Something drew Jack up from the depths of having just drifted off to sleep, and he sat up, rubbing his eyes. He was about to let whatever it was that had awakened him slip away, and lay back down before that warm invitation back to dreamland evaporated, when there came an almost inaudible tap at his bedroom door.
Neither of his older sisters would bother with a quiet knock, and Ellie couldn’t go up or down the stairs quietly to save her life. He hadn’t heard any creaking of the third and seventh steps, hadn’t heard the quiet padding of feet on the landing outside.
Which meant it could only be Beth.
The red numbers on the clock by his bed read 11:58
Jack rolled from under his blankets, took the three steps to the door, cracking it open, all the while struggling under the weight of sleep, which was trying to drag him back under the covers where it was warm. Unfortunately, the cold from the floor was seeping up through his socks, and along with the movement, woke him up enough to form a few coherent thoughts.
“Do you know what time it is?” he asked.
“Almost the Witching Hour,” she whispered, her eyes wide and dark against her light hair and pale face.
“The what-ing hour?”
“The Witching Hour. Midnight. When the ghosts and goblins and devils come out to play.”
“Did you get up to play with them? The devils and goblin are asleep downstairs. And the only ghost up here is the ghost of my sleep, now,” Jack muttered. He stifled a yawn.
“I can’t sleep. I’ve never spent the night at somebody else’s place before, and it just feels… ” She shivered a bit, hugging herself. She looked very small, standing there in the dark, in the oversized sweats and sweater.
Jack snapped mostly awake at that, stepping back and opening his door the rest of the way, or at least wide enough for her to slip through. She stepped in, the floor not creaking a bit under her feet, and Jack closed his door as quietly as he could.
“Well,” he said. “This is my room.” He gestured around the small space, which seemed much smaller with two people there.
He jerked the blankets of his bed into some semblance of order, and motioned for her to sit, and he sank into the chair at his desk, leaning his arms across the back, watching her as she glanced around his room, taking in what little there was to see: bureau in the corner, desk under the steep angle of the roofline, low bookcase under the window, which also served a bit as a nightstand to the bed that sat along the other angle of the roof.
Her eyes done making a circuit of the room, they met Jack’s, and he was suddenly aware that he was staring. Again.
“Only boy, so I get my own room.”
“Its tiny and cramped.”
“But… you have all kinds of nooks. And this!” She reached back and laid her hand up against the slanted wall behind her, where Jack had tacked up a National Geographic poster of the night sky.
“So you’ve never spent the night at a friends place? You lived in a pretty big city before. You must have had a ton of friends.”
Beth shook her head, pulling her feet up, hugging her knees.
“I didn’t have any, really, till… till I came here.”
“Surely, there must have been—”
“There wasn’t. The kids in my schools before were like the kids at school here.”
They sat in silence for a while, knowing just what was meant without further need for words. Beth laid her head down, cheek on the back of her hands, closed her eyes.
Jack drew a breath to say something more, but stopped himself when her eyes remained shut.
“Hey,” he whispered.
Her eyelids fluttered a bit, but her breathing only deepened.
“Are you asleep?”
He got up, leaned over her, listening to her slow, steady breathing. Her bangs drifted down over her eyes.
He reached out, tugging at the corners of the quilt, pulled the side up, folding it over her shoulders. She didn’t budge as he draped the corners over her lower legs. He waited a moment, unsure if his movement would awaken her or not.
She was either really tired, or a very deep sleeper. Jack backed slowly to the door, opened it as softly as he could, and went down the stairs to the living room, where the blankets lay in a pile on the couch.
* * * * *
A clattering of pans in the kitchen burst the comfortable bubble of Jack’s dream. He tried to hold onto the pieces, wanted to stay where it felt all warm and floaty. But already the warmth had fled, and floaty felt an awful lot like the sagging cushions of the living room couch.
The living room. Couch.
Not even yet the steely gray of dawn, the windows still held a deeper gray of night-just-fled.
