Tapping at his bedroom window awakened Jack shortly before 5. He thought it might be a bird, and there had indeed been a squawk as he threw his pillow a the window. But birds didn’t call his name.
“How did you get up there?” Jack whispered as he let her in through the window.
“Oak tree? Roofline? It’s not difficult.”
Jack looked the girl up and down. Her hair was still sleep-mussed, and dirt and leaves clung to the hem of her nightgown. She wasn’t wearing slippers.
“You climbed. In your nightgown?”
“I could have gone to the porch and knocked, like your dad said to.”
“It’s the middle of the night!”
Beth glanced out the window. “It’s only an hour or so till dawn.“
Jack sighed. “It’s summer vacation!”
“If you don’t want to help me, Jack, then I’ll just go down the hall and ask your mom.”
“Are you nuts?”
“Jack, I need help.”
He sighed. “Okay, all right.” He stepped into his slippers, and took his robe from the hook by his closet door. He started to shrug into it, then handed it to Beth. “Here. It’s cold out there.”
“It’s not that cold.”
“It’s cold enough. Come on.” He opened the door, and beckoned the girl towards the stairs.
“This is neat,” she said, as she drifted down the short flight of stairs leading to the main stairway. “I like your room more than mine. It’s cozy.”
“Careful of the seventh step,” Jack said, as they continued down the main stairs. Beth had already skipped it.
“It squeaks. I know. Ellie dreamed about it,” she said, at Jack’s puzzled look.
“I’m afraid to ask what else she dreams of.”
“Ponies, elephants. Rainbows and bunnies.”
Jack nodded. “That sounds like Ellie.”
He grabbed his lighter coat from the coat rack and slipped it on, quietly unbolting the front door, and then followed Beth across the gravel driveways. She didn’t seem to make a sound as she crossed the rocks. Jack wondered if he was going to wake his parents and the Professor, and maybe the neighbors a few miles down the road with each step.
A dim yellowish glow flickered from the kitchen, leaking through the short hall at the end of the foyer, and from the dining room just past the archway to the left.
Jack’s heart skipped a beat, but Beth set a hand on his shoulder. “Relax, it’s just the lamp.”
“I thought the Professor had the power all turned on here.” He reached for the light switch, gave it a flip, and the lights in the foyer came on.
Beth swatted at the light switch. “I don’t like those electric lights. They don’t… look right. Now come on. Those aren’t the problem.”
He followed her through the dining room. Well, it would have been the dining room, but instead of a table and chairs, it had several desks, and most of the walls were lined with bookshelves. Stacks of boxes crowded the corners of the room. It looked to Jack like the Professor had more books than the school library.
“The Professor can work from here,” Beth said. “Since it’s just us, we eat in the kitchen.”
A doorway led through the dining room, and into the kitchen. It was almost twice the size of Jack’s mother’s domain, with the sink separated from the refrigerator and the stove by a long peninsula of countertop and cabinets. A small table and three sturdy chairs sat in the open space opposite the stove. Beth had set a large kerosene lamp on the countertop near the stove, and its warm, flickering light filled the room.
“Okay,” Jack said. “So… what’s the problem?”
Beth pointed to the stove. “We don’t have any wood. How am I supposed to cook?”
* * * * *
Beth stood by the stove, stirring a small saucepan. Beneath it, the electric burner glowed a cheery orange.
“Lights don’t require gas. Stoves don’t need wood. What else runs on these… wires?”
“Well,” Jack said. “There’s the telephone.”
“Like the telegraph but with voices. The Professor explained it.”
“The box that shows the moving pictures?” She sounded as though she still didn’t believe it. “The Professor said that the pictures come through a ‘cable.’”
“Well we still get TV over the air at my house.”
“Pictures and sound from thin air?” Beth crossed her arms. “How gullible do you think I am?”
“Just how isolated did your Grandfather keep you?” Jack asked.
“He kept everything as it was when I was growing up.”
“Then where the heck did you grow up?”
“Here. Well… actually, about a mile and a half to the north.” She pointed with the wooden spoon, dripping milk across the stove.
“There’s nothing out that way but woods.”
“There was a church, Jack. And if we’d gone another half mile or so, we would have been at the old house. But there’s nothing left of it.”
Jack felt his stomach do a bit of a flip. He sat down, hard.
Beth poured steaming milk into two mugs, added heaping scoops of cocoa powder, and stirred.
“That church was old, Beth.”
She set a mug down in front of Jack, then sat in another of the chairs. She held her mug with both hands, blowing on the cocoa.
“Are you going to tell the Professor?” she asked.
“What? What would I possibly tell him?”
“That I’m not who he thinks I am?”
“I thought he knew.”
Beth shook her head. “As far as he knows, I’m some distant cousin who grew up rather isolated on the West coast.”
“Well… you are, aren’t you?”
“Then what’s to tell?”
“Right. What’s to tell.”
“I think my parents know,” Jack said. “They haven’t said anything, I don’t know when they will, but…”
“But you’d like to know what to tell them.”
Jack sipped his cocoa, nodded.
They both looked up at the sound of slippered feet on the stairs.
The Professor stood in the kitchen doorway, wiping at his glasses with the corner of his robe. “I thought I smelled hot chocolate. Good morning Beth. And Jack.”
The girl got up, and poured a third mug.
“I had a little trouble with the stove this morning, and didn’t want to wake you…”
* * * * *
“Hold it right there, mister.”
Jack froze, his foot on the first step.
His mother leaned against the kitchen doorframe, arms crossed. “I have a pretty good idea where you were, but in the future, please leave a note.”
“I guess you won’t be needing breakfast this morning?”
Jack looked down at the maple syrup stain on his pajama top.
“Beth needed help with the stove, and then the Professor invited me to stay for breakfast.”
“Jack, sit,” she said.
He pulled his father’s chair out from the table and sat down. His mother joined him in her own chair after she’d retrieved her coffee cup from the kitchen counter.
“Any idea what’s going on yet?” she asked.
Jack blinked. “I— umm…”
“She hasn’t sworn you to any kind of secrecy?”
“Secrecy? No. She… hasn’t said much. Yet.”
His mother sipped at her coffee, regarding Jack over the rim of the cup.
“She may very well have saved Ellie, from death, or from a very very difficult life. She did the same for me, and I am thankful for that, Jack. But I will toss those thanks and any other debts I may owe her to the winds if she puts you or any of my children at risk.”
Jack swallowed. Suddenly, the lingering flavor of the maple syrup tasted a bit like ashes.
“Do you think she’s dangerous?” Jack asked.
“I think she is more than she seems, Jack. I don’t want to pry, but I also do not expect to be kept in the dark.”