JP remained upbeat. “Yes! This is going to be fine! There’s a reason that God gave me ripped arms and pecs, dude. It’s so that I can dig your car out of the snow. I don’t even need your help. You just chat among yourselves, and let the Hulk work his magic.”

I looked at JP. He weighed perhaps 145 pounds. Squirrels have more impressive musculature. But JP was unfazed. He tied down the earflaps of his hat. He reached into his oh-so-tight snowsuit, pulled out wool gloves, and turned back to the car.

I wasn’t interested in helping, because I knew it was hopeless. Carla was six feet into a snowdrift almost as tall as my head, and we didn’t even have a shovel. I just stood in the road next to the Duke, wiping the wisp of wet hair sticking out under my hat. “Sorry,” I said to the Duke.

“Eh, it’s not your fault. It’s Carla’s fault. You were turning the wheel. Carla just wasn’t listening. I knew I shouldn’t have loved her. She’s like all the others, Tobin: as soon as I confess my love, she abandons me.”

I laughed. “I never abandoned you,” I said, patting her on the back.

“Yeah, well, (a.) I never confessed my love to you, and (b.) I’m not even female to you.”

“We’re so screwed,” I said absentmindedly as I looked back to see JP tunneling his way around the passenger side of the car. He was like a little mole, and surprisingly effective.

“Yeah, I’m already kind of cold,” she said, and then stood next to me, her side against mine. I couldn’t imagine how she could be cold beneath that gigantic ski coat, but it didn’t matter. It reminded me that at least I wasn’t alone out here. I reached up and mussed her hat as I put my arm around her. “Duke, what are we gonna do?”

“This is probably more fun than Waffle House would be, anyway,” she said.

“But the Waffle House has Billy Talos,” I said mockingly. “Now I know why you wanted to go. It had nothing to do with hash browns!”

“Everything has to do with hash browns,” she said. “As the poet wrote: So much depends upon the golden hash browns, glazed with oil, beside the scrambled eggs.”

I didn’t know what she was talking about. I just nodded and stared up the road, wondering when a car would come to rescue us.

“I know it sucks, but it’s certainly the most adventurous Christmas ever.”

“Yeah, which is actually a good reminder of why I am generally opposed to adventure.”

“Nothing wrong with a little risk-taking here and there,” the Duke said, looking up at me.

“I couldn’t disagree more, and this just proves my point. I took a risk, and now Carla is stuck in a snowbank, and I will soon be disowned.”

“I promise you that it will be okay,” the Duke said, her voice measured, quiet.

“You’re good at that,” I said. “At, like, saying crazy things in a way that makes me believe them.”

She stood up on her toes, grabbed me by the shoulders, and looked at me, her nose red and snow-wet, her face close to mine. “You do not like cheerleaders. You think they are lame. You like cute, funny, emo girls who I will enjoy hanging out with.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Yeah, that didn’t work,” I said.

“Damn it.” She smiled.

JP emerged from his snow tunnel, shook snow off his periwinkle onesie, and announced, “Tobin, I have a small piece of bad news, but I don’t want you to overreact.”

“Okay,” I said, nervous.

“I can’t really think of an easy way to say this. Um, in your opinion, what would be the ideal number of wheels for Carla to currently possess?”

I closed my eyes and let my head swivel up, the streetlight bright through my eyelids, the snow on my lips.

JP continued, “Because to be totally honest, I think the best possible number of wheels for Carla would be four. And right now there are three wheels physically connected to Carla herself, a nonideal number. Fortunately, the fourth is just a very slight distance away, but unfortunately I am not an expert in wheel reattachment.”

I pulled my hat down over my face. The depth of my screwedness washed over me, and for the first time I felt cold—cold at my wrists, where my gloves did not quite meet my jacket, cold on my face, and cold in my feet, where the melted snow was already soaking into my socks. My parents wouldn’t beat me or brand me with a hot coat hanger or anything. They were too nice for cruelty. And that, ultimately, is why I felt so bad: they didn’t deserve to have a kid who broke a wheel off their beloved Carla on the way to spend the small hours of Christmas morning with fourteen cheerleaders.

