It did not strike me as a particularly compelling plan, but I couldn’t think of a better one, so I drove backward as far as I could, the hill directly in front of us, barely visible through the fast-falling snow in the headlights. I didn’t stop until I was in somebody’s front yard, a towering oak tree a few feet behind Carla’s back bumper. I spun the tires a little to get down to the hard-packed snow.
“Seat belts buckled?” I asked.
“Yes,” they answered together.
“Air bags all on?”
“Affirmative,” the Duke said. I glanced over at her. She smiled and raised her eyebrows. I nodded to her.
“I need a countdown, people.”
“Five,” they said in unison. “Four. Three.” I put the gearshift in neutral and began revving the engine. “Two. One.” I slammed Carla into drive and we shot off, accelerating in fits and starts between moments of hydroplaning on the snow pack. We hit the hill at forty miles per hour, twenty-five over the Grove Park speed limit. I stood up out of the seat, pressed against the belt, all my weight on the accelerator, but the tires were spinning and we began to slow, so I tapered off.
“Come on!” the Duke said.
“You can do this, Carla,” JP mumbled quietly from the back, and she continued forward, slowing incrementally with each passing moment.
“Carla, get your fat gas-guzzling ass to the top of the hill!” I shouted, hitting the steering wheel.
“Don’t make fun of her,” the Duke said. “She needs gentle encouragement. Carla, baby, we love you. You are such a good car. And we believe in you. We believe in you one hundred percent.”
JP began to panic. “We’re not gonna make it.”
The Duke answered soothingly, “Don’t listen to him, Carla. You’re gonna do this.” I could see the crest of the hill again, and the newly plowed blacktop of the highway. And Carla was like, I think I can, I think I can, and the Duke just kept petting the dashboard, saying, “I love you, Carla. You know that, don’t you? I wake up every morning and the first thing I think is that I love Tobin’s mom’s car. I know that’s weird, baby, but I do. I love you. And I know you can do this.”
I kept tapping the accelerator, and the wheels kept spinning. Down to eight miles per hour. We were approaching a snowdrift three feet tall where the snowplow had dumped all the snow, blocking our path. We were so close. The speedometer shuttering around five miles per hour.
“Oh God, it’s a long way down,” JP said, his voice cracking. I glanced in the rearview. It sure was.
We were still inching forward, but only just. The hill was starting to level out, but we were going to come up just short. I kept tapping the accelerator to no avail. “Carla,” the Duke said, “it’s time to tell you the truth. I’m in love with you. I want to be with you, Carla. I’ve never felt this way about a c—”
The tires caught on the snow as I had the accelerator near the floor and we blew forward through the snowdrift, the snow as high as the base of the windshield, but we barreled past, half over the snowdrift and half through it. Carla bottomed out on the other side of the drift, and then I slammed on the brakes as we approached the stop sign. Carla’s back end fishtailed, and all of a sudden instead of being at the stop sign we were on the highway, facing in the proper direction. I let off the brake and started off down the highway.
“YESSSSSS!” shouted JP from the back. He leaned forward and rubbed the Duke’s mess of curly hair. “WE JUST DID SUCH AN AWESOME JOB OF NOT DYING!”
“You sure know how to talk to a car,” I told the Duke. I could feel my blood pressure in my entire body. She looked outstandingly calm as she finger-combed her hair back into place.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” she answered.
It was a blissful first five miles—the highway winds up and down some mountains, which makes for treacherous driving, but we were the only car on the road, and while the road was wet, the salt kept it from being icy. Plus, I was driving a cautious twenty miles an hour, which made the curves seem less terrifying. We were all quiet for a long time—thinking about the hill-topping, I guess—although periodically JP would exhale loudly through his mouth and say, “I can’t believe how not dead we are,” or some variant on that theme. The snow was too thick and the road too wet for music, so we just sat in silence.
And then after a while the Duke said, “What is it with you and cheerleaders anyway?” She was saying this to me; I knew because for a few months I’d gone out with a girl named Brittany, who happened to be a cheerleader. Our cheerleading team was actually quite good; they were, on average, far better athletes than the football team they rooted for. They were also notorious for leaving a trail of broken hearts—Stuart Weintraub, the guy Keun had seen in the Waffle House, had been absolutely annihilated by this cheerleader Chloe.
