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  • The Jubilee Express

    Maureen Johnson

    For Hamish, who embodied the "go down the hill really fast, and if something gets in your way, turn" school of teaching me how to deal with a snowy slope. And for all who toil behind the facade of a corporate monolith, for every person who has to say grande latte three thousand times a day, for every soul who's ever had to deal with a broken credit card reader in the holiday rush . . . this one is for you.

    Chapter One

    It was the night before Christmas.

    Well, to be more precise, it was the afternoon before Christmas. But before I take you into the beating heart of the action, let’s get one thing out of the way. I know from experience that if it comes up later, it will distract you so much that you won’t be able to concentrate on anything else I tell you.

    My name is Jubilee Dougal. Take a moment and let it sink in.

    See, when you get it up front, it’s not that bad. Now imagine I was halfway through some long story (like I’m about to be), and I dropped that one on you. “By the way, my name is Jubilee.” You wouldn’t know what to do next.

    I realize Jubilee is a bit of a stripper name. You probably think I have heard the call of the pole. But no. If you saw me, you’d get the idea pretty quickly that I’m not a stripper (I think). I have a little black bob. I wear glasses half the time, and contacts the other half. I’m sixteen, I sing in choir, I attend Mathletes events. I play field hockey, which lacks the undulating, baby-oiled grace that is the stripper’s stock and trade. (I have no problem with strippers, in case any strippers are reading this. I’m just not one. My major concern, stripage-wise, is the latex. I think latex is probably bad for your skin because it doesn’t allow it to breathe.)

    My objection is that Jubilee isn’t a name—it’s some kind of a party. No one knows what kind. Have you ever heard of someone throwing a jubilee? And if you did, would you go? Because I wouldn’t. It sounds like something where you have to rent a large inflatable object, put up bunting, and make a complicated plan for trash disposal.

    Come to think of it, it might be interchangeable with hoedown.

    My name has a lot to do with this story, and like I said, it was the afternoon before Christmas. I was having one of those days when you feel that life . . . likes you. Finals were over and school was done until New Year’s. I was alone in our house, which was feeling very cozy and snug. I was dressed for the night in a new outfit I’d saved for—a black skirt, tights, a sparkly red T-shirt, and my new black boots. I was drinking a little eggnog latte that I’d cooked up for myself. All my presents were wrapped and ready to go. It was all leading up to the big event: at six, I was supposed to go to Noah’s house—Noah Price, my boyfriend—for his family’s annual Christmas Eve Smorgasbord.

    The Price Family Annual Smorgasbord is a big deal in our personal history. It was how we got together in the first place. Before the Smorgasbord, Noah Price was just a star in my sky . . . constant, familiar, bright, and far above me. I’d known Noah since the fourth grade, but it felt like I knew him in the same way that I know people on television. I knew the name. I watched the show. Sure, Noah was a bit closer than that . . . but somehow when it’s real, when it’s your life . . . that person can feel even farther off and more unobtainable than an actual celebrity. Proximity doesn’t breed familiarity.

    I had always liked him, but it never really occurred to me to like him, like him. I never thought that was a reasonable thing to want. He was a year older than me, a foot taller, broad of shoulder, bright of eye, and floppy of hair. Noah was the whole package—athlete, academic, school-government bigwig—the kind of person you think must only date models or spies or people who have laboratories named after them.

    So when Noah invited me to come along to El Smorgasbord on Christmas Eve last year, I more or less ruptured an eye in my excitement and confusion. I couldn’t walk straight for three days when I got the invitation. It was so bad that I actually had to consciously practice walking in my room before I went to his house. I had no idea if he had asked me because he liked me, or if his mom made him (our parents know each other), or because he lost a bet. All my friends were just as excited, but they seemed to understand it more than I did. They assured me that he had been eyeing me in Mathletes, laughing at my attempts at trigonometry jokes, bringing me up in conversation.

    It was all so crazy . . . as weird as finding out that someone had written a book about my life or something.

    When I got there, I spent most of the night safely propped up in a corner talking to his sister, who (though I love her) is not exactly deep. There is only so much you can say about your favorite brands of hoodies before you feel the conversational walls closing in. But she can go like a champion. Elise has some Thoughts on the Subject.

    I finally took a break just as Noah’s mom was setting out another plate and I could make the Oh-excuse-me-but-doesn’t-that-look-good excuse. I had no idea what was on it, but it turned out to be pickled fish. I was backing away, but his mom said, “You have to try a piece.”

    Being a bit of a lemming, I did. But this time, it worked out, because that’s when I noticed that Noah was watching me. He said, “I’m so glad you took some.” I asked him why, because I really think I suspected it was all a bet. (“Okay, I’ll ask her to come, but you guys have to give me twenty bucks if I can make her eat pickled fish.”)

    And he said, “Because I’ve been eating it.”

    I was still standing there with what I assume was a very enchanting expression of total stupidity etched on my face, so he added, “And I couldn’t kiss you unless you’d had some, too.”

    Which is both gross and breathtakingly romantic. He could always have just gone upstairs and brushed his teeth, but he stayed and lurked by the fish for me. We snuck off to the garage, where we made out under the shelf of power tools. That was the start of it all.

    So, the particular Christmas Eve I’m about to tell you about wasn’t just any Christmas Eve: this was our one-year anniversary. It was almost impossible to believe it had been a year. It had all gone by so fast. . . .

    See, Noah is always really busy. When he emerged into the world, tiny and wriggling and pink, he probably had to get footprinted and out of the hospital as quickly as possible to get to a meeting. As a senior, a member of the soccer team, and president of the student council, his time had been whittled away to almost nothing. I think in the year that we had been dating we had had about a dozen proper dates with just Noah and me going somewhere by ourselves. About once a month. We’d had plenty of joint appearances. Noah and Jubilee at the student-council bake sale! Noah and Jubilee at the soccer-team raffle table! Noah and Jubilee at the food drive, in the tutoring room, at the homecoming-organizational meeting . . .