He was standing in the doorway when he realized she was there. Her low, throaty chuckle gave her away in the darkness. Desire and dread waged war within him. His feet were transfixed. His hands paralyzed. She called but he did not answer. He could not. She wasn’t calling him. Another voice murmured in response. A sigh. A moan. He couldn’t turn away.
Pounding. Was he pounding? No. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe.
His name. Was she calling him? No. It was ... Jaycee?
“Andy! Wake up!”
Andy shot up in bed, his heart beating through his chest, his body covered in a cold sweat. The room was dark. Where was he? That’s right, the hotel! But the clock was out. No power.
“Andy! Come on, wake up!”
Emergency sirens wailed in the background. The urgency in Jaycee’s voice startled him. Other voices echoed in the hallway. He stumbled out of bed clad only in gray boxers and a black Norah Jones t-shirt.
As he drew near the door, there was a rattle with the latch and the door flew open. “Andy! Please, you’ve gotta ... ooof.”
Andy was knocked back a step as Jaycee barreled into his chest. Wrapping his arms around her to keep her from falling, her hair teased his nose with the scent of coconuts and tropical fruit. Jaycee lingered in his embrace for a moment, but then pushed against his chest and stepped back. The fear and worry on her face was illuminated by the emergency lights in the hallway.
“Andy, we’ve got to go downstairs! Tornadoes were spotted nearby! The manager said we’re not safe up here.” Her voice was shaky, her body trembling.
Andy saw her backpack in the hall by the door. He quickly reached out and touched her face, his thumb gently caressing her cheek. He spoke to her in a calm, soft voice. “I’ve got to put on some pants and shoes. Could you grab my stuff in the bathroom and throw it in my bag?” In less than a minute, they were both out the door and bounding down the stairs.
The first floor of the hotel, it turned out, was partially below ground. Coming down from the second floor, they passed the empty hotel entrance and lobby, and continued down another half flight of stairs. At the bottom, they opened a sturdy wooden door and were immediately assaulted by a cacophony of voices. Andy saw Jaycee also crinkle up her nose. He had to admit, there was a slight but unpleasant musty odor down here, as well.
The wide, carpeted floor of the hall was littered with about two dozen or so different people and their luggage. The tall, black man they’d seen at the diner rose to his feet when he saw them. He smiled and motioned that there was room down by him at the other end of the hall. With their own bags over their shoulders, they carefully made their way through the minefield – periodically exchanging apologetic glances with their fellow refugees.
As they drew closer, the man smiled at Jaycee. “I see you were finally able to get him to wake up.”
To Andy he extended his hand and introduced himself, “Grant Thomas.”
“Andy Erickson.” As Andy shook his hand, he noticed the older man was a good four or five inches taller than his own six one. Gray at the temples gave him a distinguished look, complementing his clearly gregarious nature.
Gesturing to his companion, Andy added with a chuckle, “And, evidently, you’ve already met the lovely Jaycee Fontenot.”
“Hey!” He felt a slight sting where Jaycee playfully slapped his arm. “Is that a crack about my hair?” she asked with a raised eyebrow and a twinkle in her eyes.
Andy looked over at her and grinned. “No, but now that you mention it...”
With a laugh, he threw up his hands in self-defense when she threatened to hit him again. In truth, he thought she was absolutely adorable with her coal black hair all mussed up from sleep. For a moment he wondered ... then pushed the thought from his mind, knowing full well it would return to haunt him later.
“The thanks I get!” she said with a scowl on her face and her hands on her hips. She could only hold the pose for a few seconds, however, before she started laughing.
Grant was thankful these two were finally here. Their playful banter was such a needed breath of fresh air. His easy going nature and quick wit played so well off of her feistiness. After just a few minutes around them, you couldn’t help but smile. They had definitely done that for him hours earlier at the diner without even realizing it and hopefully they could do it for the folks down here, as well.
As he began to explain to them about the set up, he could tell the atmosphere in the hallway was already beginning to change. The two ladies – he thought they were sisters – who had been right on the edge of losing it, were starting to smile and quietly talk to one another. The two kids in the young family right behind Jaycee were transfixed by the new arrivals, giving their folks a much needed break. And the elderly couple no longer looked like they were in need of medical attention.
Nearly everyone was now distracted by this delightful duo, who continued to kid and tease each other as they got settled. For Grant, the playful banter made him even lonelier. He recognized in Jaycee a kindred spirit to his own Anisha when she was younger and it made him more than a little bit nostalgic. He’d been away from home for the last three weeks, but his mother’s estate in Chicago was now settled. The present storm clouds would eventually pass.