“Um, could it be how hot they are?” JP suggested.
“No,” I said, trying to be serious. “It was a coincidence. I didn’t like her because she was a cheerleader. I mean, she’s nice, right?”
The Duke scoffed. “Yeah, in that Joseph-Stalin-I-will-crush-my-enemies kind of way.”
JP said to the Duke, “Brittany was cool. She just didn’t like you, because she didn’t get it.”
“Didn’t get what?” asked the Duke.
“You know, that you’re not, like, a threat. Like, most girls, if they have a boyfriend, they don’t want their boyfriend hanging out all the time with another girl. And Brittany didn’t get that you, like, aren’t really a girl.”
“If by that you mean that I dislike celebrity magazines, prefer food to anorexia, refuse to watch TV shows about models, and hate the color pink, then yes. I am proud to be not really a girl.”
It was true that Brittany didn’t like the Duke, but she also didn’t like JP. She didn’t even like me that much, really. The more we hung out, the more Brittany would get annoyed with my sense of humor and my table manners and everything, which was why we broke up. The truth is that it never mattered that much to me. I was bummed when she dumped me, but it wasn’t a Weintraub-style catastrophe. I didn’t ever love Brittany, I guess. That was the difference. She was cute and smart and not uninteresting to talk to, but we never actually did talk about much. I never felt like everything was at stake with her, because I always knew how it would end. She never seemed worth the risk.
God, I hated talking about Brittany, but the Duke brought her up all the time, probably just for the unadulterated pleasure of annoying me. Or else because she never had any drama of her own to discuss. Lots of guys liked the Duke, but she never seemed interested in anybody. She didn’t want to talk your ear off about some guy and how cute he was, and how he sometimes paid her attention and sometimes didn’t and all that crap. I liked that about her. The Duke was just normal: she liked to joke around and talk about movies, and she didn’t mind yelling or getting yelled at. She was much more like a person than other girls were.
“I don’t have a thing for cheerleaders,” I repeated.
“But,” JP said, “we both have a thing for hot girls who love Twister. That’s not about loving cheerleaders, Duke: that’s about loving freedom and hope and the indomitable American spirit.”
“Yeah, well, call me unpatriotic, but I don’t see the cheerleader thing. Cheer isn’t sexy. Dark is sexy. Ambivalent is sexy. Deeper-than-it-looks-at-first-glance is sexy.”
“Right,” JP said. “That’s why you’re going out with Billy Talos. Nothing says dark and brooding like a Waffle House waiter.”
I glanced in the rearview mirror to see if JP was kidding, but he didn’t seem to be. She reached around and punched him on the knee and said, “It’s just a job.”
“Wait, you’re going out with Billy Talos?” I asked. I was surprised mostly because it didn’t seem like the Duke would ever go out with anybody, but also because Billy Talos was a beer-and-football kind of guy, whereas the Duke was more of a Shirley-Temple-and-live-theater kind of girl.
The Duke didn’t say anything for a second. “No. He just asked me to Winter Formal.”
I didn’t say anything. It seemed weird the Duke would tell JP about something but not me. JP said, “No offense, but Billy Talos is a little bit greasy, isn’t he? I feel like if you wrung out his hair every day or two, you could potentially end America’s dependence on foreign oil.”
“No offense taken,” the Duke said, laughing. Clearly she wasn’t that keen on him. But still, I couldn’t picture the Duke with Billy Talos—oily hair aside, he just didn’t seem very, like, funny or interesting. But whatever. The Duke and JP moved on to an impassioned discussion of the Waffle House’s menu, and whether its raisin toast was superior to its regular toast. It was fun background noise for the drive. The snowflakes hit the windshield and instantly melted. The wipers shoved them aside. The high-beam headlights lit up the snow and the wet road, and I could see just enough of the asphalt to know where my lane was, and where I was going.
