“Good night, dear. Drive carefully!”
“I will, Mrs. Clemmons,” Hannah said, returning the woman’s hug.
“Charlotte, don’t you go making your sisters miserable.”
“I won’t,” she said.
“And that goes double for your brother. He’s got enough to worry about.”
Charlotte pouted. “You spoil all my fun!”
Mrs. Clemmons tightened the pink scarf around Ellie’s neck. “Eleanor, you keep an eye on those sisters. Don’t let them kill each other.”
“They haven’t yet!”
The woman hugged the girl tightly. “I’ve missed that bright smile in my classes! But I understand why you don’t come any more.”
She straightened, and hugged Jack.
“You keep up that wonderful work, Jack, no matter what your grandmother says.”
“What happened to ‘always respect your elders’?” Jack asked.
She let Jack go, and winked at him. “That only counts if they return the favor,” she said.
Mrs. Clemmons turned to Beth.
“Well, it has been a pleasure, and I thank you very much for the help tonight.” She held out a hand.
Beth took a step forward, and gave the woman a hug.
“Thank you for letting me help,” she said. “I’ll be back next year.”
“You take good care of Jack in the meantime,” the woman said.
“We’ll take care of each other,” the girl said.
“I have never seen a pair better suited for each other,” Mrs. Clemmons said, letting the girl go with a pat on the back. “And remember what I told you about that tea.”
Beth nodded, and patted her pocket, then followed Jack to the car.
* * * * *
“I don’t really have grandparents, but that is what a grandma should be like, I think,” Beth said, as she buckled herself in.
“Unfortunately, we’re stuck with the one we’ve got,” Charlotte said.
“So, what do you think of mom’s tradition?” Hannah asked.
“I like it,” the girl said. “Except for everyone asking me which class I was in, or when I went to church. I’ve never even been in a church.”
“You’re not missing much,” Charlotte said. “Some singing, then some people reading out of a book, then more singing. Then the priest gets up and lectures—”
“It’s called a ‘sermon,’” Hannah corrected.
“Well, when someone stands in front of me and tells me how to live my life, I call that a lecture.”
“And they weren’t always like that. “
“Just most of them.”
“Beth, don’t let Charlotte color your perception of what church is like,” Hannah said, glancing in the rear-view mirror.
“Right. Grain of salt.”
“Better take the whole shaker,” Jack murmured
“Fine. Then you tell her what it’s like, Jack.”
“Well, it’s mostly like Charlotte said. Sometimes on the big holidays, they break out the incense. On Easter and Christmas, they sometimes do a candlelight vigil.”
“That sounds nice,” Beth said.
“Yeah. Sometimes, I wish they’d just keep all the lights out and the candles lit, and just let people sit in the quiet,” Jack said.
“That sounds like a church I’d like to go to.”
* * * * *
“There and back. No trouble. You owe me five bucks,” Hannah said, holding her hand out to her sister.
Jack got out of the car as quickly as he could, and shuffled Ellie up the porch.
“Come on,” he said to Beth, as she wound her scarf around her neck. “Let’s get away before they drag us into their next bet.”
They crunched across the snow, towards the hedgerow.
“So you really had fun? You’re not just saying it like a lot of the kids at that thing tonight?”
“No, Jack. I enjoyed myself. And it’s not like your parents forced me to go with you. Some of those girls there… ugh! If that one helping me set out cups complained one more time about the TV show she was missing, or the party that was going on…” She let the thought trail off. “If they don’t want to be there, then they just need to leave. Make room for someone who would be grateful to help.”
She looked over at Jack. “What? You’re staring again.”
“No, it’s just…”
“Well… What you just said. Mrs. Clemmons picked up on that.”
“On what? What did I—”
“You were there. You wanted to help. And were happy to do it. I don’t think she sees a lot of that. And there you were. A complete stranger, just… rolling up your sleeves.”
“I’m not a stranger.”
“Well, you were to most of the people there.”
“Am I that out of place?”
Jack started to say ‘no,’ and then caught himself.
“I think you were,” he finally said.
Beth chewed her lip.
“That’s not a bad thing,” he said hurriedly.
“All I wanted was to have a nice, normal life,” she said with a frosty sigh. “I thought… when we moved here, things would be different, they’d settle down. I’d go to school, I’d do my homework, I’d maybe meet a boy….”
“Well… you’ve done all those things,” Jack said.
“But it’s not—”
“Not normal? Ordinary?”
They’d reached the porch steps.
“Look, tomorrow is Christmas eve,” Jack said. “Come over, we’ll show you what a normal, boring family does on Christmas eve.”
“Like your Thanksgiving was ‘normal?’” Beth asked, going up a couple of the steps.
“Granna Nellis won’t be here. No new moon. What could—”
Beth pressed fuzzy gloved fingers to Jack’s lips. “Don’t you dare ask what could go wrong. That’s just asking for trouble.” She leaned over and kissed Jack’s forehead.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” she said, and went up the rest of the steps.
Jack watched her go inside, then trudged back across the yard, through the hedgerow.
Sure, he thought, she didn’t fit in among those other girls, at the dinner. Or at the ‘normal’ school that Beth so dearly wanted to go to.
He kicked his way through the snow.
How could she ever expect to live a normal life when she wasn’t normal?
Jack hunched his shoulders. It sounded bad when he thought about it that way. He was glad he’d kept his mouth shut. Who knows how hard she would have hit him, if he’d said it?