“First day back and running late?” Mr. Grady growled. “Tell her not to be keeping you up all night.”
Jack leapt up the steps and walked quickly down the aisle, shoulders hunched.
Mr. Grady stood and leaned out the bus doors. “All right, your boyfriend made it. Now get out of the road!”
The kids in the first few rows laughed, and Jack told himself it was the sprint to the bus stop that had him feeling so hot.
Beth hopped up the steps, smiling brightly at the bus driver.
“Thank you for waiting, Mr. Grady,” she said, patting his hand.
“You lay down in front of my bus again, and I’m running you over,” he snarled. “I mean it! Now go sit down.”
“If Jack is late again, you can run me over, and then back up and do it again,” Beth said, the gold specks flaring in her eyes as she glared at Jack.
His face hadn’t gotten any cooler. The whispers and snickering only grew louder, a wake of sound trailing behind Beth.
“Do you have to be so melodramatic?” Jack asked as she plopped down in the seat in front of him. He reached over and brushed snow from her hair.
“Maybe this will teach you to get up a little earlier. And I did not keep him up,” she said in a louder voice, momentarily silencing the whispers.
“Nobody should be so happy this early in the morning,” Jack muttered.
“Oh, come on, Jack. Didn’t you miss school?”
“Not even a little bit?”
“Not the teeniest bit,” he said. He suddenly hugged his backpack, glancing sharply out the window at the receding houses. He let out a groan.
Beth dropped a paper bag into his lap, the top neatly folded shut.
“What would I ever do without you?” he asked.
“Face your mom’s wrath for missing the bus? Be late for school? Starve?”
“Never get your art up in some big gallery? Not be quoted — twice — in the local paper? Fail that last math—”
“Oh, was that a rhetorical question?” she asked, giggling.
Jack wondered if it wasn’t too late for Mr. Grady to run her over.
* * * * *
“See what I mean about not missing this the teensiest bit?” Jack wheezed, picking himself up off the gym floor, clutching his side.
Kyle and his cronies guffawed, one of them running after the big red ball.
Beth hauled Jack to his feet.
“Time out!” she called.
The laughter continued.
“There’s no ‘time out’ in dodge ball!” Kyle sneered, catching the ball one of his flunkies had tossed him.
“Do I need to repeat myself?” Beth asked, dropping her chin slightly, and fixing her eyes on the bully.
He swallowed, and bounced the ball a few times, suddenly intent on dribbling it.
Beth tugged Jack towards the wall of the gym. She gave Jack a bit of a shove, and as he staggered, he heard the hard slap of rubber against skin. He half turned, and saw Beth, the red ball in her hands, poised at the level where Jack’s head had been.
“Somebody either has bad judgement or bad aim,” Beth said.
“Beth,” Jack said, his voice rising in concern. He tried to put a hand on her arm, but she wrenched it away.
“Which is it?” she asked, her voice ringing in the sudden silence that had descended over the gym.
Kyle’s cronies shuffled their feet. Kyle just crossed his arms.
“Both, then,” Beth said. She took three steps towards the pack of boys, and several of the cronies backed away.
“The next one who touches this ball will wish they hadn’t,” she said, and placed it on the floor.
“What’s that, some kind of threat?” Kyle asked, his lip curling.
“Just a warning,” she said, with a smile. Then she turned and walked away.
Jack saw the boys glance at the ball, then each other. Kyle’s eyes, though, went from the ball to Beth’s back. He took several running steps, putting all his considerable weight and momentum into the kick.
If she heard the kick, she showed no reaction to it, not even so much as a flinch. She simply dropped into a sudden crouch, the ball streaking over her. Students against the wall screamed and scrambled as the ball hit the wall with a hard, ringing slap. Kyle had enough time for the gloating smile to dissolve before the ball bounced off his nose, sending the boy to the floor.
The silence stretched for another moment, punctuated by Kyle’s high, nasal sobbing, before the students returned to their games.
Those closest to Beth — Jack included — simply stared, as the girl carefully finished tying her shoe.