I could have driven down that road for a long time before I got tired, but it was almost time to turn onto Sunrise Avenue and head through downtown toward the interstate and Waffle House. It was 12:26. In the morning.
“Hey,” I said, interrupting them.
“What?” asked the Duke.
I stole a glance away from the road to talk directly to her. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” she said back. “Merry Christmas, JP.”
“Merry Christmas, asshats.”
The banks of snow on either side of Sunrise Avenue were huge, as tall as the car, and I felt like we were driving at the bottom of an endless snowboard half-pipe. JP and the Duke were being quiet, all of us concentrating on the road. We had a couple miles to go before we got downtown, and then the Waffle House was a mile east, just off the interstate. Our silence was interrupted by a nineties rap song playing on JP’s phone. “Keun,” he said. He turned the speaker on.
“WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU GUYS?”
The Duke leaned around so she could be heard. “Keun, look out the window and tell me what you see.”
“I’ll tell you what I don’t see! I don’t see you and JP and Tobin in the parking lot of the Waffle House! No word on Mitchell’s college friends, but Billy just heard from the twins: they’re about to turn onto Sunrise.”
“Then we’re fine, because we’re already on Sunrise,” I said.
“HURRY. The cheerleaders want their Twister! Wait, hold on . . . They’re practicing a pyramid, and they need me to spot them. Spot them. You know what that means? If they fall, they fall into my arms. So I gotta go.” I heard the click of Keun hanging up.
“Floor it,” JP said. I laughed and kept my speed steady. We just needed to maintain our lead.
As far as skiing down a road in an SUV goes, Sunrise Avenue isn’t bad, because unlike most streets in Gracetown, it’s pretty straight. With the tire tracks to guide me, my speed crept up to twenty-five. I figured we’d be downtown in two minutes, and eating Keun’s special off-menu cheesy waffles in ten. I thought about those waffles topped with melted Kraft singles, about how they tasted both savory and sweet, a taste so profound and complex that it can’t even be compared to other tastes, only to emotions. Cheesy waffles, I was thinking, taste like love without the fear of love’s dissolution, and as we came to the 90-degree curve Sunrise Avenue takes before heading straight downtown, I could almost taste them.
I approached the curve exactly as I was taught in drivers’ ed: with my hands at two and ten o’clock, I turned the steering wheel slightly to the right while gently applying the brakes. But Carla did not respond appropriately. She kept going straight.
“Tobin,” the Duke said. And then, “Turn turn Tobin turn.”
I didn’t say anything; I just kept turning the steering wheel to the right and pressing the brake. We began to slow as we approached the snowdrift, but we never gave even the slightest hint of turning. Instead, we barreled into a wall of snow with a noise like a sonic boom.
Damn it. Carla tilting to the left. The windshield a wall of tar-speckled white.
Once we stopped, I spun my head around in time to see chunks of icy snow falling behind the car, beginning to cover us up. I responded to this development with the kind of sophisticated language for which I am famous. “Crap crap crap crap crap crap crap stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid crap.”
The Duke reached over and turned the car off. “Risk of carbon-monoxide poisoning,” she said matter-of-factly, as if we were not stone-cold screwed ten miles from home.
“Out through the back!” she ordered, and the authority in her voice calmed me. JP scrambled into the way-back and then opened the top hatch. He bolted out. The Duke followed, and then me, feetfirst. Having now gathered my thoughts, I was finally able to eloquently articulate my feelings about the matter. “Crap crap crap!” I kicked Carla’s back bumper, as the snow fell wet onto my face. “Stupid idea God stupid God my parents crap crap crap.”
JP put a hand on my shoulder. “It’ll be fine.”
“No,” I said. “It won’t. And you know it won’t.”
“Yes, it will,” JP insisted. “You know what? It will totally be fine, because I’m going to dig the car out of the snow, and someone will come by, and we’ll get help from them—even if it’s the twins. I mean, it’s not like the twins are going to leave us out here to freeze to death.”
The Duke looked me over and smirked. “May I point out,” she said, “how much you will soon regret not listening to my footwear advice back at the house?” I glanced down at the snow falling on my Pumas and winced.