“There is no lean protein,” I heard one of them say.
“I told you, Madison. You should have had that lettuce wrap when you had the chance.”
“I thought they’d at least have chicken breast!”
To my enduring dismay, I noticed that both girls having this conversation were named Madison. Worse: three of the others were named Amber. I felt like I was trapped in a social experiment gone wrong—maybe something involving replicants.
A few of the group turned on us. I mean, to us. They turned to me and Jeb. Well, actually they just turned to Jeb.
“Oh my God!” said one of the Ambers. “Is this not the worst trip ever? Did you see the snow?”
She was a sharp one, this Amber. What would she notice next? The train? The moon? The hilarious vagaries of human existence? Her own head?
I didn’t say any of that, because death by cheerleader is not really the way I want to go. Amber wasn’t addressing this to me, anyway. Amber had no idea I was even there. Her eyes were on Jeb. You could almost see the robotic core in her corneas making all the focusing adjustments and lining him in the crosshairs.
“It’s pretty bad,” he said politely.
“We’re going down to Florida?”
She said it like that, like a question.
“Should be nicer there,” he said.
“Yeah. If we make it. We’re all at cheerleading regionals? Which is rough, because it’s the holidays? But we all had Christmas early? We did ours yesterday?”
This is when I noticed that they all seemed to be carrying really new-looking stuff. Shiny phones, conspicuous bracelets and necklaces that they played with, fresh manicures, iPods I’d never even seen before.
Amber One sat down with us—a careful sit, with her knees angled together and her heels turned out. A perky sitting pose of someone used to being the most adorable in the general vicinity.
“This is Julie,” Jeb said, kindly introducing me to our new friend. Amber told me her name was Amber, and then rattled off all the Ambers and Madisons. There were other names, but to me, they were all Ambers and Madisons. Seemed safe to think of it that way. I had at least a chance of being right.
Amber began chatting away, telling us all about the competition. She did this amazing thing where she included me in the conversation and ignored me at the same time. Plus, she was sending me a mental message—deeply subliminal—that she wanted me to get up and give my seat over to her tribe. They filled every available bit of space in the car as it was. Half of them on the phone, the other half depleting the water, coffee, and Diet Coke supply.
I decided that this was not what I needed to make my life complete.
“I’m going to go back to my seat,” I said.
Just as I stood, though, the train slowed dramatically, throwing us all forward in one big splash of hot and cold liquids. The wheels cried out in protest as they dragged down the track for about a minute, and then we stopped, hard. I heard luggage all up and down the train thundering down from racks, and then people falling where they stood. People like me. I landed on a Madison and slammed my chin and cheek on something. I’m not sure what it was, because the lights went out at the same moment, causing a massive yelp of dismay. I felt hands helping me up, and I didn’t need to be able to see to know it was Jeb.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Fine. I think.”
There was a flicker, and then the lights came back up one by one. Several Ambers were clinging to the snack bar for dear life. There was food all over the floor. Jeb reached down and picked up what was once his phone, now a neatly snapped two-piece affair. He cradled it in his hand like an injured baby bird.
The loudspeaker crackled, and the voice that spoke over it sounded genuinely rattled—not the cool, bossy tone they were using to announce stops along the way.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” it said, “please remain calm. A conductor will be checking your cabin to see if anyone has been injured.”
I pressed my face against the cold window to see what was going on. We had come to rest next to what looked like a wide road with lots of lanes, something like an interstate. Across the way was a glowing yellow sign, suspended high over the road. It was hard to see through the snow, but I recognized the color and shape. It was for a Waffle House. Just outside of the train, a crew member was stumbling along through the snow, looking under the carriage with a flashlight.
A female conductor threw open the door to our car and started surveying everyone. She was missing her hat.
“What’s happening?” I asked when she reached us. “We look really stuck.”
She leaned down and had a good look out the window, then gave a low whistle.
