It felt like sheer dumb luck finding shelter at this time of night, in this kind of weather, but there it was. He could barely make it out through his whirring windshield wipers, desperately trying to push back the torrent of rain pelting against his car, a little wooden, hand-painted sign, illuminated by two lights hanging on the top bar, pointed down to draw attention to the carved-out letters reading “Florence Home Bed & Breakfast.” Howard closed his eyes tight and rubbed them as hard as he could to make sure that he wasn’t dreaming, but sure enough, that little sign was still there, waving back and forth, beckoning him toward the quaint little house at the end of the lane like a lighthouse beacon. He let out a deep sigh, thanked whatever god made this possible under his breath, and pulled into the driveway.
If he hadn’t found the Florence Home Bed & Breakfast, he really didn’t know what he would have done. At the start of the day, an eighteen-hour drive across the country to surprise his fiance on Christmas Eve didn’t seem like such a crazy idea, but once the sun went down and it started to pour down buckets from the heavens, he was kicking himself for such a foolish thought. It was just his luck too. A rainstorm instead of snow on Christmas. It probably couldn’t get any worse. There was no one else on the highway, but the roads were so slick, he was sure he would crash if he didn’t pull off on the first exit he saw. He couldn’t even remember a time it had rained this hard before. After a precariously wide curve, he saw an exit sign and pulled off the highway. It was only after he pulled off that he realized he didn’t get a chance to read the name of the exit.
Once off the highway, his predicament didn’t seem to improve. The problem was that the roads of wherever he was were even windier and dangerous than the highway was. He found himself taking every turn at almost fifteen miles an hour, and even that speed felt dangerous to him, his palms sweating as he gripped the steering wheel. He turned on the radio to soothe his nerves, but the only station he could pick up through the storm was a Golden Oldies station, which only seemed to make him more anxious. It was playing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” the Crosby version. He was about to switch the radio off again when two headlights pierced the black night and another car came careening around the corner, straight for him.
He had to think fast, turning his wheel all the way around and spinning in a circle, coming dangerously close to tumbling off the side of the road. Time stopped for a moment, and Howard was sure he was about to die. He went through all five stages of acceptance in five seconds flat. As the car spun out of control, he caught a glimpse of the second driver, awash in his headlights, a man with a large, boxy head, thick sideburns, and a black patch over his left eye. The radio kept crooning in Bing Crosby’s voice, completely oblivious to everything going on outside its speakers.
Howard closed his eyes and must have blacked out for a minute or two because when he opened them back up, his car was sitting safely on the side of the road. The man with the eye patch was gone. He was alone again. All that could be heard was The Carpenters singing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and the rain outside. A mile down the road, he saw the first sign for the Bed & Breakfast and followed each subsequent one until he found himself at the bright red door of the Florence House.
He rang the bell a few times, the shrill sound echoing inside the halls behind the door, without any response. He was about to leave when the red door cracked open just a sliver, enough for Howard to make out a weathered, elderly face peering back at him.
“What’s a body doing knocking at an old lady’s door at this time of night during a storm like this? Don’t you know it’s Christmas Eve?” she hissed through a hushed whisper. Howard could barely hear her over the storm. He was a bit taken aback from the greeting. It took him a moment to respond, but the woman waited impatiently with beady, brown eyes, demanding an answer from Howard.
“I-I saw the signs.” He pointed outside. The woman craned her neck in the direction of his finger. “I’m sorry. I know it’s late, but I just didn’t have anywhere to go. I was almost in a wreck and I think I’m a bit lost.” When the woman saw where Howard was pointing to, her demeanor immediately softened.
“You poor dear, come on inside.” She swung the door open and Howard was hit in the face with a strong whiff of lavender as he stepped into the foyer. “I do apologize about the sign, I just keep forgetting to take it down.” Howard was struck by another wave of guilt. He wasn’t just bothering an innkeeper late at night, but a retired one at that. Before he could open his mouth to apologize again, the woman shushed him. “It’s no trouble at all. I was an innkeeper for forty-odd years. Takin’ care of you is in my blood.” She beckoned for Howard to follow her up the stairs.
The house felt like it was from another time, like had been sealed in a protective bubble for decades. It reminded him of the family home in Meet Me In St. Louis. The biggest Christmas Tree that Howard had ever seen stood in the middle of the adjacent living room. The smell of baking cookies wafted through the air. The same Golden Oldies station that Howard’s car picked up was piping through the house like hot air, warming everyone’s bones.
