Friday, January 2, 2009

Of Mothers and Sisters

Jack hit the side door into the kitchen at full sprint, his knuckles white as he hung on the doorway to stop himself.

“Mom, I need— No, its Beth, she—”

He didn’t even have the words all the way out between gulps of air, and his mother was already reaching under the kitchen sink for her first aid kit.

It was no small tin box, either, but rivaled the size of her husband’s fishing tackle box, both in size and heft. Jack reached out for it, grunting and heaving it with both hands as he followed his mother down the side porch and across the gravel roadway.

“Are you sure you don’t have the sink in here?” he gasped waddling after his mother’s brisk pace.

“Is this the time to be making jokes?” she asked over her shoulder.

“Beth was trying to,” he said.

“Then it can’t be too terribly life-threatening,” she said, some of the tension leaving her frame as she trooped up the front steps. She paused at the front doorway, knocking on the doorjamb. The front door was halfway open.

“What kind of manners is that, leaving the door open like this?” she asked, stepping through the doorway. “Hello,” she called down the hall. “Is anybody home?”

Jack huffed past his mom, setting the kit down on the floor by the closed door in the hallway.


There came a quiet sniffle from behind the door, and Jack heaved a sigh of relief.

“I didn’t know what else to do, so I brought my mom. And her first aid kit.”

“I—” there came a hiccupping sob. “I think this will take more then a band-aid.”

“You haven’t seen my mom’s first aid kit.”

Jack’s mother put a hand on his shoulder, easing him away from the door.

“Beth? Sweetie?”

“Don’t call her ‘sweetie’ mom. She hit the last guy that did that.”

“Its different when girls say it, dear. Now, go make yourself scarce so she doesn’t get any more embarrassed then she already is.”

Jack swallowed, then backed away from the door, and wandered into the living room, which was surprisingly open, despite the rows of boxes lined up along one wall. He scooted a box over to make room on one side of the large sofa dominating the middle of the room, and sat.

He heard his mom saying something in a low voice, heard the sharp ‘click’ of the lock, and then the door opening and closing.

Jack occupied himself looking through what had been unpacked. Several bookcases lined one wall, and many of the shelves were already full of books of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Jack saw several different encyclopedia sets, three different dictionaries in english, and what he guessed were more of the same in other languages. Some looked Russian, or maybe Greek, while others were in the long, flowing script of one middle-eastern country or another. A shelf below held books on mythology, the usual Greek and Roman staples he was learning about in school, but also Indian myths, and what looked like either Chinese or Japanese books as well. He didn’t know enough to tell the difference between the characters, and didn’t want to pry too much into the collection without permission. He walked to the wall of boxes, and those open, which looked to’ve been in the middle of being unpacked, held more books. If the rest of them held more of the same, there were probably as many books in this one room as there were in the whole school library.

Another set of boxes, set away from the books along the far corner of the living room, held knicknacks it looked like. Laying atop the wads of packing tissue and foam peanuts were a couple wooden masks, one painted in garish colors that made Jack think of Africa, and another in a dark, rich wood with styling that looked closer to what little he’d seen about American Indians.

So, maybe her dad wasn’t a spy. But certainly Mr. (or maybe Dr.) Harrison was widely read. As strange as his new neighbor was, Jack wondered if Beth had also read all these books, even the ones in foreign languages and scripts.

The click-squeak of the door opening down the hall snapped Jack out of his thoughts, and he poked his head out through the archway.

“Is she—”

“She’s fine,” his mother said, swinging the bulky first aid kit out of the bathroom and setting it along the wall. “Now turn around and shut your eyes and count to fifty. Then wait in the kitchen and help Beth with her bags.”

Jack stared at his mom. “Bags?”

She wagged her finger in a “turn around” motion, eyes narrowing., and he spun, eyes tightly shut, started counting. Behind him, he heard the door creak the rest of the way open, heard a patter of feet across the wooden floor and up the stairs.

By the time he’d finished washing out the skull and the head and set them in the dish caddy to dry, he heard a steady “clompf-clompf” of something heavy being lugged down step by step.

He took the stairs two by two and snatched the heavy duffel from Beth’s hands. “Give me that,” he said, then groaned as he hoisted the bag up over his shoulder.

“What the devil do you have in here?” he asked, taking a careful step downwards.

“Just… you know… clothes and stuff.”

“If your clothes aren’t lined with lead, then I’m worried about what the other ‘stuff’ might be,” he said, setting the bag down with a heavy sigh at the bottom of the stairs.

Beth took the steps gingerly. She’d changed into a pair of baggy sweats, the college logo obscured by the equally baggy sweatshirt that came down almost to her knees. Her skin looked even paler against the dark blue of the outfit. Her hair, just brushing her shoulders, seemed to glow against the blue. Her green eyes narrowed.

“I don’t have a camera in there,” she said.

Jack blinked. “Huh?”