“We’re not going anywhere, honey,” she said in a low voice. “We’re just outside of Gracetown. The track dips down below this point, and it’s completely covered. Maybe they can send some emergency vehicles to get us by morning. I don’t know, though. I wouldn’t bet on it. Anyway, you hurt?”
“I’m okay,” I assured her.
Amber One was holding her wrist.
“Amber!” another Amber said. “What happened?”
“I twisted it,” Amber One moaned. “Bad.”
“That’s your support wrist on basket toss!”
Six cheerleaders indicated (not subliminally) that they wanted me to move out of the way so that they could get to their wounded member and sit her down. Jeb was trapped in the throng. The lights went dim, the heater audibly cranked down, and the loudspeaker came back on.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the voice said, “we’re going to cut a bit of power to conserve energy. If you have blankets or sweaters, you may want to use them now. If any of you require extra warmth, we’ll try to provide whatever we can. If you have extra layering, we ask that you share it.”
I looked at the yellow sign again, and then back at the cluster of cheerleaders. I had two choices—I could stay here in the cold, dark, stranded train or I could actually do something. I could take charge of this day that had run away from me too many times. It wouldn’t be hard to get across the road and over to the Waffle House. They probably had heat and lots of food. It was worth a shot, and it was a plan I felt Noah would have approved of. Proactive. I gently pushed my way through the Ambers to get to Jeb.
“There’s a Waffle House across the street,” I told him. “I’m going to go over and see if it’s open.”
“A Waffle House?” Jeb replied. “We must be just outside of town, along I-40.”
“Don’t be crazy,” Amber One said. “What if the train leaves?”
“It’s not,” I said. “The conductor just told me. We’re stuck here all night. Over there, they probably have heat and food and a place for people to move around. What else are we going to do?”
“We could practice our enthusiasm rounds,” one of the Madisons ventured in a tiny voice.
“You’re going by yourself?” Jeb asked. I could tell he wanted to come, but Amber was leaning on him now like her life depended on him.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “It’s just across the street. Give me your phone number and . . . ”
He held up the broken phone as a grim reminder. I nodded and picked up my backpack.
“I won’t be long,” I said. “I have to come back, right? Where else am I going to go?”
Peeking out of the cold vestibule, which was slicked with snow from the open train door, I could just about see the crew members stalking alongside the train with their flashlights. They were a few cars away, so I made my move.
The metal steps were steep, high, and completely covered in frozen snow. Plus, the gap from the train to the ground was about four feet. I sat on the wet bottom step, snow pouring on my head, and pushed myself off as carefully as I could. I fell on all fours into more than a foot of snow, soaking my tights, but it wasn’t too painful. I didn’t have far to go. We were right next to the road, only twenty feet or so. All I had to do was get down to that, cross, walk under the overpass, and I would be there. It would only take a minute or two.
I’ve never crossed a six-lane interstate before. The opportunity had never come up, and if it had, it would have seemed like a bad idea. But there were no cars at all. It felt like the end of the world, a whole new start to life, the old order gone. It took about five minutes to walk across, since the wind was blowing so hard and flakes kept landing in my eyes. Once I got over, I had to cross some other stretch of something. It could have been grass or cement or more road—now it was just white and deep. Whatever it was, there was a curb buried in it, which I tripped over. I was drenched in snow by the time I made it to the door.
It was warm inside the Waffle House. In fact, it was so overheated that the windows had steamed, causing the large plastic holiday decals stuck to them to droop and peel away. Soft jazz Christmas standards blew out through the speakers, joyful as an allergy attack. The predominant smells were floor cleaner and overused cooking oil, but there was a hint of promise. Potatoes and onions had been fried here not long ago—and they had been good.
People-wise, the situation wasn’t much better. From deep in the kitchen, I heard two male voices, interspersed with slapping sounds and laughing. There was a woman lingering in a cloud of her own misery in the farthest corner, an empty plate dotted with cigarette butts in front of her. The only employee in sight was a guy, probably about my age, standing guard at the cash register. His regulation Waffle House shirt was long and untucked, and his spiky hair stuck out of the low-hanging visor on his head. His name tag read DON-KEUN. He was reading a graphic novel when I came in. My entrance brought a little light into his eyes.
