Beth wasn’t at the bus stop the next morning, which was unusual, because normally she held the bus for Jack.
“Well, c’mon, boy. Haven’t got all day to wait for your girlfriend.” The bus driver made a show of grinding the gears, and the bus lurched forward. Jack hopped the rest of the way up the steps to avoid being left in the dust.
He walked slowly down the aisleway, absentmindedly counting his usual thirteen rows before plopping into the seat. He kept his gaze on the windows the whole time, waiting to see Beth sprint from the break in the trees that adjoined their properties. The bus driver gunned the engine a couple times before he finally shrugged, hauling the doors shut and rumbling off down Route 3 into town.
“Whatsa matter, Jack? You and your girlfriend have a fight?” The question came between morning classes, the English teacher having just left, the one for History not yet arrived.
Jack closed his eyes, and counted to ten, hoping that Kyle would lose interest and go pick on someone else.
“Hey,” came the voice, this time accompanied by a punch in the arm. “I asked you a question, Shrimpy.”
When another count of ten only brought another punch in the arm, Jack slowly rose to his feet. Kyle still towered over him, and was easily half again as wide as Jack, and outweighed Jack by at least thirty pounds. Jack knew he didn’t stand a chance in a fight against the other boy. But when another jab in the shoulder came, Jack answered with a jab of his own.
The History teacher chose that instant to step through the doorway, and instants after that, both boys found themselves outside the principal’s office.
* * * * *
As dusk fell, Jack actually relished the fading of the orange-red light. It was too much like his feelings, diffuse, smoldering, clinging to the angry light of day, struggling against the peaceful darkness of the nighttime.
He closed his eyes, watching the light slowly creep away from his eyelids, trying to calm his churning thoughts.
Go to your room and think about what you’ve done, indeed. His parents hadn’t had him do anything he wasn’t already doing. The disappointment in their eyes and voices after the initial waves of anger had passed only fueled his own anger. He turned away from the darkening attic window, trying to rid himself of those last traces of sunset.
He huddled closer to the wall at the tapping of a bird against the window. When it didn’t give up, he threw a pillow blindly towards the window, hoping to scare it off.
There was a satisfying rattle as the pillow hit its mark, but the squawk didn’t sound anything like any bird he’d ever heard. When he turned to retrieve his pillow, he found himself staring at the biggest bird silhouette he’d ever seen. Leaving the pillow on the ground and kneeling on it, he hoisted up the window, setting one of his school books upright to prop the heavy panel open.
“You scared me half to death.” While his was a harsh whisper, hers came out closer to a sigh.
Jack and Beth stared at each other through the mostly intact screening, their breathing matching for a few moments after their words had.
“What are you doing here?” he hissed. “You’ll get me in trouble if they find you here.”
“Your mom and pop are downstairs, fixing dinner,” Beth said, her voice nonetheless a whisper. “Your mom always yells at you from downstairs, anyway. They won’t come up here.”
“You’ll still get me in trouble,” he said.
“I thought I already did that.”
Jack felt his cheek grow hot. “That wasn’t— He was—I just—”
“I— For what? I didn’t do anything I haven’t wanted to do for a long, long time.”
“Well... then, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’m not.”
“No, I mean about this morning.”
“Oh, that.” Jack shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure you—”
"My dad had a thing about work, and --"
A muffled shout came from downstairs, and Jack jumped, cracking his head against the windowframe.
“Ow! I gotta—”
“Oooh, are you—”
“Yeah. Done worse than this.” He rubbed the top of his head, backed towards the door. “Did you— Do you want to—” He pointed towards the floor.
“I’m not supposed to be here, remember?” she said. “Go eat. I’ll come back later,” she said, scooting across the section of roofing outside the window.
Jack ate, returned to his room, and was halfway through the day’s reading assignments when the ghostly tap came at his windown again. He jumped, even though he’d been listening for Beth’s return for hours.
He marked his place in the textbook, then jammed it under the window to prop it open.
“The cats make more noise up here than you do!” he hissed.
“So?” she asked, sitting on the roof outside, knees up by her chin. “Are you okay?”
Jack rubbed his head. “Yeah, that didn’t hurt—”
“I mean about school today and all. They said you got suspended.”
“Its only three days, so its like I’ll have a really long weekend. Its not like I’ll miss much, anyway.”
She leaned her head on her knees, looking at him sideways. “I’m sorry,” she said, again.
“I said its no big deal,” Jack assured her.
“What’d ‘they’ say this time?” Jack asked, when she didn’t continue.
“Well, they said…” She paused, then turned away from the light spilling through the window. She took a deep breath.
“They said that you hit Kyle because he called me your girlfriend.”
Jack strained to see her face, turned away from the light as it was.
“I hit him ‘cause I was tired of his being a jerk,” Jack said.
After a pause, Beth drew a deep breath. “Oh,” was all she said.
“Don’t listen to what they say,” Jack said, leaning close to the window. “You know how snotty some of those kids in class can be. Especially when they know you’re not there to hear what they say.”
“Yeah,” Beth said, her voice wavering a bit. “Yeah, I guess you're right. Its late, I should go.” She rolled forward onto her toes, balanced on her fingertips and the tips of her shoes.
“Wait,” Jack said, standing up, then bending over when his head shot over the book’s width of open window. “Do you have to go already?”
“Its after dark, my dad’ll kill me. Besides, I’ll get you in trouble being here, remember?”
“I still have homework,” she said, and then she was off, gliding across the roof to the overhanging tree limb, her passing no more noticeable than a stiff wind across the rooftop, rattling the remaining leaves on the old oak.