Check-Out Time


As he prepared to step off the elevator with his overnight bag in one hand and a key card in the other, a tall woman brushed by Garry without waiting for him to exit. He glanced at her as she passed. She was as tall as he, and blond, but a dull blond. While she was well dressed in a skirt, a raincoat and expensive looking pumps, her face was unremarkable, without a trace of makeup. She might have been pretty had she not worn a worried scowl. As he walked away he could hear her pressing the elevator buttons over and over again, as if pushing the floor or close door buttons would have an effect. The door closed behind him and he heard the elevator car whoosh away, down the shaft.

He could hear a vacuum cleaner humming somewhere far down the hallway. A housekeeping cart was stationed in the center of the long corridor. As Garry passed the open door he could see a small, middle-aged woman in uniform making up the bed. He also saw a few personal items in the room. A phone charging cable dangled next to the television; an expensive overcoat was flung carelessly over a chair.

Just as he passed the cart he heard the elevator bell signal arrival. Before turning right toward room 2028, he turned back toward the opening elevator doors to see a well dressed man, carrying an expensive briefcase, step briskly out. Something about his demeanor made Garry watch as the man stopped at the room where the housekeeper was working. The man was standing with his legs shoulder width apart, one hand gripping the handle of his attaché tightly. The other hand was balled into a tight fist.

“I intentionally put that do-not-disturb sign out. I did not want you messing with my room. What are you doing here?” He spoke louder than necessary.

The housekeeper was answering him in a much softer tone. Garry couldn’t make out what she was saying, but could hear an apologetic tone.

“I don’t need your excuses! Get out of my room. And see that no one disturbs my privacy for the duration.” He squeezed by the woman and slammed the door just as she passed the threshold.

Garry waited to see if the woman was all right or might need moral support. As the housekeeper returned some supplies to the cart she looked up and smiled at him with no trace of embarrassment or cynicism. Her smile took Garry’s breath away. Here was a woman entirely sure of herself. The rude man’s reprimand had no apparent effect on her spirit. Good for her, he thought, as he looked away and turned down the intersecting hallway.

As he approached room 2028 he could feel his heart rate accelerate. How much would have changed since their wedding night, thirty-five years ago? Worse, how much would be the same?

He must have been standing at the locked door for awhile. Suddenly the little housekeeper was at his elbow.

“May I help you, sir? Are you having trouble with your key?” Her soft voice had a musical quality. Garry thought he detected an accent but couldn’t place where her country of origin might have been.

“Um, no thank you. I was just lost in thought for a moment. My bride and I spent our wedding night here thirty-five years ago tonight.” Garry glanced at her name tag. It read Manuela.

There was that smile again. Garry had the thought that the light in the hallway got brighter for a moment.

“I see. Will the Missus join you later?” Manuela asked brightly.

Garry’s breath stuttered as he inhaled. It had been four years since. . . and he still had trouble saying it aloud. “No. Joanne passed four years ago.”

Manuela’s smile changed. It was somehow less bright, but warmer at the same time.

“I’m so sorry, Mister.” She grasped his hand, gracefully placing his overnight bag on the floor. She took both hands in his and looked directly into his eyes. He should have been uncomfortable, but he wasn’t. Normally he would have looked away, but somehow he couldn’t. He realized he hadn’t looked directly into anyone’s eyes since Joanne had died. He tried again to avert his eyes, but still couldn’t. He tried to pull away, but couldn’t do that either. What was happening?

“Mister, your Joanne loved you so. She’s here with you, I can tell.” Manuela closed her eyes. Her lips began moving fervently but without sound. Garry knew she was praying for him. He didn’t know what to do. He thought about pulling his hands back, but what harm could there be? It wasn’t as if her prayers would change his plan.

“In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.” Manuela crossed herself and kissed her fingertips as she opened her eyes. “Mister, never forget how much your Joanne loved you. She hasn’t.” She reached down and picked up his overnight bag. She looked at it for a moment then placed it in his hand and turned away.

Garry turned toward the door and fumbled to insert his key card into the slot. He was having trouble seeing the mechanism clearly. The thought occurred to him that he ought to thank Manuela. He turned to his left and was surprised to find that she was already out of sight. He turned back to the door and inserted the key card. The light on the lock turned green with a chime.

Room 2028 was a spacious corner room on the top floor of the St. Thaddeus Hotel. The furnishings had changed, of course, in the thirty-five years since he and Joanne had spent their wedding night here. There was a small seating area, a king-sized bed and two bedside tables. Everything was modern and up-to-date. There was the ubiquitous television/mini bar cabinet, and a table with chairs in one corner.

Garry tossed his jacket onto the loveseat in the corner and took his overnight bag to the sink alcove outside the spacious toilet and shower area, with a stop by the door to put the do-not-disturb tag in the slot outside the door. He flipped the deadbolt, and put the chain on the door for good measure.

A glance to the mirror told him just how big a toll the past four years had taken on him. The shock of Joanne’s sudden death in the terrible pile-up on the expressway had never worn away. Instead of subsiding with time, the grief had burrowed its way into his soul until he felt as if he was carrying around a second version of himself. He’d become dense with pain.

He opened the bag and removed several bottles of pills. Each was marked with his or Joanne’s name. They all contained pain killers or muscle relaxants. Almost all were well past their expiration dates. But he figured that quantity would overcome any lack of potency. He lined up the bottles one by one. Next to the pills he placed an unopened bottle of Jack Daniels.

