say, hi there, I think I’m your sister?

When trust has been yanked away from you so unexpectedly, so completely, it makes you suspicious. Anything becomes possible. Everything is on the table.

*****

“Jocelyn, where are the kids?” Dean asked.

“They’re in the den, watching a movie.”

“I’d like to check on them.”

Dean and Jocelyn looked at each other, and after what could have been years, she went over to the bench and helped him get up. He was limping as they shuffled off to the den.

I grabbed my snow boots from the coat closet next to the bench and put them on as quickly as possible.

“I’m going to clear off the steps,” I announced and dashed out the door.

The snow was falling thick, creating an eerie silence. I looked left and right—where was our damn shovel? I gave up and clomped up the stairs as quick as I could. Up at street level I saw one car, maybe an SUV, parked in the driveway of our weekends-only neighbor. The car had a lot of snow on it. Too much snow on the hood for it to have been opened recently, at least in my estimation. And there was no sign of the mechanic’s vehicle.

I had left Jack alone in the house with those people. What if Dean was faking his injury?

I ran back down the steps, almost falling myself.  

Jack and the mechanic were still standing there, and Jocelyn and Dean were just coming back into the foyer.

“Elise, did you go for a little walk?” Jocelyn asked.

“I was going to shovel the stairs,” I said, realizing how ridiculous I looked, covered in snow, with boots on, but no hat, coat, or gloves. “But I changed my mind.”

Jocelyn started to say something, and I cut her off.

“I think it’s time for all of you to go,” I said, shaking from the cold and the adrenaline surging through my body. I was afraid to kick them out, and I was afraid to let them stay one minute longer.

“Look, Elise, I can explain,” Jocelyn said.

“Explain what, Jocelyn?”

This time Jack cut her off: “No need to explain, just leave, please.”

“We can’t do that, Jack.”

Dean growled, “Let’s just go, Jocelyn. You’ve messed around here long enough, and now I’m hurt, and there’s a ton of snow on the ground. Let’s get the kids and go.”

“No!” Jocelyn shook her head and scrunched up her face. “We won’t be leaving until I get what I came for.”

Coming Up: Part V, Negotiation

Snowed In: Part III, The Waiting

Catch up with Part I and Part II

I couldn’t breathe. I ran to the bathroom. Jack followed me and closed the door behind him.

“What the hell, Jack? Is that your girlfriend? Did she come here to send us a message?”

“Elise, I swear, that is not Samantha.”

Jack rarely used her name. He knew I didn’t like hearing it.

I was leaning on the vanity taking shallow gulps of air.

“Calm down, Elise. She misspoke because I walked up at that moment.”

“You did tell me that she, Samantha, was having trouble letting go,” I reminded him.

“She’s getting better, and she would never pull a stunt like this anyway. Besides, this woman is freaking pregnant. I told you nothing physical ever happened.”

“She said she was a snake, Jack.”

“She was messing with you because she didn’t want you trying to win over the kids.”

“Was that what I was trying to do?”

“Kinda seemed like it.”

“I was trying to break the tension.”

Jack could see I was holding back tears.

“It’s like, what’s it called, Occam’s Razor? The simplest answer is the one most likely to be true. They’re just a couple that broke down, and they don’t want to be here right now. She didn’t like you getting all cozy with the kids, and then…Wait, she said she shouldn’t have told you anything. What did she tell you?”

I gave Jack a quick summary of the situation according to Jocelyn.

“OK, maybe we better get back out there.”

I glared at him. “So, you see why I might think something’s not right.”

With a big sigh, Jack pulled his phone out of his back pocket. He started scrolling rapidly through it and then stopped. He held the phone out in front of me.

“That’s Samantha,” he said.

It was a picture of a group of people from one of his office happy hours. I recognized his former boss, from before his promotion, standing in the back. In the middle was Jack and a woman, who looked nothing like Jocelyn. They were sitting close, arms draped casually over each other’s shoulders.

“It’s from like six months ago, right before I told you.”

Seeing the photo made it so much more real. I felt nauseous.

“What did your co-workers think, with you guys hanging on each other like that?”

“I don’t know. We were teammates, Elise. We were all celebrating finishing a big project.” Jack put the phone away. “Can we revisit this later? I think we should get out there.”

