Tuesday, April 7, 2009

After School III

The screen door woke Jack from a late afternoon nap. He’d been trying to get through some of the reading, and awakened to find the book lying open on his chest. No wonder he had half-remembered dreams of drowning.

Ellie went from full motion to full stop as she plopped down in front of the TV and clicked it on. She at least remembered that she was supposed to keep the volume down. Commercials were still running, so she twisted halfway around to regard Jack with her big brown eyes.

“How’s your contusion?”

“You mean ‘concussion,’” Jack corrected.

“I mean when you bumped your head!” said Ellie.

“It still hurts some. I think I better get up and walk around. Go enjoy your cartoons and stop worrying about your big brother. Tell Mom I’m going for a walk outside.”

“Okay!” And she spun back around as the credits started to roll on the TV.

Jack managed to get up without the room spinning, and stretched carefully as he made his way to the door.

He met Beth at the porch stairs, struggling into his jacket. His left shoulder was still radiating pains up the back of his head.

“Hey,” she said. “All the teachers miss you. Its like I have to play messenger girl.”

“They do not.”

Beth started ticking off on her fingers. “Mrs. Bessinger says ‘Get well soon.’ Mrs. Simms sends her best. Mr. Milroy—”

“Mrs. Simms? I thought you hated the library.”

“No, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time there, since I don’t have anyone to eat lunch with.”

“What about the Quincy twins? They hang out with you a lot. I see them.”

Beth rolled her eyes. “They only hang out with me because I hang out with you. Oh yeah. They said to ‘Let you know if there’s anything they can do.’” She pitched her voice up to a breathy warble, and batted her eyes.

The afternoon suddenly felt a bit warmer, and his stomach did a bit of a jolt. He liked the way Beth’s eyes looked when she fluttered her lashes… just not when she was making fun of him. How was it she could do that hot-cold thing? At the same time?

“What?” she asked, looking up at him. “You look like you don’t know of you’re going to be sick or not.” She stepped to the other side of the stairs.

“I’m fine!” Jack said. “I’m not going to be sick. I’m sick of being cooped up inside. I need to go for a walk.” He started down the steps.

Beth leapt up and across the porch, leaning in and letting her backpack swing to the floor just inside the door.

“Beth, is that you? Don’t be like that lazy son of mine and leave your book bag in the way.”

“He’s out here playing walking wounded,” Beth called. “I have to go make sure he doesn’t wander into the road.”

“Back before sundown. And no games of catch!”

* * * * *

“You’re awfully quiet,” Beth said, as they walked along the stream.

“Just had some things to work through in my head, is all. You’re pretty quiet yourself.”

“Well, I already told you all the important things from school.”

“So… what about the other stuff?”

“What other stuff?” she asked.

“You had another bad dream last night.”

Beth stopped walking. Jack stopped a half pace later, turned.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said softly.

“Come on, Beth. You always want to talk about dreams. Did you have my weird fire dream again? Because, I’ve been thinking about it and —”

“No, it was one of my own. From back when I was nine. And I don’t want to talk about it.” She turned and started back the way they’d come, kicking rocks into the water as she went.

Jack walked after her. He had to quicken his pace. When she didn’t slow down, he gritted his teeth, started to jog.

He reached out, grabbed her elbow with his left hand.

She jerked it from his grasp, turning the needles of pain into knives. He staggered, took a step, went to one knee.

Beth whirled, eyes wide. “Oh my goddess, Jack, I forgot!” She knelt down next to him, hands on his shoulders.


He looked up, met her eyes. His face had gone very pale.

“Did you just say ‘goddess’?”

She gave him a shove.

“You are such a typical guy!” she said, turning and stomping off again.

Jack laughed, but that made his head hurt even more. He let the momentum of her push carry him over onto his back, and he stared up at the bright blue sky, bright spots pulsing in his vision.

Footsteps crunched up to him, and Beth stared down, hands in the pockets of her coat.

“Get up,” she said.

“I can’t,” Jack said.

“Can’t, like I accidentally paralyzed you? Or you just won’t because your stubborn?”


She gave him a kick. It was gentle, but firm nonetheless.

“Fine. Lay there till you get all covered up in snow.”

“Its not going to snow till later in the month,” Jack called after her.

“Thats fine, too. See ya.”

Her footfalls faded. Jack took a deep breath, and when the bright spots didn’t appear in his vision, he slowly sat himself up.


The only sounds were the gurgling of the stream, and the dull whoosh of his pulse in his ears.

He got to his feet, wincing as he straightened fully. His fingers were tingling. He jammed his hands into the pockets of his coat and started off the direction he’d heard the girl go. It was water to his right, and he hadn’t heard her splashing, just the crunch of her sneakers on the trail they’d worn along the brook. He followed it as it angled away from the water, down a gentle slope to the line of trees that hid the houses.

The knee-high grass was brown with the coming winter, and here and there a stump of a lone, long-ago windblown tree poked up to break the monotony of the meadow.

He nearly passed Beth, huddled as she was, back against an old stump, legs tucked up, chin on her knees.

“Not very good at hiding,” he said as he turned.

“Almost didn’t have to be,” she replied.

“I wish you wouldn’t disappear like that. It had me a little spooked.”

“You sound disappointed that I’m still here,” she said, her voice tight.

“Beth, no. My head is hurting, so maybe my temper is a little shorter than usual.”

“Sorry,” she muttered.

“Its not your—”

“It is!” she spat. “Every bit of it. I climbed the tree. I felt that first branch before it broke, I should have dropped with it but I kept going, up.

“Why did you follow me? I took the marker so you wouldn’t follow me.”

“I followed you because you ran.”

“Well, you weren’t supposed to. That’s why I took it.”

“You make it sound like it already happened, like I didn’t have a choice, one way or the other.”

“You didn’t. You shouldn’t have. I took it from you! You were supposed to go home where you wouldn’t get hurt.”

“Should, supposed to — you talk about it like it was set in stone already.”

“I thought it was, when I dreamed it. That’s why I had to change it.”

Jack stared.

“What?” she asked, wiping at the angry tears that had started to fall.

“You… dreamed it?”

“Yes,” she sniffed.

“But that’s not — is it?”


“Possible.” Jack said.

She glared up at him.

“Right You. ‘Normal’ no longer applies.”

She hiccuped, and Jack could just… see… a tidal wave of tears getting ready to hit.

“Oh, no, please don’t, Beth, I didn’t mean that in a bad way!”

Too late.

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