Just as he unwrapped and filled a glass with water, the French door from the balcony blew open with a bang. Garry dropped the glass into the sink with a crash. He took a look the bottles lined up on the counter and sighed.

He left the alcove and stepped over to the French door now drifting back and forth in the breeze. He was determined to close and lock the door and go back to the only task on his mind. Instead, Garry found himself on the balcony. It was cold up here on the twentieth floor. The sun had set just a few minutes ago. The western horizon was still aglow. Below him the city stretched out. Lights glittered in the clear, wintry air.

Thirty-five years ago Garry had stood just so on this balcony, a few hours after sunset, a little drunk and happier than he’d ever been in his life. He mused over the whirlwind of the past few days, culminating in the elegant but fun wedding reception that Joanne had planned down to the last detail. He wanted to emblazon every moment on his brain. Just then he heard Joanne’s musical laugh. “Are you planning to stand out in the cold all night?” He turned to see her standing in the glow of the bedside lamp, holding a white rose from her bridal bouquet against her cheek.

Garry was jerked unwillingly back to the present day when a siren began wailing on the street below. He sighed again, and dragged himself away from the railing. He locked the door firmly and headed back to the sink. As he passed the bed he was suddenly overcome with overwhelming fatigue. He felt he couldn’t take another step. The pillows piled high looked so inviting. He kicked his shoes off and lowered himself to the mattress. He knew it was a different from the one he shared with Joanne, but he imagined he could feel her next to him. He would close his eyes, but only for a minute.


Charity stepped off of the elevator into an elegant hotel lobby that looked like it hadn’t changed since its heyday in 1914. She caught her reflection in the mirrors opposite the elevator doors. The clothes she was wearing looked strange and felt stranger on her. The pumps pinched her toes and pulled at her heels. She wished she’d taken the time to have her hair and make-up done. Another glance in the mirrors confirmed what she suspected, despite the new clothes, she still didn’t belong in this elegant setting. Always a plain Jane, she just felt like she was playing dress-up.

Her phone vibrated in her jacket pocket. Charity’s face turned red and she looked around furtively as she glanced at the message. “Running late. . .wait 4 me, K?” She hit reply, “Sure.” A few clicks and she’d deleted both the incoming message and her reply.

She passed the concierge desk. A lovely young woman in a blue blazer nodded and smiled as Charity walked by. The smile was genuine. Charity tried to recall if they’d spoken. The younger woman looked at her as if she knew her.

The hotel bar was on the other side of the lobby. Charity felt awkward as she stepped through the threshold. Since she married before she could visit a bar, and because she associated with a teetotaling crowd, a hotel bar was about as familiar to her as the cockpit of an airliner.

Charity took a seat in a small booth near the bar. She could see several couples at tables scattered around the lounge. The bartender was a young, dark haired man. He put down the tumbler he was holding and the bar towel he was using to polish it. He came around the end of bar and over to Charity’s table.

“Good evening, miss. I’m Gabe. Is someone joining you?”

Charity grasped at the closure of her coat. She kept her eyes on the polished wood of the table top. “I’m . . . I’m not sure. I think so?” She felt her face reddening again. She couldn’t look up at the young man.

“Ok. Can I get you something while you wait?”

Charity was at a loss. What does someone order at these places? Her bewilderment must have shown.

“How about some sparkling water while you decide?” Something in his voice made Charity finally look up. Gabe’s face was open and his smile was warm.

She relaxed a bit. “Yes, please, some sparkling water would be nice.” Gabe told her he’d be right back.

Charity checked her phone again even though it hadn’t vibrated or chimed to indicate an incoming message. Her hands were shaky and palms were sweaty as she placed her phone on the tabletop.

Gabe returned with her drink and a cheese plate.

“I didn’t order. . .”

He interrupted. “It’s complimentary.” He smiled that warm smile again. There was something about it that calmed Charity’s frayed nerves.

“Thank you,” Charity managed to whisper.

“You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure to serve you. Can I get you anything else?” She shook her head in response. “Ok then. You just let me know. I’ll keep an eye out for you.” He headed back to the bar and engaged a man sitting there in conversation as he completed several drink orders at once.

Charity found herself watching him as she fingered the bare ring finger on her left hand. She’d rarely been without her wedding band since the day Dan put it on her hand, seventeen years ago. From behind the bar, Gabe looked up and caught her eye. Charity nervously lowered her left hand to her lap as she reached for her water.

This is a mistake. What am I doing here?

Her phone vibrated and rattled on the table. She turned it over to see a new message, “Sorry. I’m trying to get there. Wait for me?”

Charity didn’t answer. A couple at another table toasted each other and leaned in for a sweet kiss. She looked up to find Gabe at her table.

“I brought more water. Or can I get you something else?”

“Maybe some direction? I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that. I’m fine, thank you.”

“It’s no problem. You wouldn’t believe the sort of stuff I get asked. Still expecting someone?” He set the fresh drink down.

“I think so. But I’m not sure I want to now. It might be too late. I just don’t know.” Charity spoke just above a whisper.

Gabe crouched down next to her table. “One thing I know is that it’s never too late to turn back. You don’t want to be here, don’t be.” His voice was calm and confident.

She felt the tears well up as she looked into Gabe’s eyes. “It’s not too late?”

“Never.” He wasn’t smiling now, but his countenance was as warm as before.

“It’s not too late.” Charity’s voice was stronger now. Her phone chimed again. It’s not too late, she thought. The message showing on the lock screen was simply a question mark.

