Chasing Christmas Eve
Colbie Albright stood in the crowded LaGuardia Airport staring up at the flight departure board. Her chest was tight and her throat felt like it was closing in.
Classic anxiety, she told herself. Just breathe right through it.
Not that her body listened to her brain. Her body rarely listened to good sense.
In any case, it was December 1 and people were rushing all around her like chickens without their heads, while she stood still trying to figure out her choice of destination. Her only requirements were warm and tropical. An exotic beach would fit the bill perfectly.
Oooh, I wanna take you . . .
Great, and now the Beach Boys song was stuck in her head. Doing her best to shake it off, she eyed the board again. So many choices for a twenty-eight-year-old runaway with a packed bag and no regrets.
From inside her purse her phone vibrated and she grimaced. Okay, so there were regrets. Buckets of them that made her suitcase feel like a thousand pounds and sucked the air from her lungs, but she refused to let herself turn tail and go back.
She was doing this.
But even as she thought it, the board changed and a bunch of the flights—all the southbound ones—blinked off and came back on … showing as delayed or cancelled.
“A surprise late season hurricane,” someone said in disgust next to her. “Of course.”
Okay, so she wasn’t going south. There was a flight to Toronto in twenty minutes but Toronto was the opposite of warm and tropical, and plus it wouldn’t give her enough time to grab some breakfast. Apparently running away really ramped up a girl’s appetite…
That’s when her gaze locked on a flight leaving for San Francisco in an hour. Huh. California, the land of celebrities, avocados, surfer dudes. She’d never really had a chance to enjoy any of those things. In fact, LaGuardia was the furthest she’d been from home in three years. But hey, there was a first time for everything, right?
She nodded, psyching herself up for this. After years of taking care of her family and working herself half to death, she deserved this. She needed this.
So…San Francisco or bust.
It would work, she assured herself. Getting away would allow her to find her muse again, her love for the writing. And so, convinced, she strode to the ticket counter.
Fifteen minutes later, she hit the very long, very slow-moving security line. Surrounded by people complaining about the wait, she was in the process of removing her laptop, her sweater, her shoes, her watch, and her bracelet and was patting herself down to make sure she’d gotten everything out of her pockets when a TSA agent pulled her aside.
“Oh,” she said, “I’m not carrying any liquids over three ounces.”
The guy shrugged. “Random female,” he said. “That your bag?”
“Yes.” This was what she got for buying a last-minute one-way ticket and she bit her lower lip as the agent started to go through her things. She favored layers, especially tees and sweaters with loose skirts or yoga pants—even though she’d never been to a yoga class in her life. He pawed through everything, pausing at the sight of her bunny slippers—which, hey, totally completed her favorite writing uniform.
“My three-year-old kid has these,” he said and then kept going, alternately looking up at the X-ray monitor and down at her bag, clearly seeking something specific. He moved aside a lightweight jersey dress and she grimaced as some lacy, silky things were exposed. Maybe her clothes were nothing special but she did have a thing about what she wore beneath them, her one concession to feeling sexy in this crazy life she’d built where she didn’t have time to actually be sexy . . .
Luckily for his health, the agent’s stoic expression never changed. No doubt he’d seen it all and couldn’t care less as he dug past her favorite peach lace bra-and-panty set, a box of tampons, and . . .
“Ah,” he said, holding up an apple.
“Are apples a problem?” Colbie asked.
“They sometimes look weird on the screen.”
“No weirdness here,” she said. “Just a morning snack. It’s not even poisonous.” She added a harmless smile.
He didn’t return it, because he was staring at some papers she’d paper-clipped and shoved in her bag to read on the plane. “How to murder people by poison without detection,” he read aloud.
The woman behind Colbie gasped in horror.
“Okay,” Colbie said, pointing to them. “That’s not what it looks like.”
The woman behind her, cradling a leopard-print cat carrier, had turned and was frantically whispering to the people behind her.
“Really,” Colbie said. “It’s a funny story, actually.”
