“You sure you can make it home okay?” Beth asked, peering out the door past Jolene. “It’s really coming down out there.”
“I’ll be fine, cracker. I’ve got this big old car, and besides, there’s not much sticking yet.” She jerked a thumb behind her, indicating her sedan sitting in the driveway.
“You can stay in the spare room, you know,” Beth offered.
“I thought the spare room was mine for tonight!” Benny said, coming to stand beside her. “You’re not banishing me to the couch, Harmon.” He crossed his arms in mock defense.
“At least I have a couch to banish you to.” She rolled her eyes, turning back to Jolene. “You can stay the night if you want to.”
“I’ll get home okay if I leave before it gets icy. Let your boy-toy have the spare bed.” She shrugged on her deep purple wool coat, leaning in to give her friend a hug. “Or not,” she whispered as they embraced, winking as she let go. “Have a good Christmas,” she said as she headed out the door, all bundled up.
“Merry Christmas,” Benny replied, standing beside Beth as she moved to the threshold to see Jolene off.
“Drive safe!” Beth called after her, a bit of anxiety in her voice. Jolene gave a little wave of acknowledgement, carefully backing out of the driveway, snowflakes swirling in her headlights.
Benny and Beth stepped back into the warm foyer, closing the door behind them.
“It’s good that Harry left when he did, too.” Beth said, picking up the four abandoned mugs on the coffee table. Benny nodded.
“How much are they calling for?” He took two of the mugs from her, following her to the sink.
“The radio said three inches, as of this morning.” She tossed him a dish towel and began to scrub the remnants of their Christmas eve party out of the cups.
“Three inches?” Benny scoffed, “That wouldn’t even stop the sewer rats from getting around in New York.”
“Well, the sewer rats don’t have to drive an hour to Louisville in this much snow.” They finished doing the dishes, settling down on the couch.
“Want to play?” Beth set the chessboard between them, balancing it on the sofa cushion.
“Only if I have a chance at winning,” Benny said, selecting one of Beth’s outstretched fists concealing the two kings. She opened the hand he selected, revealing the black piece.
“Now that will be a Christmas miracle,” she smirked.
After Beth’s victory in Moscow, they had been able to settle into their familiar pastime with a newfound ease. Beth hadn’t played chess for fun in a very long time, always training and competing. With Benny, the pressure lessened, and she played fast, bold moves that she wouldn’t have dared in competition. They played game after game, laughing and trash-talking one another.
Benny was just about to checkmate with his bishop when the lamp flickered. Once. Twice. And then they were plunged into darkness.
“Shit,” Beth said, plucking her way through the living room by memory and jiggling the light switch up and down a few times. “The electric’s out.”
“And I was just about to win that one, too.” Benny said, hearing her soft steps go into the kitchen. A cabinet opened, and after a bit of rummaging around, a light illuminated her face, surrounding her like a halo. It flickered and danced like a flame, and the light reflecting on her red curls made it look like she was made of fire, too, as she made her way back to the couch. As she sat down, the pieces slid from their squares, ruining their game.
“I’m starting to think you’re trying to sabotage me, Harmon.”
“Sorry,” Beth said with a little laugh. She set down the candle, reaching for the pieces to reset the board. Placing the last pawn, she yawned, stretching her shoulders up to her ears.
“Tired?” She shrugged, moving her pawn to D4, but her eyes gave her sleepiness away. Benny stretched out his hand. “I resign. Go to bed.” A smile tugged at the corners of her lips as they shook, sealing the game.
It did not take long after they settled in their respective beds for Beth to realize that, because the power was out, the heat also went out. She lay under the blanket, shivering, for almost an hour, before she decided enough was enough. Gathering the bedspread around her, she walked down the hallway, pausing in front of her teenage bedroom. The door was slightly ajar, and she could see a foot dangling off the bed through the crack. It felt awkward to knock in her own house, to a room that she knew so intimately, but out of respect to Benny, she lifted her fist and gave a shy rap on the doorframe, a million thoughts running through her head.
What if he gets the wrong idea? What if I get the wrong idea? Jesus, it’s so cold.
