Morning came in the form of a five-year-old leaping onto my stomach. My eyes popped open from the force.
“Who are you?” she said excitedly. “I’m Rachel!”
“Rachel! Stop jumping on her! She’s sleeping!”
This was Stuart’s mom’s voice.
Rachel was a highly freckled mini-Stuart with incredibly bed-messy hair and a huge smile. She smelled vaguely of Cheerios, and she needed a bath. Debbie was right there as well, nursing a cup of coffee while she switched on the Flobie Santa Village. Stuart stepped out from the direction of the kitchen.
I hate it when I wake up to find that people have been creeping around me and have seen me asleep. Unfortunately, it happens to me a lot. I can sleep like a champion. I once slept through a smoke alarm going off. For three hours. In my bedroom.
“We’re going to put off opening our presents,” Debbie said. “So this morning, we can all just have something to eat and have a nice talk!”
This was clearly for my benefit, as there were no gifts for me. Rachel’s face looked like it was going to split in two, like a piece of overripe fruit. Stuart looked to his mother, as if asking if this was really a good idea.
“Except for Rachel,” she said quickly.
It’s amazing how quickly little kids’ moods can shift. She went from total despair to elation in the time it normally takes to sneeze.
“No,” I said. “No, you guys should, too.”
Debbie was shaking her head firmly and smiling.
“Stuart and I can wait. Why don’t you go and get yourself ready for some breakfast?”
I slunk off to the bathroom, head down, to try to do some basic morning repair. My hair looked like it was trying out for the comedy circuit, and my skin was raw and chapped. I did my best with cold water and decorative hand soaps, which is to say, I didn’t make a lot of progress.
“Do you want to call your family?” Debbie asked when I emerged. “Wish them a happy holiday?”
I found myself looking to Stuart for help with this one.
“That may be hard,” he said. “They’re in the Flobie Five.”
So much for hiding that fact. Debbie didn’t seem put out by it, though. Instead, she got a gleam in her eye like she’d just met a celebrity.
“Your parents were in that?” she asked. “Oh, why didn’t you say? I love the Flobie Santa Village. And it was so silly to put them in jail. The Flobie Five! Oh, I’m sure they’ll let them talk on the phone to their daughter! At Christmas! It’s not like they killed somebody.”
Stuart looked up at me knowingly, as if to say, Told you.
“I don’t even know what jail they’re in,” I said. I felt guilty as soon as I said it. My parents were wasting away in a cell somewhere, and I didn’t even know where.
“Well, that’s easy enough to find out. Stuart, go online and find out what jail they’re in. It has to be on the news.”
Stuart was already on his way out of the room, saying he was on it.
“Stuart’s a wizard with those kinds of things,” she said.
“What kinds of things?”
“Oh, he can find anything online.”
Debbie was one of those parents who still hadn’t quite grasped that using the Internet was not exactly wizardry, and that we could all find anything online. I didn’t say this, because you don’t want people to feel that they’ve missed something really obvious, even when they have.
Stuart came back in with the information, and Debbie made the call.
“I will get them to let you talk to your parents,” she said, holding her hand over the receiver. “They have no idea how persist— Oh, hello?”
It sounded like they were giving her a bit of trouble, but Debbie beat them down. Sam would have been impressed. She handed me the phone and retreated from the kitchen, all smiles. Stuart picked up a wriggling Rachel and carried her out, as well.
“Jubilee?” my mom said. “Honey! Are you okay? Did you just get to Florida? How are Grandma and Grandpa? Oh, honey . . . ”
“I’m not in Florida. The train never made it. I’m in Gracetown.”
“Gracetown?” she repeated. “You only made it that far? Oh, Jubilee . . . where are you? Are you all right? Are you still on the train?”
I didn’t quite feel up to telling the whole story of the last twenty-four hours, so I made it nice and short.
“The train got stuck,” I said. “We had to get off. I met some people. I’m staying at their house.”
“People?” Her voice hit a high pitch of concern, the kind that said that she suspected drug dealers and molesters. “What kind of people?”
“Nice people, Mom. A mom and two kids. They have a Flobie Santa Village. Not as big as ours, but some of the same pieces. They have the gumdrop shop, with the full display. And the gingerbread bakery. They even have a first-generation Merry Men Café.”
“Oh,” she said, somewhat relieved.
I think my parents think you have to have some kind of moral character to be in the Flobie crew. Social deviants don’t take the time to lovingly set the tiny gingerbread men displays in the window of the bakery. And yet, lots of people would take that as a sign that someone was unhinged. One person’s crazy is another person’s sane, I guess. Plus, I thought I was being pretty crafty by describing Stuart as one of “two kids” instead of “some guy I met at a Waffle House with plastic bags on his head.”
“Are you still there?” she asked. “What about your train?”
“I think it’s still stuck. It got caught in a snowbank last night, and they had to turn down the power and the heat. That’s why we got off.”
Again, pretty clever to say “we” as opposed to “just me, wandering across a six-lane interstate during a blizzard.” It wasn’t a lie, either. Jeb and the Ambers and Madisons had made the trek themselves, just after I blazed the trail. Being sixteen means you have to be a genius conversational editor.
“How’s . . . ” How do you ask your mom how jail is?
“We’re fine,” she said bravely. “We’re . . . Oh, Julie. Oh, honey. I am so sorry about this. So, so sorry. We didn’t mean . . . ”
I could hear that she was about to completely lose it, and that meant that I would soon lose it if I didn’t stop her.
“I’m fine,” I said. “The people here are taking really good care of me.”