“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.