The kettle still wasn’t boiling when the screen door rattled shut.
“You’re in my spot, Pint Size,” Jack heard Charlotte say. There was a pause, then, “Oh, hey Beth. Whoa, thats pretty.”
The steam puffed a few times, and Jack cut off the burner, filling the two mugs. He tried to hurry, then slowed his stirring as he barely missed scalding himself as the hot water sloshed.
“She fell down and then Jack carried her all the way in here,” Ellie said. “So I can’t sit where I usually sit and thats why I’m in your spot.”
“Fine, whatever. Just for today, Runt.”
Charlotte poked her head into the kitchen.
“Carried her?" she asked with a smirk. She sniffed. "Is that hot chocolate?”
Jack kept stirring.
“You hate hot chocolate.”
Jack kept stirring. He ignored the smile that crept across his sister’s mouth.
“That’s sweet,” she said. He chose to think she meant the steaming beverage. He also ignored her chuckle as she went up the stairs.
* * * * *
“Why are you blushing?” Ellie asked when Jack set one of the mugs down on the coffee table, within Beth’s reach.
“I’m not blushing,” Jack muttered. He glanced up at Beth in time to see her glance away, but she didn’t smooth out her smile in time.
Jack checked the bag of ice on Beth’s ankle, then went back in the kitchen to preheat the oven. Fridays were volunteer days at the county hospital, and Jack’s mom spent her afternoons at the VA, “giving back,” as she put it. So on Fridays, dinner was in the fridge, waiting to go into the oven. Jack or one of his sisters just had to heat it up, and it was ready by the time their parents got home at quarter to seven.
The screen door banged shut again. That would be Hannah.
“Hey, Squirt. Hey Beth. Do I want to know?”
“Tripped in PE.”
“Heck of a trip,” Hannah said. There was a pause. “I hope someone else tripped, too.”
“No. Just me.”
“Right. Thin ice and all.”
“Its not snowing!” Ellie said.
“Sorry if I messed up your afternoon.”
“No worries,” said Hannah. “They always play the same crappy videos on Fridays, anyway. I’ll just get ready for the party a little early. Hey, I’ll bring down all my stuff and you can help me pick out what shades will go best with what I’m going to wear.”
“No, you don’t have to, really—” She sounded more panicked then when Jack had picked her up.
He waved at his sister on her way up the stairs, then leaned against the kitchen doorway.
“Are you sure you want sisters now?” he asked Beth.
* * * * *
Jack wisely made himself scarce when the makeup started appearing. He set dinner in the oven, then retreated up stairs, and busied himself with his sketchbook.
He returned to the kitchen a few hours later, wrapping up half a loaf of french bread and sliding it into the oven to warm.
“Hey,” Beth said as he started back up the stairs.
Jack paused, leaning back. “Hey,” he said, and the rest of what he was going to say just sort of died in his throat.
“What? You’re staring.”
“Help me up. So I can wash all this stuff off.”
“So now you want my help?”
“I even get a ‘please’?”
“You have sisters you can torture. You don’t have to do it to me, too. Stop staring.”
Jack plucked the bag of ice from her ankle. It made a soggy, sloshing sound. He doubled the towel under it, setting it on the coffee table.
After a few false starts, he finally got in the right spot and helped her up from the sofa without falling over himself. Once clear of the coffee table, it was easy enough to work his way around to her other side and follow along as she hopped.
She smelled like the strawberry shampoo she’d brought with her. It mixed and complimented something else, though. Most likely one of the dozens of samples that Hannah collected. Jack had never liked perfumes of any kind, until now.
He helped her to the doorway, and she hopped through, turning on the light then leaning over to turn on the water in the sink.
“Thank you, you can go now,” she said, and Jack gave a start. He’d been staring again.
“Um, yeah,” he said as she started to shut the door. “You’re welcome. And—”
She paused, holding onto the door.
“It… It isn’t bad. You look good. Hannah’s really good at that.” Suddenly, Jack was trying to look anywhere but at her.
Beth frowned, then gave a wan smile that not even the lipstick could bring completely to life.
“Well, thanks anyway,” she said, “but I feel like a clown.” The bathroom door eased shut, and there came sounds of vigorous splashing.
“Well, you look more like a princess than a clown,” Jack said, quietly. Probably too quietly for her to hear through the door.
The stove’s buzzer went off, and Jack turned to go take care of it.
The buzz, and the door, and the splashing of water covered up the sound of a few hitching, hiccuping sobs.
* * * *
“Well, I’m sorry to have missed that,” Jack’s mother said, in the way that only mothers talking about makeup and all that can do.
“We took pictures,” said Charlotte.
“I got to try some on too!” Ellie said.
“Yes, dear, we saw.” Jack’s mother had made her youngest daughter turn right around and go wash her face before sitting down to dinner.
“And what did you think of it, Jack?” his father asked with a crooked smile.
“I…. “ He glanced at Beth, then back at his plate. It was hard to tell which of them was blushing brighter. “I don’t—”
“She looked byoo-tee-ful!” Ellie stretched the word out, and flung some peas when she elaborated with a gesture.
Beth made a show of cutting a bite of pot roast, even though she hadn’t eaten but one or two.
“She doesn’t need makeup for that,” Jack said, and he stared across the table, over Ellie’s head, avoiding all the eyes.
“Beth, dear, is everything all right?”
She nodded. “Yes Mrs. — Margaret,” she caught herself. “I think the pain reliever they gave me at school is wearing off.”
“I’m off work tomorrow,” Jack’s dad told her. “If its any worse in the morning, we’re going to go get it X-rayed.” His expression forestalled any arguing Beth might have tried.
* * * * *
After the table was cleared, Friday Family night began. Ellie sulked, because it should have been her week to pick the first game, but Beth got the honors due to her guest status.
“Well,” she said, “since Twister is out of the question….” She looked up and down the stack of games that Ellie was still bringing from the hall closet. She moved her finger up and down the stack, finally picking Chutes and Ladders.
Ellie smiled and clapped. Jack’s mom and dad glanced at each other, then winked at Beth. She may have let Ellie play the game she wanted, but Beth didn’t let her win.
They went through several rounds of Clue, half a dozen hands of rummy, and crazy eights.
They stayed up late enough to see Hannah as she came home, and she took up Ellie’s hand in crazy eights. Jack’s sister didn’t seem to mind that Beth had washed off her handiwork, except to state how dismayed she was that she’d left before seeing Jack’s reaction to it.
“Deer in the headlights,” Beth said.
“Figured as much. He doesn’t get out much, you know?”
“Hello,” Jack said, waving. “Here in the room, thank you.”
They finished out the game, cleaned up the table, then Jack fled to his room to avoid the worst of the girl talk.