Jack and Beth paused in the hall doorway. Halfway down the hall, the art class was gathering. The big green doors were closed.
Mrs. Chase always left the door open at lunch.
“Can the day get any worse?” Jack asked.
“If you won’t go to the nurse’s office, it’s not worth complaining about,” Beth said, poking him in the side. Jack sucked in a sharp breath.
“Going to the nurse’s office because I got hit by a doge ball? C’mon, what loser would do that?”
Beth poked him in the side again. “I did warn him,” she said, and started down the hall.
Jack hefted his backpack and followed.
“Hey, Beth,” one of the boys by the wall said, waving her over.
“Ryan! How was your vacation?”
He bobbed his head. “Good. Yours?”
“Oh, you know. Boring.”
Jack coughed behind her, and the girl reddened slightly. She tried to elbow Jack, but he slid aside.
“So Beth tells me you want a painting,” Jack said to the other boy.
He bobbed his head. “Yeah. I mean, your other work — I took some pictures in class, I hope you don’t mind!”
Jack shrugged. “Lots more people are looking at it than your family, now, so I guess it’s not a big deal.”
Ryan grinned. “That’s pretty awesome.”
Jack shrugged again. “Kind of scary, all those people looking at it. I mean, I didn’t paint it for an audience.” He gave Beth a sideways glance.
They stood in silence for several minutes.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake — it’s just a phrase,” she said, narrowing her eyes at Jack. “Jack, are you going to paint it or not?”
“I don’t have—”
“Mrs. Chase already said she would let you use the art room whenever you want to paint.” Beth had her hands on her hips.
“But I don’t have—”
“My parents said they’ll pay for any supplies you need. Paints, brushes. Um, canvas, I guess. Just let me know and I’ll get them the list.”
Jack glanced over at the closed door again. “Look, let’s just make sure I have someplace to work, first.”
Ryan bobbed his head again. “So… almost a ‘yeah’?”
Jack nodded. “Yeah.”
They shook hands. Beth just shook her head.
The lunch bell rang a few minutes later, and several more students drifted down the hall, slowing at the milling crowd outside the art room.
Finally, one of the big green doors swung open, a tall, thin, balding man propping it open. He nodded greetings as the students filed past him.
Jack and Beth took two steps into the room and only moved further at the prodding of other students behind them.
The drafting table in the corner was gone. Or rather, it was folded up and stored against one of the windows. A normal plain wood teacher’s desk had taken its place, topped with the usual teacherly paraphernalia: blotter, grade book, a stack of metal trays.
The teacher slipped in behind the last of the students, swinging the door shut behind him.
“All right, class, please take your seats,” he said in a reedy voice.
The stools had been arranged in two semicircles. At the center of each was a low pedestal upon which perched a bowl of fruit.
The students glanced at one another uneasily, and then filtered into seats as close to where they normally sat as possible. Jack and Beth took two stools closest to the windows.
The man picked up the grade book, and set it before him on the podium that he’d set up beside the desk.
“Right,” he said, glancing over the page he’d flipped the book open to. He glanced at his watch, then at the clock on the wall. The bell rang, and he nodded sharply.
“I am Mr. Richards. I will be filling in for Mrs. Chase, who was in a rather serious skiing accident.”
He raised a hand as the wave of muttering swept through the class.
“She’s all right, but I am told that she will need some time to recuperate. That is all I know, so we will now continue with roll call.”
He began calling names, glancing around, marking them off in the book.
“Jacobs,” he said, glancing up. “John Jacobs?”
Jack glanced around nervously, then reluctantly raised his hand. “Um, Mr. Richards, everyone calls me Jack.”
The teacher glanced down at the grade book, and then up at Jack.
“It says ‘John’ here. That is the name your parents gave you?”
Jack sat up straighter. “Yeah, of course it is, but—”
“Well, if it is good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.” He glanced back down at the grade book. “Leigh—”
“But I—” Jack started, and the teacher glanced up sharply.
“Ten demerits,” he said, scribbling something in the book.
“What?” Jack asked, and a titter rippled through the class.
“Demerit,” the teacher said. “A mark awarded against someone for offense or fault. Both, in this case.”
“I know what it is,” Jack said, his voice rising. Beth reached over and grabbed his hand, squeezing. He sucked in a deep breath. “But what for?”
“Talking out of turn,” the teacher said. He glanced up at the clock. “And another ten for lack of respect for your classmates and wasting my time.” He checked something off in the book.
Jack made to say something else, but Beth squeezed his hand again, and his eyes widened slightly.
“Leigh-Harrison,” the teacher read. “Ar—”
“Just ‘Beth’ please,” Beth said quickly.
“The name I have in this grade book is—”
“It’s been crossed out and ‘Beth’ is written in above it in purple pen,” the girl said. “Mrs. Chase—”
“As you may have noticed, Mrs. Chase is not here. I am teaching this class until the end of the term, and thus, we will be doing things quite a bit differently. Obviously, Mrs. Chase did not do much teaching of the discipline that goes along with being an artist. That will be ten demerits, Aribeth.”
Jack hissed as the girl’s hand clamped down hard over his fingers. He blinked as his eyes watered with the sudden pain, and he saw that Beth’s lips had drained of color. She’d squared her shoulders and set her jaw like she did the first day in PE, when Kyle rushed her in flag football.
Jack prayed that Mr. Richards didn’t end up like Kyle did that day.