It took us about a minute to recover and settle into a slightly slower pattern. I felt myself kind of floating away, when there was a huge stomping and crashing and yelling from downstairs. Apparently, Debbie and Rachel had chosen this moment to tie up the sled dogs and return from their personal Iditarod through the streets of Gracetown. They tromped back inside in that ridiculously loud way you do when you come out of snow or rain. (Why does wet weather make you louder?)
“Stuart! Jubilee! I have special cupcakes from Santa!” Debbie was screaming.
Neither of us moved. I was still leaning on top of Stuart, essentially pinning him down. We heard her come halfway up the stairs, where she must have seen the bedroom light on.
Again, the normal parent reaction would have been to say something like, “You had better come out here this moment or I am releasing the tiger!” But Debbie was not a normal parent, so we heard her giggle and creep away, saying, “Shhh! Rachel! Come with Mommy! Stuart is busy!”
Debbie’s sudden appearance in this scene made my stomach turn. Stuart rolled his eyes back in his head in agony. I released him, and he jumped up.
“I should go down,” he said. “You okay? Need anything or—”
“I’m great!” I said, with sudden, insane enthusiasm. But Stuart was by now well used to my tactics, my attempts to make myself look sane.
Quite sensibly, he bolted from the room.
Want to know how long it took me to break up with my “perfect” boyfriend and make out with a new guy? It had taken . . . wait for it . . . twenty-three minutes. (I noticed Stuart’s clock when I first picked up the phone. It wasn’t like I had a stopwatch.)
Much as I would have liked to, I couldn’t hide upstairs forever. Sooner or later, I was going to have to come down and face the world. I sat on the floor in the doorway and listened as closely as I could to what was happening downstairs. Mostly, all I could hear was Rachel banging on some toys, and then I heard someone go outside. That seemed as good a cue as any. I quietly hit the stairs. In the living room, Rachel was noodling around with the Mouse Trap, which still sat out on the table. She gave me a big, toothy smile.
“Were you playing with Stuart?” she asked.
The question was loaded. I was a filthy, filthy woman, and even the five-year-old knew it.
“Yes,” I said, trying to keep some dignity. “We were playing Mouse Trap. How was the snow, Rachel?”
“Mommy says that Stuart likes you. I can stick a marble in my nose. Wanna see?”
“No, you probably shouldn’t—”
Rachel stuck one of the Mouse Trap marbles right up her nose. She extracted it and held it up for examination. “See?” she said.
Oh, I saw all right.
“Jubilee? Is that you?”
Debbie appeared at the kitchen door, looking flushed and well exercised and very damp.
“Stuart just went across the street to help Mrs. Addler shovel her path,” she said. “He saw her struggling. She has a glass eye and a bad back, you see. You two have a . . . nice afternoon?”
“It was fine,” I said stiffly. “We played Mouse Trap.”
“Is that what they’re calling it these days?” she asked, throwing me a terrible grin. “I have to go give Rachel a quick bath. Feel free to make yourself some cocoa or whatever you like!”
She stopped short of adding “ . . . future child-bride of my only son.”
She rounded up Rachel with a pointed, “Come on, we can go upstairs now,” leaving me to the hot chocolate and my shame and misery. I went to the living room window and looked out. Sure enough, Stuart was out there, lending a glad hand to his neighbor in her moment of need. He was just getting away from me, of course. It only made sense. I would have done the same thing. It was perfectly reasonable to deduce that I was only going to get worse. I would keep spiraling down, sinking deeper and deeper into a mire of rash and largely inexplicable behaviors. Like my jailed parents before me, I was a live wire. Best to go and shovel a few tons of snow for a glass-eyed neighbor and hope I went away.
Which was precisely what I had to do. Go away. Get out of this house and his life while I still had a shred of dignity left. I would go and find my train, which was probably leaving town soon, anyway.
I moved quickly as soon as I made this decision, running to the kitchen. I picked up my phone from the counter, smacked it around a little, and poked at the on/off button. I didn’t expect this to work, but there was some mercy. After a moment or two, it struggled back into existence. The screen was off center and the words were scrambled, but there was some life in the thing.