But the TSA guy was flipping through her notes, not even remotely interested in her funny story. He didn’t need to read aloud what he was looking at, because she knew exactly what was there—other Google searches, such as how to get away with murder using a variety of different everyday products that weren’t considered weapons. “It’s research,” she said to the room.
“Yeah, that’s probably what I’d say too,” a guy said from somewhere behind her.
Colbie didn’t look back; she just kept her gaze on the TSA agent, trying to look nonthreatening as she said something she rarely if ever said aloud. “I’m a writer.”
“Uh-huh.” He pulled out his radio now with an ominous “Female agent, please.”
“Oh, pluck it!” she snapped.
The agent narrowed his gaze. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing bad,” she said. “That’s the point. See, we’ve got this swear jar at home, which means I’ve gone broke swearing, so I say other stuff instead of bad words. Stuff that sounds like bad words but isn’t. I don’t lose any money that way, and—” She broke off because he didn’t appear impressed. “Look, never mind that,” she said. “Just believe me, I’m not a problem. You saw the bunny slippers, right?”
“Ma’am,” he said, pulling her bag aside. “I’m going to need you to come with me.”
“No, really! If you look in my purse, you’ll see it’s filled with scraps of paper, napkins, whatever, all with handwritten notes on them. I write notes for my books all the time. Plot points. Characterization stuff. Just little things, really. For instance . . .” She looked around and gestured to the woman behind her. “‘Crazy cat lady with a leopard-print cat carrier—’”
“Hey,” the crazy cat lady with the leopard-print cat carrier said.
Colbie ignored her. “—or ‘friendly, sweet, kind TSA agent with a heart of gold…’” she said, and added a flirty, hopefully innocent-looking smile. “I use the notes in my books. It adds color and heart to the story and all that.”
The agent’s eyes were still suspicious, but at least he opened her purse to check her story. And just as she’d said, it was filled with what probably looked like trash but were in fact little treasures to be revisited and added to her manuscript.
“What do you write?” he asked, unraveling a small square bar napkin and staring at the words she’d scribbled on it: Icicle—the perfect weapon. It melts and vanishes!
The agent lifted his gaze and leveled it on her.
“Cheese and rice!” she exclaimed and drew a deep, calming breath. It didn’t help. “Okay, listen,” she said. “It’s not what it looks like. I write young adult action-adventure. Postapocalyptic world.” She was hoping to not have to go further than that, but the expression on his face told her she was on borrowed time. “The characters are teenagers with powers they acquired in the radioactive war,” she added.
“And these teenagers, they . . . kill people?”
“No,” she said. “But the bad guys do. And it’s fiction. You know, made-up stuff.” She pointed to her brain and shook her head, like See? Harmless. “And so really, all this is for naught. It’s not like I’ve got a bomb in my bag or anything.”
In hindsight, she probably shouldn’t have mentioned the word bomb. She missed her flight and almost the next one, instead becoming intimate, very intimate, with a pair of female TSA agents.
She also missed breakfast.
And the nap she’d been counting on since she hadn’t slept more than a few hours in so long she couldn’t remember what a good night’s sleep felt like.
Not exactly an auspicious beginning to her vacation from life, but hopefully all her trouble was behind her now and the rest of the trip would be perfect.
A girl could dream anyway…
Eight hours later, she pressed her face to the window of her plane as it banked and came in for a landing at SFO International. They’d been diverted twice for too much air traffic, which turned out to be a blessing because they came in from the north, giving her a view of the Golden Gate Bridge glowing red in the late afternoon sun. The bay was a gorgeous sparkling blue, all of it looking like a postcard, and something in her tight chest loosened. It seemed like the entire world was laid out in front of her and she brought a hand up to the window as if she could actually touch the sight.
This, she told herself. This was exactly what the doctor had ordered—if she’d actually gone to a doctor for her anxiety and crippling writer’s block. Here she would find herself, so that by the time she went back home in three weeks for Christmas Eve, she’d be happy again.
She was sure of it.