“I couldn’t get her,” he said, sitting back down and returning my phone.
“So,” I said, smiling. “This is, kind of your girlfriend? You still aren’t sure if you’re dating yet?”
I remembered those times well, when Noah and I first got together, and I wasn’t sure if I was his girlfriend. I was so deliciously nervous all the time.
“She cheated on me,” he said plainly.
Oh, I’d misread that. Badly. I felt the pang for him, right in the middle of my chest. I really did.
“It’s not her fault,” he said after a moment. “Not all of it. I . . . ”
I never got to hear what had happened, because the door of the car flew open, and there was a screech, kind of like the sound that Beaker—the horrible, oily cockatoo we had as a fourth-grade pet—used to make. Beaker was the bird Jeremy Rich taught to scream the word ass. Beaker loved to screech and scream the word ass, and he did it really well. You could hear him all the way down the hall in the girls’ room. Beaker eventually got moved to the teachers’ lounge, where I guess you’re allowed to spread your greasy feathers and scream “ass” all you like.
It wasn’t ass-screaming Beaker, though. It was fourteen girls in matching, form-fitting sweats, all of which read RIDGE CHEERLEADING on the butt. (A form of ass-screaming, I suppose.) Each had her name on the back of her sleek warm-up fleece. They clustered around the snack bar, yelling at the top of their lungs. I really hoped and prayed that they wouldn’t all say “Oh my God!” at once, but my prayers were not heard, maybe because God was busy listening to all of them.
“There is no lean protein,” I heard one of them say.
“I told you, Madison. You should have had that lettuce wrap when you had the chance.”
“I thought they’d at least have chicken breast!”
To my enduring dismay, I noticed that both girls having this conversation were named Madison. Worse: three of the others were named Amber. I felt like I was trapped in a social experiment gone wrong—maybe something involving replicants.
A few of the group turned on us. I mean, to us. They turned to me and Jeb. Well, actually they just turned to Jeb.
“Oh my God!” said one of the Ambers. “Is this not the worst trip ever? Did you see the snow?”
She was a sharp one, this Amber. What would she notice next? The train? The moon? The hilarious vagaries of human existence? Her own head?
I didn’t say any of that, because death by cheerleader is not really the way I want to go. Amber wasn’t addressing this to me, anyway. Amber had no idea I was even there. Her eyes were on Jeb. You could almost see the robotic core in her corneas making all the focusing adjustments and lining him in the crosshairs.
“It’s pretty bad,” he said politely.
“We’re going down to Florida?”
She said it like that, like a question.
“Should be nicer there,” he said.
“Yeah. If we make it. We’re all at cheerleading regionals? Which is rough, because it’s the holidays? But we all had Christmas early? We did ours yesterday?”
This is when I noticed that they all seemed to be carrying really new-looking stuff. Shiny phones, conspicuous bracelets and necklaces that they played with, fresh manicures, iPods I’d never even seen before.
Amber One sat down with us—a careful sit, with her knees angled together and her heels turned out. A perky sitting pose of someone used to being the most adorable in the general vicinity.
“This is Julie,” Jeb said, kindly introducing me to our new friend. Amber told me her name was Amber, and then rattled off all the Ambers and Madisons. There were other names, but to me, they were all Ambers and Madisons. Seemed safe to think of it that way. I had at least a chance of being right.
Amber began chatting away, telling us all about the competition. She did this amazing thing where she included me in the conversation and ignored me at the same time. Plus, she was sending me a mental message—deeply subliminal—that she wanted me to get up and give my seat over to her tribe. They filled every available bit of space in the car as it was. Half of them on the phone, the other half depleting the water, coffee, and Diet Coke supply.
I decided that this was not what I needed to make my life complete.
“I’m going to go back to my seat,” I said.
Just as I stood, though, the train slowed dramatically, throwing us all forward in one big splash of hot and cold liquids. The wheels cried out in protest as they dragged down the track for about a minute, and then we stopped, hard. I heard luggage all up and down the train thundering down from racks, and then people falling where they stood. People like me. I landed on a Madison and slammed my chin and cheek on something. I’m not sure what it was, because the lights went out at the same moment, causing a massive yelp of dismay. I felt hands helping me up, and I didn’t need to be able to see to know it was Jeb.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Fine. I think.”
There was a flicker, and then the lights came back up one by one. Several Ambers were clinging to the snack bar for dear life. There was food all over the floor. Jeb reached down and picked up what was once his phone, now a neatly snapped two-piece affair. He cradled it in his hand like an injured baby bird.
The loudspeaker crackled, and the voice that spoke over it sounded genuinely rattled—not the cool, bossy tone they were using to announce stops along the way.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” it said, “please remain calm. A conductor will be checking your cabin to see if anyone has been injured.”
I pressed my face against the cold window to see what was going on. We had come to rest next to what looked like a wide road with lots of lanes, something like an interstate. Across the way was a glowing yellow sign, suspended high over the road. It was hard to see through the snow, but I recognized the color and shape. It was for a Waffle House. Just outside of the train, a crew member was stumbling along through the snow, looking under the carriage with a flashlight.
A female conductor threw open the door to our car and started surveying everyone. She was missing her hat.
“What’s happening?” I asked when she reached us. “We look really stuck.”
She leaned down and had a good look out the window, then gave a low whistle.
“We’re not going anywhere, honey,” she said in a low voice. “We’re just outside of Gracetown. The track dips down below this point, and it’s completely covered. Maybe they can send some emergency vehicles to get us by morning. I don’t know, though. I wouldn’t bet on it. Anyway, you hurt?”