Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Back to School

Jack was dreaming. He knew he was dreaming, because he was with Beth in the woods, on the big log that bridged the stream. He’d never dreamed of Beth before last night. And this Beth wasn’t that one.

He wanted to tell her that Ellie still remembered her, but he couldn’t. Instead, they were throwing rocks, listening to the deep ‘ker-ploop’ as they sank to the stream bed with hardly a splash.

He wanted to tell her that he’d talked to her dad, and that she’d done it — whatever ‘it’ was that had the professor so excited. But they just leaned back and stared up at the sky, picking shapes out of the clouds.

It was just a dream, a normal dream, and Beth wasn’t the real Beth. He held her hand as they crossed the log, but it wasn’t warm, it didn’t hold his back.

There was a heavy mist in the forest, and it would roll through, taking him and Beth to different places in the way dreams will. The log turned into the big rocks, and Jack drew hieroglyphics of his own design on one face of the rock to match Beth’s narration. The fog rolled through, and then they were back in the clearing, and the sky was deep, dark blue and they were counting stars as they appeared. Jack got up to 20 and then the fog rolled through again, and they stood at the end of the gravel drive, waiting for the bus.

It rumbled around the corner, and the fog was right behind it. Then the gray mist overtook the bus, the rattle-growl of the engine and grinding of gears fading away.

The fog rolled over Jack, and he staggered — this wave of fog held weight, substance. He shivered. It was cold as it pressed around him, and he had to close his eyes against the sting of the mist.

I’m sorry, Jack.

Beth’s voice surrounded him in the fog, everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Then the fog shredded away from him, and he opened his eyes to the sight of the spinning dreamcatcher.

He glanced at the clock. Twenty minutes before the alarm. He decided to get up anyway.

* * * * *

He wondered just how Beth had managed to lug all of his books home. Down the gravel drive to the bus stop, and his shoulder already screamed. He tried to imagine walking the ten or so miles between school and home. Muscles fluttered in odd places in his back.

He let the book bag drop to the ground. It probably weighed as much as Ellie.

“Hey, Squirt, did you dream anything last night?”

“Ponies,” she said, turning a circle so her braids stuck out like helicopter blades.

“Thats it?”

“Yeah…” She sat down abruptly, probably too dizzy to stand.

Jack hauled her to her feet as the bus rumbled around the bend.

* * * * *

Classes were strange. Or rather, they weren’t, but went back to how things were the past school year. There was no pause during the homeroom roll call. Jack hadn’t noticed just how many times he would glance back and over his shoulder until he found himself staring at the empty desk.

During lunch, Jack actually sought out Kyle.

“Hey, I need to ask you something.”

Kyle’s eyes narrowed.

“When we had that fight the other day. You know, when you got me suspended?”

Kyle’s scowl disappeared and he chortled.

“You want a rematch, Shrimpy?”

“What was it we were fighting about?”

The bigger boy’s grin disappeared as his face screwed up in thought.

“Since when do I need an excuse to beat you up?”

Jack nodded. It was more than he’d expected. He turned and walked away.

“Hey, what’s the joke? Are you making fun of me?”

* * * * *

“Well, this is a pleasant surprise,” said Mrs. Simms, the school’s librarian. “Looking for another book on painters?”

Jack shook his head. “Not today, thanks. Actually, I need an atlas.” He dug in his pocket, pulling out the folded page from the grocery list pad. “I have to find where these places are.”

“Extra credit for Mr. Earnie’s class?”

“Not exactly. You know how the professor moved in next door? He gave these numbers to me. I think its got something to do with what he’s been researching.”

“Well, lets see what buried treasures he’s pointing you towards.”

They sat down at one of the computers, and Jack tapped in the numbers. The first set was in Egypt, near the pyramids.

“Thats where he started his research, I think,” Jack said.

The second pair were in the Andes, in Peru.

“He left for this spot about a week ago. He’s there now.”

“How exciting. Where is door number three, then?” Mrs. Simms asked. She sounded almost as excited as Jack felt.

Jack tapped the numbers in. The map loaded on the screen.

“Oh my. Right in your own backyard,” Mrs. Simms breathed.

It was close enough — the crosshairs centered somewhere in the woods behind the two houses along Route 3.

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