“All right, mister. Off with you.”
Jack looked up from his sketchpad. His mother stood over him, pointing towards the screen door. He looked out, at the late summer morning, then turned back to the aimless doodles marching around the border of the page.
“It’s a beautiful summer day outside, and you’ve wasted enough of them moping around in here. Now go outside and play.”
“I don’t feel like it,” Jack said.
“Then go outside, go next door, and apologize to Beth.”
Jack looked up again. “I don’t—“
His mother crossed her arms, and gave him The Look. “Do you want to talk to me about it, or do you want to work it out with her?”
“It’s—“ Jack started. None of her business? It was her business. It was very much her business.
His mother arched an eyebrow.
“It’s complicated,” Jack finally said.
“Go sort it out. She misses you, Jack. Don’t think I haven’t seen the way she looks up here towards the house when she gets the mail.”
Jack dragged himself up from the table. He got his shoes, and sat down on the front porch to tie them. His mother closed the front door behind him. Jack heard the sound of the deadbolt.
* * * * *
Jack sucked in a deep breath. He raised his hand to knock, then noticed the “WET PAINT” sign taped to the door knocker. What used to be a faded, peeling light brown was now taupe, with a more-cream-than-coffee trim that matched the frame.
Jack heard the steady whisking sound of sandpaper on wood drifting from around the side of the house as he retraced his steps down the creaking porch. He made his way around the side yard, kept following the sound around to the back, where Beth worked over another door. Even halfway sanded down, he recognized it as the one for her room.
“Do you want some help?” he asked.
“This is the last door,” Beth said. She worked for another few moments, then straightened up, rotating her arms. One of her gloves — a size too big — flew off. She shook the other one off before it, too, took flight.
Jack picked up the glove as it flopped to the ground by his feet. “So, can I help?”
“Your mom locked you out, didn’t she?”
Jack felt his face grow warm.
“I’m not over here because of that,” Jack said.
“Can I have my glove back?”
“These things are huge. They make you look like Mickey Mouse.”
A frown fluttered across Beth’s forehead. “Like who?”
“Your grandpa didn’t own a VCR, did he?”
“No, he didn’t have a… one of those.”
Jack sighed. “You can stop pretending. I’m not the Professor.”
Beth grabbed the block of sandpaper, started working without her gloves.
Jack reached over, put his hands over hers, pushing back against her.
“Stop. You’re going to get blisters.”
“Then give me my ‘Micky Mouse’ glove back.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t gotten blisters from wearing these,” Jack said.
“I’d like to finish this by the end of the day.”
“We could use my dad’s electric sander and be done with this in a couple hours.”
Beth narrowed her eyes at him. “I told you, I don’t need—“
“Fine,” Jack said. He leaned back, took one of her hands in his. “You have such little hands.”
“So… I thought maybe you could borrow a pair of Hannah or Charlotte’s old work gloves, from the greenhouse. They still wouldn’t be a perfect fit, but they’d be better than the ones you’re using. And look….” He turned her hand sideways. A line running along the heel of her hand was still red.
“How much longer before that whole thing blistered up?”
“I was going to take a break,” Beth said. She hissed as Jack squeezed her hand slightly.
“That’s what I thought. Come on.” He tugged on her hands, and after a few steps’ resistance, she finally gave in and let herself be led next door. Rather than head across the gravel drive and up the front porch, Jack led Beth up the side of the house, on the other side of the hedgerow from where they just were.
Jack’s mother’s greenhouse extended off the kitchen-side of the house, a covered patio serving to shelter the greenhouse door and the side kitchen door as well. Jack went up the three steps to the kitchen door, reaching for the knob.
“I thought she locked you out?” Beth asked.
“This is for emergencies,” Jack said. He opened the door, and pulled Beth in after him.
Jack’s mother made it from her easy chair in the living room to the kitchen doorway in what seemed like about two steps, even though the distance was closer to ten or fifteen.