“OK, but I still think something’s up with these two. And, honestly, I don’t want to hear about Samantha again, as long as you promise me nothing ever happened. And that you’ve convinced her she’s barking up the wrong tree.”

“Yes, yes, of course, Elise.”

And then we both laughed, because where the hell did “barking up the wrong tree” come from?

We found Jocelyn and the kids sitting in the living room. She was looking at her phone.

“Anything from Dean?” I asked.

“No, not yet.” She said, putting her phone down on the coffee table.

“Um, Jack could set the kids up in the den to watch a movie,” I suggested.

The kids perked up. There was a long silence. I wondered if Jocelyn knew that I was trying to maneuver some more one-on-one time with her.

“Okay, sure,” Jocelyn said, throwing her hands in the air.

Jack motioned at the kids, “C’mon you two, let’s go find something fun to watch!”

I sat down on the couch across from Jocelyn and leaned over, my arms folded on my knees.

“Jocelyn, is everything ok? I know I’m a stranger, but you can talk to me.”

She picked up her phone, looked at the screen, and then put it back down.

“I can’t explain. It’s complicated. You must be familiar with complicated.”

I sat back, unsure where she was going with this.

Jocelyn continued, “You don’t fully trust Jack, right? Why do you think that is? Is it more about him or about your own baggage?”

“We all have baggage,” I conceded.

“So, maybe you’re looking at me and Dean through your own baggage.”

Huh.

I could hear the TV in the other room. Hopefully, Jack would return soon. I didn’t want to get into a battle of wits with Jocelyn—I was clearly outmatched.

Jocelyn’s phone dinged and she grabbed it. “The mechanic is working on the car,” she announced.

I started thinking about the amount of time Jocelyn or Dean had been left unaccompanied in the house. Was it long enough for one of them to steal a checkbook or a credit card? Or were they after more? Was I just being paranoid?

Jocelyn could see the gears turning in my head, I was certain of it. “Elise, my point is, it seems like you want to save me,” she said, “but what if I’m here to save you?”

“What does that mean?” I asked, my heart beating in my throat.

“Tell me why you’re having a tough time getting past Jack’s emotional attachment at work. Do you believe him when he says it’s over?”

“I do. But I have trust issues. I can’t talk about it.”

“Yet you want me to tell you my secrets,” she said slowly. “Isn’t that weird?”

The whole thing was weird. Who was this woman? Why did I want nothing more than to go grab that bottle of wine and tell her everything?

Jack walked back into the room. “They’re watching Toy Story. They seem pretty content. You might have to carry them out of here.”

“The mechanic is up there,” I informed Jack.

“Maybe I should clear off the steps; it’s really starting to stick,” Jack said.

Jocelyn jumped to her feet, “No worries! We’ll be fine.”

As if on cue, we heard a commotion outside. We all ran to the foyer, and Jack flung open the front door. At the foot of our stairs, a man was helping Dean to his feet.

“Dean! What happened?” Jocelyn shouted. As she ran out in the snow, I saw that she had snow boots on. I hadn’t noticed that before.

“I’m ok, I slipped a bit and slid down the last couple steps.”

The man, who I took to be the mechanic, helped Dean get inside. Dean was not putting his full weight on his left ankle.

“Did you twist your ankle?” I asked.

“Do you need some help?” Jack asked.

“I’m fine,” Dean said.

The mechanic helped Dean sit down on the bench in our foyer.

As Jack closed the door, it occurred to me that Jack and I were now outnumbered in our house, three adults to two. I wasn’t sure if the kids would be a help or a hindrance to whatever they might have planned.

“Please be careful as you go back up the stairs,” I said to the mechanic, not too subtly.

“If you don’t mind, ma’am, I’d like to wait here for the tow truck,” he said. “I couldn’t fix the car, and my truck’s not equipped for towin’. Not that I’d want to even try it in this snow. It’s really coming down out there.”

Aw, crap.

Coming Up: Part IV, Trust

Snowed In: Part II, The Dinner

If you haven’t yet, you’ll want to read Part I of this serialized story first.

Our house does not have an open floor plan, so the living room, kitchen, and dining room are chopped up into separate rooms, which I happen to like.