Someone pulled my hat up. JP. “I hope you’re not going to let a little hurdle like not having a car keep us from the Waffle House,” he said.

The Duke, who was leaning against the half-exposed back end of Carla, laughed, but I didn’t.

“JP, now is not the time for funny ha-ha,” I said.

He stood up straighter, as if to remind me he was just a little bit taller than I, and then took two steps into the middle of the road, so that he stood directly beneath the streetlight’s beam. “I’m not being funny ha-ha,” he said. “Is it funny ha-ha to believe in your dreams? Is it funny ha-ha to overcome adversity in order to make those dreams come true? Was it funny ha-ha when Huckleberry Finn rafted hundreds of miles on the Mississippi River in order to make out with nineteenth-century cheerleaders? Was it funny ha-ha when thousands of men and women devoted their lives to space exploration so that Neal Armstrong could hook up with cheerleaders on the moon? No! And it’s not funny ha-ha to believe that on this great night of miracles, we three wise men must trudge onward toward the great yellow light of the Waffle House sign!”

“Wise people,” the Duke said dispassionately.

“Oh, come on!” JP said. “I get nothing for that? Nothing?!” He was shouting now over the sound-muffling snow, and JP’s voice seemed to me the only sound in the world. “Do you want more? I’ve got more. Lady and gentleman, when my parents left Korea with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the considerable wealth they had amassed in the shipping business, they had a dream. They had a dream that one day amid the snowy hilltops of western North Carolina, their son would lose his virginity to a cheerleader in the women’s bathroom of a Waffle House just off the interstate. My parents have sacrificed so much for this dream! And that is why we must journey on, despite all trials and tribulations! Not for me and least of all for the poor cheerleader in question, but for my parents, and indeed for all immigrants who came to this great nation in the hopes that somehow, some way, their children might have what they themselves could never have: cheerleader sex.”

The Duke applauded. I was laughing, but I nodded to JP. The more I thought about it, the stupider it seemed to go hang out with a bunch of cheerleaders I didn’t even know, who would only be in town for one night, anyway. Nothing against making out with cheerleaders, but I had some experience in the field, and while it was good fun, it was hardly worth trudging through the snow for. But what could I lose by continuing that had not already been lost? Only my life, and I was more likely to survive by walking the three miles to the Waffle House than the ten miles home. I crawled into the back of the SUV, grabbed some blankets, made sure all the doors were closed, then locked Carla. I put a hand on her bumper and said, “We’ll come back for you.”

“That’s right,” the Duke said soothingly to Carla. “We never leave our fallen behind.”

We had trudged no more than a hundred feet past the curve when I heard an engine rumbling.

The twins.

Chapter Eight

The twins drove an old, muscled-up, low-riding, cherry-red Ford Mustang—not the kind of car celebrated for its handling in inclement weather. So I felt sure that they, too, would miss the curve, probably rear-ending Carla. But as the engine noise grew to a roar, the Duke pushed JP and me to the side of the road anyway.

They came roaring around the corner—the Mustang kicking up powder behind it, the back end fishtailing but somehow staying on the road—tiny Tommy Reston maniacally turning the steering wheel back and forth. He was some kind of snow-driving savant, the little creep.

So great was the size difference between them that the Mustang tilted visibly to the left, where Timmy Reston’s gigantic body had somehow been inserted into the passenger seat. I could see Timmy smiling, the dimples an inch deep on his huge and meaty cheeks. Tommy brought the Mustang to a quick stop maybe thirty feet in front of us, rolled down the window, and leaned his head out.

“Y’all run into some car trouble?” he asked.

I started to walk toward the car. “Yeah, yeah,” I said. “We ran into a snowbank. I’m glad to see you guys. Could you give us a ride, at least to downtown?”

“Sure,” he said. “Get in.” Tommy looked past me then and, with a certain lilt in his voice, said, “Hey there, Angie.” Which is technically the Duke’s name.

“Hi,” she said. I turned back to them and waved for JP and the Duke to come over. I was almost to the car now. I stayed on the driver’s side, figuring that it would be impossible to slip into the backseat behind Timmy.

