“Hey,” Jack said, as they crunched up the gravel drive after school. “I’ve been wondering about something.”
“Well, I’m not a mind reader,” Beth said. The scarf hung loose, the knit hat stuffed in a coat pocket.
“Your note. Where you left it. Why there?”
“I found that spot when I was exploring when we first moved here.”
“I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’ve never gone into the woods that far. We aren’t allowed to go that far in.”
They stood for a while at the break in the hedgerow.
“Even now?” she asked. “I mean, you’re all grown up. And you went there to find my note.”
“My dad was with me.” He laughed. “I don’t know about that ‘all grown up’ part, either.”
“In some cultures, we could already be married and have kids by now.”
Jack pulled his hand away from hers, took a step sideways.
“What? I’m just saying—” She laughed. “Like I’d even think of marrying you!”
“What’s wrong with me?” Jack asked, his temper outpacing the rest of his brain.
But Beth was staring at him. One of those long, searching looks, and Jack could practically see the wheels turning in her head.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked, his voice suddenly dry.
Beth broke her gaze away, staring through the hedgerow, at the woods beyond her house.
“Its not you,” she said. “You’re not the one with anything wrong with you.” She pushed her way through the hedges, starting across the yard. Jack saw her raise a hand up to her face, wiping at her eyes.
“Beth!” he called. She didn’t stop, or turn. She didn’t even slow her pace. Jack dashed across the drive, up the porch, tossing his backpack inside the door.
“John Henry, you come put that book bag where it belongs,” his mother called from the kitchen.
“Sorry, Mom. I’ll get it when I get back. Gotta run!”
And he spun, jumped down the three porch steps, sprinting across the yard.
He remembered the tree clearly — it had a funny shaped knot on the side that looked vaguely like a heart. The kind in biology, not valentines cards.
The red yarn was gone.
Jack bit back the swear words he wanted to say — he saved his breath for running, hoping he remembered enough of Beth’s trail to be able to catch up with her.
* * * * *
Even though she was back in this world, Jack had his doubts as to whether Beth was really here or not. He was running his best through the trees, slipping on particularly deep drifts of leaves, he’d tripped at least twice. When the stitch in his side grew too painful, he stopped, hands on his knees, head down, taking deep breaths as steadily as he could. His pulse washed through his hearing, but he listened nonetheless.
Not a sound out of place. Not a single twig snapping underfoot for her, no rustling of the underbrush as she pushed through it. Not a single sound or sign that she’d passed this way or was anywhere close by.
She had to’ve come this way — somebody had taken down the red yarn marking the route. And Jack could only think of one stubborn, moody girl who’d do such a stupid thing to try to keep him from following her while she went and sulked.
When there were… things… out to get her.
He took a deep breath, charged on, his throat drying out, the pain still lingering in his side. But he couldn’t wait for it to go away. He had to keep moving, because she was still moving, ghosting through the woods somewhere ahead of him.
* * * * *
He’d probably gotten turned around one of the times he’d slipped. When Jack found the little clearing, and the blackened, twisted lightning-struck tree, he knew he was coming at it from a different direction than from his first visit.
He stopped at the edge of the open expanse, trying to catch his breath. The clouds overhead were pressing lower, darker with impending snow as well as the lateness of the afternoon.
Jack circled the clearing, expecting to see Beth maybe huddled beneath the tree, or somewhere in plain sight. There was nothing there, except that one tree.
The red yarn fluttered as a heavy wind moaned through the clearing.
If she had a head start on Jack, and moved as fast as he had — she moved a lot faster than Jack, he had to admit — she should have been here.
“Dammit, Beth!” he said, grabbing up the yarn, backtracking along it as quickly as he could.
* * * * *
Beth’s voice froze Jack in his tracks. He looked left, right, spun a circle, scanning the trees.
“Beth, what the hell are you doing up in a tree?”
“Waiting for you.”
“And what would you do if I wasn’t here?” Jack asked her.
“Well, you are here, so that’s a stupid question.”
“You’re the one stuck up in the tree,” he said, putting his hands in his pockets, turning to follow the yarn.
“Jack! You can’t leave me up here!”
“You got up there, you can get yourself down.”
“Look, you didn’t exactly make it easy to find you, so maybe you didn’t want to be found.”
“Taking down that yarn was stupid.”
“I know. But I just—”
Jack waited for her to finish, but she just bit off her words, glaring down at him. He glared right back.
“You did it again, Beth.”
“You ran away.”
“Are you going to help me down or not? I don’t need a lecture.”
“Maybe you should jump. It might knock some sense into you.”
“Its too high. The branch I used broke and now there’s not one low enough to jump from.”
“I heard that! Take it back!”
“Come down here and make me,” Jack said.
He turned to go.
“Jack!” Her voice broke. “Jack, don’t go. Help me down. Please?”
He turned back.
“You could have just said that in the first place,” he told her.