Jocelyn took a quick look around, saw that we were sort of secluded, and then grabbed my arm and leaned in close.

“Ok, so you’re going to tell me the ingredients of the chili, and I’m going to confide in you, all right?” she said in a low, urgent voice. It wasn’t really a question.

“Um…”

In a much louder voice she said, “Elise, you have to tell me what’s in this amazing-smelling chili.”

I started getting out the bowls, and in an equally loud voice, I said, “Well, you start with black beans, white onion, garlic, and brown sugar.”

Jocelyn whispered: “So, Dean and I are not married. At least not yet. I called him my husband because, I don’t know, because it sounded better, I guess.”

Dean! Two names down.

“Um, then we use ground turkey and bacon. But you don’t have to include them if you don’t eat meat.”

“The kids are his. We were picking them up at his ex’s place around here somewhere. We’ve never been out here. She usually meets him halfway.”

“Then you’ve got chopped green and red bell pepper, jalapeños, and sweet onion.”

“We were picking up the kids for the week. I don’t know them very well, so this was supposed to be a chance for us to bond.”

“The spices are chili powder, cumin, oregano, and crushed red pepper.”

We were moving around the kitchen, assembling the spoons, bread plates, and serving utensils. Every couple seconds, we would freeze and look at the doorway. We could hear voices coming from the living room.

“Ever since I started showing, it’s been weird. His ex doesn’t know I’m pregnant. I didn’t go in the house when he got the kids. It’s gotten tense.”

I asked, “Is everything ok? Do you need help?”

Jocelyn did that rolling thing with her hand that means go on…

“And, uh, a jar of salsa, some tomato paste, and some broth,” I practically shouted.

I removed the cornbread from the oven, and Jocelyn’s eyes widened.

“Holy crap, that looks really good. What’s in that?!”

Under her breath and at breakneck speed, she added, “We’re fine, he just has to get used to the fact that he’s having another kid, and he needs to tell his ex about it before too long.”

“It’s the usual cornbread ingredients, and then on top are caramelized apple slices and onions.”

And then I did something I can’t explain.

I said: “Well, Jack has been having an ’emotional affair’ with a woman at work. He says it’s over, and I’m trying to get past it. But…” I stopped myself.

What the hell was I doing? I hadn’t even told my closest friends about this yet because I was worried they would think I was crazy for going forward with buying this house. Why had I disclosed this to a perfect stranger?

It was too late to judge Jocelyn’s reaction because Jack, Dean, and the kids had arrived in the kitchen.

“Are we ready?” Jack asked as he grabbed some glasses from the cabinet.

Talk about an awkward dinner. The kids were still mostly silent. Had Jocelyn and Dean been arguing in the car and the kids got freaked out? Was their home life stressful? At least they weren’t picky eaters, as we discovered. In fact, they were demolishing the cornbread.

Dean kept looking at his phone. He ate maybe two bites of chili.

Jack was drinking one of his fancy craft beers. I was slowly sipping red wine. I was going to skip the wine, but after my confession, I started feeling anxious and wanted to calm down. I promised myself I would not drink too much while these people were still in the house. Our guests had opted for sparkling water.

“This food is delicious,” Jocelyn said. “You guys should open up a restaurant. Seriously.”

This is the point where we might normally start talking about what we all did for work. But I wasn’t sure what direction to go—treat this like two couples getting to know each other or just wait out the discomfort, because how long could it last, honestly? 

Through the window I could see the snow was coming down. Jack and I exchanged glances.

Dean’s phone played some tune I recognized but could not place. He jumped up and left the room. I wasn’t thrilled about him wandering through our house, but I couldn’t very well follow him.

“How do you like the food?” I looked at the kids who were sitting side-by-side to my right. “Do you want some more cornbread?”

“No, thank you,” said the older kid.

“Yes, please,” said the younger kid.

As I put another piece of cornbread on the smaller one’s plate, I asked, “Can you tell me your names and how old you are?”

“You don’t have to tell her that,” Jocelyn snapped.

“She’s right,” I said, feeling like I had been slapped.

And then, again, I don’t know what struck me, but I said, “Names are meaningless anyway. Wouldn’t it be so much more fun if people just called us by our favorite animal? I would be named Dolphin. Jack what would you be?”

