The Halfway House
Ominous black clouds ringed the high peaks as the jeep climbed the steep, rain slicked road. Rain turned to snow. The windshield wipers struggled to keep up with the rapidly falling flakes. Slippery conditions on route # 86 had resulted in a wreck some miles back forcing Alec Blake to take a detour. As pavement turned to dirt on the narrow, winding road, he realized he was lost.
Having spent many childhood Christmases in the Adirondacks, Alec hadn’t thought it necessary to bring a map. He just had to remain on #86 to Saranac Lake and then continue a short distance to Lake Placid where he had made reservations at the lodge. The detour on back roads was confusing. He should have reached Saranac Lake by now. Glancing at the fuel gauge he saw that the needle was hovering below the quarter mark. They were deep inside the tall pine forest, with no gas stations and no signs of civilization. His mind shouted at him to turn around, but the road was too narrow.
He risked a glance at seven year old Sara, asleep in the passenger seat. Her lips were curved in a contented smile. She was excited about spending Christmas in the north. Having lived in Florida with her mother for most of her life, this would be her first white Christmas. An overseas correspondent, Alec had spent few Christmases at home. His long absences had cost him his marriage. He had missed out on much of Sara’s childhood. This year would be different. They would be together, just the two of them, at the mountain lodge where he had spent so many happy times with his parents. He would no longer be a stranger to his daughter.
He had planned carefully. Hidden among the suitcases were presents including the tea set Sara had asked for. A small artificial tree, pre-lit and decorated, was ready to be put up in their room. Alec had even remembered to bring stocking stuffers.
The falling, drifting snow swirled around the jeep, hiding the road from view. Alec slowed to a crawl. Their situation was getting desperate. It was Christmas Eve. Right about now his ex-wife and her family would be sitting down to dinner. Sara’s cousins would be there. Sara would have been there too if it hadn’t been for him.
“It’s so pretty!” Sara exclaimed upon awakening. “Is it true, Daddy, that no snowflake is alike?”
“So they say,” Alec replied.
“Can we make a snowman at the lodge?”
“When we get to the lodge we’ll make the biggest snowman anyone has ever seen.”
“It will be fun, won’t it?”
“Yes,” he replied, swallowing a lump in his throat.
“What’s that?” she asked pointing to a dark shape on the road a few feet ahead of them.
Alec hit the brake causing the jeep to fishtail. The deer leaped to safety as the jeep
went airborne. Trees flashed before them. There was a loud crash. Branches poked through the windshield. Alec was impaled by a jagged piece of metal that had been part of the door. The engine was still running. One headlight remained unbroken. .From the light shining through the broken glass he could make out Sara slumped against the seat. “Sara? Sara, are you okay?” There was no reply. Pulling himself free, he reached for her, feeling for a pulse. She was alive! “Sara?” She moaned and opened her eyes.
“Where are we, Daddy? “
“We’re in the woods, honey. We had an accident.”
“I remember now. Rudolph!” Sara struggled with her seatbelt.
“Don’t move, honey until we’re sure you aren’t hurt.”
“I’m not hurt, Daddy, just cold.”
Now Alec was aware of the frigid air rushing into the jeep from the broken window. He gathered Sara in his arms using his body heat to keep her warm. Just as he was thinking things couldn’t get worse the engine died, and then the battery, leaving them in the cold and dark.
He must have slept for when he opened his eyes the storm was over; the night had cleared, and a full moon was rising over the mountaintops. Sara moaned softly, and then sat up.
“Listen, Daddy! Can you hear it? Sleigh bells!” She must be hallucinating, he thought with alarm. Suddenly he heard them too, a steady jingling coming nearer, and with it the sound of singing.
“Come on, Sara! We’ve got to get to the road. Together they scrambled up the rocks just as two pinpricks of light topped the hill.
It really was a sleigh pulled by two massive Clydesdales. The light was provided by a pair of lanterns suspended on either side of a long, boxlike sled with four rows of seats and a high perch for the driver. The sled was filled with carolers bundled in heavy furs. Catching sight of Alec and Sara, the driver sawed on the reins, bringing his team to a plunging halt. “You folks need a ride?”
“We’ve been in an accident,” Alec explained. “We need help.”