“If I did you could take a picture. That way you wouldn’t have to stare.”

“I wasn’t—” Jack sputtered, then shut his mouth. He had been. He busied himself hoisting up the duffel.

“Come on,” she said, as she walked past him, towards the front door. “Your mom invited me for dinner.”

“You need all this to come for dinner?” he wheezed.

* * * * *

Jack huffed and puffed his way up the front steps, and held the screen door open, gesturing to Beth with his head, since his hands were full of bulging duffel.

“Well, go on in,” he said when she hesitated. Like a cat, he thought, timid, hesitant at a strange doorway. He half expected her to sniff at it before she crossed.

She did sniff, but at the cooking smells that wafted through from the kitchen. It was Thursday, that meant pot roast.

Jack set down the duffel bag with a relieved groan as he followed the girl in, the screen door swinging shut with a “bang” behind him. His sisters looked up from the TV, waved and smiled, their whispering taking on a decidedly sinister feel when they turned back to each other.

“Charlotte and Hannah,” he muttered. “They’re both in high school. And when they are watching videos, like now, we’re lucky to even get a wave. Enjoy the quiet now, since they don’t shut up the rest of the time.”

With the TV going, punctuated by the rapping of knife against cutting board in the kitchen, Beth looked from one way to the other. “This… this is quiet?”

“They actually turned down the volume a bit, so yeah,” Jack said. He led her past a coffee table piled with school books and binders, around the dining room table and into the kitchen.

Jack’s mom looked up from the breadboard, where she was slicing celery. “All freshened up? Good, dinner will be ready soon. Jack, have Beth help you set the table. Its going to be a bit crowded tonight…”

Jack and Beth had just started laying out the silverware when the crunching of tires over gravel announced the arrival of Jack’s dad.

“Six-thirty,” the girl said, glancing up at the clock by the kitchen doorway.

With a clomping of heavy boots on the steps and a rattle of the screen door, Jack’s dad slumped into the room.

He clomped by the girls watching TV, saying “Time to get ready for dinner, girls. C’mon.” Then he clomped to the foot of the stairs. “Ellie. Dinner. Better hurry or we’ll eat it all and won’t leave you any.”

He was past the dining area and almost into the kitchen before he did the double-take.

“When did I get a blonde daughter?” he asked nobody in particular. “Honey,” he said, leaning into the kitchen. “Have you been messing around with the mailman again?”

Jack’s mother laughed. “Not this week, dear. Now get in here and let me explain.”

Jack couldn’t hear the conversation, they’d dropped their voices into the low murmur then usually reserved for Bill Paying Day. Not that he could have heard much over the sound of his sisters filing in around the table. He found the bustle grated on his nerves, as it did most nights, having to listen to his sisters gabbing about this guy at school, or that girl doing whatever. But Beth smiled brightly amidst the chatter.

“So, you’re the one Jack has been spending his afternoons with?” his dad asked.

The girl nodded. “Unless he’s been seeing someone else behind my back, then yeah.”

Jack felt his cheeks burn, and suddenly wished he could climb under the table.

“Jack doesn’t talk to girls,” his little sister piped from further down the table. “He barely even talks to any boys.”

“Its a good thing she’s sitting on the other side of you,” Jack said to Beth. “It’d be rude to kick her under the table through you.”

“So what brought you and your family out here?” Jack’s dad asked, mopping at his plate with a slice of bread. “This doesn’t exactly seem like the first place anyone would want to move to.”

“My dad grew up in a place like this,” Beth said. “He wanted to move back to somewhere open and wild. We lived in a big city before, but it always felt so crowded there. So when he left his job at the museum, we just packed up and came here.”

“Was it a big museum?” Ellie asked. “Did it have mummies and dinosaurs and suits of armor?”

Beth laughed. “Mummies and dinosaurs, yes. But no suits of armor.”

“Did your daddy put together dinosaurs? I saw a thing at school about a man who does that.”

“No, they didn’t let him play with the dinosaurs. He hung out with the mummies.”

“Like, has he been to the pyramids?” Charlotte asked, eyes somewhat wide. Jack started. She barely ever said three words at the table.

“He went when I was little, right after I was born. He has lots of pictures from the trip. When we finally unpack them I’ll bring them over if you want.”

“I saw a thing on TV that said the mummies are cursed.” Ellie said.

“Thats just superstition,” Hannah said, tossing a bit of bread at her younger sister.

“No, its true,” Beth said. “Dad thinks it was the curse that took my mom.”

Almost in unison, forks hit plates, and half a dozen pairs of eyes went from the girl, to those plates, then back to the girl. For the first time since they’d come over from the house next door, the Jacobs house fell absolutely silent.

“I’m… sorry about your mom,” Jack’s dad said, with a hitch in his voice. He reached for the bread basket, pulling the towel away “Who wants another slice?”

“How did she die— OW!” Ellie yelped and jumped in her seat. “Mom, Hannah kicked me!”

