Jack dreamed. He knew it was a dream, because there was no meadow like the one found himself in. The sunlight seemed to come from everywhere. The air was too warm for the approaching winter. The breeze rippled through the tall grass, bringing with it the sweet scent of strawberries. He knew it was a dream because strawberry season was long over. Still, he breathed in the smell, and smiled….
A hair tickled his nose, the sneeze rocketing him awake. He tried to lift up his arm to scratch his nose, but the blankets held him tightly in place. He sucked in a breath to blow the hair from his face, and he breathed in strawberries.
His eyes shot open, and his vision was filled with soft gold hair, shining in the morning light peeking through the window.
He was pressed up against the wall, Beth lying beside him, atop the comforter, pinning him in place. She breathed the deep, even breathing of deep sleep, his robe clutched over her shoulders.
He fought back another sneeze as she stirred against him, and he finally managed to pry his arm out from under the blankets. Warm and cozy as he was, his hand shook as he placed it gently on her shoulder.
“Hey,” he whispered, giving her a gentle shake.
Heavy footsteps clomped up the stairs, followed by voices.
Warm and cozy as he was, Jack’s blood ran ice cold.
“Beth!” he hissed in her ear. “Wake up!”
“Ellie, slow down. Remember to knock before—”
The doorknob rattled, and Ellie swung halfway inside the room, hanging upside-down off the doorknob, her braids sweeping across the floor.
“Jack, have you seen— oh…” Jack’s mother stood in the doorway, drying her hands on a dishtowel. She grabbed her youngest, and stood her up, then patted her on the back. “Ellie, go downstairs, please.”
The clomping started in the other direction. “Charlotte! Hannah! We found her, and you’ll never guess where!”
Beth stretched, catlike, rubbing at the sleep in her eyes. Jack stared, horrified, at his mom, and tried to press even further into the wall, away from Beth even as she leaned in towards him in her stretch.
Jack’s mother cleared her throat, and Beth turned, lazily.
“Good mor—” The word caught in her throat as she pushed herself up to a sitting position, the robe sliding off her shoulder, pooling across her lap as she swung her feet towards the floor.
“This… doesn’t look good, does it?” she asked.
“Mom, it isn’t— Nothing—”
Jack's mother rolled the chair across the floor, the wheels catching on several crumpled wads of tissue, sat.
“I think I have a pretty good idea what went on last night.”
Beth stared at her feet. The girl heaved a sigh that seemed to come from there, too.
“I was kinda scared, so I came up here to talk to Jack.”
“It couldn’t have waited until morning?”
“She was upset, Mom.”
“I can see that,” Jack’s mom said, nudging at some of the tissues with her slippered foot. “Looks like you were a little more than upset. What is it, dear, that has you so worried?”
Beth just stared glumly at the floor. Jack worked his way free of the blankets, slid his robe back up over the girl’s shoulders, his hands resting there as he sketched out Beth’s worries to his mom.
Partway through, Beth reached up, and took one of Jack’s hands. A little later, she gave a hiccup of a sob, and Jack’s mother wiped at a tear that started working its way down the girl’s cheek.
“And to think, when I was your age, all I worried about was what I’d wear to school the next day, and whether or not Billy Thomas liked me…” Jack’s mom reached down, and lifted Beth’s foot across her knees. She turned it gently this way and that.
“Well,” she murmured, “the swelling looks to have gone down quite a bit.” She pressed at the girl’s toes, flexing her foot up, and Beth hissed. Jack hissed, too, as she squeezed his hand.
Jack's mother let the girl’s foot go, and got to her feet, helping Beth up. “Lets see if we can get you back down these stairs in one piece.”
Jack heaved a sigh of relief as the door closed behind them.
* * * * *
By the time he made his way down the stairs, Beth was sitting at the dining room table, dressed in her usual hodgepodge of styles, her foot and ankle bound in an ace bandage. A half-eaten piece of toast lay on a plate, forgotten as the girl pored over a crossword puzzle from the newspaper. It was already at least a quarter of the way filled in. In ink.
“How the heck can you do that in ink?” he asked.
“Well,” she held up the writing instrument. “It works a lot like a pencil, but instead of graphite, it uses —”
Jack waved her explanation away, heading into the kitchen to find something for breakfast.
Taking a cue from Beth, he made himself some toast, but skipped the butter, piling on strawberry preserves.
“Hey,” he said, sitting down opposite the girl. “Where is everyone?”
“Went out,” she said, not looking up. She scrawled a word along the page between the crossword and one of the comics, counting letters under her breath.
“Everyone? And they left us here?”
“Well, I didn’t want to slow down their shopping trip.” She filled in another row of boxes.
Jack finished off one of the slices of toast.
“You’re staring at me again,” she said, still not looking up at him. She filled in one of the “down” clues, crossed it off on the list.
Jack turned in his chair, staring out the front screen door. It was late morning, and he didn’t see a single cloud in the bright blue sky.
“So what?” Jack asked, glancing sideways at her.
“You don’t think its weird that your parents left us here together?”
“Why would it be weird?” Jack asked. “Its not like we haven’t been off alone together before. We hang out at our spot by the stream. And the big rocks back in the forest. Its just, everyone else went away instead of us going away. Its no big deal.”
“No big deal,” she repeated, an odd tone in her voice.
“You think it is?” he asked.
“You don’t think things have changed?”
“What things? What are you—”
Jack’s head spun, worse than it had been last night.
“Four letter word… for ‘trouble,’” she said, tapping the pen at one of the boxes.
“‘Beth,’” Jack said, suddenly very interested in his toast.
“Ha ha. Starts with ‘f.’”
“No, ‘ha ha’ starts with an ‘h.’” Jack stood up. “I’m going to go check the mail.”
He slipped his shoes on, then walked the length of the drive to the two mailboxes. He really felt like running, but then he’d be there and back again too quickly, and he felt like he needed some air, some space to think.
He absently rubbed his cheek, and suddenly, it occurred to him that she might have been talking about how she’d kissed him there last night.
It was only one kiss. On the cheek. Its not like it was the end of the world.