My husband looked at me like I had sprouted another head. “What the heck are you talking about?”

But the kids loved it.

“I’m Penguin!” said the older one.

“I’m Puppy” said the younger one.

Jocelyn,” I said, putting emphasis on her name, seeing as how she had never given it to me in the first place, “who would you be?”

She grinned. Was it fake, or had I won her over? I couldn’t tell.

“Well, Elise, I mean Dolphin, I would have to be Snake.”

Touché, dear Jocelyn!

“I’m getting anther beer,” said Jack, and he got up from the table.

Dean returned and reported that a mechanic was on his way. He said he was going to wait at the car. I walked with him to the hall closet to get his coat, and he practically spit at me, “Can you just mind your own damn business until we get out of here?”

How much had he heard earlier?

“Absolutely,” I said, with an implied, Yes, Sir!

Dean rolled his eyes and stomped out the front door. I looked through the window in the top part of the door—the snow was starting to stick. I could not see which direction Dean went when he got to the top of the stairs. The street was barely visible.

Jack appeared next to me. “Maybe you could slow down on the wine for now,” he said, and I noticed that I had carried my glass of wine with me. How many glasses had I had? No more than two, but he was right. I could feel that sense of not giving a shit bubbling up.

Back in the dining room, Jocelyn was clearing the table.

“Hey there, Puppy and Penguin!” I said, and the kids smiled.

I grabbed some bowls and joined Jocelyn in the kitchen.

“Look, I’m sorry I said anything.” She exhaled and shook her head slowly, “You don’t need to be involved in this.”

Jack was now standing beside me, but she kept talking.

“This is between me and Jack—I mean me and Dean. This is between me and Dean.”

My head could not have swiveled fast enough to glare at Jack. What the…?

Coming Up: Part III, The Waiting

Snowed In: Part I, The Arrival

Note: This is the first installment of a story I plan to serialize on this blog. I haven’t written fiction in ages, and I don’t think I’ve ever tried my hand at suspense/psychological thrillers. Hopefully, it will add something fun to the mix that isn’t too far off topic. How often would you like to see new installments? Share your thoughts in the comments.

The sun had just gone down when we heard a knock at the door. It was mid-November, so it was already dark at 5pm.

Jack and I had just hunkered down under blankets on our respective couches. The first big snowstorm of the season was headed our way, and dinner was cooking in the kitchen.

We looked at each other—who could be knocking at five on a Sunday? We were still relatively new to the community, so maybe it was a neighbor dropping off a plate of cookies or a bottle of wine. Only one grandmotherly woman had welcomed us to the neighborhood so far. I was still holding out hope that a youngish couple would show up and we would all become fast friends.

Jack went to the door. We had no chain and no screen door, so he just opened the front door to whoever was there. The area was secluded and much nicer than the last place we lived, so I wasn’t too concerned that he didn’t ask first who it was.

A woman’s voice said, “Oh, hello. Thank you so much for answering your door.”

I jumped up and joined my husband in the foyer. A woman stood there holding the hand of a small child. The child was all bundled up against the cold, and the woman had on a long puffy coat that was hanging open. She appeared to be pregnant, but I know better than to make assumptions about that. She looked a bit out of breath—flushed and tired.

“I’m so sorry to bother you, but our car just broke down up there.” She motioned behind her. Our house sat at the bottom of a hill, and a flight of wooden stairs led up to the street. In the light of our street post, I could see a taller figure standing at the top of the stairs, carrying something large.

“That’s my husband up there. We are calling around to find a mechanic that can come out, but this little one really needs to use the restroom,” she looked at the child. “And I suppose I do, too.”

“Please, come in,” I said. “Jack, why don’t you go tell her husband to come down.”

The woman and child stepped into the house. I thought it might be easier for her to navigate in our small half-bath without her big coat, so I offered to hang it up. Then I showed them to the bathroom.

“We are so grateful, thank you again so much,” she said as she closed the bathroom door.

On my way back to the foyer, I scooped up the crumpled blankets from the couches and tossed them into the coat closet. When I reached the door, a man was standing there holding another child, about a year younger, on his hip. I guessed to myself that the two children were about three and four, but I wasn’t particularly good with kids’ ages. Maybe four and five?