My clothes, coat, shoes, and bag were all in the laundry room off of the kitchen, in various stages of dryness. I threw them on, leaving the sweat clothes on the washer. They had a container of plastic bags in the corner, so I took about ten of them. I felt bad taking something without asking, but plastic bags don’t really count as “something.” They’re like tissues, except less expensive. As a last gesture, I reached over and nabbed one of their holiday return address labels from an organizer on the counter. I would send them a note when I got home. I may have been a complete lunatic, but I was a complete lunatic with manners.
Obviously, I had to take the back door, the one we had come in the night before. If I went out the front, Stuart would see me. The snow had piled up against this door, at least two feet of it—and it was no longer the slushy, wet snow of the night before. It had hardened in the cold. But I was fueled by the power of confusion and panic, which, like I said, is always ready and waiting to get to work. I threw all my weight against the door, feeling it wobble and strain. I was worried that I might break it from the force, which would have put an entirely different complexion on my departure. I could envision it all too clearly: Stuart or Debbbie finding the dented door off its hinges, lying in the snow. “She came in, ravaged the boy, stole plastic bags, and ripped off the door in her escape,” the police would say in the APB. “Probably making her way to bust her parents out of jail.”
I managed to get it open just enough to force myself through, ripping my bags and scraping my arm in the process. Once I was out, it jammed in position, so I had to spend another two or three minutes pushing it shut. That accomplished, I faced another problem. I couldn’t return the way we had come, because I didn’t want to take another dip in the frozen stream. Not that I could have worked out that path anyway. All of our tracks were gone. I was on a slight rise, facing an unfamiliar cluster of scruffy bare trees and the backs of dozens of identical-looking houses. The only thing I knew for sure was that the stream was below me, probably somewhere in those trees. The safest bet was to stick close to the houses and weave my way through a few backyards. Then I could get back on a road, and from there, I assumed, it would be easy to find my way back to the interstate, the Waffle House, and my train.
See my previous note about me and my assumptions.
Stuart’s subdivision didn’t follow the lovely, neat logic of the streets of the Flobie Santa Village. These houses had been plunked down with an alarming randomness—unevenly spaced, on crooked lines, like whoever had designed the place had said, “We’ll just follow this cat, and wherever he sits down, we’ll build something.” The disorientation was so bad that I couldn’t even figure out where the road was supposed to be. Nothing had been plowed, and the streetlights of the night before were off. The sky was white instead of the crazy pink of the night before. It was the bleakest horizon I’ve ever seen, and there was no obvious route out.
As I trudged through the development, I had plenty of time to consider what I had just done to my life. How was I going to explain the breakup to my family? They loved Noah. Not as much as me, obviously, but a lot. My parents were clearly proud that I had such an impressive boyfriend. Then again, my parents were in jail over a Flobie Elf Hotel, so maybe they needed to get their priorities in order. Besides, if I said I was happier this way, they would accept it.
My friends, people at school . . . that was a different story. I hadn’t dated Noah for the perks—they were just part of the service.
And there was Stuart, of course.
Stuart, who had just witnessed me go through an entire rainbow of emotions and experiences. There was parents-have-just-been-jailed me, stuck-in-a-strange-town me, insane-and-can’t-shut-up me, kind-of-snarky-to-the-strange-guy-trying-to-be-helpful me, breakup me, and the extremely popular jump-on-top-of-you-unexpectedly me.
I had messed this up so very, very badly. All of it. The regret and humiliation hurt much more than the cold. It took me a few streets to realize that it wasn’t Noah I was really regretting . . . it was Stuart. Stuart who rescued me. Stuart who actually seemed to want to spend his time with me. Stuart who talked to me straight and told me not to sell myself short.
This was the Stuart who would be so relieved to find me gone, for all of the reasons I just listed. As long as the news stories about my parents’ arrest weren’t too detailed, I would be untraceable. Well, untraceable-ish. Maybe he could find me online somewhere, but he would never look. Not after the freak show I had just put on.