“Never.” Gabe rapped his knuckles on the table as he stood. “You got it. Let me know if there’s anything else.” The smile was back.

Charity’s phone chimed. Another question mark. She opened her messages and replied. “No. I’m not waiting anymore. I’ve changed my mind. I’m turning back.” She hit send. And turned off her phone.

She reached into her purse and took out her hotel key card. She reached in again and found her wedding band. It slipped onto her finger and found its home. She got up from the booth, and gave a slight wave to Gabe, as she passed the bar. He turned from the woman he was laughing with and gifted Charity with the most dazzling smile yet.

As she reached the door to the lobby, Charity turned back to give Gabe a smile of her own. He wasn’t behind the bar. The same customer was sitting there, but the bartender talking to her was a young woman. In the seconds it had taken her to cross from her table to the doorway, he’d apparently gone off shift. Hmm. Oh well, maybe she’d catch him another time.

Charity walked to the concierge desk and asked the sweet girl there to call her a cab.

“Of course, ma’am. Is there anything else I can do?” Charity slid her key card across the counter.

“If you’d be so kind, would you let the front desk know I’m checking out? I won’t need the room after all.”


Someone was shaking his foot.

“Mister? Mister?” Garry opened one eye. He was laying on his side with his arms and legs wrapped around a couple of pillows. The bedside clock read 10:20. He’d closed his eyes for more than a minute.

He felt someone shake his foot again. He rolled over to see the housekeeper, Manuela, standing beside his bed.

“Mister, you all right?” She was holding a stack of towels in her arms and a worried expression on her face. “You okay?”

He cleared his throat as he swung his legs off the bed. “Yeah. I’m okay. I just needed to lay down a minute.” Manuela looked relieved. “But what are you doing here?” He wasn’t angry that she’d woken him, just bewildered. He’d been in the middle of a vivid dream.

“I’m sorry. I brought the extra towels you asked for. I’ll just put them in the bathroom. I’m sorry for disturbing you. I was a little worried.”

Manuela was humming as she headed toward the bathroom. Garry remembered all the bottles lined up on the counter; pills and whiskey. No wonder she was worried.

He got up from the bed and started to follow her. “But I didn’t ask for more towels,” He croaked.

Before he got around the bed he heard the door to the suite close behind her. She was already gone. Garry continued around the bed and toward the sink. The bottles of pills and the fifth of whiskey were right where he left them. The broken glass still in the sink. He decided to deadbolt and chain the door. He must have missed it before.

Garry inhaled with a sharp intake. The deadbolt was engaged and the chain was on the door, just as he remembered doing.


In room 2005 Williams paced. His contact was late. It was typical, actually, but never stopped making him nervous. He knew from experience that when he was told to expect someone at 10 PM, they could show anytime from 9 PM to midnight. And it was never the same person twice. That was the thing with being a professional middle-man. He never had the whole picture. He would deliver the goods in a locked briefcase, and take a locked case in exchange. What those locked cases contained he never knew. Stolen military plans, incriminating photos from the camera of a private investigator, hard drives filled with kiddie porn. He didn’t know and frankly didn’t care.

Williams was no longer the well-put together man Garry had watched berate the housekeeper in the hallway. His suit jacket had joined the overcoat draped over the chair. His $100 silk tie was on the floor next to the chair. He was pacing in stocking feet; his expensive Italian shoes kicked partially under the bed.

He stopped pacing and took another bottle from the mini-bar; this time it was the Chivas-Regal. He’d already knocked back all the Seagrams. He checked the ice bucket. An unopened can of Seven-Up floated in tepid water. It had been hours since he filled it. Damn! He checked his phone again, 10:15. It would take less than five minutes to run to the end of the hall. He really shouldn’t leave. The buyer would show anytime.

To hell with it. He pulled the soda can from the water and emptied the bucket into the sink. He’d just run to the end of the hall and back. He thought about pulling on his shoes, but better to just get down there and back. He slipped his key card into his shirt pocket and left the room holding the ice bucket. Before closing the door he checked to make sure no one was in the hall. It wouldn’t do to just miss his contact at this juncture.

Williams made his way down the hall, away from the elevators. He felt unsteady without his shoes. He was drunker than he thought. He guessed five Seven & 7’s would do that to you, especially when you skipped dinner. Peanut M&M’s just didn’t cut it as a meal like they did when he was a kid.

As he approached the end of the main hallway, where he would turn left to the ice maker and vending machines, Williams glanced to the right. At the end of that hallway he could see that nosy little woman. The housekeeper who’d made up his room when was sure he put out the do-not-disturb sign was holding a pile of towels. There was something creepy about her. All she’d done was smile and apologize “for the intrusion” when he yelled at her. Unnatural.

As he turned left he could hear her behind him, knocking on a door. “Housekeeping,” she was calling out in that weird sing-song voice. She was still knocking and calling out when he reached the vending alcove at the end of the hall, next to a stairwell.

He stepped up to the ice machine to find an “out of order” sign hanging on it. Patting his pocket he realized he’d left his phone charging in the room. He was sure only a minute was gone. He should head back. But what the hell, he’d just dash down the stairs to the next floor.

As the door closed behind him with a thud, Williams shivered then shrugged. As soon as he started down the concrete steps he immediately regretted leaving his room without his shoes. Dumbass. Oh well. Get it done. He padded down the steps as fast as he could without falling.

