Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Spoils of Tug-of-War

The thought of what might lie further back in the woods behind his house occupied Jack’s thoughts for the rest of the afternoon. How could something there possibly tie into mysteries of the Egyptians and Inca? And what — if anything — did any of that have to do with Beth?

“‘Reincarnated soul of Egyptian princess?’” Old Hannigan read from over Jack’s shoulder. “Poetic that it may be, John” — she was the only teacher who called him by his given name — “sadly, it has nothing to do with the unit upon which we are working at this time. See me after class.”

After class, Jack was treated to a rather dusty lecture about the importance of focus, of devoting oneself to the task at hand, and… other things that Jack didn’t really pay much attention to, since he’d heard all the same points from his sisters when Hannigan had given them the same speech years prior.

Jack was at least thankful that she didn’t rub his sisters’ accomplishments in his face like most of the other teachers did.

Staying after almost made Jack late for the bus. He practically had to step in front of it to get Mr. Grady to stop. Which did nothing to sweeten Mr. Grady’s already sour mood. Jack could have sworn he went into the other lane a few times to hit some extra potholes.

Much as Jack wanted to charge across the yard and into the woods, Old Hannigan had given him two extra essays to write. One on Egypt, another on time management.

And Ellie needed help with her Halloween costume.

WIth the events of the past weekend, Jack had completely forgotten about the school’s costume ball.

Since the traditional neighborhood door-to-door trick-or-treating was something of a stretch for many of the families strung out along Routes 3, 5, and 9, the schools and local businesses got together and sponsored a carnival, with games, contests, a haunted house, ending the evening with a costume contest and dance.

Ellie was determined to win the kindergarten class contest. She just needed to make up her mind what she wanted to be.

“Pony” was the first thing out of her mouth, and, surprisingly, the easiest to talk her out of.

“You’re too small to be a pony,” Jack said. “You only have two legs. You need four to be a pony. That means someone else has to help you.”

Ellie thought on that for several minutes.

“Uh uh! Two winners means they have to split the candy!”

Charlotte suggested a clown, and said that Hannah could do the makeup. Hannah suggested Ellie go as a movie star, and that she could wear one of Charlotte’s trashy dresses.

Their mother overruled trashy-dress-wearing of any kind, and contributed witch or fairy princess to the idea pot.

Ellie leapt at the fairy princess idea, and it fell to Jack to come up with the costume designs.

The light was rapidly fading from the afternoon, and Jack knew he would never get a moment’s peace until he at least made an attempt.

“Here,” Ellie said, producing a pink-fronted notebook with a pencil stuck down among the spiral binding. “I sat on this when I tried to watch cartoons. You can draw my costume in here.”

Jack’s heart skipped a beat. He suddenly remembered jamming it into the cushions when Beth insisted on seeing what he’d drawn.

“Brat, I’ve been looking all over for that. My History homework was in there!” Charlotte cried, reaching for the notebook.

Ellie kept a fierce grip on it, howling that it was hers since she found it and it was pink.

They tugged back in forth for several long moments. Jack’s mother stepped from around the corner to separate the girls just as Jack lunged for the notebook. Charlotte lifted her end, opting for the height advantage, and Ellie — being Ellie — went for tenacity, holding on, her little fists white-knuckled on the handful of pages she’d managed to keep hold of.

The binding gave way, and both girls found themselves on their backs, holding fistfuls of crumpled notebook pages. Charlotte laughed. Ellie started to cry.

Jack snatched the papers from both his sisters, eliciting another shriek from Ellie. Charlotte swallowed her laughter, her mirth disappearing into a scowl.

“Whats the deal, Jack-O? Its my notebook, give it here.”

Jack wasn’t listening, though, but was paging through the ruins. Words, words, words. All the pages from Ellies half held Charlotte’s notes. He ripped the cover away, and flung it at Ellie.

“There. Its pink, so its yours.”

Ellie sniffled and hiccuped over the next wail she was going to set loose.

“Jack!” his mother said, but he ignored her, too, flipping page after page.

A handful towards the middle had torn.

“No,” Jack heard himself say, smoothing and peeling the pages apart. “All the pages that had to tear, no…”

The last page of Charlotte’s cramped-but-legible notes was nearly torn in half. Jack laid it aside with the others, pushing them absently across the table towards Charlotte.

The pencil sketch Jack had done was along the upper half of the page, while he’d drawn the flames and shadows of his nightmare along the bottom.

The page was torn, but not as badly as he’d feared — only a small corner of his sketch of Beth was shorn away from the rest.

Jack carefully smoothed the page down, trying to avoid smudging the lines and shading.

His sisters crowded close to see just what it was that had set Jack off.

“Hey, move it Picasso, let us see what you scribbled in my history notes.”

Jack’s heartbeat stopped hammering quite so loudly in his ears, and he realized that he was hunched over the page like some sort of covetous troll.

“It’s B—” Ellie covered her mouth with both hands.

“Yes, its beautiful, Ellie. Goodness, Jack… You drew this?”

“Who else draws in this family, Mom?” Hannah asked. “Still, its good. Really good.” She ruffled Jack’s hair.

“Its not bad,” sniffed Charlotte.

“Jack, I will never give you a hard time about staying up late with your sketchbook again,” his mother said. “This is remarkable. Very lifelike, as if you sketched her right there in the room.”

“Yeah, like he could ever get a girl that cute to model for him,” Charlotte snorted.

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