“Would you like to come in and sit down?” Jack asked.

“We’ll be out of your hair shortly,” the man said, not moving.

“It’s pretty cold out there,” I said. “And it’s supposed to start snowing any minute. Have you reached a tow truck or mechanic yet?”

“Not really. Left a few messages.” He shifted the kid over to the other side.

“Daddy, I need to go to the bathroom,” the child whispered.

“I can show you where it is,” said Jack.

“And I can take your coats,” I said.

“That’s not necessary, we really will be out of your hair in no time.”

“It’s no trouble. What with the kids and your wife’s condition, you are more than welcome to wait here.”

The man gave me a sideways look, and I immediately regretted referring to his wife’s “condition.”

“Do you all live in the area?” I asked to change the subject.

He glanced away for a moment and took a long pause. “No, we were visiting people a couple blocks away.”

Silence. Then the child started tugging on the man’s sleeve.

“Follow me,” Jack said, and the man went off with him.

I started thinking about why this family had come to our house. There was nowhere on our part of the street to pull over their car. Was it sitting in the middle of the road? The neighbor to the right of us only came out on weekends, and he had likely left to go back to the city, so his house would be dark. The neighbor on the other side was older and went to bed early, but not this early.

The woman and child came out of the bathroom, and her husband and the other child took their place. She was holding the child’s coat and hat and scarf. 

“I’m Elise, and this is Jack,” I said. “Why don’t we all sit down?”

The woman looked grateful to sit down on the loveseat with the child.

“I can take those from you,” I gestured toward the child’s coat.

“No worries, we shouldn’t be too long. Though it does smell awfully good in here.”

“We have a big pot of chili cooking,” I explained. “Perfect comfort food for a snowstorm. I can’t believe we’re expecting like a foot of snow this early in the season.”

“Oh, my, are we supposed to get that much? I wish we had gotten an earlier start. The roads out here are confusing. We got a little turned around. And then the car…” Her voice trailed off.

“Yes, it’s easy to lose your way here,” Jack said.

The woman still hadn’t offered her name, and I was wondering if it would be rude to ask. The child was remarkably quiet and still.

The husband came out of the bathroom talking on his cell phone. Maybe one of the mechanics had called him back?

The other child hung back, behind his legs. This child still had a coat and hat on.

The man hung up. “Well, they can’t come out for another hour at least.”

“We made plenty of chili if you’d like to stay,” I offered. “It should be ready in about twenty minutes. I have cornbread baking in the oven, too.” Jack gave me a look. I knew he didn’t want these strangers in our house on a cozy Sunday evening, eating dinner with us, but what could we do?

“So, did you folks just move in?” The man asked. He was referring to the boxes stacked here and there, marked “living room” and “den.”

“A couple months ago,” I confessed. “It’s taking a while to get fully unpacked. Don’t you hate packing? I hate packing. But unpacking is usually fun because you get to decide where to put everything in your new home. But this time it’s dragging on for some reason.”

Jack gave me another look, like okay, Chatty Cathy.

Silence again. I decided to pull off the band-aid: “Can I ask your names?”

The woman stood up and walked over to the man, who was hovering on the perimeter of the living room. The child followed her.

“What do you want to do?” she asked him. “These people are being very kind.”

“I guess we could stay until the mechanic gets here,” he said and then looked at us. “But you folks go ahead and eat. We’ll be just fine. We had a big lunch earlier.”

I speculated: Perhaps they don’t eat meat. Or spicy food. Maybe the kids hate chili.

We were all standing at this point, including the two children, and it was getting really awkward.

“Is your car in the road? Do you need us to help you push it off?” I asked. “You can use the neighbor’s parking spot—he’s gone back to the city.”

“It’s fine,” the man said in a tone that said, stop asking questions.

The woman sighed, “You know what, I would love to have some of your chili. Can I help you in the kitchen?”

I could have hugged her. “Absolutely, right this way!” I headed toward the kitchen, not even caring that I was leaving Jack with the man and the two kids.

“Jocelyn,” I heard him call after her, but she ignored him. Jocelyn! One name down, three to go.

Coming Up: Part II, The Dinner