“I . . . what?”
“Stuart has such a good heart,” she went on, oblivious to the fact that I had frozen, a bite of cake halfway to my mouth. “When his father, and Rachel’s father, my ex-husband, left, he was just twelve. But you should have seen how he helped me and how he was with Rachel. He’s such a good guy.”
I didn’t know where to begin. There was something shockingly awkward about discussing Stuart’s breakup with his mom. The expression is: a boy’s best friend is his mother. It’s not: a boy’s best pimp is his mother. It’s that way for a reason.
Even worse, if it could get any worse, which it apparently could . . . I was the balm that had healed her son’s wounds. Her Christmas miracle. She was going to keep me here forever, stuffing me with cake and dressing me in oversize sweatshirts. I would be Bride of Flobie.
“You live in Richmond, right?” she chattered on. “That’s, what, a two- or three-hour drive. . . . ”
I was thinking about locking myself in the bathroom again, when Rachel came bounding in the doorway and skidding up to me in her slippers. She climbed halfway up onto my lap and studied my eyes up close. She still needed a bath.
“What’s the matter?” she said. “Why are you crying?”
“She misses her family,” Debbie said. “It’s Christmas, and she can’t see them because of the snow.”
“We’ll take care of you,” Rachel said, taking my hand and doing that adorable “let me tell you a secret” voice that little kids can get away with. In the light of her mother’s recent comments, though, it seemed kind of threatening.
“That’s nice, Rachel,” Debbie said. “Why don’t you go and brush your teeth like a big girl? Jubilee here can brush her teeth.”
Can, but hadn’t. No toothbrush in my backpack. I was really not at my best when I packed.
I heard the front door open, and a moment later, Stuart arrived in the kitchen with the snowsuit.
“I just had to look at two hundred photos on a digital picture frame,” he said. “Two hundred. Mrs. Henderson really wanted me to know just how amazing it was that it could hold two hundred photos. Did I mention that there were two hundred of them? Anyway.”
He set the snowsuit down, then excused himself to go change his jeans, which were soaked from the snow.
“Don’t you worry,” Debbie said, as he left. “I’m going to take the little miss to go play outside so you can relax. You and Stuart both got terrible chills last night. You’re staying in here and keeping warm at least until we can find out about your train. I promised your mom I would look after you. So you and Stuart stay in here and hang out. Have some nice hot chocolate, something to eat, cuddle up under a blanket . . . ”
Under any other circumstances, I would have assumed that that last sentence meant, “Cuddle up under two separate blankets, spaced several feet apart, possibly with a lightly chained wolf between you,” because that’s what parents always mean. I got a feeling from Debbie that she was fine with the situation, however we wanted to roll. If we felt the need to sit on the sofa and share a blanket to conserve body heat, she was not going to object. In fact, she was likely to turn down the heat and hide all the blankets but one. She took the snowsuit and went off in search of Rachel.
It was so alarming, I temporarily forgot my trauma.
“You look spooked,” Stuart said when he returned. “Has my mom been scaring you?”
I laughed a little too hard and coughed on my cake, and Stuart gave me the same look that he’d given me at the Waffle House the night before, when I was rambling on about tangential Swedishness and my bad cell-phone reception. But, like last night, he didn’t comment on my behavior. He just got himself a cup of coffee and watched me from the corner of his eye.
“She’s taking my sister out for a while,” he said. “So it’s just going to be us. What do you want to do?”
I put more cake in my mouth and fell silent.
Five minutes later, we were in the living room, the tiny Flobie Santa Village twinkling away. Stuart and I sat on the sofa, but not, as Debbie had probably hoped, snuggling under the same blanket. We had two separate ones, and I sat with my legs tucked up, forming a protective knee barrier. Upstairs, I could hear the muffled cries of Rachel as she was shoved into a snowsuit.
