I managed to get it open just enough to force myself through, ripping my bags and scraping my arm in the process. Once I was out, it jammed in position, so I had to spend another two or three minutes pushing it shut. That accomplished, I faced another problem. I couldn’t return the way we had come, because I didn’t want to take another dip in the frozen stream. Not that I could have worked out that path anyway. All of our tracks were gone. I was on a slight rise, facing an unfamiliar cluster of scruffy bare trees and the backs of dozens of identical-looking houses. The only thing I knew for sure was that the stream was below me, probably somewhere in those trees. The safest bet was to stick close to the houses and weave my way through a few backyards. Then I could get back on a road, and from there, I assumed, it would be easy to find my way back to the interstate, the Waffle House, and my train.
See my previous note about me and my assumptions.
Stuart’s subdivision didn’t follow the lovely, neat logic of the streets of the Flobie Santa Village. These houses had been plunked down with an alarming randomness—unevenly spaced, on crooked lines, like whoever had designed the place had said, “We’ll just follow this cat, and wherever he sits down, we’ll build something.” The disorientation was so bad that I couldn’t even figure out where the road was supposed to be. Nothing had been plowed, and the streetlights of the night before were off. The sky was white instead of the crazy pink of the night before. It was the bleakest horizon I’ve ever seen, and there was no obvious route out.
As I trudged through the development, I had plenty of time to consider what I had just done to my life. How was I going to explain the breakup to my family? They loved Noah. Not as much as me, obviously, but a lot. My parents were clearly proud that I had such an impressive boyfriend. Then again, my parents were in jail over a Flobie Elf Hotel, so maybe they needed to get their priorities in order. Besides, if I said I was happier this way, they would accept it.
My friends, people at school . . . that was a different story. I hadn’t dated Noah for the perks—they were just part of the service.
And there was Stuart, of course.
Stuart, who had just witnessed me go through an entire rainbow of emotions and experiences. There was parents-have-just-been-jailed me, stuck-in-a-strange-town me, insane-and-can’t-shut-up me, kind-of-snarky-to-the-strange-guy-trying-to-be-helpful me, breakup me, and the extremely popular jump-on-top-of-you-unexpectedly me.
I had messed this up so very, very badly. All of it. The regret and humiliation hurt much more than the cold. It took me a few streets to realize that it wasn’t Noah I was really regretting . . . it was Stuart. Stuart who rescued me. Stuart who actually seemed to want to spend his time with me. Stuart who talked to me straight and told me not to sell myself short.
This was the Stuart who would be so relieved to find me gone, for all of the reasons I just listed. As long as the news stories about my parents’ arrest weren’t too detailed, I would be untraceable. Well, untraceable-ish. Maybe he could find me online somewhere, but he would never look. Not after the freak show I had just put on.
Unless I just wound up at his door again. Which, after an hour of wandering the development, I realized was a real danger. I was looking at the same stupid houses, getting stuck in cul-de-sacs. I occasionally stopped and asked for directions from people who were shoveling their driveways, but they all seemed really concerned that I was trying to walk that far and didn’t want to tell me how to go. At least half of them asked me to come inside and get warm, which sounded good, but I wasn’t taking any more chances. I had gone into one house in Gracetown, and look where it had gotten me.
I was slugging along past a group of little girls, giggling in the snow, when the despair really set in. The tears were about to flow forth. I couldn’t really feel my feet anymore. My knees were stiffened. And that’s when I heard his voice behind me.
“Hold up,” Stuart said.
I stopped suddenly. Running away is pretty pathetic, but it’s even worse getting caught. I stood there for a moment, unwilling (and partially unable) to turn around and face him. I tried to arrange my expression in the most casual funny-meeting-you-here, isn’t-life-hilarious! way I could. From the way my jaw muscles were straining by my ears, I’m pretty sure it was a lot more like my I’ve-got-lockjaw! face.
“Sorry,” I said, through my clenched smile. “I just thought I should get back to the train, and—”
“Yeah,” he said, quietly cutting me off. “I kind of figured that.”
Stuart wasn’t even looking up at me. He pulled a proper, if slightly embarrassing, hat out of his pocket. It looked like one of Rachel’s. It had a big pom-pom on top.
“I think you probably need this,” he said, holding out the hat. “You can have it. Rachel doesn’t need it back.”
I took it and pulled it on my head, because it looked like he was prepared to stand there, holding it out, until the snow melted around him. It was a tight fit but still brought a welcome warmth to my ears.
“I followed your footsteps,” he said, in answer to the unspoken question. “Snow makes it easy.”
I had been tracked, like a bear.
“Sorry to make you go to all that trouble,” I said.
“I didn’t have to go that far, really. You’re about three streets over. You just kept going in loops.”
A really inept bear.
“I can’t believe you went back out in that outfit,” he said. “You should let me walk you. You’re not going to get there this way.”
“I’m fine,” I said quickly. “Someone just told me the way.”
“You don’t have to go, you know.”
I wanted to say something else but couldn’t think of anything. He took this to mean that I wanted him to go, so he nodded.
“Be careful, okay? And, can you just let me know that you made it? Call or—”
Just then, my phone started ringing. The ring must have been damaged by the water as well, so now it had a high, keening note—kind of the sound I imagine a mermaid might make if you punched her in the face. Surprised. A little accusatory. Hurt. Gurgley.
It was Noah. On my messed-up screen, it actually said “Mobg” was calling, but I knew what it meant. I didn’t answer; I just stared at it. Stuart stared at it. The little girls around us stared at us staring at it. It stopped ringing, then started again. It pulsed in my hand, insistent.
“I’m sorry if I was an idiot,” Stuart said, speaking up to talk over the noise. “And you probably don’t care what I think, but you shouldn’t answer that.”