“Well, this is certainly a surprise!” Professor Harrison said, when he finally got some air back in his lungs. He glanced from the top of Beth’s head, blinking as Hannah’s camera chirped and flashed again.
“Bill, Margaret, you didn’t have to— you’ve both already done so much for us.”
“Beth insisted,” Jack’s father said, giving the professor’s hand a firm shake.
“Yes… I know how that goes,” the professor said with a chuckle. He clasped hands with Jack’s mother as well, and then held his hand out to Jack.
“Thank you, all, for taking care of Beth while I was away.”
The professor’s hand was rough, calloused. Jack tried to return the handshake with equal firmness, but his fingers were still tingling.
* * * * *
They had lunch in the airport restaurant, where they had to pull three tables together. Charlotte and Ellie did more listening than eating, as the professor gave them the highlights of his expedition. He was careful in the questions he asked the Jacobs, of how things had been while he was gone, and Jack’s parents were equally careful and vague in the answers they gave, aware that their large party was drawing quite a few eyes in the restaurant.
“Dad, we have to make one stop before we go home,” Beth said, as they made their way through baggage claim.
“Another surprise? Well, where is it we’re going?”
“Just follow the Jacobs,” the girl said, and when the professor glanced over at Jack’s parents, they shook their heads.
“We’ve been sworn to secrecy,” Jack’s mother said, barely hiding her smile.
Jack went with Beth and her dad in his car, which had been held in the long term parking lot.
“Just a hint?” the professor asked, as they turned another corner.
“Be strong, Jack,” Beth said.
“She threatened you with the mummy’s curse, didn’t she?”
“You don’t have to answer him, Jack.”
“No, sir,” Jack said. “She went with simple bodily harm. She’s got a mean right hook.”
The professor nodded. “Crude, but effective.”
They turned a few more streets, and the professor drew in a deep breath as they cruised by the long face of the art gallery. He turned on his blinker when he saw that of the station wagon start to wink.
* * * * *
“Why are you waiting out here, Jack?” Beth asked.
Jack was sitting on one of the padded benches, around the corner from the wing where the student exhibit started.
He shrugged, not lifting his eyes from the sketchbook. “It’d be weird,” he said. “I don’t want to influence their reaction. Or for them to have to fake liking it just because I’m there.”
“Jack! Why would they do something like that? It’s good.”
Jack looked up. “It’s only good because I had something good to paint.”
“So if I was ugly, then it would be ugly, too?”
“Well, you’re not.” He went back to working at his sketchbook. “Why aren’t you in there?”
Beth turned, and paced back the direction she’d come. “Well…. Like you said, it would be weird. It was bad enough with all those kids from those schools. But…”
“Their opinions really didn’t matter.” Jack looked over his shoulder. “And theirs do.”
Down the long hall, Jack saw his mom and dad and sisters, and Beth’s dad, and another woman, in gray. Various heads nodded, and there was quite a bit of pointing.
“That’s the director of the gallery,” Beth said, peeking around the corner as well.
“What’s she doing there?” Jack asked.
“Duh. She works here.”
“You know what I meant!”
Everyone turned, and started back down the hall. They were smiling. Even Charlotte.
The professor gave Beth a hug around the shoulders, and extended his hand to Jack again.
“Jack, you made my dad cry,” Beth said.
“Very good work, Jack.” The professor’s voice did sound a bit thick. “I was — still am — speechless.”
“Are you going to tell them?” Ellie asked.
Jack’s parents looked at the gallery director, who in turn looked at the professor.
He cleared his throat. “It seems I’m not the only one to be getting surprises today.” He looked down at Beth. “Apparently, several anonymous buyers have made offers on the painting. Sizable offers.”
“No wonder Charlotte is smiling,” Jack said. “Beth?”
She blinked, her eyes coming back from wherever it was they’d been staring. “What?”
“Did you hear?”
She nodded. Wasn’t smiling.
The professor’s smile faded.
She shook her head, slowly.
“Well, there you have it,” the professor said, looking over at the director.
“Perhaps you’d like some time to reconsider. Maybe—”
“No,” Beth said. “Thank you,” she added when she saw the director’s eyebrow flutter.