“Jack,” Mrs. Chase said, as he came through the door. She motioned him over to her desk. Or what served as her desk. “You’ve made a lot of progress the past few days. I’d like you to go ahead and work on that in class the rest of the week. I’ve got places to be after school.”
Jack nodded. “I hope it wasn’t a bother, working after these past couple days,” he said.
“No, no. It’s just.... Something has come up. So go on, get to it.”
He nodded again, then went to the back of the room where his easel stood, draped with a paint-spattered canvas sheet.
Several pairs of eyes followed him, and the whispers grew to murmurs.
The murmurs grew to a buzz as he pulled the cover off. More than a couple of the voices let out gasps.
Jack hunched his shoulders a bit, busying himself with the tubes of paint.
Beth’s arrival quieted the class, as the eyes swung from the portrait taking shape on the easel, to the classroom doorway.
The girl glanced quizzically at the art teacher, who shrugged.
“I have to be somewhere after school the rest of the week, so Jack gets to work in class,” Mrs. Chase said with a shrug.
Beth shrugged. “It’s about time he got some attention. He better get used to it.”
Mrs. Chase grinned. “Beth, you have no idea. Or rather, you will in a few weeks.”
They grinned at each other then, and Jack felt a shiver run up his spine.
Beth made her way across the room to her usual spot, the murmur of the class following her as she went.
She turned, and glared at one of the girls who let out a snicker.
“I’m sure if you ask nicely, he’ll paint you, too,” Beth told her with a smile that didn’t touch her eyes. She dropped her backpack by her stool, hopped atop it, ignoring the rest of the murmurs and stares.
* * * * *
Jack was still rinsing out the last brush as the bell rang. He flattened it against the bottom of the sink, turned it over. Movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he turned to watch Beth, giving her backpack a shake to get her art pad to straighten out.
Another of the boys — Roger? Richard?— who sat along the far wall of the class was standing next to her. Jack couldn’t hear what he said over the spattering of the water in the bottom of the metal sink, but the body language spoke volumes: shifting from foot to foot, eyes looking everywhere but at the girl in front of him.
Jack turned the brush over, perhaps a bit too quickly, causing the metal rim of it to scrape against the bottom of the sink. The water was finally coming away clear, rather than streaked with yellow.
He shook the brush, placing it in the coffee can along with the others.
The boy was gone by the time Jack turned back around, and Beth waited by the door.
He waved to Mrs. Chase on his way out the door.
Beth followed a few steps behind.
“Well, it looks like you made quite an impression on the class,” Beth said as they rounded a corner.
Jack shrugged his backpack a bit higher on his shoulder. “I’m not the only one,” he said.
Beth laughed. “No, I think that was all you,” she said.
“I didn’t have girls crawling all over me after class,” he said.
Beth slowed her pace. “What is that I hear in your voice?”
“Nothing,” Jack said, quickening his steps. “Come on, we’re going to be late.”
* * * * *
Ellie plopped in the bench next to Jack, thirteen rows back, as the bus sat idling.
“I beat Beth today!” she said, bouncing on the seat.
“Easy, Pint-size. I don’t want to get seasick,” Jack said.
“Why aren’t you staying late today?” she asked.
“Mrs. Chase has to go someplace after school, so she let me work on the painting in class.”
Ellie’s bouncing slowed somewhat. She suddenly pointed out the window. “There she is,” she said. “She’s talking to Katie’s brother.”
Jack followed his little sister’s finger, and sure enough, there was Beth, making her way towards the bus, with — was it Roger? Richard?
He had a hand on her shoulder. They were smiling.
“Jack? Oh, you never pay any attention to me!” Ellie’s bouncing stopped abruptly, snapping Jack’s attention back to her. Her brow was furrowed, and her lower lip was beginning to tremble.
“What?” he asked, a little too sharply. Her lip trembled harder. “No, Ellie. Not here on the bus,” he said, smoothing out the edges from his voice. “What? I was distracted, I didn’t hear your question.”
She crossed her arms. “Never mind.”
Jack sat back with a sigh. “That’s it. I give up on girls.”
Beth sprang lightly up the steps, moving quickly down the aisle, dropping into the seat ahead of Jack and Ellie. Her eyes sparkled along with the smile on her face.
“Great news, Jack!” she said.
“So when’s the date?”
She blinked. “The— what?”
“With whats-his-name,” Jack said, waving a hand towards the window.
Beth bit down hard on the laugh that almost escaped.
Jack tried not to glower. Failed.
Beth’s laugh won the struggle. She even kicked her feet.
Jack weathered it, his jaw clenching a bit. Ellie just looked back and forth between them, the pout melting into shock, and then hardening into a frown. She hopped up, leaned over the seat and smacked Beth’s hand.
“Stop it! Don’t laugh at Jack like that!”
The background chatter in the bus died. Even the idling of the engine seemed to drop in volume.
Ellie stood on the seat, hands on her hips. Beth stared at her, eyes wide, her smile gone, clutching her hand, which was already starting to redden.
Beth looked from Ellie’s furious scowl, over to Jack’s face, and her expression crumbled even further, the light in her eyes not so much dimming as extinguishing. Where the laughter had been in her throat was a dryness. She felt her tongue working, but no words were coming out… it was like walking uphill in the sand.
“I—” It came out more a croak than an actual word.
But Jack had turned his gaze to Ellie.
“Eleanor Margaret, sit down this instant,” he snapped.
It was as if Ellie were a puppet, and Jack had cut her strings with the words. Her anger switched off as fast as it’d ignited, and she plopped to the seat, her lower lip back to trembling again.
“Don’t you ever hit her. Ever, do you hear me?”
“B-b-but she was—”
“No excuse!” Jack snapped. “Now you apologize to her this instant.”
He looked over, but Beth was gone.
For a heart-stopping moment, he thought she’d Disappeared, but then the flash of golden hair and the brilliant red of her pants caught his eye out the window.
Jack jumped up, over the seat. He caught himself, turning back to Ellie.
“You go home, and you think about what you did. And you be ready to apologize when we get there.”
Then he leapt towards the door, nearly bowling over Mr. Grady on his way down the steps.
Beth was fast— she was very nearly out of sight. But Jack had a pretty good idea where it was she was headed.