Unless I just wound up at his door again. Which, after an hour of wandering the development, I realized was a real danger. I was looking at the same stupid houses, getting stuck in cul-de-sacs. I occasionally stopped and asked for directions from people who were shoveling their driveways, but they all seemed really concerned that I was trying to walk that far and didn’t want to tell me how to go. At least half of them asked me to come inside and get warm, which sounded good, but I wasn’t taking any more chances. I had gone into one house in Gracetown, and look where it had gotten me.
I was slugging along past a group of little girls, giggling in the snow, when the despair really set in. The tears were about to flow forth. I couldn’t really feel my feet anymore. My knees were stiffened. And that’s when I heard his voice behind me.
“Hold up,” Stuart said.
I stopped suddenly. Running away is pretty pathetic, but it’s even worse getting caught. I stood there for a moment, unwilling (and partially unable) to turn around and face him. I tried to arrange my expression in the most casual funny-meeting-you-here, isn’t-life-hilarious! way I could. From the way my jaw muscles were straining by my ears, I’m pretty sure it was a lot more like my I’ve-got-lockjaw! face.
“Sorry,” I said, through my clenched smile. “I just thought I should get back to the train, and—”
“Yeah,” he said, quietly cutting me off. “I kind of figured that.”
Stuart wasn’t even looking up at me. He pulled a proper, if slightly embarrassing, hat out of his pocket. It looked like one of Rachel’s. It had a big pom-pom on top.
“I think you probably need this,” he said, holding out the hat. “You can have it. Rachel doesn’t need it back.”
I took it and pulled it on my head, because it looked like he was prepared to stand there, holding it out, until the snow melted around him. It was a tight fit but still brought a welcome warmth to my ears.
“I followed your footsteps,” he said, in answer to the unspoken question. “Snow makes it easy.”
I had been tracked, like a bear.
“Sorry to make you go to all that trouble,” I said.
“I didn’t have to go that far, really. You’re about three streets over. You just kept going in loops.”
A really inept bear.
“I can’t believe you went back out in that outfit,” he said. “You should let me walk you. You’re not going to get there this way.”
“I’m fine,” I said quickly. “Someone just told me the way.”
“You don’t have to go, you know.”
I wanted to say something else but couldn’t think of anything. He took this to mean that I wanted him to go, so he nodded.
“Be careful, okay? And, can you just let me know that you made it? Call or—”
Just then, my phone started ringing. The ring must have been damaged by the water as well, so now it had a high, keening note—kind of the sound I imagine a mermaid might make if you punched her in the face. Surprised. A little accusatory. Hurt. Gurgley.
It was Noah. On my messed-up screen, it actually said “Mobg” was calling, but I knew what it meant. I didn’t answer; I just stared at it. Stuart stared at it. The little girls around us stared at us staring at it. It stopped ringing, then started again. It pulsed in my hand, insistent.
“I’m sorry if I was an idiot,” Stuart said, speaking up to talk over the noise. “And you probably don’t care what I think, but you shouldn’t answer that.”
“What do you mean you were an idiot?” I asked.
Stuart fell silent. The ringing stopped and started again. Mobg really wanted to talk to me.
“I told Chloe I would wait for her,” he finally said. “I told her I would wait as long as it took. She told me not to bother, but I waited anyway. For months, I was determined not to even look at another girl. I even tried not to look at the cheerleaders. Not look, look, I mean.”
I knew what he meant.
“But I noticed you,” he went on. “And it drove me crazy, from the first minute. Not just that I noticed you, but that I could see that you were going out with some supposedly perfect guy who clearly didn’t deserve you. Which, frankly, was kind of the situation I was in. It sounds like he’s kind of realized his mistake, though.”
He nodded at the phone, which started ringing again.
“I’m still really glad you came,” he added. “And don’t give in to that guy, okay? If nothing else? Don’t give in to that guy. He doesn’t deserve you. Don’t let him fool you.”
It rang and it rang and it rang. I looked at the screen one last time, then at Stuart, and then I reached my arm back and threw the phone as hard as I could (sadly, not that far), and it vanished into the snow. The eight-year-olds, who were truly fascinated with our every move at this point, chased after it.