“Climb in. The inn is just ahead.”
Alec lifted Sara into the arms of a matronly woman, who quickly wrapped her in a buffalo robe. Hands reached out to help him onto a seat behind her. The driver clucked to his horses and they were off with a merry tinkling of bells.
“Is there a hospital nearby?” Alec asked the man beside him.
“Afraid not, mister.”
“Alec Blake,” Alec said holding out his hand. “And that is my daughter, Sara.”
“Jack Merriweather,” the other replied, shaking hands.
“A phone then, there must be a phone?”
“There are no phone lines.” Meriweather paused. “No need to worry; your little girl is going to be just fine.” Alec gazed at Sara’s blonde head resting against the woman’s shoulder. He hoped the man was right.
What kind of Inn had no phone? Alec wondered.
A bright light lit up the night sky ahead. The light emanated from a half-log, half stone building with a verandah across the front and many gables jutting from a steep roof. A woman was waiting, lantern in hand, by the front door. A wooden sign above her head informed travelers that this was the Wayfarer’s Inn established in 1910. The woman wrapped her long coat closely about her and went to greet her guests. She introduced herself as their hostess Abigail Robinson.
“Come in out of the cold! Sam has hot mulled cider for everyone!” Alec stopped beside his hostess.
“My daughter and I aren’t guests; we were in an accident just down the road. The jeep is totaled. I’ve been told there isn’t any phone here.”
“No phone,” Mrs. Robinson agreed, “but we’ve plenty of food and a warm fire.”
“You have quite a crowd. Are there any rooms?” he asked doubtfully.
Mrs. Robinson smiled.
“There is always room at the inn.” She took him by the hand. “Your little girl needs warmth. Come and sit by the fire.”
A log crackled in a mammoth stone fireplace at the end of a cavernous room. The other passengers had already removed their heavy coats and hats and were seated in chairs and sofas facing the blaze. It wasn’t until Alec was sitting with Sara on his lap that he noticed the women nearby were wearing knee-length, low waisted dresses of silk or velvet straight out of the 1920s. Looking around he saw that most of the guests wore dated, but formal attire.
Sara drank the cup of hot, spiced cider given to her by their host, before sliding down from her father’s lap.
“I want to look at the tree.”
Alec watched her cross the room toward a tall spruce standing before a bay window. The tree was draped with cranberry and popcorn garlands. Gingerbread men and paper stars were placed throughout the dark foliage. A few delicate blown glass ornaments twinkled in the light from tiny candles attached to the branches. Sara was joined at the tree by a little boy in a sailor suit complete with cap, and a little girl in a blue velvet dress, her feet encased in patent leather Mary Janes.
A lady with bobbed, platinum blonde hair tapped Alec’s shoulder. “Is that your little girl with Johnny and Fran?” Alec said that she was. “Those two are mine. I am Gracie Watkins; call me ‘Gracie.’ May I sit down?”
“Please do. My name is Alec Blake. ‘Alec.’” They shook hands.
“I feel a little out of place; everyone here seems formally attired and in costume, but you see we weren’t supposed to be here; I got lost trying to get to Lake Placid, and then we had the accident.”
“You mustn’t feel out of place, Alec. You are in exactly the right place,” Gracie told him.
They were interrupted just then by Sara who arrived with Johnny and Fran in tow.
“Daddy, Johnny says that Santa always comes just after dinner. He says he asked Santa for a cowboy outfit just like the one Tom Mix wears.” She frowned. “I don’t know who he is but Johnny says he’s in all the movies!” Johnny grinned and nodded. “Fran wants a doll. This is going to be the best Christmas ever!”
Alec looked at her smiling face with dismay. The tea set she had wanted was still in the jeep and probably smashed to pieces. He searched desperately for something to say, but was saved from replying by his hosts’ announcing dinner was served. He followed the happy, laughing guests into the dining room, Sara skipping ahead.
Like the lounge, the dining room had a large, stone fireplace at one end. A Victorian sideboard laden with fruits, cheese, and pastries stood against one wall opposite a table with a huge punch bowl. Another Christmas tree with gingham bows stood in a corner by the hearth. A long table with a snowy lace cloth and fine china occupied the middle of the room. There were cards with a guest’s name written on them by each plate.
