“Not here, please,” Beth said.
Jack struggled to find his voice. “I thought…” he started. “I mean, I sort of knew, but…”
They stared at each other across the table.
“A hundred years?”
“Sometimes it… didn’t seem like that long. Over There. Honestly, with all this…” She gestured, though whether it took in the building, or the entire world around her was hard to tell. “I thought maybe it was even longer.” She flipped some pages in the book. “Rockets, Jack. Walking on the moon. The moon!”
“And all that was, like, twenty years ago. Nowadays its just robots on other planets.”
“You say that like it isn’t anything magical,” Beth said, shaking her head.
Jack leaned forward. “Beth, that’s just… just science. But you… what you did, what you can do… That is magic.”
She paled a little as he said the word, looking quickly down the stacks towards the two other visitors on the floor. They were busy at their own books, but Beth still brought her finger to her lips.
“You can’t talk about it, not here, in the open. If someone hears….”
Jack reached across the table, patting the girl’s hand. “Beth, it’s okay. People aren’t going to just… I don’t know… carry you out into the streets or anything.”
“I don’t think people have changed that much in only a hundred years,” she said.
Beth pulled her hand away, picked up the pen, and resumed her note-taking.
The ride back home was filled with a brittle, uncomfortable silence. Beth mumbled her thanks as the station wagon pulled to a stop at the end of the gravel driveway, and she let herself out, not looking back as she hurried up the front porch steps next door.
“I think you girls need to go in and start lunch,” Jack’s mother said. Hannah collected Ellie along with the groceries, and prodded Charlotte up their own porch steps.
Jack’s mother turned and stared at Jack over the back of the front seat. “So?”
“We didn’t have another fight. It was more like… a disagreement.”
She quirked a smile. “Like your dad and I don’t ever fight.”
“It wasn’t a fight.”
“How long are you two going to stay mad at each other this time?”
“We aren’t mad. It’s just… I think we’re at an impasse.”
“Spent some time reading the dictionary while you were at there, I see.”
“It was on last year’s vocabulary lists. It means--”
“I know what it means, Jack. Is it anything I need to worry about?”
He shook his head. “We just… disagreed about human nature, is all.”
“You know, Jack, when I was your age, I don’t think the concept of human nature even crossed my mind. I think you must have gotten all your brains from your father’s side.”
“That’s not true, Mom. Um, I mean, not that Dad isn’t smart but… You know lots of stuff. You were almost a doctor. How come… you never did it?”
Jack’s mother sighed. “Honestly, Jack, I had other things I wanted to devote my life to. Your father, your sisters. You. Ellie.”
“You don’t ever wonder about what would have happened if you became a doctor? You always say that one of us might go on to find a cure for the common cold, or cancer or something. What if… you were the one who was supposed to do that?”
“Are you asking if I want to trade any of you in on a cure for cancer? Are you volunteering?”
A thought struck Jack hard, like a bright flash behind his eyes. He fumbled with his seatbelt.
“I have to go talk to Beth. Right now.”
“Home before dark, if it comes to that,” she said.
Jack was already out of the car, running across the yards.
* * * * *
Jack knocked, first with his knuckles, and then with the brass door-knocker. He tried the doorbell, but it was either dead or not hooked up.
He was about to flip the knocker again when the front door creaked open. Beth peered out from the narrow opening.
“I was talking to my mom,” Jack said. “And—“
“And she told you to come over here and apologize again?”
“I— we aren’t fighting, are we?”
“I don’t know, are we?”
“Well, if we are, I don’t know what we’re fighting about.”
Beth started to inch the door shut.
She paused, one green eye peering from the dim interior. The gold specks gleamed, catching the afternoon sunlight.
“Mom and I were talking, and I think I realized something, about what we were fighting about… earlier.” Jack sort of had to push all the words out, as Beth had begun easing the door shut again. “It’s about Ellie. Something you said, and something my Mom said just sort of… clicked in my head.”
The door stopped again. The green eye blinked. Jack took her silence as interest.
