“When you’re done over there, do you think you could come do my driveway, too?”
Jack looked up from shoveling the worst of the snow from the gravel driveway.
Beth stood, bundled in her long maroon coat, bright red scarf, and orange-and-green knit hat, pointing to the stretch of driveway that turned away at the long hedgerow that separated the two properties.
Jack stuck the shovel in the ground, patted himself a large snowball, and lobbed it at the girl.
She ducked, throwing one of her own.
“So, that’s a ‘no’?”
“You don’t have a car. You’re not even old enough to drive!” Jack called.
Beth crunched her way down to where the two driveways met, leaned forward, tugging her scarf down to kiss Jack’s cheek.
“Good morning,” she said.
“What’s so good about it?” Jack asked, as he pitched more snow out of the way.
Beth ignored his sour mood. “How did you sleep?”
“Fine,” Jack panted, hefting the shovel.
He looked over his shoulder.
“What did we spend all day yesterday talking about, Jack?”
“Dreams. How dangerous you are.”
“And, no, I didn’t dream last night.” He threw the shovelful of snow aside, flung more after it. “You were right, okay?”
“You don’t have to get all mad about it,” Beth said, ducking as more snow flew.
“I’m not mad!”
“Then why are you throwing that poor, defenseless snow halfway across the yard?”
Jack jammed the shovel down into the snow again, leaning on it, gulping in air. He looked at the last stretch he’d cleared. So maybe it was a bit further away than his earlier work.
Beth reached into her coat pocket, cradling a squat thermos, unscrewing the tops, carefully pouring something steaming into the cup-lid.
“Here,” she said, holding it out to him.
Jack tugged his gloves off, taking the cup in both hands, smiling as he breathed chocolate-scented steam.
“Maybe that will do something about your grouchy mood.”
Beth worked the shovel from the snow, then scraped it under the edge of the snow, levering the chunk up and over the edge of the snow along the driveway.
She raised the shovel up to drive it into the next patch of snow when the crack of the screen door springing shut snapped across the yard.
“Beth Harrison, you drop that shovel this instant!”
She and Jack both jumped as his mother’s voice rang in the cold morning air.
Beth turned, eyes wide.
“You better do as she says,” Jack warned.
“How can she do that?”
“Invoke. Without using a full name.”
Jack slurped at the hot chocolate. He shrugged. “She’s a mom.”
“Good morning, Margaret!” Beth called. “I was just helping Jack—”
“Good morning, Beth. Now drop that shovel and come inside so I can check your blood pressure and give you your morning meds.”
The girl handed the shovel to Jack, passed him the thermos from her pocket, and picked her way up the driveway.
Jack finished the cup as quickly as he could, screwed it back onto the top of the thermos, and got back to work.
It went a lot faster with the warmth from the hot chocolate spreading through him.
* * * * *
“So, how’s the patient?” Jack asked, as he hung up his coat.
“Uncooperative, as ever,” Jack’s mother said, tapping the cup of pills before the girl. “She’s worse than Ellie.”
Beth sat at her place at the table, hunched over a steaming mug, her cheery morning smile replaced by a sulking pout.
“If you don’t take one of these now, you get two at lunch.”
“I feel better. I don’t need them.”
“Don’t make her use your full name, Beth. You won’t like that.”
The girl grimaced, then took the last pill from the cup, swallowing it with the help of the tea, which made her grimace even further.
A door upstairs clattered open, and the rapid-fire clomping down the stairs announced Ellie. She jumped the last two steps, hair flying out behind her like some dark cape. She clambered up into her chair and deposited a handful of elastic bands on the table. She fished a brush from the top pocket of her overalls, and held it out to her mother.
“Honestly, Ellie. You’re almost six now. Aren’t you a little old for pigtails?”
Beth reached over, and plucked the brush from the girl’s hand.
“Let me try something,” she said. “Ellie, let’s try something a little different, okay?”
The girl’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t like different. I like pigtails. Be different with your hair!”
Beth brushed the last of the tangles from the girl’s hair. “Mine isn’t long enough for this kind of braid.”
Ellie’s suspicious frown lifted a bit. “A braid? Well why didn’t you say so?” She got up, and scooted around in her chair until her back was to Beth.
Jack’s mother arched an eyebrow.
Beth worked her fingers through the younger girl’s hair, lifting some up and away. She began to weave the hair over, under, her fingers moving with the quiet confidence of a practiced pianist. In minutes, she’d worked a french braid down the back of Ellie’s head, and was turning the loose hair into a braid that came nearly to the girl’s lower back.
Through it all, the girl hadn’t made a peep of complaint — which she normally did at the slightest tug or snarl in her hair.
Once Beth bound the end of the braid in one of the elastic bands, Ellie jumped up, turning her head this way and that, whipping her hair around behind her. She reached up carefully, to touch the twining of hair atop her head.
“I can’t see it!”
“Ellie, be careful not to pull any loose. You can go look in the bathroom.”
Jack’s mother grabbed the girl’s hand before she could charge off around the stairs.
“What do we say?”
The girl looked over at Beth, giving her a bright smile. “Thank you very much! Can I go look now?”
“You’re welcome,” Beth said with a smile of her own.
Jack’s mother let Ellie scamper off to the bathroom to admire her new hairdo. Then she glanced over at Beth.
“Where did you learn to do that? I could never get the knack for that kind of braid.”
Beth sipped at her tea. “The girls in the Lakota tribe we stayed with when I was little were always doing that sort of thing with each others’ hair. They were afraid to touch mine, at first.” She blushed a bit at the memory. “They thought I was their Daughter of the Sun, and that if they touched my hair, it would burn them.” She sighed, smiling as her eyes seemed to stare far away. “My hair was almost as long as Ellie’s then.”
Jack cocked his head to the side, squinting.
“You’re staring again,” Beth said, then drained the last of her tea.
“I’m just trying to picture you with longer hair. Why did you cut it short?”
Beth got up, drifting past Jack into the kitchen.
“I’d rather not think about that,” she said, as she passed him.
Jack told himself that her voice was low and bitter from the tea.