And then as we kept walking, I began to see the light emerge through the thick veil of snow. Not the sign itself at first, but the light it produced. And then finally the sign itself, towering above the tiny restaurant, the sign bigger and brighter than the little shack of a restaurant could ever be, those black letters in their yellow squares promising warmth and sustenance: WAFFLE HOUSE. I fell to my knees in the middle of the street and shouted, “Not in a castle nor in a mansion but in a Waffle House shall we find our salvation!”
The Duke laughed, pulling me up by the armpits. Her ice-matted hat was pulled down low over her forehead. I looked at her and she looked at me and we weren’t walking. We were just standing there, and her eyes were so interesting. Not in the usual way of being interesting, like being extremely blue or extremely big or flanked by obscenely long lashes or anything. What interested me about the Duke’s eyes was the complexity of the color—she always said they looked like the bottom of trash-can bins, a swirl of green and brown and yellow. But she was underselling herself. She always undersold herself.
Christ. It was a hard thing to unthink.
I might have kept gawking at her forever while she looked quizzically back at me had I not heard the engine in the distance and then turned around to see a red Ford Mustang taking a corner at considerable speed. I grabbed the Duke by the arm and we ran for a snowbank. I looked up the road for JP, who’d gotten quite a bit ahead of us now. “JP!” I shouted. “TWINS!”
JP swiveled around. He looked at us, piled in the snow together. He looked at the car. His body froze for a moment. And then he turned up the road and began running, his legs a blur of energy. He was making a break for the Waffle House. The twins’ Mustang roared past the Duke and me. Little Tommy Reston leaned out the rolled-down window holding a game of Twister and announced, “We gonna kill you later.”
But for the moment they seemed content on killing JP, and as they bore down on him, I shouted, “Run, JP! Run!” I’m sure he couldn’t hear me over the rumbling of the Mustang, but I shouted it anyway, one last desperate and furtive cry into the wilderness. From thence forth, the Duke and I were mere witnesses.
JP’s head start dissipated quickly—he was running very fast, but he didn’t have a chance in hell of beating a brilliantly driven Ford Mustang to the WH.
“I was really looking forward to hash browns,” the Duke said morosely.
“Yeah,” I answered. The Mustang reached the point where it could overtake JP, but JP just refused to stop running or to get out of the road. The horn honked as I saw the Mustang’s brake lights flash on, but JP just kept running. And now I realized JP’s insane strategy: he’d calculated that the road was not wide enough with the drifts for the Mustang to pass him on either side, and he believed that the twins would not run him over. This seemed to me a very generous assessment of the twins’ benevolence, but for the moment, at least, it was working. The Mustang honked furiously but impotently as JP ran in front of it.
Something changed in my peripheral vision. I looked up at the highway overpass and saw the outlines of two heavyset men slowly waddling toward the exit ramp, carrying a barrel that seemed to be very heavy. The keg. The college guys. I pointed up to the Duke, and she looked at me, and her eyes got wide.
“Shortcut!” she shouted, and then she took off toward the highway, blazing through the snowbank. I’d never seen her run so fast, and I didn’t know what she was thinking, but she was thinking something, so I followed. We scampered up the interstate embankment together, the snow thick enough that we could climb with ease. As I jumped the guard rail, I could see JP on the other side of the underpass, still running. But the Mustang had stopped; instead, Timmy and Tommy Reston were chasing him on foot.
The Duke and I were running toward the college guys, and finally one of them looked up and said, “Hey, are you—” but he didn’t even finish the sentence. We just ran past them, and the Duke shouted to me, “Take out the mat! Take out the mat!” I opened the Twister box and threw it in the middle of the highway. I held the spinner between clenched teeth and the mat in my hands, and now, finally, I knew what she wanted us to do. Maybe the twins were faster. But with the Duke’s brilliant idea, I realized we might have a chance.
When we reached the beginning of the downhill slope of the exit ramp, I flipped out the Twister mat in a single motion. She jumped down onto it butt first, and I followed suit, placing the spinner beneath me. And she shouted, “You’re gonna have to dig your right hand into the snow to keep us turning right,” and I said, “Okay, okay.” We started to slide down, gaining speed, and then as the ramp curved, I dug my hand in, and we turned, still accelerating. I could see JP now on Timmy Reston’s back, trying in vain to slow his gargantuan body as it marched toward the Waffle House.
“We can still do it,” I said, but I was having doubts. And then I heard a deep rumble above us, and turned around to see a keg of beer rolling down the exit ramp with considerable speed. They were trying to kill us. That didn’t seem like good sportsmanship at all!
“KEG!” I shouted, and the Duke swiveled her head around. It bounced toward us with menace. I didn’t know how much beer kegs weigh, but given the struggle of those guys to carry it, I imagined it weighed plenty enough to kill two promising young high-school students on a Christmas-morning outing with a Twister sled. The Duke stayed turned around, watching the keg as it approached, but I was too scared. And then she shouted, “Now now turn turn turn,” and I dug my arm into the snow and she rolled toward me, almost pushing me off the mat, and then things slowed down and I watched as the keg barreled past us, rolling right over the red dots, where the Duke had been. But it shot past us, hit the guard rail, and bounced over. I did not see what came next, but I heard it: a very foamy keg of beer hit something sharp and exploded like a huge beer bomb.
The explosion was so loud that Tommy and Timmy and JP all stopped dead in their tracks for at least five seconds. When they began running again, Tommy hit a patch of ice and fell on his face. When he saw his brother fall, the gargantuan Timmy suddenly changed tacks: rather than chasing JP, he hurdled through the roadside snowdrift and started toward the Waffle House itself. JP, a few steps forward, immediately made the same move so that they were headed toward the same door at slightly different angles. The Duke and I were close now—close enough to the bottom of the ramp to feel the deceleration, and close enough to the twins to hear them shouting at JP and at each other. I could see into the half-fogged windows of the Waffle House. Cheerleaders in green warm-up suits. Ponytails.