“Sit,” she said, pointing towards the stool by the phone. It was what Jack always thought of as her “Nurse voice.” There was the motherly, concerned voice that had told Jack that it would be all right, after he’d scraped a knee or elbow, or gotten a splinter. Then there was the Nurse voice, that froze the fidgeting, stopped the flinching away from an alcohol pad, and kept the finger absolutely still as she dug out the splinter with a needle and tweezers.
Beth hopped up onto the stool without even a questioning look at Jack.
“Let me see,” Jack’s mother said, and Beth held out her hand. There was poking, and prodding, turning and flexing of fingers. Every so often, Beth would hiss, her foot twitching on one of the rungs of the stool.
Jack’s mother let go of the girl’s hand and turned, retrieving her medical kit from beneath the sink.
Jack’s father was not kidding when he said it outweighed his tackle box. Inside was row upon row of plastic cubbies and drawers and slots and nooks, some labeled, others so often used that the labels had worn down to nearly nothing. It was three such cubbies that Jack’s mother checked, pulling out a packet of gauze, medical tape, and scissors.
She pointed towards the sink. “Wash thoroughly. Jack, show her where the hydrogen peroxide is.” While they leapt to do as she’d told (the Nurse Voice did not ask), Jack’s mother measured out strips of tape, lining them one after another across the edge of one of the panels of the medical kit.
“Pat it dry with this,” she told Jack, handing him one of the gauze pads. Jack blotted at the side of Beth’s hand. The girl didn’t have to be told to hold it out in front while Jack’s mother taped and placed another gauze pad over the irritated line on her hand.
As Beth flexed her hand, Jack’s mother applied one last strip of tape.
“Whatever you’ve been doing, stop. Take a break. Give that a day or two of rest. You can take the binding off tonight. If it’s still sore, come see me and I’ll re-dress it.”
Beth nodded, blinking as if she’d just awakened from a dream.
* * * * *
Before they left, Jack rummaged through the small selection of video tapes stored under the TV stand in the living room.
“Does the Professor have a VCR?” Jack asked.
Beth frowned. “I— don’t even know what that is,” she said.
“It looks like that,” Jack said, pointing to the one on the shelf below the television.
“I thought that was one of those clocks,” she said.
Jack handed her several tapes. “We’ll find out when we get back to your place.”
Jack’s mother gave them a slightly puzzled look, but waved as the two children left through the side kitchen door.
The Professor did, indeed, have a VCR. Beth sat with the stack of video tapes on her lap, as Jack turned on the TV and selected the proper channel.
Beth held up one of the video tapes, shaking it, turning it this way and that. “It looks like it should be a book, but I don’t see how to open it.”
“You don’t open it. You watch it.”
She handed the tape to Jack. “I think I prefer books.”
“You can’t go to school not knowing who Mickey Mouse is,” Jack said. He slid the tape into the Professor’s VCR.
“I’ve done fine until now without knowing,” Beth sniffed.
“Just watch,” Jack said, sitting next to her on the couch. Beth watched as he pressed the “Play” button on the remote control, and then turned her attention to the TV as the tape started.
“It’s like a moving picture book,” she breathed.
Jack thought for a moment that he’d brought his younger sister over, so rapt was Beth’s attention to the screen.
“I just don’t understand why the coyote doesn’t just go to the store and buy food if he has all that money to buy those machines,” Beth said, as the last of the tapes was rewinding.
“It’s not supposed to make sense,” Jack said. “That’s the beauty of those kinds of cartoons.”
“Well, it doesn’t teach a very good lesson.”
“It’s not a fable, there really is no lesson, unless we’re supposed to learn what not to do by example.” Jack shook his head. “No, it’s mindless entertainment. I refuse to learn anything from it.”
Beth smiled. “I didn’t say it wasn’t entertaining. It’s just very silly. I don’t think you know how long it’s been since I laughed like that.”
Jack looked back as the tape sprang from the mouth of the machine. “You’d think you haven’t laughed like that in a hundred years, to hear you talk,” he said.
Beth’s smile faded.
“What? What’d I say?”
She looked as if she were about to say something, then shook her head. “It’s nothing.”