“Beth, wait!” Jack managed to get the words out between gasps, and the girl’s pace slowed, then stopped. She was still bent over her knees, sucking in deep breaths by the time Jack trudged up to her.
She’d made it to the top of the hill that the school perched on, and had been heading for where the two long rear halls intersected, where a side entrance stood open. The art room lay at the end of that long corridor.
Jack laid a hand on Beth’s shoulder, thought she was having trouble breathing. But she was sobbing, and he saw tears glimmering through the hair that had drifted down to hide her face.
“Hey,” he said. “You should know better than to try running away by now.”
“I’m sorry, Jack. I didn’t mean— You and Ellie must think I’m —”
“Calm down, before you ‘go “poof”’ as Charlotte says. Come on, we can still make the bus if we run back.”
“No, come on!” He grabbed her hand, and started back the way they’d come.
Mr. Grady had held the bus for them, nodding as Beth gasped her thanks, and giving Jack a sly wink as he gunned the engine.
“Thanks, Mr. Grady,” Jack wheezed.
“Ah, young love,” the bus driver cackled. Most of the rest of the bus joined him.
“Next time,” Jack said as he and Beth plopped into the twelfth seat, “we’ll just tell him to leave us.”
Beth glowered at a pair of girls giggling a few seats away, then leaned her head back, and ignored them.
Ellie stared at her, upside down, lower lip still sticking out.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
“It’s okay,” Beth said. “I probably deserved it. But I’ll explain what’s so funny when we get home, okay?”
The younger girl nodded, the frown not completely gone, but the lower lip safely retracted.
* * * * *
“Don’t be late tomorrow, you two lovebirds. Y’hear me? I won’t wait!”
The bus rumbled and rattled on down Route 3, and Jack bristled until he was halfway up the driveway.
“What’s got you so steamed?” Beth asked. “It’s no big deal.”
“He— We’re not— Now everyone—”
Beth stopped, waiting calmly. “Deep breath. Whole sentences, hmm?”
“Well, we’re obviously not— I mean, what with you and what’s-his-name… Roger—”
“What about him?”
“Well, shouldn’t I be asking you that? He was awfully cozy with you in art class.”
Beth’s eyes widened a bit. The corners of her mouth twitched, and the laugh turned into a cough as she tried to hold it in.
“Jack, is that — do I hear… jealousy in that voice?”
She was standing three good paces away, but the words hit Jack as if she’d smacked him in the chin again.
Beth leaned forward, as if she were hanging on his every word.
“I mean—” Jack’s voice suddenly went dry, and he swallowed a few times, took a deep breath. “It’s okay, I just — I’ve never seen you talk to anybody else like—”
“Like what?” Beth asked.
“Well, it just… it looks a lot like I guess we look when we talk.”
Beth nodded. “So…?”
“It’s just so… sudden,” Jack said. “I mean, you never mentioned Roger before.”
“Ryan. And… why would I, exactly?”
Jack threw up his hands. “Just twist the knife a little more, why don’t you, Beth?”
She straightend up sharply. “Whoa, I’m the one with green eyes, here, Jack, not you.”
“What the heck does eye color have to do with anything?” Jack asked after a slight pause. “I’m talking about—”
“I think I know what you’re talking about, Jack. But—”
“And, really, Beth, it’s okay. I mean, it isn’t but I just wish you’d told me first, and—”
Beth sat down hard on the driveway, gravel crunching under her. She winced a bit, but kept her eyes on Jack’s.
“Now what are you—”
“Jack,” she said calmly, patting the ground next to her. “Come here. Sit here, and let me explain some things.”
He looked suspiciously at the spot she’d indicated, then hesitantly crossed the space and sat beside her.
She sat up straight, so she could keep her eyes on his.
“Jack,” she said. “Ryan took a picture of your painting, and sent it to his mom and dad. They sent him a message a little while later asking him to ask you if you wanted to do a family portrait, for Ryan’s grandmother’s birthday in the spring. Ryan was a bit nervous, so he asked me to ask you for him.”
Jack nodded after each sentence. Then he blinked.
“He wants me to paint something for him?”
“For his parents, so I guess, yes, for him, too. For his grandmother. For her birthday.”
“It’s a good thing we’re sitting down,” Jack said, his eyes a bit distant, something tugging at the corner of his mouth. He thought it was a smile, but he couldn’t be sure, and he wasn’t sure exactly why he should be smiling. Or rather, he wasn’t sure he’d be smiling for the right reason.
“Wow,” he said, after a bit.
“So, it’s not like he was asking me out, or anything even like that. I got you your next commission.”
“Wait, you told him ‘yes?’” Jack’s throat chose that time again to go dry, and his voice cracked.
“I told him we’d talk it over with your parents and we’d let him know.”
“That’s probably a good idea, yeah,” Jack said, after he’d cleared his throat.
“So, does that put your mind at ease, any?”
Jack blinked. “Huh?”
“I mean, I guess I’d go out with Ryan if he asked.”
“Sure, why not?”
Jack’s mouth worked, but a few croaks managed to make it out.
“Do you think he’s interested?”
“Beth, most of the guys in class are interested. Most of the guys at school are interested.”
Now it was her turn to blink.
“Beth, they’d have to be blind. Or stupid.”
She crinkled up her nose. “Don’t think I much like the idea of going out with Kyle, no.”
“So. If did ask you — purely hypothetical — would you really go out with him?”
“Kyle? I just said—”
“You mean Ryan.” Beth’s eyes went distant, and she stared off into space as she thought for a long moment. “No, I’d probably have to turn him down.”
“Yeah,” she said, getting up and hoisting her backpack, starting towards the house.
Jack scrambled to his feet. “Well, why would you turn him down?”
She glanced back over her shoulder.
“Still waiting for someone else to ask me,” she said, and she jogged up the steps.
“Wait— who?” Jack asked, but Beth had already gone into the house.