Saturday, April 4, 2009

All Saints Day, part III

Jack tried to keep his head down as he was setting the table. But he didn’t turn his face quickly enough, and his father reached out, calloused fingers catching Jack’s chin.

“Son, what have I told you about fighting at school? I didn’t get a phone call at work, so I’m guessing they won’t suspend you again.”

“It didn’t happen at school, Dad.”

“Fighting after school isn’t allowed, either. We’ve talked about this.”

“It happened before school,” Jack said.

“At the bus stop?”

Jack’s older sisters, who’d been listening to the exchange, began snickering.

“I’m just going to see if your mom needs any help in there,” Beth said, trying to creep past.

“Okay, so don’t leave your old man in the dark. Out with it, one of you,” Jack’s dad said, turning a circle, his hands in the air.

“Jack? Don’t make me ask Ellie.”

Jack plopped to his seat at the table.

“It was Beth, Dad.”

His father just stared. Then he took a closer look at Jack’s chin. He glanced over at Beth, who was trying her best to sidle into the kitchen. “You did this?”

“Yes, sir,” Beth’s voice was barely a whisper.

“John Henry, what did you do to make this girl clobber you?”

“I don’t want to talk about it, Dad.”

“Darling,” said Jack’s mother, poking her head through the kitchen doorway. “A word?”

“We’re not through here,” Jack’s father said, getting up from his chair and he went into the kitchen.

Beth had time to work her way over to her place beside Jack at the dinner table before the laughter erupted from the kitchen.

They both winced, and Jack took her hand in his.

“Beth, please. I am begging you. Disappear right now and take me with you.”

* * * * *

It could have been worse. After the first ten minutes or so, the teasing died down. Jack and Beth both ate in relative silence. They helped clear the table, and Jack helped his mother with the dishes.

“I don’t believe it,” said Charlotte, from her corner of the table as they finished off their homework. “Beth actually brought homework home?”

“Makeup work,” she said. “They think I was out sick last week.”

“We know you weren’t.”

Beth thought about it for a moment. “So… you fill that week in with what you know. Other people fill it in with whatever they want to believe, I guess.” She went back to work on a math worksheet.

“How does it work?” asked Charlotte. “Is it like, you think about it really hard, and it happens? Could you disappear right in front of us, just ‘poof!’ and you’re gone?”

Beth shifted her legs under her. “I don’t know how it happens. It just does. Like, when you touch a hot burner and your hand jumps back on its own. It happens before you can think. Before you can take it back….” She bit her bottom lip, blinking.

Charlotte opened her mouth to ask another question just as Jack came around the corner.

“Lay off,” Jack said.

“I was only—”

“Let her do her homework in peace.”

Charlotte gave a sniff, then turned her attention back to her textbooks.

Jack sat down, starting his own work. Beth’s hand worked across the corner of the table, took his, squeezed.

Jack looked up, over at her, but Beth seemed intent on working through the equation in last Wednesday’s math quiz.

* * * * *

It came time for bed, and Beth still had work spread out all along the table.

“Beth, dear, they don’t expect you to finish it all in one day. That’s a week of work.”

“I thought I might stay up late and get it done. You know, burn the midnight oil?”

Jack’s parents looked at each other.

“All right, the oil runs out at midnight,” Jack’s dad said. “Then it’s lights out, young lady. You need your sleep. And I don’t know if Jack can take another morning wake up call.”

Beth blushed furiously.

* * * * *

Jack stared up at the dreamcatcher, listening to the wind gust outside. He was tired, but not sleepy, and would occasionally close his eyes, listening to the sound of the tree branches against the roofline.

He heard his parents say something to Beth, heard them come up the stairs, heard the familiar creak of their bedroom door. The house made sounds of its own, as it settled against the foundation. The furnace gave a “chuff” and a rumble as it kicked on against the cold of the new November night. And when it clicked off, Jack could hear the faint tick as the heating coils cooled. They were what Jack thought of as “Winter Sounds,” sounds as familiar to him as his own breathing.

Sundown would have ended the Celtic Samhain, and with it, according to what Jack had read, so began the dark half of the year. The ghosts and goblins should have packed up and left, the restless dead gone back to sleep.

Or were they still up and around, hunting for one of their own who’d slipped through, unable to rest until she returned to their Other Side?

Jack turned over, closing his eyes, blocking out those dark thoughts. It wasn’t as dismal as all that. Hannah was right, this was a time for rest, for a gathering of strengths to make way for the changes of the spring. No light without the dark. No waking without slumber.

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