“You don’t see many of these places these days,” said Howard, trying to keep up a light conversation with the woman who saved his life, “you know, Bed and Breakfasts.” She nodded.
“We were the last one left, harboring tired, weary souls. I only just retired last week and my mind isn’t what it used to be so I forgot all about my advertising. My services may not be as top-notch as they used to be, but I used to satisfy the most high class of my specialty clients so I can still guarantee you a good stay. I don’t know what souls like you are going to do once I have to take that sign down, I guess wander aimlessly.”
“High class? I hope I’m not in the wrong place?” Howard joked, ignoring the last comment she made, chalking it up to a strange quirk. The woman smiled and led him from the stairs, down the hall to a bedroom door.
“I wouldn’t worry about that, love. You’re exactly where you need to be. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be here.” She unlocked the bedroom door and ushered poor, exhausted Howard inside. Before closing the door behind her she poked her head around the corner. “Oh, one more thing. Would you be staying the entire night or only for a few hours?”
“The night? I suppose only as long as it takes for the storm to let up.” replied Howard, unsure if he was saying anything right that evening. It seemed to work though. The woman nodded. “Oh, how much do I owe you?”
“Not a thing, dear.” If Howard had been taking a drink at that moment he would have involuntarily spat it in the woman’s face.
“You must be joking. The least I can do is pay you for my time.”
“I won’t take it. Consider this a Christmas gift,” she said, giving a melancholy smile, “It’s the very least I can do.” Howard was too tired and defeated to keep arguing. He decided he’d hide some money underneath his pillow or something on the way out so she’d have to take it.
“Alright. See you tomorrow.”
“Very good, love, I’ll see you off to your destination in the morning bright and early. Have a nice sleep.” She shut the door behind her. He giggled in amusement at the old woman’s words. She couldn’t even say goodnight without it sounding odd as hell, could she?
Howard did his best to honor the old woman’s wishes that night but he was unable to have a nice sleep. Whether it was the storm outside, his own restless brain, thinking of his fiance alone on Christmas Eve, or a combination of the two, Howard was stuck staring at his bedroom ceiling when he heard a muffled sharp knock at the front door downstairs. He heard a creak as the door opened up and he heard a gruff voice exchange pleasantries with the lady of the house.
“I need lodging.” Perhaps pleasantries wasn’t the right word, Howard thought.
“Oh, of course you do. So sorry, dearie. First thing in the morning I have to take down that sign.”
“I won’t keep you long. I’ll just be passing through to the other side. No need to stick around.”
“Of course, and what happened to you, dear?”
“Some asshat ran me off the road. Doesn’t matter. Pretty sure I brought him down with me.”
“So sorry to hear that. Come now, let’s get you on your way.”
Nothing about what Howard heard put his mind at ease at all. Knowing he wouldn’t be sleeping a wink anyway, he crept out of his room and halfway down the stairs where he saw the woman leading a man down into the basement. Although their backs were turned to Howard, he knew right away the man was not a stranger. It was the box-headed man he almost crashed into on the road. There was something different about him. His skin was clammy and there was a bloody dent in the side of his square head. Once they descended the basement steps, he followed them down and found a sight that made his limbs go rigid.
The basement was empty. At the far wall, a portal leading into a swirling mist had been opened. The woman and the man stood in the middle of the room, staring down the swirling abyss. There were speakers in the basement so the radio could still be heard. The man wasted no time and nodded respectfully to the woman, tipping his hat, revealing even more damage to his ugly blockhead. She curtsied back. He turned his back and walked into the portal, never even looking at Howard once. He was immediately enveloped as if he were being swallowed up by a shapeless blob. The woman waved a handkerchief like she was wishing Bon Voyage to a cruise ship.
“Happy trails, stranger,” Howard heard her whisper. She turned around and jumped when she saw Howard crouched by the railing on the steps. Although he startled her, she didn’t seem to mind. Instead, she just smiled. “Ready to go already? I suppose you changed your mind” she asked. Howard didn’t have the faintest idea what she was talking about until he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror hanging on the wall next to him and realized his skin had turned a shade of pale, clammy green. Howard’s world went numb, and everything sounded far away to him. In the distance, Burl Ives reminded him to have a cup of cheer.