Afternoon slid into early evening before Beth finally appeared from around the bend, shoulders slumped, her normally buoyant stride something closer to a shuffle.
Jack hopped from his seat on the porch, hurrying towards her to take her book bag. He grunted with the effort.
“What, did you bring home every schoolbook you own?” he asked her. “And… did you walk home? Carrying this?”
Jack paused at the break in the hedgerow between the proprerties.
“Hey,” he called, as the girl started towards her side. She stopped, looking up as if from a daze. “Your stuff is all over here, remember?”
“Oh, right…” Beth said, turning and trudging after Jack as he led the way across the gravel driveway.
“So?” Jack asked.
“So… what?” she asked.
“Walking? With all your books? And… well…” Jack blushed.
“I missed the bus,” she said.
“Ellie says that Mr. Grady waited a bit for you. He doesn’t wait for anyone.”
A smile fluttered over Beth’s lips.
Beth frowned. “So what?” she repeated.
“Look, if you got detention, its all right. Its not like me or my sisters never got it.”
“Its not that,” Beth said. “Well, it is but…”
“You should have called. Mom would have gone and got you.”
She was silent for a long while. “I’m sorry. I’m didn’t — I’m not—” She sucked in a deep breath, then let it out. “I didn’t want to trouble you. And, its been just me and my dad for so long that I just didn’t think that you’d worry any.”
“Look, I sat on that porch all afternoon. I heard my mom pacing. The kitchen window is right there, and she must have looked out it a million times. I think she was worried because of your… Uh… you know.”
Beth frowned slightly, cocking her head.
“You know, your… condition.”
“Oh, you mean my period?”
Jack blushed. “You didn’t have to say it.”
“But.. You have sisters and —”
“— and they don’t go talking about it with me and you really don’t have to either.”
They stood in silence again, Jack shifting from foot to foot under the burden of what felt like every school book Beth owned.
“So… Next time I miss the bus I will let somebody know,” she said, climbing up the front porch steps.
“How about just not getting detention in the first place?” Just after he said it, Jack thought that he sounded an awful lot like his dad.
* * * * *
“There you are, dear! We were beginning to wonder,” his mother said, ushering Beth into a chair, disappearing into the kitchen, then returning with a huge glass of iced tea.
Beth sipped at the glass. “I’m sorry. I had to stay after and clear something up at the principal’s office.”
“Is that what they’re calling detention these days?” Jack asked.
“It wasn’t my fault!” Beth said. “Some of the guys thought it would be fun to try to stick some firecrackers in your locker. I just sort of hit them with the fire extinguisher before they could…”
Jack and his mother stared. The volume on the TV suddenly dropped. Hannah and Charlotte’s giggling died with the volume.
“You mean you doused them with the fire extinguisher?” Jack’s mother asked.
Beth shook her head. “No. I hit them,” she said, matter-of-fatcly. “I couldn’t get the plastic thing off from around the ring to pull it, so…” She pantomimed swinging something heavy back and forth.
“So… you brought all your books home because they suspended you, too?” Jack asked.
Beth shook her head again. “No. Well, almost. But the principal decided not to once I explained my side of things.” She paused and took another long sip.
“Those are all yours. I thought it would be a good idea to take them in case Kyle gets it in his head to try again. Besides, I have notes from class, and we’ll need your books to cover what you missed.”
Jack blinked. Hannah and Charlotte both giggled. Jack’s mom hid her smile behind a hand a bit too late.
“And Jack already yelled at me for not calling. I’m just so used to it being me and my dad, and then I didn’t want to impose…”
“C’mon Mom, please? Can’t we keep her?” Hannah asked.
* * * * *
Dinner was not the disaster Jack expected it to be. He spent most of the meal just pushing peas around his plate, waiting for someone to mention Beth’s “not-detention.”
She did it herself, when asked how her day at school went. Jack’s father listened patiently. He sipped from his glass, finished the piece of bread he’d been holding, then sat back.
“Well, Beth, I am disappointed that you didn’t give us a call to come get you. But good for you for sticking to your guns.”
And that was pretty much it. They finished dinner, cleared the table, and out came the books. True to her word, Beth produced page after page of notes from the day’s class that Jack had missed. When it came time to get ready for bed, Jack’s head was spinning.
“That was some study session, Champ,” Jack’s dad said as he started up stairs.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Jack mumbled.
“You don’t think I came down hard enough on her, do you?” Jack’s father asked.
Jack blinked. As usual, it was as if his dad had just pried up his skull, taken a look inside, and plucked out just the thing that was bothering him.
“If it had been me, you’d have given me a ton of extra chores. And probably told me ‘the walk would do you good’ when I asked for a ride home.”
The man nodded. “True. I would have.”
“So how come you didn’t—”
“That girl has a lot on her mind. Her dad is away, who knows where for how long? She’s staying in a strange place, living off people who might as well be strangers to her.”
“But I’m not a—”
“I know you’re not, son. But we are. She doesn’t know us all that well, and is treading carefully. That goes both ways.
“You’re her friend — a friend that she doesn’t have right now at school, and the other kids are more than likely taking advantage of that.”
Again, his dad had hit the bulls-eye. Sure, he’d missed Beth when she was at school, but he hadn’t really stopped to think about what it must be like for her there. He’d seen how they treated her when he was around. He shivered a bit thinking about how her day had truly gone.
“Besides,” Jack’s dad continued, after a short pause. “How can you be mad at a girl who sweet-talks her way out of braining two kids with a fire extinguisher?”
“Its a lot of work being a parent, huh? Knowing when to be mad, and when to be really mad?”
Jack’s father nodded. “That it is. Especially when you have to play at being a surrogate for your kids’ friends.”
When Jack got up to his room after brushing his teeth, he looked up ‘surrogate’ in the dictionary.