Here you are,” Gracie said, indicating a place setting for Alec and one for Sara. Alec was staring puzzled at his name done with painstaking calligraphy when their host tapped his glass. The assembly bowed their heads.
“Thank you oh Lord for these thy gifts…”
The chorus of “amens” that followed was the signal for Mrs. Robinson and her helpers to bring in the food. There were “oohs!” and “aahs!” as a large turkey with all the trimmings was placed before their host. Heaping bowls of stuffing, salads, breads, squash, potatoes, and a tureen filled with rich, dark gravy were passed around. Sam put a generous portion of turkey on each plate while Mrs. Robinson filled each glass with hot cider or ale. Once she was seated, her husband raised his glass.
“Here’s a toast to good food, and good company!”’
“Here! Here!” shouted the guests.
“Listen, Daddy! I think I hear Santa!” Listening, Alec could hear someone moving around in the lounge.
Alec glanced uneasily at Sara. The happy glow on her face nearly broke his heart. He couldn’t bear to see her disappointed when the others received their presents. “Sara…”
“Is everyone ready for dessert?” Abby Robinson asked with a twinkle in her eye. The guests burst into loud applause.
“What do you suppose it will be?” asked a bewhiskered gentleman whispering in Sara’s ear.
Sara grinned and shook her head.
A door opened and two maids carried in an enormous cake shaped like a snowman and decorated with frosted sprigs of holly. Sam cut the cake. The two maids filled cups with tea, coffee and hot chocolate. Looking around at the merry, laughing guests, Alec wished they would linger at the table and not return to the lounge. How was he ever going to explain the lack of presents to his little girl?
“It’s time!” Sam announced.
Gracie took Johnny and Fran by the hands. “Let’s see what Santa brought you!”
“Come on, Sara!” Fran cried, seizing her hand. Alec followed reluctantly.
The children rushed to open presents piled high beneath the tree while the adults looked on. Alec watched Fran claim her doll, and Johnny, his cowboy outfit complete with toy gun. One little boy unwrapped a set of Lincoln logs and another received a mechanical bank. Sara stood watching just outside the mountain of gifts. He walked over to her and knelt to put his arms around her.
“Here is yours, Sara!” Fran cried.
“No. It must belong to another Sara,” Alec said.
“There’s only one Sara here,” Mrs. Robinson pointed out. “Here you are, honey.”
The present was wrapped in shiny gold paper just like the paper Alec had used. It couldn’t possibly be—but it was; a tea set identical to the one he had purchased. Sara held up a tiny china teacup with delicate blue flowers. “It’s just what I wanted!” she cried to the delight of her audience. Brushing tears from his eyes, Alec whispered a heartfelt thanks. He looked up to see his host standing beside him.
“Doesn’t matter, does it?” Sam asked. “Your little Sara is enjoying herself.”
“Let’s have some carols, Mrs. Parker!” one of the men shouted, and the matronly lady that had held Sara on the sled sat down at a pump organ.
“Here we come a wassailing among the leaves so green…”
Alec sat down in a chair beside his host to watch the children play with their toys.
“How do you manage out here in the wilderness? How do these people get to know about you?”
“The inn was built as a halfway house between the railroad station and the great camps farther up the mountain. Most of these folks are regulars, summer guests at the camps who have stayed here before. The camps are inaccessible in the winter so they come here instead.” Sam paused. “These days we sometimes get a different kind of guest.” He gave Alec a meaningful look.
“I don’t understand.”
“Look around,” Sam advised.
Now as he studied the guests he realized there were a few in modern clothes. An old couple holding hands were wearing sweat suits with embroidered Santas on the shirts. Two of the children running about the room wore jeans and sweaters with The Little Mermaid and Simba from The Lion King printed on them. An elderly woman and a young man in a World War II uniform sat in a corner by the fire. The man had his arm around the woman’s shoulders. The look they were giving one another was not that of mother and son.
“He’s been waiting a long time. She arrived today on the early train,” Sam said following his gaze. “Some see our light and decide to rest awhile before moving on. Some wait for their loved ones.” Suddenly, Alec knew.
“I’m having so much fun, Daddy!” Sara exclaimed as they climbed the narrow stairs behind Mrs. Robinson. “I can’t wait to tell Mom!”