Another clatter in the kitchen finally drew him to his feet. As he ambled across the dining area into the kitchen doorway, he heard the familiar squeak up the stairs of his parents’ bedroom door. His dad clumped down the steps, carrying his work boots. Jack’s father stopped abruptly when he saw Jack standing in the kitchen doorway, the question evident on his face. Then he, too, peeked through the kitchen doorway.
Beth stood at the stove, a knife-full of butter poised above a frying pan sitting atop blue-red gas flame.
“What are you—” Jack and his father spoke at the same instant.
“Breakfast in a few minutes,” Beth said, as the butter ‘plopped’ into the pan with a low sizzle.
“Just coffee is—”
“There’s a full pot,” Beth said, swirling the pan. She pointed to one corner of the counter, where the coffee maker had sat buried behind a bag of grocery bags and two half-open napkin packages.
The bags had been stowed away somewhere, and the napkins arranged neatly to the side, the coffee maker burbling the last gasps of water through the basket.
“I didn’t even know this thing still worked,” Jack’s dad said, pouring himself a mug. He sniffed it hesitantly, took a sip. “You made this?” he asked.
Beth nodded, flipping something over in the pan. It smelled of butter and egg and cinnamon. “My dad lives on that stuff,” she said. “I saw you had a can in one of the cupboards and filters, still, so…” She suddenly turned. “Oh, I hope its okay that I went through some of the cupbards!”
Jack’s dad fixed the girl with a stern glare through the steaming mug of coffee. “You teach my wife to make coffee like this and I’ll let you go through every cupboard in this house,” he said.
“Make coffee like what?” came a sleepy voice behind them.
“Good morning,” Beth said. “Go and sit, you two!”
Jack’s mom and dad stared at each other, then at the girl as she flipped another something over in the frying pan. Then they shrugged, and went to the dining room table. Jack turned to follow them.
“Not you!” Beth said. “Come get these plates. And find something for them to eat with. I didn’t get that far in exploring.”
Jack thought for sure his parents chuckled.
* * * * *
“And here I was just going to make some plain old toast,” Jack’s dad said, digging into the plate of french toast. His wife was still staring at the plate before her, fork held loosely in one hand.
“I see it, but I don’t believe it,” she murmured. “Breakfast that I didn’t make, sitting here in front of me. And not even a hint of smoke in the kitchen…” She took a bite, smiling as she swallowed. “Beth, dear, this is very good. Just like my grandmother used to make.”
“I think,” Jack’s dad said around the last mouthful, “when your father gets back, I will have a talk with him about trading.”
He got up, ruffling Jack’s hair with one hand as he passed, put his plate in the sink, then stepped into his boots as he made for the door. He leaned down and kissed his wife. “Maybe you should invite her over more often,” he said with a wink. Then he was out the door, gravel crunching under the truck’s tires as he went off to work.
Jack took his mother’s plate when she’d finished, and took his and Beth’s as well, and had just set the last one in the drainer when he heard the tromping of feet and opening of doors upstairs. He looked over at Beth, shaking his head sadly. “Hope you didn’t need to use the bathroom. There’s no getting in it once my sisters are up.”
* * * * *
Jack had just finished washing up from his second day of being out-of-school-but-not-out-of-things-to-do-around-the-house when the bus rumbled to the stop. Ellie practically bounced down from the steps, skipping down the roadway towards the house.
Jack waited for Beth to bounce down the path after Ellie, but the doors slid shut, and the bus growled away from its stop, down the road and around the bend to stops further along.
He squatted down at the top of the porch steps, blocking Ellie’s headlong rush inside to cartoons. “Hold on, Pint Size,” he said as she skidded to a stop. “Where’s Beth?”
Ellie glanced back behind her, then turned, braids flying, and shrugged her shoulders, her pink backpack jumping at the gesture.
“I dunno,” she said. “She didn’t get on after school and I didn’t see her waiting. Mr. Grady even waited an extra couple minutes for her, but she didn’t show up. Maybe she got deshenshun.”
“You mean detention?”
“Yeah, that! Why can’t they just call it ‘stayin-after-school’?”
“Thats what it means.”
“Then they should just call it that. Now don’t deshenshun me from my cartoons!” She charged up the steps and through the front screen door, leaving Jack to sit on the porch, staring across the long gap to the main road.