“Tomorrow,” he told himself with a bit of a melancholy twinge. Tomorrow he would be back in Memphis, not that it really mattered.
While Grant explained to them about the bathrooms available to use in rooms 123 and 124, the night manager finally showed up with some pillows and blankets. He and Andy helped the poor guy go get more and distribute them to everyone. As Jaycee turned to move her and Andy’s bags, she felt a firm tug on her shirt. Looking down, she found herself staring into the biggest and bluest eyes she had ever seen. They were set in a cute, heart-shaped face with a dash of freckles across the small, upturned nose – all framed by a tangled bird’s nest of long white-blonde curls.
The little girl, however, said nothing.
Seeing the little girl’s parents occupied with her younger brother at the moment, Jaycee smiled and knelt down in front of her. “Hi! I’m Jaycee,” she said brightly. “What’s your name?”
“My, what big eyes you have, Kylie!” Jaycee’s facial expression and “big bad wolf” voice elicited an adorable giggle and huge grin from the cute pixie.
“So, Kylie, how old are you?”
“Four.” She held her right hand up to show her new friend just how many that was. “And Jason is two and a half,” she said, pointing back to the little boy currently squirming in his mother’s arms.
Jaycee was about to speak, when they heard the emergency sirens go off again. Little Kylie’s eyes grew even larger.
Jaycee took both of Kylie’s hands in her own. “Today sure has been a scary day, hasn’t it?”
The child silently nodded, her eyes starting to tear up.
Thinking quickly, she gave the little girl a confident smile. “Do you want to know what I like to do on scary stormy days?”
Another silent nod.
“I like to brush my hair. But since there’s two of us,” she continued, reaching around to grab her own hairbrush out of her bag. “How about we brush each other’s hair?”
Sensing that her new little friend wasn’t quite convinced, Jaycee volunteered to brush out Kylie’s hair first. Jaycee settled into a comfortable position, with her back against the wall, and had the child sit in front of her. Before long, Jaycee was well into untangling her tresses, while Kylie herself was succumbing to exhaustion.
Jaycee simply shrugged and smiled when the girl’s mother mouthed a silent “thank you” to her. She was glad to help, to be sure, but she had to admit – this was as much a distraction for her as it was for little Kylie. She used to do this with her sisters all the time. Thunderstorms have always scared the crap out of her. And tornadoes? Well, tornadoes were just the icing on that great big, humongous cake of panic!
But then there was that amazing man with the deepest brown eyes who was at peace in the midst of the storm. How’d he do that? Jaycee unconsciously brought her hand up to her face. With just a touch and a soft word, she somehow knew everything would be alright. How’d he do that? Really ... it made no sense. A quiet chuckle escaped her lips as the realization sank in. “I’m in so much trouble,” she laughingly repeated to herself as she resumed her brushing.
Drawing her brush gently through her charge’s beautiful curls, Jaycee noticed Andy making his way back to their end of the hall. She could feel him staring at her. She glanced up and their eyes met. A shy blush started across her face but faded when she saw a look of pain flash across his. Jaycee tipped her head to the side ever so slightly and gazed up at him, confused. He looked away quickly, but not before giving her a sad little smile.
“You okay?” Concern filled her voice as Andy wearily took a seat next to her on the hallway floor.
He didn’t say anything at first. Instead, he reached over and brushed a few stray strands of Kylie’s hair away from her precious sleeping face – his features haunted by a wistful expression of tenderness, tinged with sadness.
In that moment, she understood.
“Yeah, I’m okay.”
But she knew he wasn’t. Andy’s face was so close but his heart was so far away. Her own heart breaking for him, Jaycee found herself tracing her fingers gently across his tanned cheek. “Someday you will be,” she whispered softly.
He drew up his hand and covered hers with his, lightly pressing it against his face.
To Jaycee, it seemed as if – for just a moment – time stood still. Everything else faded away. The heat of his skin warmed her own. The rhythm of his heartbeat pulsed through her fingertips. The coarse stubble of his jaw tickled her palm. And the play of emotions across his face tugged at her heart.
But just as suddenly as it arrived, the moment was gone. A nonchalant cough brought them back to the present. Grant had come back from somewhere and was a little further down the hallway rearranging his sleeping area with his newly acquired blanket and pillow. Jaycee glanced to her right to see that the young couple had fallen asleep, the mother still cradling Kylie’s little brother.
Turning her hand against Andy’s cheek, she entwined her slender fingers with his. With a slight tug, their conjoined hands dropped between them, swaying like a suspension bridge. Even this connection between them was magical, but it came to an end far too quickly. With a wince, Jaycee apologetically withdrew her hand from the embrace in order to deal with Kylie. The child was slumped over one of her legs, which had unfortunately started to fall asleep.
