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Chapter Seven

We sat there staring out the windows for rides that we weren’t sure were coming. There was a pay phone at the end of the hall, just outside the gym, but when I walked over to it right after I arrived, everyone else told me not to bother. It was like this collective murmur: “Lines’r-down-don’t-bother-yeah-right.”

Right after that, Gossell said, “Might as well take out those cell phones and i-things. I know half of you have one hidden somewhere, and you can consider this hallway your detention anyway.”

He was right: just about half. Pete and Jason had theirs; the girls had one iPhone between them (it turned out to be Krista’s, but they seemed to have joint custody); and Elijah had an old flip-open, “clamshell” type phone. But mine was sitting on my dresser at home, and Les didn’t seem to have anything, either.

Of course, having them was one thing, and using them was another. People tried to call for a while, but then Pete said that texts had a better shot because they were “smaller.” I wasn’t sure about the science behind that, but I knew you could keep trying to resend a text until it went through.

“If anyone gets through, let me know,” Gossell said after a few frustrated attempts of his own. Then he added, not really to anyone in particular, “I volunteered down in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. There was no service for weeks. Same thing after...

His voice trailed off and I didn’t catch the last word. Some other big disaster, I figured. We’d done a whole thing on Hurricane Katrina in social studies back in junior high: the government response, the cleanup, and all of that. Our social studies teacher at North Cambria was kind of an old hippie, though. It was harder to picture Gossell down there doing that “Rebuild for a Brighter Future” stuff, but, I don’t know, maybe he was really religious or something.

Pete was playing a video game and flipping over every time he got killed to check on those same sad, stranded texts. Jason alternated between trying to call and staring out into the snow in the direction his dad would be coming from.

After a while, the dialing and texting trailed off. Everyone basically got the point, turned their ringtones up to max ­volume, and waited. We were all really keyed up, and there was a weird sense of competition. You could see it in people’s eyes, in their quick little side-glances. Would Jason’s dad get here in his truck before Krista’s mom got here in her Subaru? Would either of them get here before whatever was coming to pick up Elijah, a hearse maybe? And would anyone end up giving Les a ride?

I was feeling it too. It’s not like I had anything against the others, but I didn’t want to be left behind. It was sort of good to know that Jason, Pete, and I were all waiting for the same guy, because it meant that I wouldn’t be the last one here.

I guess that feeling of not being alone was important to everyone. We had the whole hallway to wait in, and we probably could’ve strayed a lot farther than that. Gossell was supervising us, but he didn’t give the impression of caring much. He had his own problems, I guess. We probably could’ve gone back to the shop, for all he cared, but we didn’t. No one went anywhere. We waited in a cluster of warm bodies, just off to the side of the main door.

Sometimes we talked, but it was quiet in the hall and the sound sort of echoed. It made you a little self-conscious. Like, I said a few dumb things to Pete --- I was talking just to talk, you know? --- but everyone could hear it. They were probably thinking “Well, that was a dumb thing to say” or “Who cares?” And they weren’t wrong. You could whisper, but that just called more attention to it. That’s when people couldn’t help but listen.

So the talk would flare up and die down, flare up and die down, but nothing much got said and the quiet spells in between got longer and longer. We just sat and waited, looking out the windows for our opportunity to get out, looking out at these rolling waves of snow.

The hallway shot straight out behind the main building, with the locker rooms along the back wall and then the gym at the far end. The side facing out was safety glass, floor to ceiling. It looked onto the main road, where it cut off from Route 7, headed down, and leveled out before winding around the front of the building. That made watching easy, at least at first. Most of us hunkered down against the wall, either sitting on our coats or using them as pillows between the wall and the backs of our heads.

As the snow climbed higher against the glass, we had to adjust our positions, sitting up straighter and occasionally craning our necks for a better look. Every once in a while, someone would get up and walk over to the window.

The first thing you saw was that there were no cars going by. It had been that way since I’d arrived, but it was sort of a fresh wound each time. It’s not like there were ever many cars out on the little dead-end road that led to the high school and a few houses farther on. It’s not like there were ever even all that many up on Route 7, but there were usually, you know, some. Apparently, there’d been a snowplow a little while before Pete, Jason, and I arrived. And there’d been two cars trailing right behind it, riding in its wake, like those little fish that follow sharks.

Not that you’d know a plow had been by, looking out at the uninterrupted field of white that stretched out in front of the school. There should’ve been a little black ribbon cutting through it, and another one for Route 7 rising up the slope in the distance. But there was no sign of the roads now. There was no way of knowing where they were except memory.

Still, that piece of information told us what to look for. No car was going to be able to bull its way over these roads at this point. One of the big town plows would have to go first. That’s what we were watching for: the dull orange of the plow trucks. That’s what we were listening for: the sound of metal scraping asphalt, the sound of the plow doing its work.

It’s not that it didn’t occur to me that this storm might be too much for even the plows now. It crossed my mind. I’d never seen this much snow fall this fast. But I’d never heard of a snowplow getting stuck in snow either. That was like a fish drowning in water: Snow was its element, what it was made for.

The first hour ticked by, and then the second. The cell phones sat next to people like pet rocks. None of us were exactly in a sunny mood, but Gossell was downright angry. He didn’t say so, but you could see it in the way his jaw was set. His bearded chin was pushed forward and you could almost hear his teeth grinding. Waiting around with us had cost him his own chance to make it home. I didn’t know what kind of car he drove, but it wouldn’t matter much at this point.

Walking over from shop, we’d seen a huge lump of drifted snow in the faculty parking lot. It looked like an igloo, and Jason had made some sort of Eskimo joke. The punch line was, “And then you kick the polar bear in the icehole!” It had seemed funny at the time, but now it occurred to me that it must’ve been Gossell’s car under all that snow. And that was hours ago.

And I know Gossell was thinking that it was a lost cause anyway, that we were waiting around for rides that weren’t coming until the storm let up. Until the plows could make some headway and the snow wasn’t falling faster than it could be cleared. I know he was thinking that because I was starting to think it too. All you had to do was look out the window to catch that drift.

And pretty soon, even that depressing view began to vanish. The light faded early this time of year, even on clear days. I looked at the clock above the drinking fountain. It was around five, but it was already almost dark. It was hard enough to see through the storm during the day, but now it was pretty much impossible.

The light from the hallway projected a few feet out, catching the nearest falling flakes, but beyond that it was just shifting murk. There was too much snow and too little light. We sat along the wall and stared out. Mostly, we were staring at the snow that had climbed halfway up the glass, so we took unofficial shifts, standing and peering out.

We didn’t call them shifts or even talk much about what we were doing, but every few minutes someone would get up and look out. From the outside, it would’ve looked like a gopher poking its head and shoulders aboveground for a quick look. That person would sit down after a while, and a few minutes later, someone else would get up and repeat the process. What else was there to do? You couldn’t see much out there, but what we were looking for glowed. For a while, there was nothing. It was Julie who saw them first.

“Hey,” she said. She was talking to Krista, but loud enough that we could all hear her. “Are those headlights?”

Everyone got up and looked in the direction she was pointing. Gossell came over from his own spot, a little farther down the hallway. They were headlights; it was some kind of truck, high enough to chest its way through the snow or carve a path on top of it on fat, chained tires. It was up on Route 7, creeping slowly but unmistakably down the slope, toward the turnoff to the school. The lights were just visible through the falling snow, like two tiny, low-lying stars.

by by Michael Northrop