“Jack? Are you even listening to me?”
He blinked, and shifted his gaze from the doorway back to the girl sitting across from him at the small kitchen table.
“Sorry, I was just—”
“Just staring off into space,” Beth finished. She leaned over and tapped the worksheet in front of him. “I asked you what you got for number three. But I see you haven’t even finished it.”
Jack bent his head, and scribbled his way through the rest of the math problem.
“What is it?” Beth asked.
Jack looked up. “Three and a half?”
She sighed, and her eyes did that funny thing that ice cubes do, when they go from looking clear shiny to hard and brittle. Jack glanced back down at the page, checking his work.
“Three and a half,” he said again.
“I didn’t mean the math problem.”
Beth just kept her gaze steady, sitting back in her chair, arms crossed. Jack didn’t have to look under the table to tell that her ankles would be crossed, too, tucked under the chair. Other people, when they got mad, or anxious, or impatient, tapped a foot. Charlotte liked to drum her fingers. Hannah would wind a lock of hair around her finger, over and over again.
Not Beth. Except for her breathing, she sat motionless.
“It’s just… weird,” he said. “It’s so quiet over here. It makes it hard to think.”
“Well, it’s nice to get away from the bustle of Jacobs-central every now and then. Some of us think better when it’s quiet.” She moved — finally — gesturing towards her worksheet, which had been worked all the way down to the last problem.
“So what if you can do them faster than me?”
“So hurry up,” she said, leaning over and tapping Jack on the forehead with the eraser-end of her pencil. “The sooner you finish, the sooner we can get down to business.”
“I’m working as fast as I can,” he said.
“Obviously not, or you’d be done by now.”
“I can’t help it if you’re better at math than I am.” He stared hard over at her homework. “If you want me to finish faster, you could always give me the answers.”
“Come on, what’s number four?”
“No. Start with the first step,” she said, leaning over, purposefully folding her arms over the lower half of her math worksheet as she nodded towards the fourth problem on Jack’s homework.
He gave up, then, and started to work his way through the problem.
The clock by the refrigerator clicked over to the next minute. The refrigerator gave a rattling sigh as its compressor shut off, then started ticking on its own. A bird fluttered by the kitchen window, throwing it’s shadow over the countertop, the wingtip-shadows playing over the edge of the table….
He gave a start. “What?”
“‘Bird’ is not the answer,” she said, tapping her eraser on the caricature of the bird he’d scribbled into the spot where he was supposed to be showing his work.
“How did that—”
She sighed. “I promised your mom and dad that I would get your math grade up this trimester.”
He glanced down at the math problem, shaking his head. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
“When you want to make green, how much red do you use?”
Jack blinked. “What? You don’t use any red. Everybody knows that.”
She tapped at the second line of the equation. “You used red there.”
“I—” he stopped, glanced again at his work. “What do you mean?”
“This and this,” she said, circling parts of the original problem. “Green and orange.”
“But that doesn’t—” He blinked. Orange was where you used the red, not with the green… “Of course!” he said, as the pieces fell into place in his head. He crossed out the second and third lines of his work, and re-did them.
“This is easy!” he said, trying not to grin too broadly. He looked up when he heard Beth’s pencil scratching across from him. She tore the page from her binder and handed it to him.
She’d written more equations, similar to question number four, and a few that looked like number four on steroids.
“Since they’re so easy, you should be able to get through them in no time.”
“This is not fair,” he grumbled.
Beth tried to keep a straight face. “Why, whatever do you mean?”
“I hate math. I love to paint. And now you’ve gone and made math like painting.”
“How do you know painting isn’t like math?”
“They are nothing alike,” he said, then glanced down at the problems Beth had given him. “I mean…. You know what I mean!”
“I hate math,” he said, but his sentiment lacked the conviction it had before he’d started mixing colors in his head.