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Total Eclipse of the Heart

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Charming country farmhouse with unscreened porch and fenced backyard. Original pine flooring throughout. Pullout couch and small bedroom on first floor perfect for young children. Guest bedroom on second floor shares bath with master. Fresh, nutritious breakfast provided daily. $300 per night.

Posting the details of her house on the internet wasn’t Sansa’s favorite idea, but it was a sensible one. Families all over town were renting out their spare bedrooms, their living rooms, even their backyards to visitors seeking an uninterrupted view of the Great American Eclipse. Why shouldn’t she make some easy money and host a family?

“This is a terrible idea.” Arya’s voice came through the phone when Sansa finished reading her the description. Her sister tended to FaceTime in the middle of her Sunday evening chores, which meant Sansa spent the call staring at the ceiling above Arya’s bedside shelves.

“No, it’s not. Maege says $50 per night is the going rate, and between the guest bedroom, the study, and the living room couch, I could sleep six, easy. And I have two bathrooms—“

Arya’s face made a rare appearance as she picked up the phone to peer into Sansa’s eyes. “Do you understand how Airbnb works? It’s a whole group of strangers staying in your actual house.”

“Obviously, Arya, which is why I just told you where they would all be sleeping,” she said. “I actually stayed in one for Margaery’s bachelorette party in New Orleans.”

“Penthouse apartments don’t count.”

Sansa couldn’t understand her sister’s doubts. “Why are you so worried about this? You share a one-bedroom with two boys, which honestly I still don’t understand. Aren’t you supposed to be telling me it’s a good thing to get out of my comfort zone?”

“I’m in New York. Everyone splits up bedrooms here. You, on the other hand, have an entire bedroom dedicated to your dog. I really think you’re underestimating your control issues. What if it’s a group of frat guys who want to blackout for the black out?”

“Frat guys are not driving all the way to Carbondale to get drunk, eclipse or not,” Sansa replied. But later that night, when she logged on to the hostess profile she’d already created, something made her hesitate before she hit post.

She’d wait a week. Think it over a little longer.

 

June was slow at the SIU office of admissions, but by the end of July work was picking up. There were visits to schedule with high school counselors, the new application timeline to edit and publish, and the occasional anxious email from applicants who had filled out their common app the second it went live.

Two weeks before the eclipse, Sansa’s boss called her minutes after she’d gotten home from work. She was curled up on the swinging bench of her wraparound porch, sweet tea in hand, and the sound of her phone vibrating against the whitewashed wood made her husky mix prick up her ears.

“It’s alright, Lady,” she soothed, swiping her thumb across the screen. “Dean Mormont? Is everything okay?”

“Just fine. Sansa, I forgot to ask you—is your house rented out yet for the weekend of the eclipse?”

“No. I didn’t actually put up an offer anywhere.”

“And you can sleep six? How does a grand sound?”

Sansa was confused. “Are you a rental agent now?”

Maege laughed. “Just trying to do my part. Didn’t you see the mayor’s press conference last night? She’s promised a tax cut if we make it to 60,000 visitors.”

“To a town of 30,000? Right. There aren’t enough beds.” Sansa shook her head doubtfully.

“But you can add six more! That’s for two nights, the 20th and the 21st. I can lend you an air mattress if you need one.”

Maege was a veteran admissions counselor of six different state university systems, and she knew how to close a deal. “Okay, I guess. Do you know the family?”

Her boss sounded much more cheerful now that she’d accepted. “Nope! Heard they needed a place to stay through my brother. I’ll bring the mattress to work the Friday before it all goes down. Enjoy your evening!”

The dean hung up, and Sansa started making a plan to clean her house.

 

The morning of her guests’ arrival found her back on the porch in the same position, Lady’s nose poking at her hip. She went over all the arrangements again in her head— clean sheets and towels, instructions for using the window AC units, the spare key on a Lady Salukis lanyard hanging next to the back door. Maege hadn’t told her they expected any meals, but Sansa planned to lay out a spread for breakfast both mornings anyway. Just because she wasn’t really from the Midwest didn’t mean she couldn’t be hospitable.

