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Chapter Nine

The Duke and JP made great time up the street—they weren’t running, but they were sure walking fast. My feet felt frozen, and I was tired from carrying the Duke, so I lagged behind a little, and the onrushing wind meant that I could hear their conversation, but they couldn’t hear anything I said.

The Duke was saying (again) that cheerleading wasn’t a sport, and then JP pointed at her and gave her a stern shake of the head. “I don’t want to hear another negative word about cheerleaders. If it weren’t for cheerleaders, who would tell us when and how to be happy during athletic events? If it weren’t for cheerleaders, how would America’s prettiest girls get the exercise that’s so vital to a healthy life?”

I scrambled to catch up with them so I could get off a line. “Also, without cheerleading, what would become of the polyester miniskirt industry?” I asked. Just talking made the walking better, the wind less bitter.

“Exactly,” JP said, wiping his nose on the sleeve of my dad’s onesie. “Not even to mention the pom-pom industry. Do you realize how many people around the world are employed in the manufacture, distribution, and sale of pom-poms?”

“Twenty?” guessed the Duke.

“Thousands!” JP answered. “The world must contain millions of pom-poms, attached to millions of cheerleaders! And if it’s wrong to want all of those millions of cheerleaders to rub all of their millions of pom-poms on my naked chest, well, then I don’t want to be right, Duke. I don’t want to be right.”

“You’re such a clown,” she said. “And such a genius.”

I fell behind them again but trudged along, not much of a clown and not much of a genius. It was always a pleasure to watch JP show off his wit and see the Duke rise to the occasion. It took us fifteen minutes to circle back to Carla using a route that avoided Sunrise (and, hopefully, the twins). I climbed in through the trunk and grabbed the Twister, and we took off over a chain-link fence and through someone’s backyard so as to head straight west, toward the highway. We figured the twins would take the route we had initially taken. That route was quicker, but we all agreed that we hadn’t seen a game of Twister in the hands of either Timmy or Tommy, so we didn’t think it mattered if they beat us.

We walked in silence for a long time past dark wood-frame houses, and I held the Twister over my head to keep some of the snow out of my face. The snow had accumulated in drifts up to the doorknobs on one side of the street, and I thought about how much snow can change a place. I’d never lived anywhere but here. I’d walked or driven on this block a thousand times. I could remember when all the trees died in the blight, and when they planted new ones in all these yards. And over the fences I could see a block over to Main Street, which I knew even better: I knew each gallery selling folk art to tourists, each outdoor shop selling the kind of hiking boots I wished I was wearing.

But it was new now, all of it—cloaked in a white so pure as to be vaguely menacing. No street or sidewalk beneath me, no fire hydrants. Nothing but the white everywhere, like the place itself was gift-wrapped in snow. And it didn’t just look different, either; it smelled different, the air now sharp with cold and the wet acidity of snow. And the eerie silence, just the steady rhythm of our shoes crunching underfoot. I couldn’t even hear what JP and the Duke were talking about a few feet in front of me as I got lost in the whited-out world.

And I might have convinced myself that we were the only people left awake in all of western North Carolina had we not seen the bright lights of the Duke and Duchess convenience store when we turned off Third Street and onto Maple.

The reason we call the Duke “the Duke” is because when we were in eighth grade, we went one time to the Duke and Duchess. And the thing about the Duke and Duchess convenience store is that instead of calling you “sir” or “ma’am” or “you there” or whatever, the employees of the D and D convenience store are supposed to call you either “Duke” or “Duchess.”

Now, the Duke arrived a little late to the puberty party, and on top of that, she also always wore jeans and baseball caps, particularly in middle school. So the predictable thing happened: one day we went into the Duke and Duchess to buy Big League Chew or Mountain Dew Code Red or whatever we were using to rot our teeth on that particular week, and after the Duke had made her purchase, the guy behind the counter said, “Thank you, Duke.”

It stuck. At one point, I think in ninth grade, we were all at lunch and JP and Keun and I all offered to start calling her Angie, but she said she hated being called Angie, anyway. So we kept with the Duke. It suited her. She had excellent posture, and she was kind of a born leader and everything, and even though she certainly no longer looked even vaguely boyish, she still mostly acted like one of us.

As we walked up Maple, I noticed JP slowing to walk next to me.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Listen, are you okay?” he asked. He reached up and took the Twister from me and tucked it under his arm.

“Um, yeah?”

“Because you’re walking, like, I don’t know. Like you don’t have ankles or knees?” I looked down and saw that I was indeed walking very strangely, my legs far apart and swiveling, my knees barely bending. I looked a bit like a cowboy after a long ride. “Huh,” I said, watching my weird gait. “Hmm. I think my feet are just really cold.”

“VERY FAST EMERGENCY STOP!” JP yelled. “We’ve got some potential frostbite back here!”

I shook my head; I was fine, really, but the Duke turned around and saw me walking and said, “To the D and D!”

So they jogged and I waddled. They beat me into the D and D by a long shot, and by the time I got inside, the Duke was already at the counter, purchasing a four-pack of white cotton socks.

We weren’t the only customers. As I sat down in a booth at the D and D’s miniature “café,” I glanced down to the far booth: there, with a steaming cup in front of him, sat the Tinfoil Guy.

Chapter Ten

“What’s up?” JP said to the Tinfoil Guy as I pulled off my soaked shoes. It’s sort of hard to describe Tinfoil Guy, because he looks like a somewhat grizzled but generally normal older guy except for the fact that he never, under any circumstances, leaves the house unless his entire body from neck to toes is wrapped in tinfoil. I peeled off my nearly frozen socks. My feet were a pale blue. JP offered me a napkin to wipe them off as Tinfoil Guy spoke.


Tags: John Green Romance
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