I watched Stuart carefully. He still looked handsome. Not in the same way as Noah. Noah wasn’t flawless. He had no single amazing feature. Instead, he had a confluence of agreeable aspects that were accepted by one and all to add up to one very attractive whole, perfectly packaged in the right clothes. He wasn’t a clothes snob, but Noah had a weird way of predicting what was coming next. Like he’d start wearing his shirts with one side tucked in and one side loose, and then you’d get a catalog, and every guy in it would have his shirt like that. He was always one step ahead.
There was nothing stylish about Stuart. He probably had only a slight interest in his clothes and, I was guessing, absolutely no clue that there were options on how shirts and jeans were worn. He pulled off his sweater, revealing a plain red T-shirt underneath. It would have been too generic for Noah, but there was no self-consciousness in Stuart, so it looked right. And even though it was loose, I could see that he was pretty muscular. Some guys surprise you like that.
If he had any knowledge whatsoever of what his mom was planning, he showed no sign of it. He was making amusing comments about Rachel’s gifts, and I was smiling a stiff smile, pretending I was listening.
“Stuart!” Debbie called. “Can you come up here? Rachel’s stuck.”
“Be right back,” he said.
He took the steps two at a time, and I got off the sofa and went over and examined the Flobie pieces. Maybe if I could talk to Debbie about their potential value, she would stop talking to me about Stuart. Of course, that plan could backfire and make her like me more.
There was a mumbled family conference going on upstairs. I wasn’t sure what had happened with Rachel and the snowsuit, but it sounded pretty complex. Stuart was saying, “Maybe if we turn her upside down . . . ”
Here was another question: Why hadn’t he mentioned this Chloe to me? Not that we were best friends or anything, but we did seem to get along, and he had felt comfortable enough to grill me about Noah. Why hadn’t he said something when I mentioned his girlfriend, especially, if Debbie was correct on this point, if he told everyone about it?
Not that I cared, of course. It was none of my business. Stuart had just wanted to keep his pain to himself—probably because he had no intention of trying to get anywhere with me. We were friends. New friends, but friends. I, more than anyone, could not judge someone because his parent behaved in a strange manner and got him into an awkward situation. Me, with my jailed parents and my midnight run through the blizzard. If his mom had the creepy matchmaker gene, he could not be blamed for it.
When the three of them came down the stairs (Rachel in Stuart’s arms, as it didn’t appear that she could move in the snowsuit), I felt a lot more relaxed about the whole situation. Stuart and I were both victims of our parents’ behaviors. He was like a brother to me in this respect.
By the time Debbie bum-rushed the mummy-wrapped Rachel out into the wild, I had calmed myself. I was going to have a cool and friendly hour or so with Stuart. I liked his company, and there was nothing to worry about. As I turned to commence said cool and friendly hour, I noticed that Stuart was sitting down with a clouded expression on his face. He regarded me cautiously.
“Can I ask you a question?” he said.
“Um . . . ”
He interlaced his fingers nervously. “I don’t know how to put this. I need to ask. I was just talking to my mom, and . . . ”
No. No, no, no, no.
“Your name is Jubilee?” he said. “Really?”
I crashed onto the sofa in relief, causing him to bounce a little. The conversation I usually dreaded . . . now it was the most welcome, wonderful thing in the world. Jubilee was jubilant.
“Oh . . . right. Yeah. She heard that right. I’m named after Jubilee Hall.”
“Who’s Jubilee Hall?”
“Not who. What. It’s one of the Flobie pieces. You don’t have it. It’s okay. You can laugh. I know it’s stupid.”
“I’m named after my dad,” he said. “Same first and middle name. That’s just as stupid.”
“It is?” I asked.
“At least you still have your village,” he said breezily. “My dad was never around much.”
Which was a good point, I had to admit. He didn’t sound particularly bitter about his dad. It sounded like something that was long past and no longer relevant to his life.
“I don’t know any Stuarts,” I said. “Except for Stuart Little. And you.”
“Exactly. Who calls their kid Stuart?”
“Who calls their kid Jubilee? It’s not even a name. It’s not even a thing. What is a jubilee?”
“It’s a party, right?” he said. “You’re one big traveling party.”
