Her smile seemed to please him. He slouched back to his booth.
I talked to Keun until he finished my waffle and delivered it to me steaming hot. “God, that looks good, Keun,” I said, but he’d already turned around to plate the Duke’s hash browns. He was picking the plate up when Billy Talos appeared, grabbed the plate, delivered it to the Duke, and sat down next to her.
I glanced back at them a couple times, leaning across the table and talking intently to each other. I wanted to cut in and let her know that he’d been flirting with one of several Madisons as we’d been trudging through the snow, but I figured it was none of my business.
“I’m going to talk to one of them,” I announced to JP and Keun.
JP was incredulous. “One of who? The cheerleaders?”
“Dude,” Keun said. “I’ve been trying all night. They’re packed too tightly to talk to just one of them. And when you try to talk to all of them, they just kind of ignore you.”
But I had to talk to one of them, or at least appear to. “It’s like lions hunting gazelles,” I said as we watched the gaggle intently. “You just find a straggler, and”—a tiny blonde girl turned away from the pack—“pounce,” I said, as I jumped up off the stool.
I walked up to her with purpose. “I’m Tobin,” I said, ex-tending my hand.
“Amber,” she said.
“Beautiful name,” I said.
She nodded, and her eyes darted around. She wanted a way out, but I couldn’t give her one yet. I fumbled for a question. “Um, any word on the status of your train?” I asked.
“Our train might not even leave tomorrow,” she informed me.
“Yeah, that’s too bad,” I said, smiling. I glanced over my shoulder toward Billy and the Duke, only she was gone. The hash browns still steamed off the plate; she’d poured the ketchup on a side plate to dip them into like she always did, but then left. I left Amber and walked over to Billy.
“She went outside,” he said simply.
Who in their right mind would go outside when the hash browns and the warmth and the fourteen cheerleaders were all inside?
I grabbed my hat from the counter and pulled it down low over my ears, and then I put my gloves back on and ventured back into the wind. The Duke was sitting on the curb of the parking lot, just barely underneath the awning, half protected from the still-falling snow.
I sat down next to her. “You missed the postnasal drip?”
She sniffled and didn’t look up at me. “Just go back inside,” she said. “It’s not a big deal.”
“What’s not a big deal?”
“Nothing’s not a big deal. Just go back inside.”
“‘Nothing’s Not a Big Deal’ would be a good name for a band,” I told her. I wanted her to look up at me so I could assess the situation, and finally she did, and her nose was red, and I thought she was cold, but then I thought maybe she had been crying, which was weird, because the Duke doesn’t cry.
“I just . . . I just wish you wouldn’t do it in front of me. I mean, what is interesting about her? Tell me what is interesting about her, seriously. Or any of them.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “You were talking to Billy Talos.”
She looked up at me again and this time held my gaze as she spoke. “I was telling Billy that I didn’t think I could actually go to the stupid formal with him, because I just can’t bring myself to stop liking someone else.”
The idea crept up on me slowly. I turned toward her, and she said, “I realize that they giggle and I actually laugh, that they show their cle**age and I have none to show, but just so you know, I am also a girl.”
“I know you’re a girl,” I said defensively.
“Really? Does anyone? Because I walk into the D and D and I’m the Duke. And I’m one of the three wise men. And it’s g*y to think that James Bond is hot. And you never look at me like you look at girls, except . . . whatever. Whatever whatever whatever. When we were walking here right before the twins came, I thought for one second that you were looking at me like I was an actual female, and I was, like, hey, maybe Tobin is not the world’s biggest superficial jackass, but then you go and I’m breaking up with Billy and I look up and you’re talking to some girl like you’d never talk to me and whatever.”
And then, belatedly, I got it. The thing that I was trying to unthink was a thing that the Duke had also thought. We were trying to unthink the same thought. The Duke liked me. I looked down. I had to think it through before I looked at her. Okay. Okay, I decided, I will look at her and if she is looking at me, I will take one good look at her and then I will look down again and reassess. One look.
I looked over at her. Her head was cocked toward me, her eyes unblinking, containing all of the colors. She sucked her chapped lips into her mouth and then let them go, and there was one strand of her hair coming out from under her hat, and her nose was rosy red, and she sniffled. And I didn’t want to stop looking at her, but finally I did. I looked back down at the snowy parking lot beneath my feet.
“Will you say something, please?” she asked.
I spoke into the ground. “I always had this idea that you should never give up a happy middle in the hopes of a happy ending, because there is no such thing as a happy ending. Do you know what I mean? There is so much to lose.”
“Do you know why I wanted to go? Why I wanted to go back up that hill, Tobin? I mean, surely you know it’s not because I cared if Keun had to hang out with the Reston twins or because I wanted to see you fawn over cheerleaders.”
“I thought because of Billy,” I said.
She was really looking at me now, and I could see her breath all around me in the cold, surrounding me. “I wanted us to have an adventure. Because I love that crap. Because I’m not whatever-her-name-is. I don’t think it’s oh so hard to walk four miles in the snow. I want that. I love that. When we were at your house watching the movie, I wanted it to snow more. More and more! It makes it more interesting. Maybe you aren’t like that, but I think you are.”
“I wanted that, too,” I said, half interrupting her, still not looking for fear of what I might do if I looked. “For it to keep snowing.”
“Yeah? Cool. So, cool. And so what if more snow makes a happy ending less likely? So the car might get messed up—so what! So we might ruin our friendship—so what? I’ve kissed guys where nothing was at stake, and all it ever made me want to do was to have a kiss where everything—”