“There,” said Mrs. Robinson placing a candle on the bed stand. “There is a chamber pot under the bed and a pitcher of water to wash up. You should be warm enough; there are plenty of quilts. There is a bell on the stand if you need anything. Good night.”
The room was cozy with a four poster bed and a trundle bed beside it taking up much of the space. Moonlight formed a silver pool below the dormer window. Crossing over to it, Alec looked down at a yard sparkling with new fallen snow. He lifted the window to take in the scent of pine and wood smoke. For a moment he thought he heard his mother’s voice whispering in the wind: “Merry Christmas, Alec!” He turned away to sit beside Sara who was lying in the trundle bed, with quilts up to her chin.
“Snug as a bug in a rug,” she said, grinning. He stroked her curly blonde hair. He wanted to speak—to tell her, but the words would not come. He stayed beside her, holding her hand in his until she slept.
“God bless the master of this house and all that are within…”
“It sounds like a Christmas carol,” the nurse suggested. “She’s been singing it off and on throughout the night.”
Linda Blake bent low, listening as the child in the hospital bed continued to sing.
The blue eyes opened.
“I’m here, darling.”
“Are we at the Inn?”
“No, Sara. We are in the hospital. You and Dad were in a car accident.”
“Oh, yes! Daddy had to stop so we wouldn’t hit Rudolph.”
“There must’ve been a deer in the road,” the nurse interpreted. “There are a lot of them in the mountains.”
“That’s right,” Sara agreed. “We went off the road. It was so cold, Mommy, but then a sled full of people arrived and took us to the inn so we weren’t cold anymore, and we had a wonderful time!”
The nurse looked at Linda and shook her head.
“We had turkey and stuffing and cake for dessert, and afterwards Santa left presents under the tree. He brought me a tea set; the one in the catalogue. Fran got a doll and Johnny got a cowboy outfit. Fran and I played house. Johnny pretended to be someone called Tom Mix. Afterwards, Mrs. Parker played the organ and everyone sang.”
“Sara, honey, I think you must’ve been dreaming,” Linda said.
“No! It was real. Ask Daddy!”
“Sara, your daddy was hurt badly when the jeep hit the tree. It was a long time before you were found. Remember how cold it was?”
“Yes, but we got warm by the fire.”
“There was no fire, Sara. Your father did all he could to keep you warm. He loved you very much.”
“Where is Daddy?”
“He didn’t make it, honey. “
“That’s wrong! He’s at the Inn. We’ve got to go there, Mommy!”
“There is no Inn, Sara. Daddy was with you in the jeep when the rescue squad came.”
“She’s getting agitated, poor child!” the nurse said. “I’ll have the doctor give her a sedative.”
Paul Bentley looked up at the sky. Night came early in the mountains and clouds were rolling in. It was Christmas Eve and his wife was on her knees, brushing snow away from the remains of a stone fireplace. Paul didn’t know what she hoped to find. He wondered if she knew herself. A snowflake brushed his cheek.
“We should go now, Sara. It’s a long hike back to the truck.”
“Just a little longer!”
Paul sighed. Ever since Sara had found the article about the Wayfarer’s Inn on a local Adirondack history site she was determined to see it for herself. The article had a map drawn in 1915 with the location of the Inn and the great camps beyond. It also stated that the Inn had been destroyed on December 24th, 1927. The date had not deterred Sara who was still convinced that she and her father had been there on Christmas Eve some seventy years later.
More snow was falling. “Come on, honey! We’ve got to go!”
It was all pointless, he thought, and then Sara suddenly cried out. Her eyes shining with excitement, she climbed over the ruined wall to where he was standing and held out the object clutched in her hand. It was a pottery shard with blue flowers painted on it.
“A piece of china?” he asked, puzzled.
“It is part of a tea cup,” Sara explained; “my tea cup!” She was silent a moment, her head cocked toward the overgrown path. “Listen! Can you hear them?”
Maureen Eldred lives on a small farm along the Canadian border in Northern New York. She has an Associate degree in Horse husbandry from S.U.N.Y. Morrisville and has completed a correspondence course on writing short stories from the Writer’s Digest School. She is an amateur artist and competes in local art shows. She enjoys gardening and playing her antique reed organ.