I felt so alone on that train . . . a weird, unnatural kind of alone that bore into me. It was feeling just beyond fear and somewhere to the left of sadness. Tired, but not the kind of tired that sleep fixes. It was dark and gloomy, and yet, it didn’t seem that things would get any better if the lights were turned up. If anything, I would be able to get a much better look at my unpleasant situation.
I thought about calling my grandparents. They already knew I was coming. Sam told me he had called them. They would have been happy to talk to me, but I wasn’t feeling up to it. My grandparents are great people, but they are easily rattled. Like, if the grocery store sells out of some frozen pizza or soup they advertise in the circular, and they’ve gone to the store just for that, they’ll stand there debating their next move for a half an hour. If I called them, every aspect of my visit would have to be discussed to the smallest detail. What blanket would I need? Did I still eat crackers? Should Grandpa get more shampoo? It was always sweet, but a little too much for my mind at the moment.
I like to think I am a problem solver. I would distract myself out of this funk. I dug into my bag to see what I had managed to collect as I was rushed out of the house. I discovered that I was woefully unprepared for the trip ahead of me. I had grabbed the bare essentials—some underwear, jeans, two sweaters, a few shirts, my glasses. My iPod was out of power. I had just one book with me. It was Northanger Abbey, part of my winter break reading list for English. It was good, but not exactly what you want when you’re feeling the creeping hand of doom.
So, for about two hours, I just looked out the window as the sun set, the candy-color pink sky turned to silver, and the first snow began to fall. I knew it was beautiful, but knowing something is beautiful and caring about it are two very different things, and I didn’t care. The snow got harder and faster, until it filled the view and there was nothing left but white. It came from all directions at once, even blowing up from underneath. Watching it made me dizzy and a little ill.
People were coming down the aisle with boxes of food—chips and sodas and prewrapped sandwiches. Clearly, there was a food source somewhere on this train. Sam had shoved fifty bucks in my hand back at the station, all fifty of which would be extracted from my parents once they were breathing free air again. There was nothing else to do, so I got up and made my way down to the snack car, where I was promptly informed that they were out of everything except some floppy microwaved pizza discs, two muffins, a few candy bars, a bag of nuts, and some sad-looking fruit. I wanted to compliment them on being so well prepared for the holiday rush, but the guy working the counter looked really beaten. He didn’t need my sarcasm. I bought a pizza disc, two candy bars, the muffins, the nuts, and a hot chocolate. It seemed smart to stock up a bit for the rest of the trip if things were going that fast. I stuffed a five-dollar bill into his cup, and he nodded his thanks.
I took one of the empty seats at the tables braced to the wall. The train was shaking a lot now, even as we slowed. The wind was smacking us from either side. I left the pizza untouched and burned my lips on the chocolate. It was the most action they were going to get, after all.
“Mind if I sit here?” a voice asked.
I looked up to find an exceptionally beautiful guy standing over me. Again, I noticed, and again, I didn’t really care. But he did make more of an impact than the snow. His hair was as dark as mine, meaning it was black. It was longer than mine, though. Mine only goes just past my chin. His was pulled back in a ponytail. He looked Native American, with high cheekbones. The thin denim jacket he was wearing wasn’t nearly enough protection against the weather. There was something in his eyes, though, that really struck a chord—he looked troubled, like he was having a hard time keeping them open. He had just gotten himself a cup of coffee, which he was clutching kind of intently.
“Sure,” I said.
He kept his head down when he sat, but I noticed him glancing at all the food I had in the box. Something told me that he was a lot hungrier than me.
“Have some,” I said. “I was just getting stuff before they sold out. I’m not even that hungry. I haven’t touched this pizza at all.”
There was a moment of resistance, but I pushed it forward.
“I realize it looks like a pizza coaster,” I added. “It was all they had. Really. Take it.”
He smiled a little. “I’m Jeb,” he said.
“I’m Julie,” I answered. I wasn’t in the mood to go through the “Jubilee? Your name is Jubilee? Tell me, what do you use for your routine—baby oil or some kind of nut oil? And does someone wipe down the pole after each use?” conversation. Everything I explained to you in the beginning. Most people call me Julie. Noah called me Lee.
“Where are you headed?” he asked.
I had no cover story for my parents or why I was here. The full truth was a little too much to throw at a stranger.
“Going to see my grandparents,” I said. “Kind of last-minute change of plan.”
“Where do they live?” he asked, looking at the swirling snow that was beating at the window of the train. It was impossible to tell where the sky ended and the ground began. The snow cloud had crash-landed on top of us.
“Florida,” I said.
“Long way. I’m just going to Gracetown, next stop.”
I nodded. I’d heard of Gracetown but had no idea where it was. Somewhere on this long, snowy path between me and nowhere. I offered the box of food to him again, but he shook his head.
“That’s okay,” he said. “But thanks for the pizza. I was kind of starving. We picked a bad day to travel. Guess there’s not a lot of choice, though. Sometimes you just have to do stuff you aren’t sure about. . . . ”
“Who are you going to see?” I asked.
He turned his gaze back down and folded up the plate the pizza disc had come on.
“I’m going to see my girlfriend. Well, kind of girlfriend. I’ve been trying to call her, but I can’t get a signal.”
“I have one,” I said, pulling out my phone. “Use mine. I’m not even close to using my minutes this month.”
Jeb took the phone with a wide smile. As he got up, I noticed just how tall and broad-shouldered he was. If I wasn’t so completely devoted to Noah, I would have been deeply smitten. He crossed the few feet, just to a spot by the other side. I watched him try the number, but he clicked the phone shut without ever speaking.