The hamster could be dead for all she knew. She longed to unzip her coat and check the coffee can for signs of life, because it was cold as hell in Hartford with an icy mix of snow and sleet peppering her face and neck and finding the gaps between her sneakers and socks. But she was afraid that if she stopped to look, either she’d find a dead hamster or a very live one that might escape and die from exposure. Or she’d end up murdered by some vagrant in the switching yards at two in the morning. Even before she’d had this thought of the hamster he’d given her—who gives someone a rodent for Christmas without even asking?—her boyfriend had been a good twenty yards ahead of her, head down, hands in his pockets, loping along like he went for long walks through the snow every night. Now he was even farther, a dark blur in the distance. She hurried to catch up, called his name but he didn’t answer. He was angry, and that’s what he did when he was angry. As if it were her fault he’d read the bus schedule wrong and there were no connections to Boston on holidays. As if it were her fault the only hotel in reasonable walking distance didn’t have any vacancies and the less-reasonable one was two miles from the bus station and the cab company didn’t answer their phone. As if the fate of the hamster were her fault, too. Again, she called his name. He stopped. Turned.
“You’re slow, woman.” He sounded like his father.
“It’s cold,” she said.
Even his grin looked like his father’s. Mean around the edges. “Then walk faster.”
He started telling her a story. No apologies for his silence, for ignoring her. The stories always had dragons in them, and princesses, and he pulled them out of his pocket to pass the time while they waited for buses, or during the long stretches when they were hitchhiking and no cars would come along. This was one she’d heard before, about a princess who ends up rescuing the dragon, and he’d told it to her the night they’d first met. It charmed her, then. But it was cold and late and while the charm was wearing thin, she didn’t have the courage to face the silence. He stretched the story out for the rest of the walk, disappeared while she laid her credit card down for the room, began a new tale in the creaky elevator ride up to their floor.
Her Christmas present was still alive. But something inside her wasn’t. The right words never seemed to come when he shone his blue eyes and stories on her. Only while he slept was there room for her. In repose his mouth turned into a scowl, exactly like his father’s. When he fell asleep that night, in a hotel room she couldn’t afford, she started what would be a series of notes, first to herself and finally to him, in which the princess rescues herself. And the hamster.