Two flights below his floor was the unmarked door of the next. When he opened it he didn’t find the well-lit and carpeted hallway he expected. He was met with a blast of cold air. He could see plastic sheeting and a couple of those mechanic’s work lights dangling from steel scaffolding. This was weird. There’d been no indication that this floor was under construction and off-limits.

Williams backed out into the stairway and closed the door. “Forget the ice,” he mumbled to himself. His voice echoed. He headed back up the stairs.

He was seriously out of breath when he reached the door marked “20.” He grabbed the handle. His mouth was dry. He was afraid he was missing his meeting. The door was locked. And there was no key card mechanism. What a way to run a hotel.

With a sigh and still carrying the empty ice bucket Williams trudged back down the two flights to the unmarked door that had led him onto the floor under construction. Two more flights and he found the next door down. It was marked “19.”

What? This makes no sense. I must be drunker than I thought. I just gotta get outta here.

Even before he tried it, he somehow knew this door would be locked, too. It must be one of those fire escape stairs that forced you to go all the way to the ground floor. Williams didn’t have time for that nonsense. He began banging on the door.

“Hey! Anyone! Open this damned door!” He paused. There wasn’t a sound from the floor beyond the door. He tried again. And again. It was no use. Maybe he’d have more luck on the top floor. That housekeeper lady always seemed to be lurking up there somewhere.

Williams climbed the stairs again. He fully intended to climb all the way to the top floor, but for some reason he didn’t understand he stopped on the landing in front of the unmarked door. Why was he still holding the empty ice bucket? He dropped it on the floor next to the door. Without thinking, he reached out for the handle and pulled it open.

A gust of cold air greeted him once more. He stepped through the door. He’d just go through here and ride the elevator to the top floor. Better than taking his chances on no one hearing him banging away on a door at the far end of a hallway. The door behind him sucked closed with a crash. Williams began to pick his way through the construction zone in the general direction of where he thought the elevators must be. Now he really regretted his shoe-less condition.

Plastic sheeting hung everywhere, partitioning the floor in a maze-like configuration. Ladders and other equipment threw odd shadows against the sheets and up into the dark recesses of the unfinished ceiling. Electrical conduit and fiber optic cabling hung in loops from above and down the sides of unfinished columns. Occasionally there was an opening in the plywood sub-flooring. The holes weren’t large enough to fall into, but they were big enough to break his ankle if he wasn’t vigilant. Williams was a lot closer to sober now.

“It’s really cold here.” He walked around some plastic draped scaffolding and saw the reason. There were no windows. The walls were open to the sky. That was weird. If the hotel had a whole floor unfinished, wouldn’t that have been obvious from the outside, before he checked in? Besides, the St. Thaddeus is an historic building. Renovations on this scale would never be allowed.

He found himself drawn to the outside wall—where there should be a window. He stood for several minutes looking out across the city. The lights of buildings, roadways and cars twinkled brightly in the cold night air. It was mesmerizing. The wall in front of him was knee high.

He heard crackling and popping behind him. Startled, he whirled around to see what was moving on this empty floor, and lost his balance. He began to fall backward. Arms flailed as he grasped at something, anything to help him regain his footing. Then, there it was, a loop of electrical conduit dangled just above his right shoulder he clasped tightly. It held. Gasping, he, pulled himself back from the brink. He shakily lowered himself to sit on the floor with his back to the low wall.

The plastic sheeting billowed in a gust and Williams heard the popping and crackling that had so startled him. He began to chuckle, then to laugh. He had no sense of time any longer, no idea how much had passed since he left his room. If he missed his buyer he’d lose this commission and who knows how much in future business. All for some stupid ice.

Williams got up from the floor and began again to pick his way through the construction. Now he was determined to find his way out of here and back to his room. Maybe it wasn’t too late.

By the third time he passed the same table-saw he knew he was hopelessly lost. Where were those elevators? This was ridiculous. How can a man get lost on one floor of a busy hotel?

He’d had it. He shouted, “What do you want from me? Huh? Want me to ask for your help? Well I’m not gonna. And you can’t make me!” Just then his foot caught on something. As he tripped and fell to the floor the nearest work light went out. Then the next nearest. . . And the next, until all the lights on the floor were out.

Williams lay in silence for a long time. Then he began to crawl across the floor. He found his way eventually to an exterior wall. At that point he stayed on all fours. He wasn’t going to take a chance on falling out one of the openings in the dark.

After reaching a corner and changing directions, he found a door. Shaking, he grasped the door handle and stood. The door swung out easily and he found himself back in the same empty stairwell. The ice bucket was on its side next to the door, just where he dropped it. He pushed his way thought the opening, picked up the bucket and started a slow climb to the top floor. When he reached the door marked “20” he raised his fist to bang on the door. The door began to swing toward him.

“Oh! You startled me!” A man, about 45, and dressed in the matching green pants and shirt of a maintenance worker, was pushing the door open and clearly didn’t expect to see a disheveled, shoeless guy in his stairwell. “I’m sorry. You okay, sir?”

“I’m a guest,” Williams showed him his key card. “I got locked off my floor when I went down to get ice.”

“Why’d you go down? The ice machine is right here.” The two men stepped out of the stairwell and onto the floor. The maintenance man, Mike—according to his name tag, indicated the vending alcove.

The ice machine had no out-of-order sign hanging from it.

“It said out of order. Or I wouldn’t have tried to go down to the next floor. And anyway, why isn’t that floor marked as under construction? It’s dangerous down there!” Williams was angrier now. He was tired and cold and had most likely missed his meeting.

“What do you mean ‘under construction?’ There’s no construction going on here. This is an historic landmark.”

