Jack came downstairs to the sound of running water and his mother singing in the kitchen.
She looked up from drying out a bowl, smiled. “You’re up bright and early this morning, what’s the occasion?”
“Forgot to turn off my alarm,” he said, fixing himself a glass of orange juice.
“Why don’t you go back to bed? You went to bed so early last night, yet it doesn’t look like you got a wink of sleep. Were you up with that sketchbook again?”
“No, Mom. Its going to sound crazy, but.. I found her.”
“Found who, dear?”
“Was she lost?”
“Funny, Mom. No, I was asleep, and then there she was, talking to me, just like she never disappeared.”
“You have a bump on your head. I thought I heard a ‘thump’ from all the way up there. Just how hard did you knock it?”
“Okay, Mom, its not funny anymore.”
She was turning his head this way and that. “Hold still,” she said.
“Mom, who lives next door?”
“Memory lapses, dear?”
“Geez, Mom. No. I know who lives there, but I want to hear it from you.”
“All right, I’ll play along. The doctor from the university lives there. He moved in just before school started.”
“And… what, dear? He’s away on some expedition, asked us to watch over the place while he was gone. Jack? You look pale. Lets go sit you down.”
“Yeah..” Jack heard himself say, as if from some distance away.
Don’t worry about what to tell them. You’ll see what I mean.
She guided him out to the dining room table, sat him down. In Beth’s chair. Jack rested his head in his arms. He felt sick. Worse, he thought, than how it felt going from empty room to empty room in the house next door.
He guessed now it really was haunted.
Jack’s head snapped up. Beth was sitting in his seat.
“Don’t make too big a deal over it or they’ll think you really are crazy.”
“She doesn’t remember you,” Jack said. “She took care of you — fixed you up when you were… you know… Its like you suddenly don’t exist any more!”
“I don’t. Not for her. Not for your dad, or sisters. Or anyone in our class at school. And it isn’t sudden. Not for them.”
Jack stared. Tried to make some words come out, couldn’t really find any. Lost her, found her again, only to lose her all over again.
She leaned over the table, put her hand on one of his. Squeezed it.
* * * * *
“Hey, Champ. If you’re going to sleep, try not to do it at the table.”
“I wasn’t—” Jack started. He rubbed at his eyes. He looked at his other hand, the one she’d taken. It didn’t feel any different.
“Out cold,” his dad said from the chair across from Jack. He was lacing up his boots. He stood up, reached over and ruffled Jack’s hair.
“Hang in there, Champ. I’ll see you when I get home from work, maybe we can finish patching up your mother’s greenhouse.”
Jack nodded, watching his dad head out the door, down the porch steps and out of view as he rounded the house to where he parked his work truck.
They’d first seen Beth as they were looking over a chewed-open panel along the bottom of the greenhouse Jack’s dad had built along one side of the house. Jack’s dad had been the first to raise his hand in greeting, nudging Jack.
“Well, look at that, Jack. She looks about your age. Why don’t you go introduce yourself?”
“Dad, she’s a girl.”
“Yes, I had noticed that. Kind of pretty, don’t you think? Go on, go say ‘Hi,’ what can it hurt?”
It didn’t hurt at all, at the time. Now it did.
* * * * *
Charlotte and Hannah came downstairs to find Jack writing.
“I don’t believe it,” Charlotte said, “he does know how to make words instead of just pictures.”
“Shut up,” Jack said, automatically. He turned the page, kept writing.
Hannah tilted her head to get a better view. “Back of the page, too? Just how many pages do you have to fill up?”
“As many as it takes.”
“Must be a heck of an English paper old Hannigan assigned,” said Charlotte.
“Its not for English.”
Jack glanced up at the pause. His sisters were looking at him as if he were sick.
“So if its not for homework, then what’s the deal?” Hannah asked. “You never write unless you have to.”
“Can’t I just want to write?”
“Who is…” Charlotte leaned closer, “‘Beth’?”
“Nobody… you know,” Jack said, swallowing a lump that suddenly appeared at his throat.
“C’mon,” Hannah said, easing her sister through the doorway into the kitchen.
Sometimes, Jack really loved his older sister.
“If you keep going, he’s going to cry, and you don’t want to see that again, do you?”
… and other times, he couldn’t stand her.
Now it was Ellie’s turn.
“Are you going to make fun of me writing, too?” Jack asked her.
Ellie just stared at him with her big brown eyes.
“Why would I do that?”
“I’m sorry I snapped. I’m just not in a very good mood today.”
“You look sad,” Ellie agreed.
“You’re not sad when Beth is here. She should come over.”
Jack set down his pen, turned to look at Ellie, rather than glance at her out of the corner of his eye as he had been doing.
“You remember who she is?”
“Of course I do!” Then her mouth formed into a little “o” of surprise. “I wasn’t s’posed to tell,” she whispered.
“Weren’t supposed to tell what?”
“Uh uh! You can’t fool me. I’m not gonna lose the game. She might be better at Chutes and Ladders but I’ll show her!”
Jack could have cried.