“I promise you that it will be okay,” the Duke said, her voice measured, quiet.
“You’re good at that,” I said. “At, like, saying crazy things in a way that makes me believe them.”
She stood up on her toes, grabbed me by the shoulders, and looked at me, her nose red and snow-wet, her face close to mine. “You do not like cheerleaders. You think they are lame. You like cute, funny, emo girls who I will enjoy hanging out with.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Yeah, that didn’t work,” I said.
“Damn it.” She smiled.
JP emerged from his snow tunnel, shook snow off his periwinkle onesie, and announced, “Tobin, I have a small piece of bad news, but I don’t want you to overreact.”
“Okay,” I said, nervous.
“I can’t really think of an easy way to say this. Um, in your opinion, what would be the ideal number of wheels for Carla to currently possess?”
I closed my eyes and let my head swivel up, the streetlight bright through my eyelids, the snow on my lips.
JP continued, “Because to be totally honest, I think the best possible number of wheels for Carla would be four. And right now there are three wheels physically connected to Carla herself, a nonideal number. Fortunately, the fourth is just a very slight distance away, but unfortunately I am not an expert in wheel reattachment.”
I pulled my hat down over my face. The depth of my screwedness washed over me, and for the first time I felt cold—cold at my wrists, where my gloves did not quite meet my jacket, cold on my face, and cold in my feet, where the melted snow was already soaking into my socks. My parents wouldn’t beat me or brand me with a hot coat hanger or anything. They were too nice for cruelty. And that, ultimately, is why I felt so bad: they didn’t deserve to have a kid who broke a wheel off their beloved Carla on the way to spend the small hours of Christmas morning with fourteen cheerleaders.
Someone pulled my hat up. JP. “I hope you’re not going to let a little hurdle like not having a car keep us from the Waffle House,” he said.
The Duke, who was leaning against the half-exposed back end of Carla, laughed, but I didn’t.
“JP, now is not the time for funny ha-ha,” I said.
He stood up straighter, as if to remind me he was just a little bit taller than I, and then took two steps into the middle of the road, so that he stood directly beneath the streetlight’s beam. “I’m not being funny ha-ha,” he said. “Is it funny ha-ha to believe in your dreams? Is it funny ha-ha to overcome adversity in order to make those dreams come true? Was it funny ha-ha when Huckleberry Finn rafted hundreds of miles on the Mississippi River in order to make out with nineteenth-century cheerleaders? Was it funny ha-ha when thousands of men and women devoted their lives to space exploration so that Neal Armstrong could hook up with cheerleaders on the moon? No! And it’s not funny ha-ha to believe that on this great night of miracles, we three wise men must trudge onward toward the great yellow light of the Waffle House sign!”
“Wise people,” the Duke said dispassionately.
“Oh, come on!” JP said. “I get nothing for that? Nothing?!” He was shouting now over the sound-muffling snow, and JP’s voice seemed to me the only sound in the world. “Do you want more? I’ve got more. Lady and gentleman, when my parents left Korea with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the considerable wealth they had amassed in the shipping business, they had a dream. They had a dream that one day amid the snowy hilltops of western North Carolina, their son would lose his virginity to a cheerleader in the women’s bathroom of a Waffle House just off the interstate. My parents have sacrificed so much for this dream! And that is why we must journey on, despite all trials and tribulations! Not for me and least of all for the poor cheerleader in question, but for my parents, and indeed for all immigrants who came to this great nation in the hopes that somehow, some way, their children might have what they themselves could never have: cheerleader sex.”
The Duke applauded. I was laughing, but I nodded to JP. The more I thought about it, the stupider it seemed to go hang out with a bunch of cheerleaders I didn’t even know, who would only be in town for one night, anyway. Nothing against making out with cheerleaders, but I had some experience in the field, and while it was good fun, it was hardly worth trudging through the snow for. But what could I lose by continuing that had not already been lost? Only my life, and I was more likely to survive by walking the three miles to the Waffle House than the ten miles home. I crawled into the back of the SUV, grabbed some blankets, made sure all the doors were closed, then locked Carla. I put a hand on her bumper and said, “We’ll come back for you.”
“That’s right,” the Duke said soothingly to Carla. “We never leave our fallen behind.”
We had trudged no more than a hundred feet past the curve when I heard an engine rumbling.
The twins drove an old, muscled-up, low-riding, cherry-red Ford Mustang—not the kind of car celebrated for its handling in inclement weather. So I felt sure that they, too, would miss the curve, probably rear-ending Carla. But as the engine noise grew to a roar, the Duke pushed JP and me to the side of the road anyway.
They came roaring around the corner—the Mustang kicking up powder behind it, the back end fishtailing but somehow staying on the road—tiny Tommy Reston maniacally turning the steering wheel back and forth. He was some kind of snow-driving savant, the little creep.
So great was the size difference between them that the Mustang tilted visibly to the left, where Timmy Reston’s gigantic body had somehow been inserted into the passenger seat. I could see Timmy smiling, the dimples an inch deep on his huge and meaty cheeks. Tommy brought the Mustang to a quick stop maybe thirty feet in front of us, rolled down the window, and leaned his head out.
“Y’all run into some car trouble?” he asked.
I started to walk toward the car. “Yeah, yeah,” I said. “We ran into a snowbank. I’m glad to see you guys. Could you give us a ride, at least to downtown?”
“Sure,” he said. “Get in.” Tommy looked past me then and, with a certain lilt in his voice, said, “Hey there, Angie.” Which is technically the Duke’s name.
“Hi,” she said. I turned back to them and waved for JP and the Duke to come over. I was almost to the car now. I stayed on the driver’s side, figuring that it would be impossible to slip into the backseat behind Timmy.