“Just what I said. The next floor down is an open construction site. I almost died down there. I’ll show you!” Hang the meeting, he wasn’t going to have some blue collar worker challenge him like that.

Mike followed Williams down the two flights where the two were met with a door marked “19.”

“No. This door had no numbers.” Williams grabbed the door and it swung easily in toward him.

He was met with a hotel floor matching that of the floor above.

“Sir, why don’t I help you find you room. 2005? That’s what you said, right?”

“I don’t understand. Look at me. I must have wandered around that floor for over half an hour, maybe longer. I’m telling you I was there.” Mike was guiding him back up the stairwell and through the door marked with a “20.”

As they walked down the carpeted hallway, Williams wracked his brain. How could this be?

When they reached room 2005, Mike reached out and pulled a business card from the card slot and handed it to Williams. Then he slid his own key card into the lock. The door opened and Williams passed him to go into the safety of his room.

“Sir, get a good night’s rest. Start fresh tomorrow, okay?” Mike let the door close and Williams was alone.

Williams looked down at the card he held in his hand. It was blank. He turned it over and hand written on it was, “Sorry we missed you. You’ll hear from us soon. Meanwhile, stay away from open windows.”


When Garry next opened his eyes the bedside clock read 11:50. He’d slept hard for more than an hour. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d slept that well.

He turned over and looked up at the ceiling. His mind went back to his wedding night with Joanne. After making love, he’d laid awake watching her breathe. He was overtaken by the wonder of her. How had he been so lucky? The next day they’d get on a plane bound for Mexico. The ten days that would follow were magical but nothing compared to the waking dream he already felt his life had become.

Their thirty-one years of marriage were like that for him. The dream life. They’d had some ups and downs. The disappointment of not having children was sometimes more than they could bear, but bear it they did, together. He’d always known that whatever came their way they could persevere as long as they had each other.

That’s why the news of Joanne’s death had come so very hard. He’d given it all the time he could. Friends and family thought he was doing okay. He had no words to explain to them that he was no more over her death now than he was in the days surrounding her funeral. When he thought of facing the next four years and beyond in this same state of unrelieved grief, he decided he couldn’t do it. There was no hope here for him. And he was so very tired.

He thought again of their wedding night.

He laid there for long minutes before she stirred. She opened one eye and caught him staring. Her smile was radiant.

“What are you looking at, husband?”

“Just you, wife.” He leaned over to kiss her and they made love again.

Later, as the sky outside their hotel window began to glow, they both got up to begin packing. They were both starve and wanted breakfast before making their mid-morning flight.

Joanne reached for the white rose that was on the bedside table. She inhaled its fading scent once more. Garry watched as she opened the drawer and pulled out the Gideon Bible.

She opened it and began to read, “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” She looked up at him with eyes shining. “I believe that Garry. I’ll always believe in our love.” She carefully placed the wilted rose inside the Bible, closed it and returned it to the drawer.

Garry had forgotten that detail until just now. He began to sob. Huge wracking sobs that made it hard to breathe. For long minutes he sobbed and yelled into the pillows.

After a long time the sobbing subsided. He could breathe again. He rolled over and got up and went to the sink area. The broken glass was gone. Another wrapped glass had taken its place on the counter. He unwrapped it and filled it with water. After drinking it he picked up each pill bottle and dumped the contents into the toilet. Next he opened the bottle of whiskey and poured it down the drain. He was done. Joanne would have been ashamed had she known what he was planning.

Next Garry took a long, hot shower and cried more. When he was done he felt drained but uplifted at the same time. There was no more sense that he was weighed down with a grief that couldn’t be born.

He wrapped himself in the hotel robe and headed back to the side of the bed that he would always think of as Joanne’s side. He sat down and opened the drawer in the bedside table. There was a Bible, of course.

He laid the book in his lap and it fell open to I Corinthians 13, the passage from their wedding. And there, nestled between the pages, was a pressed white rose.

Hit Enter to Send

Reaching under her desk, Jamie grabbed the sheaf of papers from the output tray. She leafed through the stack until she found the email. Of course it came from Dad’s university IP address. She scanned it quickly as she reached for her nearly empty water bottle. Flipping open the top with one hand, she tipped it up, gulping down the last drops.

The email was a series of quotes pasted from various academic journals, peer reviews of Dr. Gibson’s latest published paper on quantum mechanics in star formation. Nothing personal (not that she expected it) and not a single question about Jamie, personal or professional.

Looking away from the paper, her hand left the empty bottle and jiggled the mouse. Her computer screen went from screensaver to a live shot from the GoPro camera submerged in the 75 gallon saltwater aquarium back in her apartment. Her fingers lightly brushed the computer screen as one of the angel fish floated gently by. She looked at her left hand and realized that it was still holding the email printout in a grip so tight her knuckles had turned a dead white.

Jamie crumpled the paper and tossed it toward the overflowing trash. Next she opened the file on her desktop marked, “Reviews.” She opened the newest doc. It was copy of an email from her father, addressed not to her, but to the department head from Jamie’s last university post. There was one attachment, the senior Dr. Gibson’s as yet unpublished work. She next opened a file marked “fishing.” Her cursor hovered over the most recent document titled, “A Critique of Gibson Theorem of Mechanics in Early Stellar Formation.” She began reviewing the document. A few tweaks here and there and it would be ready to send off to the Astronomy and Astrophysics Review. It was tricky keeping track of just which of her several identities submitted to each scientific journal.

