“So, Jack, how has school been going? You don’t do much talking about it.”
He looked up from his mashed potatoes, across the table at his dad. “You know. Same as always. I got an 80 on my last math test.”
Jack’s father nodded. “Good. So Beth is helping you out, then?”
“Beth makes things make sense.”
“Anything else going on?”
Charlotte stifled a giggle, and Jack’s father shushed her with a look.
Jack pulled a slightly crumpled sheet from his pocket. “I need parental permission for the next unit in science class.”
Charlotte snorted, and Hannah dug her elbow into her sister’s ribs.
Jack’s mother took the sheet, opening it up, reading it over.
“Jack, do you want to participate in it?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Everybody else is, so I guess I should, too.”
“You don’t have to,” Jack’s father said, taking the sheet and reading it over. “It says there is alternate course work.”
“Are you going to be chopping up froggies?” Ellie asked, her eyes widening, lower lip beginning to quiver. “Those poor, poor froggies!”
Jack looked over at his younger sister. “No,” he said. “No froggies get hurt in this unit.”
She let out an explosive sigh, and smiled, and then frowned. “So… how come you’re so worried?”
“I’m not worried!”
“You always make train tracks through your mashed potatoes when you worry. Beth said so.”
Jack glanced down at the four tracks that meandered through his flattened-out serving of mashed potatoes.
“Jack? We’ll sign off on whichever unit you want to do. You don’t have to participate like your sisters did.”
Jack blew out a long breath. Charlotte was biting back more giggles. Hannah looked up from a bite of pot roast, brushed a lock of hair back behind her ear.
“It’s up to you, Jack. Personally, I think you should do it just to shut her up.” Hannah nudged Charlotte in the ribs again.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll do it.”
“Don’t go becoming a daddy just to spite me,” Charlotte said. She laughed. “Oh, that is not a pleasant idea.”
Jack’s parents signed their two spots on the form, and handed it back to Jack.
“Congratulations,” his mother said. “You’ll make a fine father.”
* * * * *
“So?” Beth said, bouncing lightly into the seat ahead of Jack. Today, it was purples, pinks, and blues peeking from beneath the long maroon coat.
“So what?” Jack asked.
Beth’s forehead crinkled up as she made a face at Jack. “Well, somebody’s a Grumpy Gus this morning. Did your parents not let you participate?”
“They did this twice already, with Hannah and Charlotte. They weren’t about to let me get out of it.”
“They said you could do one or the other though!” Ellie said, bouncing in the seat next to Jack.
“Which is their way of saying ‘take the hard road,’” Jack muttered.
“Jack, did you see the reading list on that other assignment?”
“It’s still the same stuff we’re going to learn in the unit,” he said. “We have to go through that stuff no matter what. It’s just… this other way, there’s more….”
“Maybe you’ll only get a two pound bag of flour for your kid, Shrimpy!” Kyle called from the back row of the bus.
Jack closed his eyes, breathing in deeply.
It was going to be a long month.
* * * * *
“All right, let’s settle down,” Mr. Abrams said, as he paper clipped the class permission forms together. “Now, you and your parents have signed these permission forms, which is also a binding agreement, a contract. I expect each of you to take this project seriously.”
An uneasy hush settled over the third-hour biology class.
Mr. Abrams got up, and had a shoe box in each hand. “Now, I realize in years past, we’ve run this project between lab partners. This year, there will be a bit of a change.”
Beth’s hand closed over Jack’s, squeezing.
“What?” he asked her, in a whisper.
“You said lab partners got to team up for this,” she whispered back.
“They did! That’s how it worked for my sisters.”
“All right, I’d like the boys to form a line, here, to my left. Girls to the right. It was nice of the administration to give us a nice half and half split. No… alternate lifestyle families this year. Not that that’s a bad thing.”
A nervous titter rippled through the class.
Beth squeezed Jack’s hand again, and then they filed over to wait in line.
“It’s very simple. Draw a slip, and pair up with whoever has the same number.”
Jack reached into the shoebox, fished around.
“Some time today, Jack.”
He plucked a folded slip of paper, glanced over, to see Beth holding a similar one cupped in her hands, as though it were a small bird.
“Well, don’t just stand there,” Mr. Abrams said, as the last couple picked slips from the boxes. “Open them up, see who you’ll be spending the next month with.”
Jack opened the folded paper. Stared down at the number 11 written in black, felt-tipped ink.
“Thirteen?” Kyle said, and two of his cronies laughed. “What kind of lucky number is that?”
Beth sat down hard in her seat.
“Well,” said Patty Quincy, leaning over the lab table. “It looks like eleven is my lucky number.”