“When you said that I wouldn’t be an older brother if it weren’t for you… You didn’t mean because it was something you did. You meant it because of something you didn’t do. Something you… chose not to do. Something you sacrificed.”
The door inched open, slightly.
“You got that from talking to your mom?”
“She thought we had another fight. I told her it was just a disagreement.”
“Are we fighting?” Beth asked.
“I don’t know, are we?”
A ghost of a smile flickered across Beth’s lips. “Touché.” She took a step back, opening the door. “Well, since you’re apologizing, I guess the least I can do is let you in. There isn’t much left in the refrigerator. The Professor is bringing some things home from the grocer tonight.”
Jack stepped in, letting the screen door clack shut behind him, and followed Beth through the foyer to the kitchen.
“It’s called the grocery store nowadays. We have three here in town, but some places have dozens of them.”
“Here, open that,” Beth said, handing Jack a pickle jar. “Be useful instead of correcting me all the time.”
“I’m just telling you things you need to know,” Jack said.
Beth sighed. “I know… It’s just… there is too much I need to learn. Relearn. Rethink. It’s giving me a headache.” She fished some of the pickle chips out with a fork, laying them out over the sandwiches she’d been preparing.
“Your hand are shaking.”
“They— they’re fine.” Beth wrung at them with a towel.
“My mom could—“
“Your mom doesn’t have to do anything for me, Jack.”
“But she— we owe you—“
“No, none of you owe me anything!”
“We owe you Ellie,” Jack said quietly.
Beth sat down at the kitchen table. After a moment’s pause, Jack took a seat.
“Here,” Beth said, sliding her sandwich towards Jack’s spot. “I’ll trade you.”
“What are you talking about? They’re the same thing.” Jack frowned, as soon as he said it. “What are you trying to tell me here?” he asked.
“If we trade sandwiches, what do I owe you?” she asked.
“They’re the same, you don’t owe me anything.”
She took a small bite of the sandwich in front of her. Jack lost track of whether it was his or hers.
“What about now?” she asked, after she’d swallowed.
“Gross. You chewed on it.”
“Over There, Jack, there is a… let’s call it a dragon. It really likes ham and pickle sandwiches.” She took another little bite. “You could say it goes looking for them, like… like a pig will go sniffing around for truffles. Um, don’t ever call it that, by the way.” She blushed slightly.
“At any rate,” she continued, “it found one sandwich.” She lifted up hers again, and took another small bite. “It says that they are very rare, that it might find one every few thousand years. So when it does, it just… nibbles. A hundred or so years later, it finds another one. Just made.”
“But… it hasn’t finished the one it’s got, has it?”
“It’s a pig-dragon, Jack. It doesn’t really concern itself with the notion of ‘seconds.’ It just wants to eat.”
“So… what happened?”
Beth thought for a moment. “It was going to just toss aside lunch and snap up this new one.” She reached over and grabbed Jack’s plate, sliding it towards her own. “But… well, let’s just say the pickle stuck in its throat. The dragon roared. Well, it tried to. It sort of came out a wheeze.” Beth smirked. “And the pickle said ‘You can finish this sandwich or try to eat the other one and keep choking.’”
Jack sat back, his eyes wide. “You— I mean, the pickle said that?”
“More or less.”
“It chose not to choke.”
Beth nodded. “It might be mean and hungry, but it isn’t stupid.”
“Okay. So how does this story end?”
“It hasn’t really ended yet, but it’s starting to turn a bit into Jack and the Beanstalk.”
"Jack and the...?"
“The brave hero steals the sandwich away from the pig-dragon. Right off its plate.” She pushed the two plates in front of Jack.
“Two? I don’t get it.”
“Remember when I said I didn’t know what happened when you wake up in somebody else’s dream?”
Jack thought back. That was… ages ago. “I had to get down the steps before I woke up,” he said, fishing the memories out of the corner of his mind where he kept them.
Beth tapped the plate with the nibbled-on sandwich.
“When you wake up, you take pieces of the dream with you into the waking world.”