Wrapping her up in a blanket, Andy, gently and with practiced hands, lifted the sleeping cherub and moved her over onto a pillow by her parents. Those hands of his were not done, however, for upon his return – to Jaycee’s delight – they found something else to do.
When Grant finished with his minor sleeping quarters relocation project, he started going back through his stuff again. He knew he should probably try to get some sleep. Problem was he wasn’t tired. Actually that wasn’t really true. He was exhausted. It’s just that his brain wouldn’t turn off. Daylight was coming and just how close of a call they’d had that night would soon be revealed.
Glancing around, Grant noticed that he, Andy and Jaycee were the only ones still up. The sounds of sleep filled the hallway. And, he admitted with a grimace, some of those sounds were not all that pleasant. Still, he had to concede, it could be a lot worse – which, of course, was why he was still awake. Grant smiled to himself. The irony of it all was not lost on him, not one bit.
He was pleasantly surprised when Andy invited him over. Evidently he and Jaycee couldn’t sleep either. They were such a cute couple, so at ease with each other. They were also always touching each other but it was never sticky-sweet or clingy – just heartwarming, leaving him rather nostalgic for what used to be. When Grant came over, Andy was attentively massaging her calves. Evidently one of Jaycee’s legs had fallen asleep when that little tyke nodded off in her lap.
He was a little afraid that he would be a “third wheel” but Jaycee put Grant perfectly at ease. Soon the conversation was flowing back and forth between the three of them, albeit quietly. They mostly talked about the weather – all the way from the challenges and difficulties they faced driving in it, to what they all would face when the sun rose in a few hours.
Grant looked over at his new friends. By this time, both were seated next to one another, with their backs against the other wall. Jaycee was pressed up close to Andy, her left arm inside his, and her hand safely ensconced within his as well, lying contently on his thigh. Seeing no rings and remembering that they were in different rooms upstairs, Grant opted to ask the obvious question.
“So, how long have you known each other?”
“What time is it?”
Jaycee burst out laughing at Andy’s quick-witted response. She couldn’t help it – the perfectly matter-of-fact tone of Andy’s voice, matched by Grant’s shocked expression, was simply priceless. She tried to quickly muffle the sound with her free hand, but knew instinctively that it was a bit like closing the barn door after the horses got out. She could hear Kylie’s restless whimper beside her.
Andy nodded, a huge grin plastered on his face.
Grant looked down at his watch. “It’s just after 1:30 in the morning.”
Andy, beginning to chuckle, turned to inquire of a snickering Jaycee: “That makes it almost ... what... ?”
“A little over 10 hours,” she finished, matching him grin for grin.
Their faces were so close together – his a bit higher than hers so that Jaycee had to tip her head back a little. If they had been alone, she knew what would have come next. And as she gazed into his warm mahogany eyes, she saw that he knew it, too. Her smile developed a rather wicked twist and her right eyebrow lifted ever so slightly.
With a firm squeeze of his hand, she turned her face back to Grant. “Pretty hard to believe, isn’t it?”
Grant could only nod his head in agreement.
The pair took pity on him, though, and began to explain – between the two of them – just how they came to be together. The story they told was mostly Jaycee’s with Andy adding periodic color commentary. One thing Jaycee noticed was that it was funnier in the retelling than it was in the living, thanks primarily to the man next to her. Just as she was beginning to follow that train of thought, she noticed Andy yawning for the third time in as many minutes.
Glancing over at Grant, she saw that he’d noticed it, too.
“Hey, guys,” he said, looking at his watch. “It’s a little after two now. We probably should get some shuteye if we’re going to be worth anything come sun up.”
Andy stifled another yawn and just nodded his head in agreement. He gently squeezed Jaycee’s hand before releasing it and then turned to lie down. She watched as he wrapped up in a blanket and stretched his athletic frame out on the floor. Drawing her own blanket around herself, she sat alone with her pillow lying on the floor next to her.
It was far from quiet. The hallway was filled with the sounds of sleeping people – some louder than others. And behind it all, Jaycee could still hear the harsh rhythm of the driving rain and the shrill whistle of the wind. It was picking back up again. As time passed, she could hear Andy’s steady slow breath as he descended into the deepness of sleep. He didn’t snore. She smiled at the thought.
With pillow in hand, she quietly moved to his side. He looked so peaceful. “Thank you,” she whispered as she carefully laid down beside him. With Andy now at her back, sleep came quickly.