“So you’re saying you don’t want to kiss me?”
Jack glanced from the mistletoe to Beth, and back.
“I’m not— I don’t—” Jack snapped his mouth shut, took a deep breath. His mother stood in the kitchen doorway, a bemused smile on her lips as she dried her hands on a dishtowel. Ellie and Charlotte peered down from the top of the stairs. Jack’s father glanced up from the fireplace, where he’d been tucking newspaper amongst the wood on the grate.
He grabbed Beth’s wrist, and retraced his steps across the house, and out the side kitchen door. He swung to the right, following his path through the snow.
“Jack, where are we—”
“Anywhere,” he said, everything tinged with a bit of red as he let his frustration fuel his pace.
The hedgerow blinked past. The tree line came and went, and Jack stopped as he realized that he was panting, wading through the snows that had drifted across the meadow that lead to the stream.
He was breathing heavily. Beth was gasping for air, bent nearly double. When Jack looked back, and she glanced up to meet his eyes, her face and lips were close to the same shade as the snows they’d been trudging through.
He glanced around, kicking through the snow until his foot connected with one of the tree stumps with a solid ‘thunk.’
He threw his arms across where he thought the trunk should be, and cleared most of the snow off it.
“I’m sorry, Beth. I just— Here, sit.”
He guided her along the path he’d broken through the snows, and eased her down on the sodden stump.
She sat, shoulders slumped, wheezing a bit as she fought to slow her breathing. She reached into her pocket, and pulled out one of the water bottles, sipping carefully.
While she rested, Jack paced.
His back was to Beth when she threw the half-full bottle at him, and it glanced sharply off his shoulder.
“Ow! What’d you—”
“A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would have been enough.”
“It’s not that simple, Beth.”
“I thought it a pretty simple question.”
Jack straightened a bit. “It wasn’t Charlotte…. It was you.”
Beth didn’t meet his eyes, instead staring off to the west, where the sun was slanting through the trees, beginning to touch the sky with orange and gold.
“It was her idea. I just… went along with it.”
Jack gave a growl of frustration and kicked at the snow. He turned back around to find Beth easing to her feet.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going back in. It’s cold out here. And the sun will be going down soon. I can’t be outside after that.”
She took a step, and her knees buckled.
Jack caught her, easing her back a step and back onto the stump. Her hands shook, and the strength of her grip fluttered on his arm.
Jack took a deep breath, going to one knee before the girl.
“Look. It’s not that I don’t want to. But… Beth, let’s look at the track record: You punched me out. Then you do some things I’m sure you weren’t supposed to do and that made your hair all glow-y. Then we jumped three miles into the woods….”
“Okay, I get it….”
“It’s scary, Beth.”
“Okay, I get it! I scare you and—” She blinked rapidly. “I get it.”
“What? No, Beth…. It’s not that I’m—” His breath hissed out in another frustrated sigh, and he rose, turned, and kicked more snow.
He trudged back over, and collapsed on the ground, leaning back against the stump, his shoulder close to Beth’s knee.
“It’s just…. I’m scared about what’ll happen—”
“Maybe we’ll go to the moon next time,” Beth said, forcing a smile.
“No, Beth…. Stop. I don’t mean like that.”
“Then… what do you mean?” Jack felt her eyes, a tingle across his scalp, but he didn’t look up.
“I mean…. You’re my friend. My best… my only friend. I don’t want to lose that. I’m afraid if I—-” He swallowed at a sudden dryness at the back of his throat. “If I start feeling that way about you, we might lose what we already have now. What happens to all that? It’s going to change everything. And if you…. If you… Disappear again….”
Beth nudged his shoulder with her knee. When she nudged it again, he looked up, frowning, ready to tell her to cut it out, but he saw that she was laughing, quietly, trying to hold it in.
He turned, staring up at her. “What’s so funny?”
She wiped a tear from her eye, and their eyes met.
“That’s it? That’s what you were so worried about?”
“I— Well… yeah.”
She reached back, scooped up a handful of snow, and dumped it over his head.
“You dummy. Of course everything changes. Everything always changes!”
Jack sputtered, spitting snow, trying to clear it from his eyes.
Another handful cascaded over him.
“When we moved in next door, you lost your precious haunted house. It changed. Good or bad?”
Jack spat more snow, shaking his head.
“Good or bad?”
“Good,” he sputtered.
A handful of snow pattered against the back of his head.
“When we left the Principal’s office on my first day of school, you shared your lunch with me. You never shared your lunch with anybody, but that changed. Good or bad?”
“I never had dinner or spent the night at anybody’s house before. But you changed that.”
“Good or bad?” Jack asked.
He got another face full of snow. “Duh!”
“Things changed a whole lot when you Disappeared, Beth. I wouldn’t say ‘bad’ but more like just ‘scary.’”
“It’s okay, Jack. You can say it’s bad if it’s bad. Not all changes are good.” She rubbed a hand over her stomach. “Not all changes are fair.”
They sat in silence for a long moment. Then Jack pushed himself to his feet, brushing the snow from his hair and shoulders onto Beth.
She squealed, and shook it from her own hair and coat as best she could.
“Come on,” Jack said, reaching out a hand. “It’s almost sundown. We better get back.”
She took his hand, but tugged back when he tried to pull her to her feet.
“You still didn’t answer my question.”
Jack stared down at her, and then he bent, letting go of her hand, and placing his hands on her shoulders. He bent lower, and placed a kiss on her forehead, and another atop her damp, golden hair.
“You missed,” she said, her voice muffled by his coat.
“Well, we don’t have time to work on my aim out here.”
Beth giggled, but it cut short as Jack’s hands tensed on her shoulders.
“What?” she asked, in a whisper.
“Something just moved under the snow. Moving this way.”