The big white station wagon pulled into the bus loop, and Jack shuffled to the curb. He pulled the door open, and hopped into the passenger seat.
“You’re going to have to park, Mom. She’s still in there. Maybe you can talk to her.”
“Jack, what’s all this about?” his mother asked. “You weren’t very specific on the phone.” She snaked the car through the bus loop, and parked in the staff lot.
“Mrs Chase got hurt skiing, and—”
“The Reader’s Digest version, Jack,” his mother said, as they walked quickly through the snow towards the main office doors.
“The substitute art teacher is an ass, Mom.”
She stopped short just inside the doors. “John Henry, you will watch your language,” she snapped.
Jack winced. “Sorry.”
“And what has this got to do with Beth?”
“Well,” he said, “Beth sort of… used that word, too. And a few others. They had a … disagreement. So he’s got her in detention until she apologizes.”
“Jack, it’s nearly five o’clock. School let out hours ago.”
“You could have at least come home.”
Jack shook his head. “No, Mom. Somebody has to keep an eye on her.”
“Surely she could muster an ‘I’m sorry’ and be done with it.”
“You’ll see, Mom,” Jack said as he held the door to the Principal’s office open.
* * * * *
“Whoa,” Charlotte said, staring at her mother, the fork halfway to her mouth. “Did… did somebody record that?” she asked, looking around the table.
Ellie stared wide-eyed.
“Margaret, I think we need to discuss this in the kitchen,” Jack’s father said, untucking his napkin from his shirt, and setting it on the table.
Jack pushed his seat back. “May I be excused?” he asked.
“I want you home before nine,” his father said, glancing at the empty place at the table.
Jack grabbed the flashlight from the bottom of the stairs, shrugged into his jacket, and kicked his way through the snow. He flicked on the flashlight as he neared the hedgerow, since the floodlights wouldn’t cut through the thick foliage. He tromped across the three long boards Beth had placed across the muddied yard as a sort of causeway, making his way up the front porch. He lifted the heavy iron door knocker, and then saw the note taped to the door, written in neat, squared-off letters:
IT’S OPEN. WATCH YOUR STEP. MIGHT HAVE MISSED SOME GLASS. NO LIGHTS.
“Beth?” he asked, stepping into the entryway. His voice echoed, and the door closing behind him sounded too loud. He listened, but didn’t hear anything coming from the direction of the kitchen, so he made his way up the stairs. At the top, he saw a dim golden flicker coming from under Beth’s bedroom door.
“Who is it?”
“Who else would it be?” Jack asked.
He barely heard the quiet sigh on the other side of the door.
“So, can I come in, or should I just try not to fall down the stairs on my way home?”
“Turn off your flashlight.”
Jack thumbed the switch off, and stuck the light in his pocket.
The door creaked open, and soft golden light flooded the balcony.
“You’re staring,” Beth said, sniffling.
Jack followed her into her room. “Sorry,” he said. “It just… It wasn’t that bright at school.”
“Fluorescent light masks it. And the sun was still up,” Beth said, pushing the tips of her hair back up into the orange-and-green hat. She turned up the flame on the old lamp on her desk, and the room brightened again. She flung herself onto her bed, staring up at the ceiling, arms crossed, heels drumming against the wooden frame.
“Doesn’t agitation—” Jack began.
“Yes,” Beth said, cutting him off.
“So, shouldn’t you—”
“I did all my deep breathing at school, Jack. Now I just want to be angry.”
“Fine, be mad, but be careful about it, okay?”
“Why should I be, Jack? He wasn’t.”
“Beth, don’t you think that because he wasn’t, then you need to be a little extra—”
She gave a frustrated cry, and threw a pillow across the room. Light seeped from between the stitches of her cap. Gold pooled in her eyes.
“I’m tired of being careful, Jack. I’m tired of having to look over my shoulder all the time, jumping at shadows. I don’t want it, Jack. I don’t want any of this.” She closed her eyes, and the tears broke into beads of gold on her eyelashes.
Jack picked up the pillow, brushed it off. He wanted to tell her not to cry, because he hated it when girls cried. He really hated it when Beth cried. It made him want to cry. And he’d never hear the end of it if he came home all sniffly, with his eyes all puffy and red.
He sat beside her, ignoring the flutter in his stomach. So what if he was sitting on her bed. It wasn’t like she never sat on his. He handed Beth the pillow.
“Go on, throw it again, if it’ll make you feel better.”
She hugged the pillow, wiped her eyes on the pillow case. She sniffled. “It won’t,” she said, into the pillow.
“I’ll go stand over there and you can throw it at me,” Jack offered.
Beth rolled onto her side, reached across and took Jack’s hand. “No, don’t get up.”
Her hand was warm. And soft. It didn’t feel so soft when she’d nearly broken his fingers in art class.