“I did my best,” Sam went on, “but the judge isn’t budging. He’s sick of these Flobie problems, so he’s making an example of them all. Your parents instructed me to take you to the train station. I only have one hour, then I have to be back for hot cookies and a sing-along at five. How quickly can you pack?”
This was delivered in the same gravelly tone of voice that Sam probably used when pounding people on the stand about why they were seen running from the scene covered in blood. He didn’t look happy that this task had been foisted on him on Christmas Eve. Still, a little touch of Oprah would have helped.
“Pack? Train station? What?”
“You’re going to Florida to stay with your grandparents,” he said. “Couldn’t get a flight—they’re being canceled all over the place because of the storm.”
“Jubilee,” Sam said very slowly, having concluded that I was the least-aware person on the planet, “we’re about to have the biggest storm in fifty years!”
My brain wasn’t working right—none of this was going in.
“I can’t go,” I said. “I’m supposed to see Noah tonight. And Christmas. What about Christmas?”
Sam shrugged, as if to say that Christmas was beyond his control, and there was nothing the legal system could do about it.
“But . . . why can’t I just stay here? This is crazy!”
“Your parents don’t want you alone for two days over the holiday.”
“I can go to Noah’s! I have to go to Noah’s!”
“Look,” he said, “it’s all arranged. We can’t reach your parents now. They’re being processed. I bought your ticket, and I don’t have a lot of time. You’re going to have to pack now, Jubilee.”
I turned and looked at the twinkling little cityscape next to me. I could see the shadows of the doomed elves as they worked away in Jubilee Hall, the warm glow of Mrs. Muggin’s Cake Shop, the slow but merry process of the Elf Express around the little expanse of track.
The only thing I could think to ask was, “But . . . what about the village?”
I’d never actually been on a train before. It was taller than I imagined, with second-“story” windows that I guessed were the sleeping cars. Inside, it was dimly lit, and most of the people stuffed in there looked catatonic. I expected the train to steam and chug and shoot off like a rocket, because I watched a lot of cartoons in my misspent youth and that’s how cartoon trains work. This train glided off indifferently, as if it had gotten bored with standing around.
Naturally, I called Noah the moment we set off. This was a slight violation of the I’m-going-to-be-slammed-until-six-so-I’ll-just-see-you-at-the-party no-call policy, but never have circumstances been more understandable. When he answered, there was a cheerful clamor in the background. I could hear carols and the clanking of dishes, which was a depressing contrast to the claustrophobic muffle of the train.
“Lee!” he said. “Kind of a bad time. See you in an hour?”
He made a little grunt. It sounded like he was lifting something heavy, probably one of the freakishly large hams his mother always managed to get her hands on for the Smorgasbord. I presume she gets them from some kind of experimental farm where the pigs are treated with lasers and superdrugs until they are thirty feet long.
“Um . . . that’s the thing,” I said. “I’m not coming.”
“What do you mean, you’re not coming? What’s wrong?”
I explained the parents-in-jail/me-on-train-in-storm/life-not-really-going-as-planned situation as best I could. I tried to keep it light, like I found it funny, mostly to keep myself from sobbing on a dark train of stupefied strangers.
Another grunt. It sounded like he was shifting something around.
“It’ll be fine,” he said after a moment. “Sam’s taking care of it, right?”
“Well, if you mean not getting them out of jail, then yes. He doesn’t even seem worried.”
“It’s probably just some little county jail,” he replied. “It won’t be bad. And if Sam’s not worried, it’ll be okay. I’m sorry this happened, but I’ll see you in a day or two.”
“Yes, but it’s Christmas,” I said. My voice got thick, and I choked back a tear. He gave me a moment.
“I know this is hard, Lee,” he said after a pause, “but it will be fine. It will. This is just one of those things.”
I knew he was trying to calm me down and generally console me, but still. One of those things? This was not one of those things. One of those things is your car breaking down or getting stomach flu or your faulty holiday lights sending out a spark and burning down your hedge. I said as much, and he sighed, realizing I was right. Then he grunted again.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, through a sniff.
“I’m holding a huge ham,” he said. “I’m going to have to go in a minute. Look, we’ll do another Christmas when you get back. I promise. We’ll find some time. Don’t worry. Call me when you get there, okay?”
I promised I would, and he hung up and went off with his ham. I stared at the now-silent phone.
Sometimes, because I dated Noah, I empathized with people who are married to politicians. You can tell they have their own lives, but because they love the person they are with, they end up pulled into the juggernaut—and pretty soon, they’re waving and smiling blankly for the camera, with balloons falling on their heads and staff members knocking them out of the way to get to the All-Important Significant Other, who is Perfect.
I know no one is perfect, that behind every façade of perfection is a writhing mess of subterfuge and secret sorrows . . . but even taking that into account, Noah was pretty much perfect. I’d never heard anyone say a bad word about him. His status was as unquestioned as gravity. By making me his girlfriend, he demonstrated his belief in me, and I had picked up on his conviction. I stood straighter. I felt more confident, more consistently positive, more important. He liked being seen with me; therefore, I liked being seen with me, if that makes any sense.
So, yes, his overcommittedness was a pain sometimes. But I understood. When you have to take a big ham to your mom, for instance, because sixty people are about to descend on your house for a Smorgasbord. It just has to be done. The rough must be taken with the smooth. I took out my iPod and used the remaining power to flick through some photos of him. Then the power died.