I carried the Duke for several minutes before I even started to get tired, never looking back and never needing to, because the Duke was looking back for me, saying, “Keep going keep going you’re faster than they are you are you are,” and even if she was talking to me like she talked to Carla on the way up the hill, I didn’t care—it worked. It kept my feet pumping beneath me, my arm wrapped around her waist and the small of her back, and I just ran until we reached a small bridge over a two-lane road. I saw JP lying flat on his stomach on the side of the bridge. I figured he’d slipped, and slowed down to help him up, but he just shouted, “No, no, keep going keep going!” And so I kept going. My breathing was quite labored now as the Duke’s weight bore down on my shoulder. “Listen, can I put you down?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m getting kinda queasy anyway.”

I stopped and let her down, and said, “You go ahead.” She took off without me, and I just slumped down, hands on knees, and watched JP running toward me. In the distance, I could see the twins—well, I could see Timmy, anyway; I suspected Tommy was hiding behind his brother’s endless girth. I knew the situation was hopeless now—the twins would inevitably catch us, but I believed we had to fight on, anyway. I took a series of quick, deep breaths as JP reached me, and then I started to run, but he grabbed my coat and said, “No. No. Watch.”

So we stood there in the road, the wet air burning my lungs, Tommy bearing down on us, his fat face dominated by a broad scowl. And then, with no warning, Tommy fell face-first into the ground, like he’d been shot in the back. He barely even had time to reach his hands out to break the fall. Timmy tripped over Tommy’s body and sprawled out on the snow, too.

“What the hell did you do?” I asked as we took off running toward the Duke.

“I used all my remaining floss to tie a trip line between the sides of the bridge. I raised it right after you carried the Duke past,” he said.

“That’s rather awesome,” I said.

“My gums are already disappointed with me,” he mumbled in response. We kept jogging, but I couldn’t hear the twins anymore, and when I glanced over my shoulder, I could see only the still-driving snow.

By the time we caught up with the Duke, the brick buildings of downtown surrounded us, and we finally made our way off Sunrise onto the recently plowed Main Street. We were still jogging, although I could barely feel my feet anymore from the cold and the exhaustion. I couldn’t hear the twins, but I was still afraid of them. Just one mile to go. We could be there in twenty minutes if we jogged.

The Duke said, “Call Keun, find out if those college guys have already beaten us.”

Still keeping pace, I reached into my jeans, pulled out my phone, and called Keun’s cell. Someone—not Keun—answered on the first ring.

“Is Keun there?”

“This Tobin?” I recognized the voice now. Billy Talos.

“Yeah,” I said. “Hey, Billy.”

“Hey, do you got Angie with you?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said.

“Y’all close?”

I hedged my bets, not knowing if he would use the information to help his friends. “Reasonably,” I said.

“Okay, here’s Keun,” he said. Keun’s boisterous voice came on the line then. “What’s up! Where are you! Dude, I think Billy is in love. Like, right now, he is sitting down next to a Madison. One of the Madisons. There are several of them. The world is full of Magical Madisons!”

I glanced over at the Duke to see if she had heard anything through the phone, but she was just looking straight ahead, still jogging. I thought Billy had asked about the Duke because he wanted to see her, not because he didn’t want her to catch him trying to hook up with someone else. Lame.

“TOBIN!” Keun shouted into my ear.

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“Uh, you called me,” he pointed out.

“Right, yeah. We’re close. We’re at the corner of Main and Third. We should be there in half an hour.”

“Excellent, I think you’ll still get here first. The college guys are stuck on the side of the road somewhere, apparently.”

“Great. Okay, I’ll call when we’re close.”

“Awesome. Oh, hey, you guys have Twister, right?”

I looked over at JP, and then to the Duke. I put a finger over the mic and said, “Did we bring the Twister?”

JP stopped running. The Duke followed suit. JP said, “Crap, we forgot it in Carla.”

I uncovered the mic and said, “Keun, I’m sorry, man, but we left Twister in the car.”

