Jack heard Beth’s approach long before he saw her: even she couldn’t make her way through the snow in complete silence. He heard the snapping of the occasional branch, the bell-like chatter of ice falling. Jack didn’t look up as she fought her way through the skeletal branches and the undergrowth.
She stood, panting, gloved hands on her hips, staring at Jack, who sat in the hollow at the base of the Dragon Tree.
“Hey,” he said, as she crunched across the snow-swept clearing.
She kicked some of that snow at Jack, and then plopped down next to him, sitting halfway in the space he left when he flinched aside from the spay of snow.
“What was that for?” Jack asked, brushing at his hair.
“For making me hike all the way out here after you.”
She gave him one of her long, level stares. “Jack. Running away is my thing. And you always come to find me, so…. Now it’s my turn, I guess.”
“I was going to go back in a bit.”
Beth looked up at the sky. “Hopefully not too much longer. Those clouds look ugly.”
As if to emphasize her point, a cold gust of wind swept through the clearing, setting the branches to rattling. The Dragon Tree groaned above them, other branches creaking, as if it were flexing age-stiffened wings in preparation for flight.
Beth leaned heavily against Jack.
“What’s all this?” he asked.
“I just hiked three miles. Through snow. It’s tiring.”
“You shouldn’t have come out here. I told you to stay inside.”
“And what would I do if you didn’t come back?”
“Don’t be silly, Beth. Of course I was going to come back!” He paused. “This conversation is all backwards.”
“It’s a nice change,” Beth murmured. “Now we just need to find a way to give you the cramps and all that…”
“Beth? You can’t fall asleep out here.” He shrugged his shoulder, and her head bobbed.
“I’m not sleeping. I’m resting. Trying to. Sit still!”
She looked up at Jack. Her eyes glittered. And for having hiked three miles through the snow, her cheeks didn’t show any signs of the exertion, though her breathing was still too fast, but slowing. She licked dry lips.
“Did you bring something to drink?”
Beth fumbled at her pocket, and fished out a water bottle, mostly full. She held it out to Jack.
He took it, popped up the cap, and stuck it in her mouth.
“Drink, before you pass out,” he said.
Her eyes shot wide, and anger bloomed in them, briefly, but then she began to drink.
She pushed Jack’s hand, pushing the bottle away after several long swallows.
“Enough!” she gasped, wiping at her chin. “You’re going to drown me if you keep that up.”
They sat in silence for a while. Jack took a sip of water from the bottle, then handed it back to Beth. She glowered at him, and wiped off the cap, then stuffed it back in the pocket of her coat.
She drew her knees up close, hugging them, leaning more on Jack than the rough bark of the Dragon Tree.
“It’s not that bad, Jack.”
He looked over at her. “What’s not?”
“Your parents’… decision.”
“They’re kicking you out.”
“They are not kicking me out!”
“Well, what do you call it, then?”
“I call it imposing. Overstaying my welcome.”
“Jack. I was sick. They took good care of me. It’s time I went back home. Would you be this upset if I was in the hospital and came back home?”
“Well…. No, but—”
“So it’s not that bad. I have an open invitation to dinner every night.”
Jack took a deep breath. “But… I like our talks. You know. The Witching hour.”
“Jack, we’re going back to school in a while. We should be sleeping then. It’s a bad habit.”
“So… what do I do when I have a bad dream?”
After a long pause, Beth sighed. “I’ve been thinking about that, Jack.”
Jack did not like the way she said that. It was the same tone of voice Charlotte used when she talked about The Ex. It was the tone his dad used when he told Ellie about poor Mr. Nibbles.
“When did you have your first nightmare?”
Jack thought back. It was during his suspension. The night after Beth had been so late coming back from school, because Kyle had tried to set his locker on fire…
“My second night there,” she said. “After I slept in your bed the night before.”
“Oh, come on, Beth, that’s just a—”
“The next one I had, you weren’t even here,” Jack said. “So, so much for that theory. You aren’t making me have bad dreams. It’s no reason to kick you out.”
“Jack, in a way, I did make you have that dream.”
“I had that dream. The night I came back. I woke up your sister. Remember that?”
“Kinda hard to forget…”
“If… If I hadn’t insisted on sleeping there, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”
“Look, Beth, you’re—”
She leaned away, pulling herself up to her feet, rounding on Jack.
“What happened when you fell asleep next to me?”
Jack blinked, staring up at the girl. “I… I don’t kn—”
“You dreamed of my sanctuary, Jack. Nobody is supposed to do that. Or be able to go there. Not even Them.”
Jack shuddered at the icy flatness in her voice as she pronounced the last word.
“What would have happened if the thing in there had caught you? If you hadn’t woken up in time?”
Jack just stared.
“You wouldn’t have woken up, that’s what,” she said. “They forced you in there when I wouldn’t let Them in. You had no way of fighting, Jack.”
“I would have—”
Beth squatted down in front of Jack, taking his hands in hers, clumsily twining their gloved fingers. She leaned forward, her forehead pressed to the top of Jack’s head.
“Jack, you are very brave. And very stubborn. And I know you would try to fight back. And then I would lose you. And I will not let that happen.”
Jack tried to lift his head, but she pressed harder.
“Bad things happen when we sleep together, Jack.”
“Okay, okay, I get it!” he said. “You’re the expert.”
“So you’re okay with your parents’ decision, then? You won’t be all sulky at the dinner table?”
Jack slipped his head out from under Beth’s, and looked up at her. “Hannah sent you out here, didn’t she?”
Beth tried to pull back, but Jack kept his fingers twined tightly with hers.
Beth giggled. “Well, I was going to come out here after you anyway.”
Jack grinned. “A guy can’t even go sulk in peace any more.”
He got stiffly to his feet, stomping to restore some circulation to his lower legs.
They started back along their trail in the snow, side by side, the fingers of his right hand tangled with those of Beth’s left.
“Hey, Beth,” Jack said, after they’d crossed from the older growth into the younger, more open stretch of the woods. “Do you think, maybe… my parents don’t want us sleeping together because they think we might… you know?”
Beth glanced over at Jack.
“Do it?” she asked.
“Gross,” she said, making a face.
“Yeah, I kinda thought so, too,” Jack said.