Tick tick. Tick-tick.
Jack got up slowly from the sofa, went around to the side of the stairs where one of the flashlights charged. He pulled it free, shining the beam out the window, dragging the beam this way and that as he peered into the wind-swept yard.
“There’s nothing out there,” he said. “Looks like its just one of mom’s rose bushes.”
“Are you sure you don’t see anything?” Beth asked.
“You can look yourself, if you want.”
“I’m staying right here, thank you,” she said.
“Well so am I,” Jack said.
“Jack, you don’t—”
“I do. If something is out there, its because I let it know you’re here.”
“And what are you going to do if it decides it wants to come in here and take me back?” she asked.
“I don’t know!”
“Exactly!” Beth said, rising to her feet. She pointed sharply upstairs. “Go upstairs, go to bed and dream about bunnies and rainbows. That is what you can do to help me. Ellie is more useful right now than you are.”
“Fine,” Jack said. “I just want you safe.”
“I know, Jack. Right now, the safest thing to do is sleep.”
A shiver ran down Jack’s back at her words.
“But what if—”
But Beth wasn’t listening. She bent down and fished her nightgown from the duffel. She looked up.
“You’re still here? I’m going to start picking out what I want to wear tomorrow. Do you want to help? Should I wear the pink or—”
Jack took the stairs two at a time, refused to look behind him.
He fell into bed, the things Beth had told him tumbling around in his head. He tried to sort through them, to make sense of them. He dragged the notebook full of questions out, scribbled more down, yawning.
He drifted off to sleep a few lines later, and the bunnies were pink.
* * * * *
“Oh, not again,” Jack moaned, as he reached the bottom of the stairs. “She isn’t—”
Beth sat up, blinking, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
“I’m up,” she murmured, sounding anything but. She stifled a yawn. She gathered up the clothes she’d laid out at the end of the sofa. “I’m up, keep your lips to yourself,” she said as she padded past Jack to the downstairs bathroom.
“Better luck tomorrow, Jack-O,” snickered Charlotte.
Jack’s fingers went to the bruise on his chin. He went to the kitchen, where his mother was scraping the last of a pot of oatmeal into a bowl.
“Good morning, Jack. Did you sleep well?”
“As ordered,” he said, taking two bowls. He brought them to the table, setting the other down in Beth’s spot at the table.
Beth came to the table, eyes bright, a smile on her face.
“What’s got you in such a good mood this morning? Did Jack get to you before we got up or something?” asked Charlotte.
“No,” the girl said, spooning brown sugar over her oatmeal.
“Can’t she just be happy?” Hannah asked.
“Not this early in the morning, no,” Charlotte replied.
“Well, for starters,” Beth said, spooning brown sugar over her oatmeal, “I had a really good night’s sleep.”
“Are you going to leave any of that for the rest of us?” Jack asked.
“What? I like brown sugar.”
“I like it too!” said Ellie. “Save some for me!”
“Sorry,” Beth said, cheeks going red. She focussed all her attention on stirring.
Ellie heaped on nearly as much as Beth did, and got half of that all over the table as she stirred it in.
“So,” Beth said. “I heard on the news last night they said it might... snow? Does it do that here?”
“Oh, boy, does it,” said Charlotte. “One time, it snowed so much, we had to go out the window in Jack’s room to get outside.”
Beth’s eyes seemed to double in size.
“Relax,” Jack told her, “she’s exaggerating a bit.”
“Its never come up over the porch,” said Hannah.
“You spoil all my fun,” Charlotte sulked.
“Its just enough that its a pain in the you-know-where to have to shovel,” said Jack. “And guess who gets to do that.”
“I’ve never seen snow.”
“We’ll make a snowman when it does!” said Ellie. “We’ll make a whole snowman family, with a momma snowman—”
“Wouldn’t that be a snowwoman?” asked Hannah.
Ellie scowled. “And a snowman daddy, and a snowman baby, and…”
Beth laughed. “And what about angels? I’ve always wanted to do that.”
“Sure, but have a hot bath and a change of clothes ready,” said Charlotte.
“I think you’re already a snow angel,” said Ellie. “‘Cause you’re so pretty and you had wings the other day and everything.”
“Well, thank you, Ellie.”
“That was a very nice thing to say, Ellie,” her mother said.
Jack had finished the last of his oatmeal, and stood up. “Come on, Snow White, we’re running late.”
* * * * *
“Yeah, I’d definitely say Winter is here,” Jack said, watching his breath frost in the air. “It doesn’t smell right for snow, though,” he told Beth, who was staring up at the overcast sky.
She was barely visible beneath the green-and-orange knit cap and red scarf that seemed to be twice as long as she was tall. Her winter coat was a leather burgundy ankle-length affair that looked as though it had been dragged behind a truck, it was so worn in places. It had a hood, and Jack could see a lining of what looked like wool.
“If it has a hood, why don’t you use that, instead of the whole ‘ugly hat’ thing?”
“Restricts my vision,” she said, barely audible through the scarf.
“Who the heck is going to sneak—”
She glanced at him sideways.
“They can come out during the day?”
“Who can come out? Do they want to play?” asked Ellie.
“Nobody, Ellie. Certainly nobody we want to play with,” said Jack.
A sudden thought struck Jack. “Hey, Squirt?”
“Hmmm?” she was turning in circles again, arms outstretched.
“What did you dream of last night?”
“Just curious. Beth said you really helped her out last night. So… keep dreaming of those ponies, okay? At least for the next few nights.”
“What did you dream of?” she asked Jack, spinning the other direction.
“Bunnies and rainbows, just like I was told.”
Ellie sat down, her head bobbling. “I miss Beth coming to play in my dreams,” she sighed. “Don’t you like playing anymore?”
Beth worked the scarf away from her face, squatting down in front of the girl.
“Ellie, I loved playing together with the ponies and teddy bears. But… Now that I’m back here, I can’t go there any more.”
“Hey,” Jack said, tapping Beth’s shoulder. “Bus is coming.”
She stood up, one of Ellie’s mittened hands in her own. “We’ll talk about this later, after school. Remember, not on the bus. Not at school.”
Ellie made a ‘zip-your-lips’ gesture with her free hand.