“Hey,” he said. “You look cold.”
It was well observed. I nodded in reply.
Boredom had eaten at Don-Keun. You could hear it in his voice, see it in the way he slouched over the register in defeat. “Everything’s free tonight,” he said. “You can have whatever you want. Orders from the cook and the acting assistant manager. Both of those are me.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I think he was about to say something else, but then just flinched in embarrassment as the slap fight in the back grew louder. There was a newspaper and several coffee cups in front of one of the counter seats. I went over to take a seat a few spaces down, in an effort to be somewhat social. As I sat, Don-Keun made a sudden lurch in my direction.
“Um, you might not want to—”
He cut himself off and retreated a step as someone emerged from the direction of the restrooms. It was a man, maybe sixty years old, with sandy hair, a little bit of a beer gut, and glasses. Oh, and he was dressed in tinfoil. Head to toe. Even had a little tinfoil hat. Like you do.
Tinfoil Guy took the seat with the newspaper and the cups and gave me a nod of greeting before I could move.
“How are you on this night?” he asked.
“I could be better,” I replied honestly. I didn’t know where to look—at his face or his shiny, shiny silver body.
“Bad night to be out.”
“Yeah,” I said, choosing his shiny, shiny abdomen as my point of focus. “Bad.”
“You don’t happen to need a tow?”
“Not unless you tow trains.”
He thought that over for a moment. It’s always awkward when someone doesn’t realize you’re joking and devotes thought time to what you’ve said. Double that when the person is wearing tinfoil.
“Too big,” he finally replied, shaking his head. “Won’t work.”
Don-Keun shook his head as well and gave me a back-away-while-you-can—it-is-too-late-to-save-me look.
I smiled and tried to develop a sudden and all-consuming interest in the menu. It only seemed right to order something. I scanned it over and over, as if I just couldn’t decide between the waffle sandwich or the hash browns covered in cheese.
“Have some coffee,” Don-Keun said, coming over and handing me a cup. The coffee was completely burned and had a rank smell, but this was not the time to be picky. I think he was just offering me backup, anyway.
“You said you were on a train?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, pointing out the window. Both Don-Keun and Tinfoil Guy turned to look, but the storm had picked up. The train was invisible.
“No,” Tinfoil Guy said again. “Trains won’t work.”
He adjusted his tin cuffs to punctuate this remark.
“Does that help?” I asked, finally feeling the need to mention the obvious.
“Does what help?”
“That stuff. Is it like that stuff runners have to wear when they finish marathons?”
“What tinfoil?” he asked.
On that, I abandoned both politeness and Don-Keun and went and sat by the window, watching the pane shudder as the snow and wind hit it.
Far away, the Smorgasbord was at full tilt. All the food would be out by this point: the freakish hams, multiple turkeys, meatballs, potatoes baked in cream, rice pudding, cookies, the four kinds of pickled fish . . .
In other words, this would be a bad time to call Noah. Except he had told me to call when I got there. This was as far as I was getting.
So I called, and was immediately shuffled off to voice mail. I hadn’t planned out what I was going to say or what kind of attitude I was going to adopt. I defaulted into “funny-ha-ha,” and left a quick, probably incomprehensible message about being stranded in a strange town, along an interstate, at a Waffle House, with a man dressed in foil. It wasn’t until I hung up that I realized he would think I was joking—weirdly joking—and calling him when he was busy to boot. The message would probably annoy him.
I was about to call back and use a more sincere and sad voice to clarify that all of the above was not a joke . . . when there was a rush of wind, a bit of suction as the outside doors were opened, and then another person in our midst. He was tall, and thin, and apparently male. But it was hard to tell much else because he had wet plastic shopping bags on his head, his hands, and his feet. That made two people using non-clothing items for clothes.