“Good. Hannah, kick her again, for me,” Jack’s mother said. “Sweetie, thats not the kind of question you ask in this situation,” she said, a little more gently. “Try to think how sad you were when your hamster died.”

Ellie’s round features crinkled up, her lower lip beginning to quiver. Beth reached around and hugged the girl, smoothing her hair down her back.

“Its okay. It was a long time ago. We both got sick. I got better. She didn’t. By the time my dad came back from Giza, she was already gone. That was when he started working in the museum instead of out in the field. And then we moved here.” She shrugged. “Thats it. My life in a nutshell.”

“If you want a mommy, you can have mine,” Ellie said with a sniffle.

“Thanks,” Beth said.

“So.. What is it that your dad does now?”

“Well, since I’m old enough to take care of myself, he went back to doing field work,” Beth said. “But not in Egypt! He went somewhere down south. New Mexico, maybe. Something about Indians.”

“And… he just left you here? Alone?”

“I don’t mind. I can take care of myself. I’ve lived alone most of the time, anyway. I have things to keep me busy. And if anything really bad happens, I have Gram’s phone number.”

“Your grandmother?” Jack’s dad asked. “How far away is she?”

“Maine, I think. Or maybe Vermont.”

“That’s quite a ways to travel… if something really bad happens.” Jack’s dad glanced over at his mom, and they did that silent-parent-telepathy-thing.

“Margaret tells me you’ll be spending the night,” he said slowly. He leaned forward, over his plate, towards the girl. “While I don’t quite agree with a man up and leaving his little girl to fend for herself while he’s up to who knows what half a country away, that’s your two’s own business, and I guess he trusts you enough for that.

“Out here, things can happen. There’s wild animals out in those woods and they aren’t too far from these houses out here. Weather can be funny, too, at times. There’s lots of little things that can sometimes turn into big things.”

Beth was sitting, hands folded in her lap, nodded, her thin throat working as she swallowed nervously.

“So if something happens while you’re over there all alone, you come knock on this door. Any time, day or night. Its a bit crowded here, but we’ll make room.”

Beth licked her lips, glanced back and forth between Jack’s parents, then nodded again, slowly this time, deliberately.

“Th- thank you,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “I promise not to impose.”

“None of that,” Jack’s father said, slashing his hand in the air. “Its never imposing if you’re a neighbor, in need of help. Thats just what we do. Thats how it is here.”

Beth stared at her plate. “People aren’t that nice where I grew up in the city.”

“Maybe that’s why your dad moved you out here, then,” Jack said, realizing it was the first he’d spoken through most of the meal.

“All right. If we’re all done gabbing, lets clear this table so you kids can get that homework done.” Jack’s dad rose to his feet, gathering up plates, leaning over to kiss his wife. “Lovely meal, Honey,” he said. “Always good to have company over.” He nodded in Beth’s direction as she added her plate to the growing stack in his big hands. “Let’s go in the kitchen and discuss this some more. Jack, you’re off your grounding for tonight at least. Don’t think this gets you off the hook. Help your sister with her homework if she needs it.”

Jack nodded. He’d almost forgotten about his suspension from school and subsequent grounding.

* * * * *

Over the rustling of pages turning and scratching of pencils and pens across paper, Beth leaned closer to Jack.

“This is so... I don’t know. You’re so lucky to have such cool parents. And sisters. I want sisters.”

“You can have mine,” Jack said, and all three of his glared at him.

“Trust us, we’d rather have another cute younger sister than a gawky, gangly little brother,” Hannah grumbled. “Maybe when your dad gets back we can work out some kind of trade.”

Beth blushed.

“No homework from class?” Jack asked her, and she waved a dismissive hand.

“I finished that during lunch hour,” she said.

Charlotte looked up. “You’re in Picasso’s class?”

Beth glanced over at Jack. “Picasso?”

He looked up from Ellie’s letters. “You draw on a wall one time, and you never live it down,” he said with a glare at his sister. “I was three. Give it up.”

Beth giggled. Jack wasn’t sure he liked it when she did that.

“She sits in your old seat,” Jack said.

“She still giving out those monster math assignments?”

Jack rolled his eyes. “You’ve seen how thick those handouts are,” he said.

“And you finished it in a lunch hour?” Charlotte asked the other girl.

Beth shrugged. “Its not like it was hard.”

Jack’s sister turned her book around, and pointed to a problem. “Can you do that?”

Beth looked down at the problem, her eyes clouding a bit as she thought. She counted a bit on her fingers. “Three?”

“Mom!” Charlotte called. “She’s smart. Can we keep her?”

“She’s not some kind of stray puppy,” Jack said.

“We don’t even know if she’s housebroken,” muttered Hannah. “I mean, she does hang out with Jack, after all.”


They all turned to the girl.

“Speaking of housebroken…”

Jack jumped up. “C’mon, I’ll show you where we lay down the paper for that kinda stuff.”

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