“So?” Jack asked. He held the hall door for Beth.
Jack waited, glaring, as she stepped through the doorway. He took another look. Her coat was bulging.
She smiled, unbuttoning the long maroon duster. She’d rearranged her scarf into a sling, and the crumpled corner of a flour bag peeked out.
Jack grinned. “So he went for it?”
Beth nodded. “Full custody. But it’s not like I wasn’t going to be doing all the work anyway.”
“You don’t think your ex lab partner is going to be mad?”
Beth’s smile twisted into a grin. “Oh, he’s plenty mad. All that extra work. Detentions.”
Jack sighed. “I almost feel sorry for him.”
Beth reached into her scarf and pulled out the badly rumpled sack of flour. “Jack. Look what he did. In one day.”
“But it’s just a—” Jack stopped himself. Her eyes had gone flat. She lengthened her stride.
Jack hurried to catch up to her. “I didn’t mean it like that!”
She stopped, a few paces from the art room’s big green door.
“It’s my fault,” she said, and Jack had to strain to hear her. “He got his hands on him and took him home because I wasn’t there.”
“Don’t what, Jack? Don’t be mad? Don’t cry? Look at this, Jack. Look what I have to live with.” She held the bag up in front of Jack’s face.
It was creased, a pushed-in corner taped up. Its sides were sunken in. Jack wondered if it even weighed three pounds now.
“I did this, Jack. Just as much as Kyle did.”
“So, you’re just going to mope and feel sorry for yourself?”
She blinked, and the anger in her eyes softened.
“You got your custody. Ditched your lab partner. What do you have to cry about, Beth?”
“Me and Patty finished today’s questions at lunch. I’ll help you after school, if you want.”
A bit of color came back to Beth’s lips as she smiled. She turned, and pulled open the door to the art room.
“Thanks, Jack,” she said, as he went past her, into the room.
* * * * *
Ellie skipped up the aisle, plopping down next to Jack, bouncing on the seat. She looked over the back of the seat ahead, where Beth sat with her back to the window, knees drawn up.
“You have a flour baby,” Ellie said.
Beth smiled, trying to smooth a crease from the top of the bag. “Yes. Everybody pairs up and gets one.”
“Congratulations,” Ellie said, beaming. “That’s what you’re supposed to say when somebody has a baby.”
“Thank you very much,” Beth said.
“Your baby is all mashed up.”
“Ellie, that’s not something you just blurt out and say,” Jack said.
“But it is!”
“It’s okay,” Beth said, going to work on another crease. “My lab partner didn’t take good care of him, so now I get to.”
“That’s probably why Jack doesn’t get to take his home.”
“Hey! I keep trying to, but Patty wants to finish… whatever it is she’s sewing.”
Beth wiped her hand on her jeans, then patted Ellie’s hand. “I’m sure your brother will make a wonderful dad.”
Ellie looked back and forth between them. “Mom and Dad say that babies are a lot of work. But Jack is good at hard work. He helped fix mom’s greenhouse.”
“Ellie, babies and green houses are a bit different,” Jack said.
“Charlotte says it’s hard work making babies, too.”
Jack clapped a hand over Ellie’s mouth. “The less said about what your big sister says, the better.”
* * * * *
“Don’t forget to tell mom,” Jack called, as Ellie charged up the driveway.
“She will,” Beth said.
Jack nodded, then focused on keeping his balance over the wooden planks. The thawing snows had turned the yard into a boggy mud pit again.
Beth’s dad looked up from his desk as they were working their boots off.
“Hey, you two. How was school?”
Beth hung her coat up on the hook by the door, and lifted the sack of flour from the sling.
Her father smiled. “Well, isn’t that something? Always wanted to be a grandpa.” He leaned over, to regard Jack. “And where’s yours?”
“My lab partner is keeping it to measure for clothes,” Jack said.
“‘Him’” Beth said, her voice rising to mimic Patty’s shrilly-nasal tone.
“I can just go back home and leave you to fend for yourself,” Jack growled, pointing over his shoulder.
“Fine,” Beth said. “Fuggy and I don’t need you. More hot chocolate for us.”
Doctor Harrison raised an eyebrow. “‘Fuggy?’”
“Unfortunate naming incident,” Beth said. “But we’ll make the best of it.”
“It’s no worse than ‘Herbert,’” Jack muttered.
Beth’s dad surrendered use of his computer while Beth and Jack went over her science questions. Mr. Abrams had given her additional work, as a result of her lab partner’s carelessness with their project.
“He’s going to grow up slow,” Beth said, jotting down the last of her notes. “Maybe have trouble with language. Or numbers.” She sighed. “Therapy is going to be expensive. How am I supposed to pay for it?”
Part of the project involved things like calculating costs, budgeting.
Jack tapped at the keyboard. “Look, there are organizations that can help with that.” He pointed to the listings that the search engine had produced.
Beth glanced over his shoulder. “Let’s look at that one.” She pointed with the eraser-end of her pencil. As the screen loaded, they traded seats.
Jack began doodling flour sacks across the top of Beth’s homework sheet. One dancing, another turning a cartwheel. He put a baseball cap on one. Another got a pair of glasses. The last he drew with a bandage across the top.
“You know, Patty would probably kill me, but… I’d help you pay, if I could. I can look at our budgeting and can probably squeeze here and there.”
Beth looked over her shoulder. “No, Jack, you don’t—”
“I know I don’t have to. But I want to.” He shrugged. “So Herbert can go to community college for a few years. And Patty seems to think he’ll have the grades to get into Harvard, and is socking stuff away for that, too.” He shook his head. “She’s crazy.”
“Well, she is smart, Jack. And despite what your sisters say, you are, too, when you try. You two would probably make very smart babies.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Jack said, shuddering at the idea.