“Not good,” he said with a hint of menace in his voice.

“I know, it sucks. Sorry.”

“I’ll call you back,” he said, and hung up the phone.

We walked for another minute before Keun called me back. “Listen,” he said, “we took a vote, and unfortunately, you’re gonna need to go back and get the Twister. The majority agreed that no one will be allowed in without Twister.”

“What? Who took the vote?”

“Billy, Mitchell, and myself.”

“Well, come on, Keun. Lobby them or something! Carla is a twenty-minute walk into the wind and plus the Reston twins are back there somewhere. Get one of them to change their votes!”

“Unfortunately, the vote was three to zero.”

“What? Keun? You voted against us?”

“I don’t see it as a vote against you,” he explained. “I see it as a vote in favor of Twister.”

“Surely you’re kidding,” I said. The Duke and JP couldn’t hear Keun’s end of the conversation, but they were now looking on nervously.

“I don’t kid about Twister,” Keun said. “You can still get here first! Just hurry!”

I flipped the phone shut and pulled my hat down over my face. “Keun says he won’t let us in without Twister,” I mumbled.

I stood under the awning of a café and tried to kick the snow off my frozen Pumas. JP was pacing back and forth on the street, looking generally agitated. No one said anything for a while. I kept looking up the street for the Reston twins, but they didn’t appear.

“We’re going to the Waffle House,” JP said.

“Yeah, right,” I answered.

“We’re going,” he said. “We’re gonna take a different route back so we don’t run into the Reston twins, and we’re gonna get Twister, and we’re gonna go to the Waffle House. It’ll only take an hour if we hurry.”

I turned to the Duke, who was standing beside me under the awning. She would tell JP. She would tell him that we just needed to give up and call 911 and see if someone somewhere could pick us up. “I want hash browns,” the Duke said from behind me. “I want them scattered and smothered and covered. I want them chunked, topped, and diced.”

“What you want is Billy Talos,” I said.

She elbowed me in the side. “I said to shut up about that, Jesus. And I don’t. I want hash browns. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. I am hungry, and I am the kind of hungry that only hash browns will fix, and so we are going back and we are getting Twister.” She just marched off, and JP followed her. I stood under the awning for a moment, but finally I decided that being in a bad mood with your friends beats being in a bad mood without them.

When I caught up to them, all of our hoods were scrunched shut against the oncoming wind as we walked up a street parallel to Sunrise. We had to shout to be heard, and the Duke said, “I’m glad you’re here,” and I shouted back, “Thanks,” and she shouted, “Honestly, hash browns mean nothing without you.”

I laughed and pointed out that “Hash Browns Mean Nothing Without You” was a pretty good name for a band.

“Or a song,” the Duke said, and then she started singing all glam rock, a glove up to her face holding an imaginary mic as she rocked out an a cappella power ballad. “Oh, I deep fried for you / But now I weep ’n’ cry for you / Oh, babe, this meal was made for two / And these hash browns mean nothing, oh these hash browns mean nothing, yeah these HASH BROWNS MEAN NOTHIN’ without you.”

Chapter Nine

The Duke and JP made great time up the street—they weren’t running, but they were sure walking fast. My feet felt frozen, and I was tired from carrying the Duke, so I lagged behind a little, and the onrushing wind meant that I could hear their conversation, but they couldn’t hear anything I said.

The Duke was saying (again) that cheerleading wasn’t a sport, and then JP pointed at her and gave her a stern shake of the head. “I don’t want to hear another negative word about cheerleaders. If it weren’t for cheerleaders, who would tell us when and how to be happy during athletic events? If it weren’t for cheerleaders, how would America’s prettiest girls get the exercise that’s so vital to a healthy life?”

I scrambled to catch up with them so I could get off a line. “Also, without cheerleading, what would become of the polyester miniskirt industry?” I asked. Just talking made the walking better, the wind less bitter.

“Exactly,” JP said, wiping his nose on the sleeve of my dad’s onesie. “Not even to mention the pom-pom industry. Do you realize how many people around the world are employed in the manufacture, distribution, and sale of pom-poms?”

