Friday, April 24, 2009

A Walk in the Woods

“What in heaven’s name…” Granna breathed.

“Jack,” Charlotte said. “She’s gonna go ‘poof’ again if you don’t stop her!”

He reached over, grabbed Beth’s hand.

“Beth, stop,” he said. But she didn’t seem to hear him. Her eyes were still set, staring down at Granna Nellis. The gold motes were starting to pick up some of her hair’s shine.

“Beth,” he said, again, squeezing her hand. That, too, got no response.

Ellie started to sniffle. “Beth, don’t go away again!” she cried.

“Desperate measures,” Jack heard himself mutter. He stood up, reached over, a hand on Beth’s cheek, turning her head to look at him. He ducked down a bit so he could look right into her eyes.

“Aribeth, don’t you dare leave,” he whispered.

Then he leaned in, and pressed his lips to hers.

The tingling shock behind his eyes. It raced to the tips of his toes, his fingers, then back, sending white bursts across his field of vision. A hollow, surging rush filled his ears, drowning out the voices around him at the table.

A sting bursting across his left cheek snapped his eyes and ears back to normal.

“What’d you do that for?” As he said it, he also heard it from Beth.

He blinked. The light in her eyes had gone out, her hair giving one last flicker before fading to normal.

They were standing in the forest clearing, the lone, lightning-struck tree their only company.

* * * * *

“What… happened?” Beth asked.

“You got mad at Granna, your hair started to glow. Charlotte thought you were going to Disappear again, so I stopped you, I think. I should be asking you what happened,” Jack said.

They were walking, picking their way carefully through the woods, following the red yarn.

“She just— I was so mad, I couldn’t stand it any more.” Beth kicked at the leaves.

“Was she right? Were you going to Disappear again?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. It felt a lot like it did the other time, but… from the outside, if that makes any sense.” Beth murmurred. “Like… Someone was pushing me, telling me to go.”

Jack squeezed her hand. He hadn’t let it go.

“I’m sorry for hitting you,” she murmured. “You must think I’m terrible.”

“It’s okay,” Jack said. “I’m used to it.”

Beth swallowed, flushing guiltily.

They walked in silence for a while.

“Was it true, what you said? Are your Thanksgivings always like that?”

Jack nodded. “Granna means well, on some deep level. She’s just—”

“Rude? Pushy? Inconsiderate?”

“Well, those, too.”

“Sorry,” Beth said.

“Sacrifice,” Jack said, his tone tinged with disgust. “Beth, you could give lessons.”

“Charlotte’s going to be the teacher, not me.”

“So… what about you? What are you going to be?”

“Psychologist,” she said, without any hesitation. “And… I want to write.”

“‘Writing?’” Jack asked, in a perfect imitation of his grandmother.

“Children’s books,” Beth said. “And you,” she squeezed his hand, “are going to do the illustrations.”

“I am?”

“Yes,” Beth said simply. “Somebody has to support you so you don’t starve.”

“That’s your plan?” Jack asked.

“One of them.”

Jack shuddered a bit at the implications of those three words.

* * * * *

It took them more than an hour to make it to the tree line. Jack hurried them along as quickly as he could. Though she didn’t complain, Jack could feel Beth's trembling growing stronger. Her hand would spasm in his, and he would look back to see her pale, biting her lip. The longer they walked, the less and less they talked.

When her breathing got too ragged, he would pause, despite her insistence that they push on.

They only hurried when they broke through the hedgerow. Jack held the side kitchen door for Beth.

The argument that was going at the dinner table fell silent at the sound of the door closing.

“Jack? Beth? Thank goodness!” Jack’s mother was the first through the door, and after a glance at Jack, she sat Beth down on the stool in the corner, checking her eyes, fingers on the girl’s wrist, gauging her pulse.

Hannah peeked in. “Mom?” The one word spoke volumes.

Jack wisely stepped out, taking his seat at the dinner table.

“Jack? Everything all right?” his father asked.

Jack just shrugged. “Well, we made it back in one piece.”

“Where on Earth did you two— How—?” Granna Nellis was sputtering.

“We went for a walk in the woods,” Jack said, as though disappearing and reappearing miles away was an everyday occurrence.

“Well, bring a coat next time,” his father said, glancing into the kitchen. “That poor girl looks half frozen.”

“Does this mean we can finally have some pie?” Ellie asked.

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