Dad had no clue that eight of the ten quotes he’d been so incensed over actually came from her. By choosing publications from all over the world and by carefully selecting retired or inactive professionals to spoof, Jamie was able to undermine her father’s work with no fear that he’d be able to track down from where the arrows originated. Not that she had any suspicion that he’d even try. He preferred to create a firestorm of bluster, rather than confront any of his perceived accusers. After all, the critiques were valid. His work didn’t stand up to scrutiny and hadn’t for years. Now that Jamie was working at a small college, far away from her father’s sphere of influence, she knew there was no one in his world that had any standing with him. He’d never listened to her, and he’d long since stopped giving any credence to those he claimed to respect.

Just then her office phone rang and Jamie abruptly closed the file. Her face felt hot. A glance at the caller ID didn’t tell her much except that the call was coming from somewhere on campus. Stupid, antiquated system.

“Gibson,” she snapped into the receiver.

“Well, aren’t you the sunny one?” A sarcastic voice on the other end snapped in return. “I expected to leave a VM, sorry if I woke you.”

You wouldn’t be sorry if you really thought you had. She sighed, “What do you need, Carly?” Jamie wasn’t in the mood.

“I’m just trying to get a final count for the end of year banquet. You haven’t responded to any of the emails so the committee sicced me on you and a couple of other stragglers. What’ll it be, James. One…or none.” Jamie could hear the smirk. Might as well be on face-time.

“None. I have a conflict.” She’d attended one faculty function since arriving at the college. Never again. Carly had spent the entirety of the evening making Jamie feel small and ugly. Why she’d zeroed in on the newcomer became clear when another member of the department pointed out that Jamie had been a sharp critic of Carly’s work without realizing it. The beautiful but mediocre Dr. Carlynn Wilson had married and assumed a new name after being brutalized in the astrophysics world after publishing an error-filled paper. Jamie, then a post-doc candidate, had led the charge. Carly Whithers (née Wilson) would never forget it.

“Is that it, Dr. Whithers? I have work to do.”

“That’s it. And what I expected.” The line went dead.

While she was on the phone she’d unconsciously brought the GoPro feed from her aquarium back up on her screen. She pushed the crazy curls out of their face and spent several minutes watching anemone drift in the current. A pearlscale butterfly fish kept swimming back and forth in front of the lens, as if putting on a show for her. After musing a bit she’d formulated a plan.

Jamie re-opened the “fishing” file, and brought the critique back to the front of the desktop. This time she changed a few words. Now the sharp, clean review of her father’s work contained some glaring errors. Two birds with one stone. Anyone reading it would have to take another look at the original paper. But the critic herself wouldn’t stand up any better under examination.

She opened another file in which she kept the IP addresses of several past and current colleagues, friends and enemies. She chose the address she was looking for, an old, unused address for Dr. Carlynn Wilson. Clicking a few more times, she’d composed a cover letter and attached the doctored critique from a bogus email account.

A vague memory of her father squatting down next to her has she looked at the ringed glory of Saturn through his backyard telescope came to her. She could almost smell his cologne. She remembers his whispered, “Isn’t it magnificent, Frisé?”

There were salty tears on her lips as she hit “Enter.”

Waiting Room

Dedicated to the memory of my friend who recently lost his battle with brain cancer. 

Gathered in the waiting room

We watch as you approach the threshold 

The door stands wide open

The Mercy Seat beckons

Your face basks in the glory of 

Expectant, wild hope 

One foot in the open doorway

One foot firmly grounded in earth

n the verge of stepping into the Hall of the King

The ache to go battling the longing to stay


Your entrance to eternity

Looks like an exit from this side

From here to there only a step for you

A chasm we can’t traverse, for now

anting to leave nothing unsaid

Words of love mingle with goodbyes

Farewells overshadowed by wistful 

Glances to the open door

The impulse to hold you back

Struggles with the desire to set you free


ou stepped through the curtain

Into His receiving arms, 

Leaving our waiting room dimmer

Warmth and light departing with you

ternity was tangible and our wait seemed shorter

With you on this side, waiting to go

But the still and always open door beckons us

Knowing you, with Him, await us on the other side

e remain for now in the waiting room

Our mandate to stay fighting our yearning to follow


Making Room…

I was honored to be be asked to share a dramatic reading of the Christmas story at our church’s ladies’ Christmas dessert. I almost immediately thought of the innkeeper and his wife. I wondered what that night was like for them. This story is where my imagination took me. Here is my original story of the Innkeeper’s wife and her treasure. 

I’ve heard the gossip, the whispered accusations. “Rachel wouldn’t give them a room.” “Rachel made the poor thing give birth among the cattle.” “Rachel wouldn’t make room for the little family.” 
None of you knows what my life was like in those days.

 The Roman census was crushing me. Every day I walked. All day, every day, walking and never sitting. From my bed to my kitchen. To the well and back, morning and evening. The servant girl is supposed to draw the water for the day. But she’s just a slip of a thing. She couldn’t possibly keep up with the demand. My daughter-in-law can usually make up for it, but Deborah was huge with child by that time. It was all she could do to get from her bed on the floor to the bench by the hearth. Moshe spent his days in the city gate and would come in at the end of the day, greeting everyone and demanding extra attention for this important traveler or that, never caring how much more work he was making for me or the girl. Or for our son David, who cares for the animals, the stable and the stable yard. I’m not sure when David was sleeping, between mucking out stables, spreading new bedding and keeping the mangers filled with fresh hay.