“Twenty?” guessed the Duke.

“Thousands!” JP answered. “The world must contain millions of pom-poms, attached to millions of cheerleaders! And if it’s wrong to want all of those millions of cheerleaders to rub all of their millions of pom-poms on my naked chest, well, then I don’t want to be right, Duke. I don’t want to be right.”

“You’re such a clown,” she said. “And such a genius.”

I fell behind them again but trudged along, not much of a clown and not much of a genius. It was always a pleasure to watch JP show off his wit and see the Duke rise to the occasion. It took us fifteen minutes to circle back to Carla using a route that avoided Sunrise (and, hopefully, the twins). I climbed in through the trunk and grabbed the Twister, and we took off over a chain-link fence and through someone’s backyard so as to head straight west, toward the highway. We figured the twins would take the route we had initially taken. That route was quicker, but we all agreed that we hadn’t seen a game of Twister in the hands of either Timmy or Tommy, so we didn’t think it mattered if they beat us.

We walked in silence for a long time past dark wood-frame houses, and I held the Twister over my head to keep some of the snow out of my face. The snow had accumulated in drifts up to the doorknobs on one side of the street, and I thought about how much snow can change a place. I’d never lived anywhere but here. I’d walked or driven on this block a thousand times. I could remember when all the trees died in the blight, and when they planted new ones in all these yards. And over the fences I could see a block over to Main Street, which I knew even better: I knew each gallery selling folk art to tourists, each outdoor shop selling the kind of hiking boots I wished I was wearing.

But it was new now, all of it—cloaked in a white so pure as to be vaguely menacing. No street or sidewalk beneath me, no fire hydrants. Nothing but the white everywhere, like the place itself was gift-wrapped in snow. And it didn’t just look different, either; it smelled different, the air now sharp with cold and the wet acidity of snow. And the eerie silence, just the steady rhythm of our shoes crunching underfoot. I couldn’t even hear what JP and the Duke were talking about a few feet in front of me as I got lost in the whited-out world.

And I might have convinced myself that we were the only people left awake in all of western North Carolina had we not seen the bright lights of the Duke and Duchess convenience store when we turned off Third Street and onto Maple.

The reason we call the Duke “the Duke” is because when we were in eighth grade, we went one time to the Duke and Duchess. And the thing about the Duke and Duchess convenience store is that instead of calling you “sir” or “ma’am” or “you there” or whatever, the employees of the D and D convenience store are supposed to call you either “Duke” or “Duchess.”

Now, the Duke arrived a little late to the puberty party, and on top of that, she also always wore jeans and baseball caps, particularly in middle school. So the predictable thing happened: one day we went into the Duke and Duchess to buy Big League Chew or Mountain Dew Code Red or whatever we were using to rot our teeth on that particular week, and after the Duke had made her purchase, the guy behind the counter said, “Thank you, Duke.”

It stuck. At one point, I think in ninth grade, we were all at lunch and JP and Keun and I all offered to start calling her Angie, but she said she hated being called Angie, anyway. So we kept with the Duke. It suited her. She had excellent posture, and she was kind of a born leader and everything, and even though she certainly no longer looked even vaguely boyish, she still mostly acted like one of us.

As we walked up Maple, I noticed JP slowing to walk next to me.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Listen, are you okay?” he asked. He reached up and took the Twister from me and tucked it under his arm.

“Um, yeah?”

“Because you’re walking, like, I don’t know. Like you don’t have ankles or knees?” I looked down and saw that I was indeed walking very strangely, my legs far apart and swiveling, my knees barely bending. I looked a bit like a cowboy after a long ride. “Huh,” I said, watching my weird gait. “Hmm. I think my feet are just really cold.”

“VERY FAST EMERGENCY STOP!” JP yelled. “We’ve got some potential frostbite back here!”

I shook my head; I was fine, really, but the Duke turned around and saw me walking and said, “To the D and D!”