She was laughing again. “You’re not really afraid of ghosts are you?”
“No. Of course not. They’re just made up.”
“You should be.”
“Stop that, there’s no such thing as ghosts.”
“Fine,” Beth said, releasing his arm and treading through the foyer, around the stairs and into what turned out to be the kitchen. Jack followed her, noticing that as much as it looked the same as his house on the outside, it was laid out completely differently inside. He couldn’t help drawing the same parallels between his sisters and the girl.
He entered the kitchen and found her busy at a cabinet, standing on tiptoe to take down two mugs. If they could be called that. Certainly they had handles, and were intended to hold drink. One was crafted in the shape of a skull, colored a weathered yellow of old bone. The other bore the likeness of someone famous, Jack thought. A movie star, maybe, the features done in caricature.
Beth pried open a tin, filling the skull and head with spoonfuls of fine brown powder.
“We’re having cocoa,” she said, turning to stir the small pan on the stove, one hand pressed to her side, her foot tapping impatiently. Today’s shoes were light pink Converse hi-tops. With day-glo green laces.
Jack took a seat at the kitchen table, a corner that was clear of boxes and halfway unpacked cooking gadgets, and suddenly something clicked in his head.
“My sisters usually like tea,” he said.
She turned, head cocked to the side, the question in her expression draining into a blush as she turned back to the saucepan, suddenly keenly interested in stirring.
“Where the heck did you get these… things?” Jack asked as she put the steaming head in front of him. He picked it up, gingerly, blowing on the cocoa. It smelled just right.
“My dad kinda collects them. One of a lot of things he collects,” she said, rolling her eyes, sipping from the skull.
“Is he at work?” Jack asked.
Beth nodded. “He left yesterday, when I got home from school.”
Jack sipped at the cocoa. It was as good as it smelled, but very hot. He blew on it more. “So, when does he come home? My dad always comes home right at the same time, 6:30. My mom always says she can set a clock by that.”
“He didn’t say, this time. Probably around the end of the month.”
Jack sputtered on his cocoa. “Month?”
“Yeah,” she shrugged, sipping again. Jack waited, hoping she’d elaborate, but she just stared at him over the rim of the skull.
“So… what does he do?” Jack finally asked.
Jack sighed. “I always have to guess,” he said. “Can’t you just tell me?”
“Its more fun when you guess. You learn more about people that way.”
Jack thought for a second, both about what her dad could do that would take him away for two or three weeks at a time, but also about what Beth had said about guesses.
“Does he travel a long way? Like, out of state? Out of the country? Where does he go?”
“I told you, you have to guess. I’m not just going to give it away. You’re stalling.”
“Well, I’m trying to narrow down my guessing a bit.”
“‘Why limit yourself by putting up walls around your thoughts?’ thats what my dad says.”
“Your dad’s a deep guy, isn’t he?”
“Isn’t yours? I get that impression from him.”
“You’ve never talked to him,” Jack said.
“No, but I’ve watched. Actions, sometimes, speak much louder than words. Its funny when he ruffles your hair.”
“Well, what does your dad do when you get a good score on a test or win a race at school?”
“He says ‘Congratulations’ and shakes my hand.”
“A handshake? Thats weird.”
“Its no weirder then getting your hair ruffled.”
“He’s cool and aloof. That must mean he’s a spy,” Jack said.
“He’s not cool. Or aloof.”
“He shakes your hand. Thats aloof.”
“He has a very firm handshake.”
“So he’s firmly aloof.”
“He’s not aloof. You’re a goof.” She stuck her tongue out at him.
“You have no… proof,” Jack said, sticking his own tongue out.
Her smile wavered, and she set the steaming skull down on the table. “I— ow. I’m all out of ‘oofs,” she said, wincing and holding her side again. “I’ll be back,” she gasped, hurrying out of the kitchen.
When she wasn’t “right back,” Jack started to get a bit nervous. The house was quiet. No TV blaring, no sisters arguing, no Ellie pestering him to play Barbies. Just a ticking of the stovetop cooling. He closed his eyes, and blotting out the pale green walls and clutter of boxes in the corner sharpened his hearing. His breathing seemed to grow louder.
“Beth?” The chair scraped as he rose to his feet, another too-loud sound.
He strode across the linoleum floor, to the doorway the girl had hurried through, leading back out to the main hallway. Stairs up on his left, more hallway to the right. Doorway probably to the living room, then a closed door a bit down from that.
“Beth?” he called again, sounding like a shout in the stillness of the house. Maybe it was a shout.