It wasn’t that she disliked Benny, and it wasn’t that he disliked her, but it had been so long since he had trained her for Paris, so long since they had fallen out of the comfortable routine of sharing a bed.
“Benny?” She whispered, nudging the door another inch. “Are you awake?”
“Yeah.” Like hers, his voice didn’t contain any hint that he had drifted off.
“Can I come in?”
“Yeah,” he repeated. Beth opened the door, standing in her pajamas and blanket robe and feeling like a child coming to tell their parents that they had a nightmare.
“I don’t want you to think the wrong thing,” she said before she could stop herself, “It’s just so cold and I thought two blankets might be better than one for the both of us.”
“It’s okay, Harmon,” he said, scooching over to make room for her. “No wrong ideas taken.”
Relieved, she climbed into bed beside him, throwing half of her blanket over him while snuggling under half of his, taking great care not to even brush his hand with hers.
“You still tired?” He asked, turning on his side to face her as she lay on her back, staring up at the torn canopy.
“Not really,” she replied, “the cold shocked it out of me, I guess.”
“I could never sleep on Christmas eve when I was a kid.” He sighed, reminiscing, “My brother and I always made a fort on our bunk bed and stayed up playing cards. One year, our mom caught us and told us that all we would get for Christmas was a spanking for sneaking around past our bedtime.”
“And did you?”
“Yep.” He gave a low chuckle. “She even wrapped her slippers and put them under the tree before using them on us.” Beth laughed.
“That’s still better than Christmases at Methuen,” she said, still concentrating very hard on not touching him. “A three hour long mass, followed by this stupid Christmas pageant they made all of us do while some rich donors gawked. I was always a sheep.”
Now Benny laughed, the image of a sullen baby Beth in a little lamb costume springing to his mind.
“Jolene was my shepherd.” Her voice lifted with a smile. “She always forgot all of her lines, but she told Miss Lonsdale she wouldn’t even go onstage if she couldn’t be my shepherd.”
Benny shifted under the covers, his hand accidentally brushing Beth’s. Her breath caught in her chest for a moment, her whole body tensing.
“You’re laying as stiff as a soldier. Come closer,” he said, “it’ll be warmer.”
Beth scooted a half-inch closer. Thoughts, memories of sleeping together and sleeping together in New York raced through her mind. She had liked it, at the time. She thought that she might even like it again. But how does one bring up sleeping again with an ex-boyfriend-- Not even a boyfriend , she reminded herself. She had made her move, offering a pawn by knocking on his door and climbing into bed, and now it was his turn.
“Is this okay?” He rubbed his hand up and down her forearm.
Is it okay? Beth thought, rolling the question like a marble in her brain. But as the friction warmed her arm, she melted into his palm. “Yeah,” she said, “yeah, it’s okay.”
Despite all her hesitation, his touch was familiar, her body relaxing into its old habits picked up from the weeks spent in his apartment. He rubbed further up her arm, and her breath hitched again.
“Benny,” she said suddenly, pulling away. He jerked his hand back, obviously surprised that he had startled her. “I don’t want to fuck. Not tonight at least.”
“I wasn’t-” he started, still stunned. “I didn’t- I didn’t mean it like that. We can stop. You can go back to your room, if you want to.”
“No, I- I liked it,” Beth admitted, stammering over her words like Benny before gaining her composure. “I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page.”
“So, this is okay?” He lay his palm on her bicep. She nodded. “And is this okay?” he wriggled his hand down her arm and laced his fingers through hers. She nodded.
“Is this okay?” She freed her fingers from his, and scooted closer again. She rested her cheek on his chest, the crown of her head fitting perfectly under his chin.
“Yeah.” The familiar scent of Beth in bed-- toothpaste and Noxzema-- filled his nostrils as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “This is good.”
“And is this okay?” She snuggled closer, pressing the bottoms of her feet on his calves.
“Jesus, Harmon, your toes are like ice!” He scrambled his legs away, as she let out a devilish cackle. “But yeah, it’s okay.” He inched his lower body back towards her, permitting her to tangle her freezing feet around his legs and in the blankets.
Beth let out a satisfied little sigh as she lay her cheek back onto his chest, warm and soft as the world turned into a snowglobe around them.