“I’m okay,” I assured her.
Amber One was holding her wrist.
“Amber!” another Amber said. “What happened?”
“I twisted it,” Amber One moaned. “Bad.”
“That’s your support wrist on basket toss!”
Six cheerleaders indicated (not subliminally) that they wanted me to move out of the way so that they could get to their wounded member and sit her down. Jeb was trapped in the throng. The lights went dim, the heater audibly cranked down, and the loudspeaker came back on.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the voice said, “we’re going to cut a bit of power to conserve energy. If you have blankets or sweaters, you may want to use them now. If any of you require extra warmth, we’ll try to provide whatever we can. If you have extra layering, we ask that you share it.”
I looked at the yellow sign again, and then back at the cluster of cheerleaders. I had two choices—I could stay here in the cold, dark, stranded train or I could actually do something. I could take charge of this day that had run away from me too many times. It wouldn’t be hard to get across the road and over to the Waffle House. They probably had heat and lots of food. It was worth a shot, and it was a plan I felt Noah would have approved of. Proactive. I gently pushed my way through the Ambers to get to Jeb.
“There’s a Waffle House across the street,” I told him. “I’m going to go over and see if it’s open.”
“A Waffle House?” Jeb replied. “We must be just outside of town, along I-40.”
“Don’t be crazy,” Amber One said. “What if the train leaves?”
“It’s not,” I said. “The conductor just told me. We’re stuck here all night. Over there, they probably have heat and food and a place for people to move around. What else are we going to do?”
“We could practice our enthusiasm rounds,” one of the Madisons ventured in a tiny voice.
“You’re going by yourself?” Jeb asked. I could tell he wanted to come, but Amber was leaning on him now like her life depended on him.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “It’s just across the street. Give me your phone number and . . . ”
He held up the broken phone as a grim reminder. I nodded and picked up my backpack.
“I won’t be long,” I said. “I have to come back, right? Where else am I going to go?”
Peeking out of the cold vestibule, which was slicked with snow from the open train door, I could just about see the crew members stalking alongside the train with their flashlights. They were a few cars away, so I made my move.
The metal steps were steep, high, and completely covered in frozen snow. Plus, the gap from the train to the ground was about four feet. I sat on the wet bottom step, snow pouring on my head, and pushed myself off as carefully as I could. I fell on all fours into more than a foot of snow, soaking my tights, but it wasn’t too painful. I didn’t have far to go. We were right next to the road, only twenty feet or so. All I had to do was get down to that, cross, walk under the overpass, and I would be there. It would only take a minute or two.
I’ve never crossed a six-lane interstate before. The opportunity had never come up, and if it had, it would have seemed like a bad idea. But there were no cars at all. It felt like the end of the world, a whole new start to life, the old order gone. It took about five minutes to walk across, since the wind was blowing so hard and flakes kept landing in my eyes. Once I got over, I had to cross some other stretch of something. It could have been grass or cement or more road—now it was just white and deep. Whatever it was, there was a curb buried in it, which I tripped over. I was drenched in snow by the time I made it to the door.
It was warm inside the Waffle House. In fact, it was so overheated that the windows had steamed, causing the large plastic holiday decals stuck to them to droop and peel away. Soft jazz Christmas standards blew out through the speakers, joyful as an allergy attack. The predominant smells were floor cleaner and overused cooking oil, but there was a hint of promise. Potatoes and onions had been fried here not long ago—and they had been good.
People-wise, the situation wasn’t much better. From deep in the kitchen, I heard two male voices, interspersed with slapping sounds and laughing. There was a woman lingering in a cloud of her own misery in the farthest corner, an empty plate dotted with cigarette butts in front of her. The only employee in sight was a guy, probably about my age, standing guard at the cash register. His regulation Waffle House shirt was long and untucked, and his spiky hair stuck out of the low-hanging visor on his head. His name tag read DON-KEUN. He was reading a graphic novel when I came in. My entrance brought a little light into his eyes.
“Hey,” he said. “You look cold.”
It was well observed. I nodded in reply.
Boredom had eaten at Don-Keun. You could hear it in his voice, see it in the way he slouched over the register in defeat. “Everything’s free tonight,” he said. “You can have whatever you want. Orders from the cook and the acting assistant manager. Both of those are me.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I think he was about to say something else, but then just flinched in embarrassment as the slap fight in the back grew louder. There was a newspaper and several coffee cups in front of one of the counter seats. I went over to take a seat a few spaces down, in an effort to be somewhat social. As I sat, Don-Keun made a sudden lurch in my direction.
“Um, you might not want to—”
He cut himself off and retreated a step as someone emerged from the direction of the restrooms. It was a man, maybe sixty years old, with sandy hair, a little bit of a beer gut, and glasses. Oh, and he was dressed in tinfoil. Head to toe. Even had a little tinfoil hat. Like you do.
Tinfoil Guy took the seat with the newspaper and the cups and gave me a nod of greeting before I could move.
“How are you on this night?” he asked.
“I could be better,” I replied honestly. I didn’t know where to look—at his face or his shiny, shiny silver body.
“Bad night to be out.”
“Yeah,” I said, choosing his shiny, shiny abdomen as my point of focus. “Bad.”
“You don’t happen to need a tow?”
“Not unless you tow trains.”
He thought that over for a moment. It’s always awkward when someone doesn’t realize you’re joking and devotes thought time to what you’ve said. Double that when the person is wearing tinfoil.