“I still think it’s stupid, not being able to ride the bus to school,” Beth grumbled.
“Hey, I got to sleep in an extra half hour. And so did you,” Jack said. “Why are you complaining?”
“It’s the principle,” she sniffed.
“No, that’s the principal,” Jack said, waving, as they stopped outside the main office.
Beth rolled her eyes. “I’m going ahead to homeroom.”
* * * * *
The line wasn’t as long as Jack had thought, and he still had plenty of time before the first bell to make it to his locker and then to homeroom. As he turned down the main hall, he slowed his pace. Something wasn’t right. The usual drone and murmur of the knots and groups of students didn’t sound right. Had they been music, he would have said they sounded sharp, or flat. Definitely off key. The back of his neck tingled, and it didn’t have anything to do with the pinched nerve. He took two more paces, and then quickened his steps again. The discordant murmurings grew thicker the further down the hall he got, and seemed to cluster mainly to the righthand side.
His walk picked up to a jog, and the crowd grew unusually thick about a third of the way down the hall. The murmuring had grown to something of a buzz. Jack pushed his way through the crowd.
“Did you see…?’
“… know what it means, right?”
“..wonder who would…”
“Which one was it?”
“2211, I thought. Hard to read the numbers through the—”
Jack stopped listening and started running.
* * * * *
Beth looked up from where her head rested against her knees. The sleeves of her coat were dark where the tears had soaked into the leather.
“Did you see it?” she asked, her voice thready, as shaky as the breaths that puffed out in the cold morning air.
“I was running to fast to notice,” Jack said, climbing up on the concrete ledge. “Why are you wedged all the way in the corner?”
“It’s warmer here.”
“It’s even warmer in homeroom, which we’re going to be late for, now.”
“I’m not going in there.”
“No, I won’t! I won’t go in all smiles, pretending nothing happened, that nothing is wrong.”
“I won’t put up a false face in front of whoever did this while they hide behind theirs, all smiles and innocence. All ‘oh, poor dear, it’s terrible, what they did.’ But I won’t let them see me like this, either. I won’t give them the satisfaction.”
Beth had retreated into a gap barely wide enough for her between the gym’s rear buttress and retaining wall of the heating and air conditioning unit corral.
“Well, at least come out of there,” he said, leaning around the tall concrete support.
“I like it here.”
“No you don’t. It’s dark, and gloomy and cold. The sun never shines into this corner, even in the summertime. Your butt is going to freeze if you sit there much longer.” He held out a hand.
She reached up, slowly, managing to flow to her feet even despite the cramped confines of her nook.
“This isn’t going to work,” she said, holding Jack’s hand from across the several-foot thick wedge of concrete. He was standing where she’d need to land if she were to jump across the ledge.
Jack let go of her hand and dropped from the ledge, which was as high as his chest, this far back from the main schoolyard. He hopped the few steps through the snow — still on the ground thanks to the shadows — and held up his hands.
“It’s a little drop, you don’t need to catch me,” she laughed.
“It’s sort of slippery here. You have a bad ankle.”
“Bad things happened the last time we tried this,” she said.
“That was a tree, from a lot higher up.”
“It’s the principle,” she said. “Now move so I can—”
The snowball seemed to come out of nowhere. Jack caught the flash of it, and flinched away as it sailed past him. It hit Beth in the side with a solid ‘thwack’ against her coat, dissolving into more ice than snow.
She gave a yelp, more of surprise than pain as the impact knocked her off balance.
Jack lunged, his foot sliding out from under him as it hit ice.
He remembered thinking “Not again,” as he cushioned Beth as best he could before they both hit the ground.