“Hey,” he said, as they waited by the mailboxes. “Sleep okay?”
Beth shrugged. “Guess so.”
“You look tired.”
“I am tired.”
“So… you didn’t sleep okay, then.”
Beth shrugged again.
Jack tried to follow where Beth was looking down the road, thinking she was waiting for the bus to rumble around the bend further down. Then he saw the moon, peeking up from the distant treetops.
“No more full moon,” he said.
Beth sighed, tried to muster a smile. “It was fun while it lasted.”
“Well, that’s a little bit more like the Beth I know,” Jack said.
She looked over, met his gaze for a moment, then looked down. “Sorry. I just… have a lot to think about right now.”
“What else is new?”
She smiled again, just a little brighter.
“You haven’t asked anything about who that was yesterday.”
It was Jack’s turn to shrug. “Charlotte’s dying to know. But you usually talk about this stuff when you’re ready. So I’ll just do what my mom told me to do.”
She looked down when Jack held out his hand, then looked up into his eyes as she took his hand.
“Your mom told you to hold my hand?”
Jack tightened his grip. The trembling in her hand quieted. “She told me to keep being your friend.”
Beth leaned slightly away. “So you’re only friends with me now because your mom told you to?”
Jack leaned into Beth, and they both took a half step to the side. “She couldn’t stop me if she wanted to.”
He felt Beth shiver against him, and thought he saw a flash of glowing gold ripple through her hair, but the sun peeked over the treetops just then, and the bus rattled and heaved its way around the bend down the road.
She straightened up, shaking her hair from her eyes, squared her shoulders as the bus pulled up. She took a deep breath. “Are you ready, Jack?”
“Ready? For what?”
The bus sputtered and hissed to a stop, the doors rattling open.
Ellie’s charge down the center aisle cut a wake of silence through which Beth followed. Two steps behind, Jack caught the first of the whispers and murmurs as hands went to mouths and heads leaned in close together on either side of the bus.
He looked down, to see that his hand was still joined with Beth’s, and found that he didn’t mind.
* * * * *
The odd silence-followed-by-whispers kept up as Jack led the way to his locker.
“Good thing I don’t keep much in here,” he said. “Your stuff should fit.”
He looked up when Beth didn’t move.
“I shouldn’t, Jack. What if—”
“You, of all people, saying ‘what if’?”
She blushed, then scowled.
“Hurry up, or we’ll be late.”
“Fine.” She dropped her back pack, and stashed the few books she had left above Jack’s.
“You’ll just have to borrow mine,” he said, slipping his Math and English books into his backpack, then slamming the locker door, giving the corner a kick. He fished a pen and scrap of paper from his pocket. “Here’s the—”
“I already know your combination. I’ve known it since that first time you shared your lunch with me.”
He should have known.
* * * * *
“….and due to the clean up, the Valentine’s Dance will be rescheduled for after Spring Break.”
Jack had a hard time hearing the rest of the PA announcements, as the class had burst into an angry buzz. He felt more than a few pairs of eyes turn his way, but he met Beth’s eyes as he turned to glare back, and she just shook her head, ever so slightly.
“Just act like nothing is wrong,” she said, as they filed out of homeroom.
“Didn’t you hear them? It’s like canceling that stupid dance is something you did.”
“Well, they made it pretty clear that it was due to cleaning up the mess that somebody else made of my locker,” Beth said, her voice rising to carry over the dull roar of the hallway.
The tide of mutterings and whispers ebbed as they made their way to Math.
* * * * *
The murmurs and whispers followed them from Math to English, and then to Biology. As Jack moved to his seat, he saw Patty, up at the front of the classroom, head down with Mr. Abrams. He’d just dropped his backpack when the science teacher looked up, and waved Jack up to the lab table at the front of the class.
“Hey, Patty,” he said.
“Good morning, Jack.” She swept Herbert from the table and walked away.
“What’s up, Mr. Abrams?”
“Jack, I’d like to talk to you about this form that Patricia filled out.” He turned it around, so Jack could read it. It looked vaguely legal, but the language had obviously been simplified. He skimmed over it, frowning.
“This… says that I’m not allowed to take Herbert home?” He looked up at the teacher. “Is that how this project is supposed to work?”
Mr. Abrams shook his head. “It’s supposed to be teaching things about responsibility and what it takes to actually raise a child.” He sighed. “This is the strangest semester I have ever taught. It’s more like a course in civil law.”
“Can Patty do that?” Jack pointed to the paper. “I mean, I know she hasn’t even let me take the sack home since this thing started, but...”
The teacher nodded. “I’ve taken that into account, Jack, in reading the daily journal entries. But, technically, yes, she could do something like this. Your child was threatened, she feels Herbert would be in legitimate danger in your care, left unsupervised.”
“Kyle was just—”
Mr. Abrams frowned. “Mr. Thomasson’s case has been resolved.”
Jack looked closer at the paper.
“Beth? No way!”
“Jack, I know she’s your friend, but—”
“But nothing,” Jack said. At the silence that fell over the classroom, he leaned closer to the desk, lowering his voice. “I don’t know what she said, but forget it. Beth would never do anything to hurt anybody’s…science project. Give me one of those forms.”
Mr. Abrams raised an eyebrow. “I’m going to need to make more photocopies, at this rate.”
* * * * *
Jack returned to his lab station, surprised to see Beth sitting in her old seat.
“I thought you were calling me,” she said. “What was that all about?”
“She did what you did. To me.”
Jack put a hand on Beth’s, as hers curled into a fist. “Relax,” he said. “I paid attention when we were researching your thing for Fuggy. I counter-filed.”
Jack shrugged. “She’s my lab partner. We’re in this together.”