Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Assignments, II

“I really thought he was going to run me over!” Jack said as they scrambled down the central aisle of the bus.

“I was!” Mr. Grady called over his shoulder.

Ellie’s bottom lip popped out, and she began hiccuping.

The old bus driver leaned down and whispered something to Ellie. The frown dissolved and the pout turned into a beaming smile.

“Really?” she asked.

Mr. Grady put a gnarled finger to his lips. “Our little secret,” he grumbled. “Now go make sure those two stay in their seats.”

Ellie charged down the aisle, and jumped into the seat beside Jack.

“Guess what?” she asked him, still smiling.

Jack was still brushing snow from one arm of his jacket. Beth was brushing it from his hair.

“What?” he asked.

“Mr. Grady says next time, he’ll let me drive the bus when he runs one of you over!”

Beth’s giggle was lost under the grinding of gears.

* * * * *

“Miss Harrison, if class is so boring that you must yawn every two minutes, perhaps you’d be better off in the nurse’s office?” Mrs. Hannigan poised her red pencil above the pad of yellow slips.

Beth blinked, sitting up straighter.

“No, ma’am. I just… didn’t sleep well last night. If it’s any consolation, I actually am enjoying the lesson. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of my favorites.”

The girl behind Beth made a face, and muttered something Jack couldn’t quite hear.

He felt a stab of guilt. Though Mr. Grady hadn’t said anything, he’d been the one keeping Beth up all night this time around. Not really “up,” but in a state Beth called ‘active in dreamtime,’ Which, as Jack understood it, meant not getting any sleep while you slept. His head still swam trying to make heads and tails of what all happened the night before.

He gave a start as the bell rang.

“John, Miss Harrison,” Mrs. Hannigan said, crooking her finger and beckoning them to her podium.

“You have such beautiful eyes, Miss Harrison. Please keep them open in class tomorrow.”

Beth nodded.

“And you, John, will need to rewrite this.” She handed a paper to him. “This time without the doodles in the margins, please?”

* * * * *

“She sure has mellowed,” Beth said as they made their way to Jack’s lunch spot.

“Well, yeah, once she figured out that you were actually smart under all those colors and blocky letters. I told you she wasn’t mean on purpose. She’s just… picky.”

“I think the doodles are cute,” Beth said, holding up Jack’s essay. “Look, there’s one of a stick-figure with a donkey head. How can she not appreciate that?”

“‘English class, not art class,’” Jack said in the best impression of Old Hannigan that he could manage. Which was terrible.

Beth laughed. “Yeah, that sounds like her. Even though it doesn’t.” She hopped up onto the ledge that ran along the back of the gym.

Tucked back where the gym and one of the corridors met, and sectioned off by the heating and air conditioning machinery, Jack’s lunch spot stayed dry in the rain, cool in the summer, and warm in the winter. The gym was partially built into the hillside, and the embankments curled along either side of the nook, keeping all but the gentlest of breezes from finding its way in.

The ledge was wide enough that Beth could stretch out full length, which she did, propping her head up on her backpack, tugging her hat down over her eyes.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Jack asked, fishing his sandwich from his lunch bag, easing it out so the bag wouldn’t rattle too much.

“I’m tired, Jack. If I don’t get a nap in, I’ll sleep through art. And Richards is just itching to get me thrown out.”

Jack nodded, even though Beth couldn’t see it. He finished chewing the bite of his sandwich, washed it down with some of the juice box.

“Hey, Beth, about that assignment—”

Beth’s breathing had gone deep and even.

Jack shook his head in wonderment. He smoothed out his lunch bag, scribbling at it with a marker.

He drew a cat in a striped hat and long coat, curled up on a ledge, fast asleep.

* * * * *

They skidded to a stop outside the art room’s green doors, slipping inside just as the second lunch bell rang.

“Mr. Jacobs. Miss Harrison,” the teacher said, glancing up from the grade book at his podium. “That wasn’t running I heard in the hallway outside, was it?”

Jack was still trying to slow his breathing, and Beth turned her smile on. “We just didn’t want to miss our favorite class,” she said.

The teacher held out a small cardboard box, gave it a shake. “Please take a card, and then take a seat where the number indicates.”

Jack was about to ask if they were in some kind of trouble, but he noticed that everyone was sitting all scattered around.

He picked his number out just behind Beth, and she went to the first easel in the row against the windows.

Jack looked down at his pick: 13. Second from the end on the opposite side of the room. He lugged his bag over to the stool, and perched, finally feeling the stitch in his side beginning to ease.

“All right. You should find everything you need in the boxes under your easels. You have until the end of this week to finish the assignment. Yes, this will be graded.”

Jack stared at the canvas, and then down at the box full of paints. His mouth went dry.

No way was he going to paint last night’s dream, and not just because there was only half a tube of black paint.

“Mr. Jacobs? Is there a problem?” Mr. Richards stopped on his way down the aisle between the rows of easels.

Jack shook his head, clearing the memory of the nightmare aside.

“What if… there were multiple parts?” Jack asked.

Mr. Richards straightened his shoulders. “Well, in that case, I guess you’d have to choose one or the other. Three days isn’t a lot of time, but if you’d like to paint both…”

Jack shuddered. “No, I think I’ll concentrate on the better part.”

“Well, you’d best get to it then,” the teacher said, and walked around behind another student, and up the next aisleway.

Jack bent, picked two blues from the box, and began to blend them.

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