Travelers only care that they have plenty to eat and drink and a comfortable place to sleep. And everyday more came. Moshe wouldn’t hear of turning anyone away. There were people in every bed (usually 2 or more to each cot), more in every available space on the floor. In good weather the roof was covered with little tents, the stable yard with more. My back was killing me, my feet burned, and one day soon Deborah would give birth, probably right there in my kitchen. I just knew I’d be stepping over her to serve supper to the travelers while David paced outside the kitchen door frantically waiting to greet his new son or daughter. 

 It was the hardest work in a life of hard work, but I had no time to think. Or to complain. 

 The census was crushing us, but it was also enriching us. 

The day before young Joseph and his even younger little wife arrived, an esteemed traveler and his companions vacated our upper room to return to the court at Caesarea. The upper room is the largest and best of the rooms in the house and farthest away from the noise of the common room and the stink of the stables. Moshe and I argued for years about spending that money. I won and now the best room is bringing us the attention and gold I knew it would. Moshe takes all the credit, naturally. Every bad idea is mine, every successful idea his. As soon as the room was cleaned out, the floor scrubbed and the beds freshened with new straw, I saw Moshe standing in the doorway. I could see by his eyes that he was calculating just how many travelers he could fit into the place. I put my foot down. “No. This room is being saved for important guests. A court official or a Roman captain will come any day and we alone will have a room worthy of him. He’ll have gold. The travelers you want to give this room to will have only a few shekels. I’m not slaving even harder to bake bread for a bunch of dirty pilgrims. This room stays open for someone with gold!” I turned my back on him to stop any argument. 

So when the girl wakened me long after midnight with news that a young couple was at the gate, asking for a bed, I rose as quietly as I could. I stepped over David, exhausted from his work in the stable and yard, and around Deborah who slept fitfully. I shook Moshe awake and made him come with me to the gate.

 He grumbled about needing his rest but opened the gate anyway. We saw a young, worried man with his arms around a girl. They had a small, worn donkey on a lead. “Please. My wife is about to deliver our child. Do you have a bed for us? We’ve come from Nazareth.” A hundred miles. On foot for him. Riding the poor little donkey for her. My heart started to open. Then I saw reason. I’d had to step over and on travelers all over the floor between the kitchen and the door. The other rooms were no better. I had no room for this family. Then I saw Moshe’s face soften. He began to open his mouth to tell them to come into the house. 

 “No!” I cut him off. “We have no bed for you.” 

 “But Rachel…there’s…”

 “No Moshe. There is no bed for these children.” I glimpsed Joseph’s face. But then I looked away. “Put them in the stable yard if you can find room, Moshe. But I have no room, no bed for them in the house.” I turned away as Moshe opened the gate wider for them. I could hear him behind me apologizing to the young man. “Rachel has been working so very hard. Let us find a place in the yard. Maybe tomorrow space will open up in the house.” I steeled myself against his quiet accusations. 

 My thoughts whirled as I walked back over and around the sleeping travelers filling my home. I don’t sleep in my own bed, a merchant and his wife paid to sleep there. My son and his pregnant wife don’t have a bed, a low-level court official slept there. There was no way this young couple, too silly to even arrive before the yard gate was closed, was going to take up another space in our home. 

 As I went into the kitchen, David was sitting up, rubbing his eyes sleepily. “What’s happening, Mother?”

 “A young couple is looking for a bed. He claims that she’s about to give birth. But who knows? Your father is finding a place for them in the yard.” 

 He came over to where I was stirring the embers on the hearth “About to give birth? Why not give them the upper room?”

 “Shhhhh!” I looked to the corner where Deborah was quietly snoring. She’d finally found a position she could sleep in. ”That room is reserved for important guests. Guests with gold. Now go back to sleep.” There’d be no more sleeping for me.

 David whispered at me, “Mother, you can’t put a girl about to give birth in the yard! What if it were Deborah who needed a bed?”

 “Deborah needs a bed, but your father has insisted a stranger take that one!” I punched down my risen dough, and began kneading it with great vigor. I ignored David’s sighs as he threw on his warm mantle and headed out to the yard. 

 I put the couple from my mind as the rest of the day filled with the same exhausting bustle and busyness of all the days before. None of our guests from the night before left. The girl and I filled jar after jar with water at the well. I baked loaf after loaf of bread. I started a savory onion and garlic stew. I only hoped it would be enough. The pantry was getting low. At about noon I realized that Deborah wasn’t in her usual spot in the kitchen. Oh I hoped she wasn’t off somewhere laboring in silence. I asked the girl. “I saw her in the stable with the little lady, mistress.” The stable with the little lady. My mind was blank. I had no idea what she meant. 

I opened the kitchen door and looked toward the stable to see David walking into it with a bag of clean straw. Without thinking, I wrapped a couple of warm loaves into a clean cloth, grabbed a cheese and a handful of dates, and stepped out into the yard. It was colder than it had been, the wind was blowing. As I stepped into the the stable I heard quiet talking and laughter. In a corner I saw the young girl resting on a clean blanket covering a thick bed of  straw. She looked drowsy. She really was huge with child. Her young man was alert beside her. Seated nearby was Deborah. I couldn’t tell what she was doing with her hands but her eyes were  transfixed by the face of the girl. 
 Then I saw Moshe. He was seated on a stool with his back to the little party. His tallit over his head. I could hear him quietly mumbling prayers and blessings. What was he doing here? Was he mad? 

 David turned from the manger where he was spreading new, sweet hay. He spoke quietly. “Mother. Thank you!” He took the food gently from my arms. “I know they’re hungry.”

