“Where were you yesterday?”
Jack stopped short of the school’s main doors. Patty was there, bundled in her dark coat and scarf. Ringlets of her dark red hair peeked from beneath a furry hat. It reminded him of the big Russian bear from a Soviet propaganda poster he’d seen in the social studies book.
“Why are you grinning? I called your house twice and both times they said you weren’t there.”
“I was next door,” he said.
“What if something happened? What if I needed you to get Herbert? What if we were in… in an accident and in the hospital?”
“Did something happen?”
Patty planted her mittened hand on her hip. The other arm cradled the sack of flour. Along with the blue cap, now it also wore what looked like a large light blue sock. And a little red knit scarf was tied around the middle. Jack supposed that would be where Herbert’s neck was.
“No… but that’s not the point!” Patty’s cheeks were already rosy with the cold, and the color spread all over her face as her temper wound up. “If something had happened, how would you know?”
“Well, nobody said anything at dinner, so I guess you didn’t leave any messages,” Jack said. Was that what Charlotte had been grinning about last night? “And if you didn’t leave a message, then how would I know if anything happened?”
Patty’s brows came together. “You were next door.”
Jack nodded. “Yes.”
“So you were with her.”
“With Beth, yes. She has a name, you know.”
“She’s a smart girl, Jack. She doesn’t need your help.”
“What was it that you called about?”
“Don’t change the subject on me!”
Jack took a deep breath. It was cold, and stung his throat. He tried to remember the numbers that Beth always counted, when she was angry about something.
“The bell is going to ring. I have to get to homeroom.” He stepped around her, and pulled the door open.
“Don’t you walk away from me!”
“I was getting the door for you,” Jack said. “Now hurry on in before Herbert catches cold.”
She curled her arms around the blue-clad bag of flour, and dashed through the door.
* * * * *
“If I’d done it, she’d have yelled my head off,” Jack said, to Beth as they made their way to English class.
“Well, it sounds like she already did that.” She didn’t even try to hide the smirk.
“Standing out there, in that weather? What was she thinking?”
“Careful, Jack. You sound like a concerned parent.”
He laughed, and Beth’s smirk flowed into a genuine smile.
“Aww, look at the cute couple.”
Jack and Beth both froze at the gravely drawl of Kyle’s voice. The bigger boy pushed away from where he was leaning against the row of lockers, stomped over to stand next to Jack.
“Don’t you have a lab partner already, Shrimpy?”
“Everybody in our class does,” Jack said. “Oh, wait. Except you.”
Kyle’s perpetual frown deepened. He leaned closer. “Careful, Shrimpy. Wouldn’t want anything to happen to your little Egbert.”
Kyle pushed past them, giving Jack a shoulder check so hard the smaller boy staggered, nearly tripping as his backpack slipped off his arm.
The high, nasally voice carried above the dull roar of the hallway. Patty was just a few steps away, on the other side of the hall, her brown eyes wide behind her glasses.
“What was that all about? What did he mean?”
“It’s nothing,” Jack said. “Just Kyle being Kyle.” He stooped to pick up his backpack.
“How can you be so calm? Jack, he threatened our Herbert!”
“He’s just full of hot air.”
“Patty, don’t worry about him,” Beth said. “If Jack won’t handle him, I will.”
“Your ‘handling things’ got us into this!” Patty said, turning to Beth. “Just because your science project is ruined, don’t go dragging mine down with you.”
Jack pushed between the two girls, a hand going to Beth’s wrist as her hand balled into a fist.
“Enough,” he said.
“Jack, just keep away from her!” Patty said, pulling at his sleeve.
“I said enough!”
Silence rippled down the hallway, and if it didn’t have enough weight, then the stares from the packs of students around them piled it on.
Beth gave a twist of her arm, and Jack found himself holding empty air, a tingling pain in his thumb.
Beth stalked away, students pressing aside as she passed, leaving a wake of murmurs and whispers.
Jack didn’t know how Beth had done it, so he simply jerked his arm from Patty’s grip.
“Well, go on,” Patty said, her voice stiffening along with her posture.
“After her,” Patty said, a quaver in her voice.
“Are you nuts? She’d do worse than just twist my thumb if I tried to catch up to her.”
Patty gave Jack a long look, slowly shaking her head.
She looked away, down, reached her free hand for Jack’s injured one.
“All she ever does is hurt you.”
Jack’s hand twitched at the warm brush of the girl’s fingertips. He snatched his hand back, stuffing them both in the pockets of his coat.
“Come on,” he said. “We’ll be late for English.”