“Hey,” Jack said, as he squelched down the driveway.
“Hey,” Beth said, making her own way down towards the mailboxes.
They stood, Jack keeping most of his attention fixed on Ellie, as she jumped from puddle to puddle.
“Ellie, can’t you stand still for five seconds? Don’t you dare go jumping out into the road.”
She hopped backwards. “Of course I won’t. Mom says I’m ‘just a bundle of energy with pigtails.’”
“That wasn’t meant to be a compliment,” Jack told her, sticking his tongue out at her. Ellie returned the gesture, and then hopped backwards again, straightening up as the bus rumbled up the road towards them.
Ellie leapt up the steps once the doors swung open, and her foot slid out from under her as she reached the top.
“Hey, now!” Mr. Grady growled, giving her a glare.
Jack helped Ellie up, and gave the bus driver his own glare. “It wasn’t her fault. Look, there’s stuff all over the floor. It’s no wonder she slipped!”
“Did you hurt yourself?” the old bus driver asked, his tone quite a bit on the gentler side.
Ellie, though, bounced back to her feet, scampering down the aisle. “It’s okay! I’ll let it go this time!”
Mr. Grady grunted, then squinted at Beth as she made her way up the steps.
“Watch your step, missy. Nobody behind you to catch you like the little lady.”
Beth rolled her eyes. “Please. I like to think I’m a little more—”
She stopped, staring down at the pasty half-print of Ellie’s boot on the floor.
“Always happens this time of year. Damn science projects. Ah, well, at least they stopped using eggs. Now, let me tell you, those were—”
But Beth was walking slowly down the aisle, her eyes fixed on the floor. The fine powdery trail kept going, and didn’t divert to the left or right. She reached the seat in front of Jack’s, and the trail kept going three more rows, where it became a small mound between two black-booted feet.
“What is that?” Beth asked, pointing.
Kyle looked up from where he’d been joking with one of his cronies.
“Oh. Well, look who’s here.” He held out his hand.
Beth didn’t move.
“Hey, gimmie my—”
“What is that?” she asked again.
Kyle looked down, frowning, then sat up straighter, pushing his backpack off his lap with a snarl.
“Crap! It’s going to mess up my pants!”
The book bag hit the floor with a hard ‘thunk’ and a puff of fine white powder shot from between the zippers.
Beth staggered back as if he’d hit her across the face. For a few seconds, her face was just as white as the fine powder that was settling over the back seats of the bus.
She swung her own backpack down by her side, and yanked the zipper open, withdrawing a handful of papers. She held them up in front of Kyle’s face.
“Here’s your homework,” she spat.
A grin split Kyle’s face, and he grabbed them.
But Beth didn’t let go. She gave him a smirk of her own, and then wrenched her hand away, leaving him holding a few scraps of paper.
She tore at the parts of the pages she had left, and sprinkled them in front of Kyle. They fluttered, some spinning as they settled over his flour-covered backpack.
“What are you— Hey!”
Beth had turned on her heel, and stalked down the center aisle of the bus.
“Open that door,” Beth said, her voice very quiet, but quite audible over the silence that had descended over the school bus.
“I’m running late as it is, missy—”
Beth reached over, and hauled on the lever that swung the doors open. There was a flapping of maroon coat tails as she leapt down the steps.
“Hey! You get back in your seat,” the bus driver barked, but Jack kept going, hopping down the steps, barely making it through the doors before they snapped shut behind him.
There was a grinding of gears and a roar as the bus pulled away, mud spattering up from the rear tires.
It didn’t bother Jack, though. He was already running after Beth, as she headed towards the forest on the far side of her yard.
* * * * *
He caught up with her before she made it to the wooded rise that led to the long meadow.
“Hey, it’s all muddy now, you’ll break your ankle again if you—”
Beth slowed, then stopped, turning. She was wiping at her nose and eyes.
“He killed it,” she said, sniffling.
“It’s just a—”
“We were supposed to treat them just like we would a real baby and he—”
Jack fished around in his pockets, pulled out a couple of tissues. “Here,” he said, holding them out.
Beth grabbed one, mopped at her eyes with a shaking hand.
“So he’ll get a bad grade for this unit. And now you will, too.”
Beth glared, then blew her nose.
“It’s not about the grade! I don’t care about the grade!”
Jack stared. “Kyle worrying about grades instead of you….” He shook his head. He looked up, suddenly. “Wait… if it’s not about grades, then…” He groaned.
“Oh,” he said. “I’m stupid, Beth. I’m sorry—”
“Well, I won’t argue that point.”
He narrowed his eyes. “I try to say something nice and you—”
“I don’t want your pity, Jack.”
“What? No! I wasn’t—”
She considered him for a long moment, the last of her tears clinging to her long lashes. “No,” she said, finally. “No, you wouldn’t.” A ghost of a smile fluttered across her lips. “Come on,” she said, trudging past him, taking his hand as she went by. “I had my little cry, so now it’s down to business.”
Jack stumbled after her, as she headed for the front porch steps.
“I just need to look up a few things, and then my dad will give us a ride.”