 “Do you have enough water out here?”

“Yes, I went to the well. You have too much to do, I didn’t want to take water from the house” I gasped. My son went to the well for our guests because he didn’t want to bother me? I was ashamed. 

 “If you need anything, just ask.” In my shame my words came out sharp and cold. Then I saw the faces of the man and his wife. They stared at one another in silent wonder. My thoughts went to the open, well furnished room in the house. I shut that down and left the dark little cave that had served as an animal shelter for decades. I recalled the faces of my family as they watched the strangers. What were they thinking? They’ve all gone mad. I straightened up and went back into the house to finish getting ready for the evening meal. Alone if I had to.

 Once the meal was served the girl and I cleaned up the kitchen. As I opened the yard door to throw out the wash water, I saw light coming from the stable. Shadows danced. What was going on now? I wrapped an extra robe around my shoulders and crossed the yard. 

 I could hear cattle lowing restlessly. A donkey brayed. The little stable was lit by several oil lamps notched into the cave walls. Lamp oil was costly. Moshe had strict orders that they be lit only when a cow was ill or having difficulty laboring. 

 Deborah dozed quietly against David’s shoulder and held the hand of the girl, who seemed to be praying quietly. Moshe leaned against a wall sleeping. The young husband was curled up at the feet of his beloved. My thoughts went again to the empty upper room. No one had come with gold. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to move them there. Just until the babe came. By then another bed would open. My bed, or even Deborah’s, provided her little one stays put. I looked at the face of the little mother. She was so young. I went over to Moshe, snoring as he leaned against the wall. “Moshe, wake up. Moshe.”

 “Huh? What is it, Rachel?” 

“Move them. Take them into the house. The bed in the upper room is clean and fresh and ready for the little mother.” 

David had joined us in the corner. “Are you sure, Mother? It may yet be some time.” I looked toward the young family.

“I’m sure. Move them to the…” I was interrupted by a quiet but intense cry. The girl was hunched over. Deborah was talking quietly to her. 

“Hush, Mary. Shhh.” She soothed. 

Was I too late? Could we move her now? Mary’s husband held her in his arms. Another labor pain came quickly after the first. My heart sank. It was too late. There would be no moving her now. She’d give birth in the stable, because of my foolishness and my hard hearted greed. What had I been thinking?

 “Joseph, I’m scared.” It was the first time I’d heard Mary speak, and it made me spring into action. 

 “Moshe, David, go now. Deborah and I will handle this. Bring extra blankets from the house. Get the girl to stir the fire, have her get water warmed. And send for Widow Hinda. She’s delivered lots of babes. Pay her to come if you need to.” They moved quickly to follow my orders. “Deborah, we’ll need clean cloths for the babe. Sooner than I thought.” 

 “They’re here, mother. I brought them this morning.” I realized then what I’d seen her doing with her hands this afternoon. She was preparing swaddling cloths that she’d lovingly woven and prepared for her own little one. She was ready to give them up for this little mother and her tiny babe. Her generous gift melted the last of the ice in my heart. I loved her so, and my wee grandchild sleeping in her womb. 

Another cry from Mary interrupted my thoughts. The baby would be here soon. She must have been laboring silently all day long. 

 The rest of the night passed in a blur. Mary was brave and wonderful. I was so glad for the presence of Auntie Hinda. She was calm and business like. Deborah grew too weary to carry on and curled up in a corner to sleep for awhile, but was awake again to witness the birth of the baby boy, just after midnight. Mary and Joseph cried and laughed. Auntie Hinda asked, as Moshe helped her to her feet, “What will you call him, child?” 

 Mary looked deeply into Joseph’s eyes before answering, “Jesus, Auntie. We’ve been told to call him Jesus.”

 Now you know the real story of how the baby came to be born in our stable, and not in my home. How I saved my best room for no one, to my eternal shame. What you don’t know is that my heart was changed and that Mary and Joseph forgave me. When the shepherds came later that night and through the next day, I’m ashamed that I was thankful that they wouldn’t be tracking their muck through my house, to the upper room. When I heard their story of the angels and the night sky glowing with a message from God, I knew it was true and I also knew that my empty room and the way I treasured it, was nothing. Somehow I and my family and everyone we knew were now part of a grand and momentous plan. I don’t know where this will lead but I know our lives are changed. 

 Since that night, so many wonderful things have happened. The census is nearly over. The flow of travelers has slowed, so Mary and Joseph moved into the house after returning from Jerusalem where little Jesus was dedicated in the Temple. I wanted so badly for them to take the upper room, but they laughed and told me that a carpenter’s family would feel strange in such luxury. One of the small rooms has been theirs since. 

 And Deborah as been delivered of our grandson, Moshe. David is walking on air these days. They are the happiest of families. We are the happiest of families. The best part of my day is the afternoon when I get to sit in the sunshine with Mary and Deborah and their baby boys. I watch and I imagine them growing up, playing in the stable yard with the other little boys here in Bethlehem. Growing strong together. Like brothers. Joseph and Mary will go back to Nazareth soon, but my dearest hope is that they’ll bring Jesus to visit often. They will always have a second home with us here in the City of David. And I will always have room for Jesus and his mama and papa. 

 Now I must go. A caravan is approaching from Jerusalem. Their messenger says they are eastern kings and they are coming here. He came with gold to secure the best room in Bethlehem. The girls and I have a lot to do to make sure my best room is ready for our new visitors.