Jack hissed as Beth’s hand clenched around his, painful even through the gloves.
The light above the bus door flickered, and then gave a sharp “pop,” dark streaks blooming across the plastic cover.
Mr. Grady barked one of the words he wasn’t supposed to use in front of the students, thumped at the instrument panel, which had gone dark as well. The overhead light further along the length of the bus dimmed from yellow to a fluttering orange.
The engine coughed and died with a hard rattle.
Jack gave a sharp yank on Beth’s hand, tugging her half a step towards him. He squeezed her hand as best he could around her grip, giving her what he hoped was a concerned look before shifting his gaze towards the back of the bus.
The overhead light gave one last flutter and then brightened.
“Sorry,” the girl whispered. Her fingers unclenched, though she didn’t let go of Jack’s hand.
“Not your fault the school district can’t keep this thing in any kind of working order,” Mr. Grady grumbled. “Go on now, take your seats.”
“Right,” Jack said. “Come on.”
The only two seats left on the bus were next to Patty and the space beside her backpack on the seat ahead of her.
Jack plopped down next to Patty, his sigh of resignation lost in the grating roar of the bus’ engine revving back to life.
“You are about the second to last person I would ever expect to see here,” Beth said, smiling back at the redhead. Her voice was calm, steady. Cheery, even. Jack groaned again.
“Yes, well, Mother wasn’t feeling well. She called in sick to work, so I have to take the bus today.”
Beth nodded, glancing around. “Your sister is sick, too?” There was not another head of red hair anywhere on the bus.
Patty blinked. “Um… yes! As much as I wanted to stay home and take care of them, I have to go to school today. So I can take Catty her homework.” By the time she’d finished, Patty was sitting up a bit straighter, nodding to herself.
“You could have stayed home,” Beth said. “I’m sure Jack would have been happy to bring you both your schoolwork.”
Jack coughed, giving Beth a dark look. She smiled back.
“Oh, I hope you aren’t coming down with something,” Patty said, turning and setting her fingers across the back of Jack’s glove.
“Me? No, I’m fine. Never better.” He darted a glance over to Beth, but she was staring at Patty’s hand.
“Well, that’s good.” Patty looked down, pushed her glasses back up her nose. She took a deep breath and then looked up again.
“John Henry Jacobs, will you go to the Spring Dance with me?”
The overhead light sputtered, flared brightly, and then went dark with a “pop!” The lights over the two emergency exits did the same.