A text came in from Arya: don’t forget to tell them about the oak floors.

Sansa was texting her back a row of pine trees when a navy van rolled past her house. The driver braked hard, wheels screeching, before he threw it in reverse and whipping the vehicle backwards to rest against the curb.

She rose to greet them, Lady pressing close against her side, but stopped at the top of the stairs. The passengers spilling out of the van resembled a tactical military unit— strong, efficient men in grey t-shirts and heavy boots, all loaded down with identical canvas duffels. The only woman jumped down from the passenger’s side just in time to shove at the driver as he came around the front of the van.

“Told you you’d miss it. Two tours commanding night ops in Kandahar and you can’t read a city grid for shit, Tormund.”

Sansa thought about Arya’s warnings and scratched at Lady’s ears. It wasn’t frat guys, exactly, but this was no family road trip either. 

Her nerves must have shown on her face. One of the men, shorter than the others but no less solid, approached her on the porch, hand raised cautiously like one might greet a frightened animal. Lady curled her tail around Sansa’s ankles, but otherwise remained still.

“Are you Sansa?”

She tried to look relaxed. "That's me."

“I’m Jon Snow. I can’t tell you how happy we were to find this place on such short notice.”

“It’s no trouble,” Sansa answered automatically, though trouble was exactly she anticipated as she tried to imagine any of them sharing an air mattress. “Please, come in and get settled and then we can talk about, um, sleeping arrangements.”

“We brought tents,” Jon reassured her.

“But we would be more than happy to accept beds!” another man added, approaching the porch. He had large eyes in a kind, round face. “Dr. Sam Tarly, ma’am. Your hospitality is greatly appreciated.”

“Only one bed, I’m afraid, but there’s an air mattress and a pullout couch. My boss gave me the impression you were a family with young children, otherwise I wouldn’t have told her I had room for six.”

“Your boss was right,” said the lone woman. “You just haven’t met Tormund yet. Geeks can stay inside if they want, but I’m sleeping under the stars.”

“Pyp and I come from the academic side of things,” Sam explained, moving aside so the skinnier man could shake her hand. “The rest are all military, as Ygritte constantly reminds us.”

“And— sorry—who are you, exactly? I mean, how do you know each other?”

Pyp cleared his throat. “Grenn, Tormund, get over here. It is my honor,” he waved his hands dramatically, “to introduce the Astronaut Candidates of Group 22.”

“The Night’s Watch,” Grenn added proudly.

Ygritte snorted. “Group 10 were the Maggots. We got lucky.”

“Oh,” Sansa blinked in surprise. “Are you here to study the eclipse?”

This made Ygritte smile. “Something like that. Gear to the back, ASCANs. Telescopes before tents.”

“And tripod before telescopes,” said Pyp. Their voices faded as they pulled more bags from the van and started hauling them behind the house, leaving Sansa and Jon alone on the porch.

“Let me help you,” Sansa offered, descending from the porch and reaching for the nearest bag.

“I’ve got it,” said Jon as she tried and failed to lift it more than a few inches. “Lenses are heavy, and you’re not…” He gave her gingham skirt and espadrilles a meaningful glance.

“Not in the military,” she finished for him. His fingers brushed hers as he took the straps from her and tossed the whole bag over his shoulder. Lady barked from the porch.

Jon nodded up at her. “You’ve got a beautiful dog.”

“Lady is a sweetheart,” Sansa agreed easily, “All of my siblings grew up with dogs that we trained. She’s the only piece of home I brought from Boston when I moved here.

“You did a good job training her.” He turned to go, then called back. “And I’m not, either. In the military.”

“But you were once.” Sansa saw traces of it in his posture and the clean efficiency of his movements. If it weren’t for his long hair, gathered into a tight knot at the back of his head, he could have walked out of a recruiting poster.

“Not anymore.”