I was even with the hood when Tommy said, “Y’know what? I got room in the back for two losers.” And then louder, so JP and the Duke could hear him as they approached, he said, “But I don’t got room for two losers and a slut.” He hit the accelerator, and for just a second the tires spun on the Mustang and nothing happened. I lunged for the door handle, but by the time my fingers got to where it was, the Mustang had taken off. I lost my balance and fell down into the snow. The passing Mustang kicked snow into my face and on my neck and down my chest. I spit some of it out and then watched as Timmy and Tommy sped toward JP and the Duke.

They stood together on the side of the road, the Duke flipping Timmy and Tommy off with both hands. As the Mustang approached, JP took a small step into the road and lifted one of his legs off the ground. Just as the Mustang passed, he kicked its rear quarter panel. It was a small kick, kind of girlish. I couldn’t even hear his foot making contact with the car. And yet, somehow it upset the delicate balance of the vehicle just enough—and all at once, the Mustang turned sideways. Tommy must have tried to gun the engine while turning into the skid, but it didn’t work. The Mustang shot off the road and into a pile of plowed snow, disappearing entirely except for the brake lights.

I scrambled to my feet and ran toward JP and the Duke.

“Holy crap!” JP said, looking at his foot. “I am so frakkin’ strong!”

The Duke walked purposefully toward the Mustang. “We gotta dig them out,” she said. “They could die in there.”

“Screw that,” I said. “I mean, after what they just did? And plus they called you a slut!” But for a moment, I could see her blushing even over the windburn on her cheeks. I always hated that word, and it particularly pissed me off to hear it applied to the Duke, because even though it was a ridiculous and patently untrue thing to say about her, she was still embarrassed, and she knew that we knew that she was embarrassed, and . . . whatever. It just pissed me off. But I didn’t want to call more attention to it by saying anything.

Regardless, the Duke rallied almost instantaneously. “Oh, yeah,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Tommy Reston called me a slut. Wah-wah. It’s an attack on my very womanhood. Whatever. I’m just happy that someone’s acknowledging the possibility that I might be a sexual being!”

I looked at her quizzically. I kept walking toward the Mustang with her, and finally I said, “Nothing personal, but I don’t want to picture anyone who’s into Billy Talos as a sexual being.”

She stopped, turned, and looked up at me. Very seriously, she said, “Will you just shut up about him? I don’t even really like him.”

I didn’t understand why she was so upset about that of all things. We always ragged on each other. “What?” I said defensively.

And she said, “Oh, Christ, forget it. Just come help me save these retarded misogynists from carbon-monoxide poisoning.”

And we would have, I’m sure. If necessary, we would have spent hours tunneling out the Reston boys. But our efforts, as it happened, were not needed, because Timmy Reston, being the world’s strongest man, just pushed aside thousands of pounds of snow and successfully opened his door. He stood up, only his shoulders and head above the snow, and shouted, “You. Gonna. Die.”

It wasn’t entirely clear to me whether Timmy meant “you” singular, as in JP, who had already started running, or “you” plural, as in a group of people that included me. But regardless, I took off, urging on the Duke. I kept behind the Duke because I didn’t want her to slip without my knowing or anything. I turned around to check the twins’ progress and saw Timmy Reston’s shoulders and head make their way through the mass of snow. I saw Tommy’s head pop up in the space where Timmy had initially exited the car, and he was shouting an angry, incomprehensible flurry of words, the words so smushed in on each other that all I could really hear was his rage. We got past them while they were still trying to get all the way out of the snowbank, and then kept running.

“Come on, Duke,” I said.

“I’m . . . trying,” she answered, breathing between words. I could hear them shouting now, and when I glanced back, I could see that they were out of the snow and running toward us, gaining with every stride. There was too much snow on both sides of us to run anywhere but on the street. But if we continued much longer, the twins would catch us and, presumably, proceed to feast upon our kidneys.

I have heard it said that sometimes in moments of intense crisis, a person’s adrenaline can surge so much that for a brief period of time he experiences superhuman strength. And perhaps this explains how I managed to grab the Duke, throw her over my right shoulder, and then run like an Olympic sprinter across the slippery snow.