“Oh, don’t I know it.”
“Here,” he said, getting up and reaching over for one of Rachel’s presents. It was a board game called Mouse Trap. “Let’s play.”
“It’s your little sister’s,” I said.
“So? I’m going to have to play it with her anyway. Might as well learn. And it looks like it has a lot of pieces. Looks like a good way to kill time.”
“I never just get to kill time,” I said. “I feel like I should be doing something.”
“Like . . . ”
I had no idea. I was just always on my way somewhere. Noah was not a fooler-arounder. For fun, we’d update the council Web site.
“I realize,” Stuart said, holding up the Mouse Trap box and shaking off the lid, “that you probably lead a fancy life in the big city. Wherever you’re from.”
“Fancy Richmond. But here in Gracetown, killing time is an art form. Now . . . what color do you want?”
I don’t know what Debbie and Rachel were doing, but they were out in that snow for a good two hours or more—and Stuart and I played Mouse Trap the entire time. The first time we tried to do it correctly, but Mouse Trap has all these gizmos and things that swing around and drop a marble. It’s weirdly complicated for a kids’ game.
The second time we played, we made up entirely new rules, which we liked much better. Stuart was really good company—so good that I didn’t even notice (that much) that it was taking Noah a while to call me back. When the phone rang, I jumped.
Stuart answered it, because it was his house, and he passed it to me with a kind of strange expression, like he was a little displeased.
“Who was that?” Noah asked, when I got on.
“That’s Stuart. I’m staying at his house.”
“I thought you said you were going to Florida?”
In the background, I could hear a lot of noise. Music, people talking. Christmas was going on as normal at his house.
“My train got stuck,” I said. “We crashed into a drift. I ended up getting off and walking to a Waffle House, and—”
“Why did you get off?”
“Because of the cheerleaders,” I said with a sigh.
“Anyway, I ended up meeting Stuart, and I’m staying with his family. We fell in a frozen creek on the way. I’m okay, but—”
“Wow,” Noah said. “This sounds really complicated.”
Finally. He was getting it.
“Listen,” he said. “We’re about to go over to see our neighbors. Let me call you back in about an hour and you can tell me the whole story.”
I had to hold the phone away from my ear, so great was my shock. “Noah,” I said, clapping it back into place. “Did you just hear me?”
“I did. You need to tell me all about it. We won’t be that long. Maybe an hour or two.”
And he was gone, again.
“That was quick,” Stuart said, coming into the kitchen and going to the stove. He switched on the kettle.
“He had to go somewhere,” I said, without much enthusiasm.
“So he just got off? That’s kind of stupid.”
“Why is that stupid?”
“I’m just saying. I would be worried. I’m a worrier.”
“You don’t seem like a worrier,” I grumbled. “You seem really happy.”
“You can be happy and worried. I definitely worry.”
“Well, take this storm,” he said, pointing at the window. “I kind of worry that my car might get destroyed by a plow.”
“That’s very deep,” I said.
“What was I supposed to say?”
“You’re not supposed to say anything,” I answered. “But what about how this storm might be evidence of climate change? Or what about people who get sick and can’t get to the hospital because of the snow?”
“Is that what Noah would say?”
This unexpected pop at my boyfriend was not welcome. Not that Stuart was wrong. Those are exactly the things that Noah would have mentioned. It was kind of creepily accurate.
“You asked me a question,” he said, “and I told you the answer. Can I tell you something you really don’t want to hear?” he asked.
“He’s going to break up with you.”
As soon as he said it, there was a physical bang in my stomach.
“I’m only trying to be helpful, and I’m sorry,” he went on, watching my face. “But he is going to break up with you.”
Even as he was saying it, something in me knew that Stuart had hit upon something terrible, something . . . possibly true. Noah was avoiding me like I was a chore—except Noah didn’t avoid chores. He embraced them. I was the only thing he was walking away from. Beautiful, popular, fabulous-on-all-levels Noah was pushing me aside. This realization burned. I hated Stuart for saying it, and I needed him to know it.