“Everyone loves a Smorgasbord,” he said graciously.
It was time for a change of topic.
“Target,” I said, pointing at his shirt. Except I said, “Tar-shay,” in that French way that really isn’t very funny.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Now you can see why I had to risk my life getting to work. When your job is important as mine, you have to take some chances; otherwise, society doesn’t function. That guy must really want to make a call.”
Stuart pointed out the window, and I turned. Jeb was at the phone booth, which was surrounded by about a foot of snow. He was trying to force the door open.
“Poor Jeb,” I said. “I should lend him my phone . . . now that I have a signal.”
“Is that Jeb? You’re right . . . Wait . . . how do you know Jeb?”
“He was on my train. He said he was coming to Gracetown. I guess he plans on walking the rest of the way or something.”
“It looks like he really, really wants to make a call,” Stuart said, pulling aside the slippery candy cane on the window to get a better look. “Why doesn’t he just use his phone?”
“His phone broke when we crashed.”
“Crashed?” Stuart repeated. “Your train . . . crashed?”
“Just into snow.”
Stuart was about to press a bit further on the train-crashing subject when the door opened, and in they poured. All fourteen of them, yelping and squealing and trailing snowflakes.
“Oh my God,” I said.
There is nothing about a bad situation that fourteen hyper cheerleaders can’t worsen.
It took about three minutes for the unassuming Waffle House to become the new offices of the law firm of Amber, Amber, Amber, and Madison. They set up camp in a clump of booths in the corner opposite from us. A few of them gave me an “oh, good, you are still alive” nod, but for the most part, they had no interest in anyone else.
This did not mean that no one had an interest in them, however.
Don-Keun was a new man. The moment they arrived, he vanished for a second. We heard muffled ecstatic screaming coming from somewhere in the back of the Waffle House kitchen, then he reappeared, his face shining with the kind of radiance usually associated with religious epiphany. Looking at him made me tired. Behind him were two more guys, awed acolytes following in his wake.
“What do you need, ladies?” Don-Keun called happily.
“Can we practice handstands in here?” Amber One said. I guess her basket-toss wrist was feeling better. Tough types, these cheerleaders. Tough and crazy. Who treks through a blizzard to practice handstands in a Waffle House? I only went there to get away from them.
“Ladies,” he said, “you can do whatever you want.”
Amber One liked this answer.
“Could you, maybe, like mop the floor? Just this bit right here? Just so we don’t get stuff on our hands? And could you spot us?”
He almost broke his own ankles trying to get to the mop closet.
Stuart had been watching all of this wordlessly. He didn’t have that same glorious look as Don-Keun or his friends, but the matter had clearly made his radar. He cocked his head to the side, like he was trying to figure out a really hard math problem.
“Things around here have deviated from the usual,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “You could say that. Is there anywhere else to go? A Starbucks or something?”
He almost flinched when I mentioned Starbucks. I guessed he was one of those antichain types, which seemed odd for someone who worked at Target.
“It’s closed,” he said. “Pretty much everything is. There’s the Duke and Duchess. That might still be open, but that’s just a convenience store. It’s Christmas Eve, and with this storm . . . ”
Stuart must have sensed my despair from the way I began lightly banging my forehead on the table.
“I’m going to get back to my house,” he said, slipping his hand across the table as cushioning and preventing me from doing myself any more damage. “Why don’t you come with me? At least it’s out of the snow. My mom would never forgive me if I didn’t ask you if you needed somewhere to go.”
I thought this over. My cold, dead train was on the other side of the road. My current option was a Waffle House full of cheerleaders and a guy dressed in Reynolds Wrap. My parents were guests of the state, hundreds of miles away. And the biggest snowstorm in fifty years was right on top of us. Yeah, I needed somewhere to go.
Still, it was hard to unwire the “stranger danger” message that ran through my head . . . even though the stranger was really the one taking the chance. I had all the crazy cards tonight. I wouldn’t have taken me home.
“Here,” he said. “A little proof of identity. This is my official Target employee card. They don’t let just anyone work at Target. And here’s a driver’s license. . . . Ignore the haircut, please. . . . Name, address, social, it’s all on there.”
He pulled the cards out of his wallet to finish the joke. I noticed that there was a picture of him with a girl in the picture flap, obviously from a prom. That reassured me. He was a normal guy with a girlfriend. He even had a last name—Weintraub.
“How far is it?” I asked.
“About a half mile that way,” he said, pointing at what appeared to be nothing at all—formless white lumps that could have been houses, could have been trees, could have been life-size models of Godzilla.
“A half mile?”
“Well, it’s a half mile if we take the short way. The long way is a little over a mile. It won’t be bad. I could have kept going, but this was open, so I just stopped for a warmth break.”
“Are you sure your family won’t mind?”
“My mom would literally beat me down with a hose if I didn’t offer someone help on Christmas Eve.”
Don-Keun vaulted the counter with a mop, almost impaling himself in the process. He started cleaning the floor around Amber One’s feet. Outside, Jeb had gotten into the booth. He was deeply entrenched in a drama of his own. I was alone.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll come.”
I don’t think anyone noticed our getting up and leaving except for Tinfoil Guy. He had his back turned to the cheerleaders in complete disinterest, and he saluted us as we headed for the door.
“You’re going to need a hat,” Stuart said, as we stepped into the frigid vestibule.
“I don’t have a hat. I was going to Florida.”