Even after two full days of driving, the kids were in high spirits. We were headed for the room I’d booked on priceline forty-five minutes earlier: a Days Inn in southern Illinois with a coveted outdoor pool. The kids were happy because we’d promised them pizza for dinner; Don and I were happy because we had only seven hours to drive the following day and we’d be home. It was the last evening of our vacation, and all of us were eager to get out of the car and hit the pool.
But as the GPS delivered us to our destination, it was clear that our luck had run out. There was no Days Inn in sight, just a run-down, off-brand motel with the skeletal remains of what might once have been a pool.
Getting another motel at a reasonable price should have been no big deal; we had passed several likely-looking places since we’d exited the interstate. But this was eclipse weekend, and even the modest place where we’d stayed on our way out to Colorado wanted a hundred and fifty dollars for a mediocre room and a green indoor pool. And, by the looks of things, places were filling up fast. It was time, as Don would say, to drop back and punt.
The Drury Inn across the street had five stories, free breakfast and an indoor pool, but that was not all. At the check-in desk we learned that they also offered something called kick back: free food until seven and three free drinks per adult.
“Three free drinks?” we echoed. “Per adult?”
The clerk checked the clock. “For the next forty-five minutes, yes.”
“Three drinks in forty-five minutes,” Don repeated. “I think I can do it.”
We dropped our luggage in our room, then hurried the kids back down to the lobby. This was, by far, the nicest hotel we’d ever stayed in as a family, and Clayton was trying valiantly to conceal his disappointment. He wanted a cozy room in a middle-of-the-road, two-star hotel, with Fruit Loops for breakfast and a pool— no matter how green— all to himself. What he didn’t want was a bustling lobby of free food (but no pizza) and a pool full of preteens.
But Don and I wanted our money’s worth. If our eclipse-inflated bill included three free drinks, we were going to drink three free drinks! We’d spent ten hours in the car that day, and a cocktail, or three, sounded pretty darn good. At 6:57, my second drink only half-finished, I headed to the bar with Don for last call; the Drury was our new favorite hotel.
But even through the rose-colored glasses of a vodka and tonic sucked down in ten minutes, I hated to see my son so disappointed.
“All right, all right,” I conceded. “We can still get a pizza.”
I needed to slow down anyway, so I left my full drink in the room and walked across the street to a pizza place I’d seen from our window. By the time I got back and the kids had eaten, the pool was empty once again. If there’s anything more fun for kids than a hotel pool all to themselves, it’s a hotel pool all to themselves past their bedtime. Sharks and minnows had never been so much fun.
But back in the room... disaster. Dee Dee, ready for bed and complaining of a headache, wanted her beloved stuffed bear, Santa, so Don went down to the car to look for him while I searched the hotel room. No Santa.
“Are you sure you left him in the car?” I asked Dee Dee.
“He might still be at the car wash,” she said sadly.
My heart fell. After the first hotel fiasco, we’d pulled into a car wash parking lot, where the kids had run races in a strip of grass while Don and I figured things out. If Dee Dee had taken Santa out of the car then, or forgotten to put him back in again, we had been too distracted to notice.
“I’ll go look,” Don said, but neither of us harbored much hope. I imagined Santa falling out of the car at any number of the rest stops or gas stations we’d stopped at along the way. Would we go back for him? Santa was irreplaceable; this trip was about to go down in history as the trip when we’d lost Santa.
My stomach jolted when I heard the door: I was sure that this was the end. Dee Dee’s tears for her poor dead fish would be nothing compared to the ones she would cry over a lost Santa. Please let her have fallen asleep, I thought. I wanted to spare her, if only for a few hours, from the awful news. But then the door opened and in sauntered Don, Santa slung over one shoulder like a workout towel.
“He was hanging in the tree at the car wash,” he said, surrendering him into Dee Dee’s arms.
How can one floppy, off-white, love-worn teddy bear make things so right with the world? My giggly buzz was gone, but looking at my three kids sleeping side-by-side in the hotel bed, Dee Dee’s arm hooked around her bear’s neck, a quiet contentment came over me. Clayton had gotten his pizza and his pool, after all; Dee Dee had her bear. Sylvia had... well, Sylvia had her unending good spirits and her father’s sense of humor. When the fireworks began outside our window a few minutes later, it only seemed fitting: we had so much to celebrate.