Saturday, August 18, 2012

Astronomy, reprised, and Dinner Guests

[This post recounts the last two entries from the Original Untitled storyline, and carries that story forward]
Jack barely heard the knock at his door over the scratching of his pencil.
“Hey,” Beth said, her backpack clutched in front of her.

“Hey,” Jack said. “So… is your dad all right? He sounded sort of…”
Beth nodded.
“It’s kind of late, isn’t it?” Jack asked. The sun hadn’t set, but the underside of the clouds were painted gold and pink. 
“Your mom and I were having a talk.”
Jack didn’t like the way that sounded. ‘Having a talk’ usually meant his mom did all the talking.
“And… you’re still here?”
Beth blinked. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I thought she was going to rip my head off,” Jack said. “I just figured she’d do the same with you.”
Beth shook her head. “Can I…?”
Jack started, and then stepped back, opening his door wider. “I thought you weren’t allowed up here after dark?” He left the door open.
Beth glanced out the window as she set her backpack down by the bookshelf that ran beneath it. “Sun’s still up. Besides,” she said, sitting on the edge of Jack’s bed, “Ellie is sick.”
 “I don’t…”
“Since she couldn’t send Charlotte to her room, your mom sent me to yours.”
“I’m sorry about her,” Jack said. He sank to his chair, turning it in a circle. “She can be such a pain. Charlotte, not my mom. Well, she can be one, too, sometimes.”
Beth sighed. “She’s just worried, Jack. Scared. She’s not the only one.”
“Your dad,” Jack said, nodding.
“Him and me both!”
Jack stopped spinning. “You said you were okay.”
“I thought I was. But…” She turned, glancing over her shoulder. “This is still the winter star map.”
“It’s still winter for two more days,” Jack said.
She glanced at his clock “Thirty-two hours.”
“Stop that!”
“It’s close enough.” She leaned over and picked up the National Geographic from where it sat by the clock, working at the large foldup map glued inside.
“Give me that. Be careful, you’re going to rip it!”
“Hey!” came Charlotte’s voice from downstairs. “You tear any of his clothes, you have to replace them!”
“Slow down,” Jack said, lowering his voice. He pressed down on the page that was wrinkling as Beth tugged at the map.
She nearly fell over as the poster snapped free. “Come on, help me get this thing up.”
“Mom, should I check to see what they’re doing up there?”
“Charlotte, leave your brother in peace. You can set the table.”
The crinkling of the map as Beth foundered beneath it prevented Jack from hearing his sister’s complaints.
“Give me that,” he said, plucking two of the corners and lifting the sheet, turning and holding it against the map already tacked up on the angled wall. “Stapler. Top right drawer,” he said when Beth started looking over at his desk.
“It’s upside down.”
Beth slipped under Jack’s arms, helping him reorient the corners.
“You’re supposed to play Twister with the mat on the floor,” Charlotte said, from the small landing outside Jack’s door.

“Don’t you have a table to set?” Jack asked.
“It is. Dinner is in about five minutes, so Mom says wash up. Both of you.” Charlotte turned and went down the stairs, still smirking.
“You can let go now,” Beth said.
Jack just about leapt off his bed. Beth knelt and re-fastened the tacks at the lower corners of the poster. Then she leaned back, craning her neck to stare at the oval diagram of stars and constellations.
“So… what is it that I’m looking for?” Jack asked. It was more or less the same as last spring’s star map.
“There,” Beth said, pointing to one of the charts in the corner. Moonrise and moonset timetables.
“Tonight isn’t listed on there,” Jack said.
“Not tonight. There!” She pointed again, sitting up and tapping a line further from the top of the chart.
“April 4th. A full moon. The next one. I don’t—”
“Oh, Jack,” Beth sighed, like she did when he made glaring errors on his math homework.
“I told you I haven’t read this issue yet. That includes looking at the map. And now the page of photos from those Incan ruins is all wrinkled.”
Beth flipped the magazine closed. Jack glared at her, and she glared right back, tapping the poster again.
Jack sighed. Moonrise at 6:45 Eastern, which meant about an hour later where they lived.
“A full moon the night of the dance. That’s… a good thing, isn’t it? Do you suppose they planned it that way?”
Beth opened her mouth to say something, the stairway suddenly brightened with a wash of pale white light.
“Jack! Beth, it’s time for dinner!”
Beth scooted off Jack’s bed, taking his hand. She gave it a squeeze as she tugged him towards the door.  “Come on. It doesn’t do any good worrying about it anyway.”
“Worry about what?” Jack asked. Was he supposed to be? He shook his head. And decided that he’d give up thinking he knew the first thing about girls in general, and Beth in particular.

Jack nearly ran into Beth when she stopped with three steps to go on the staircase.
Professor Harrison turned from the coat rack by the door, the smile he usually wore growing even bigger.
“It seems we’ve been invited to dinner,” he said. He inhaled deeply. “Pot roast? It smells divine.”
“Flattery gets you nowhere,” Jack’s father said, as he shut the door behind him. He shook the professor’s hand before shrugging off his own coat.
“It gets you nowhere, dear,” Jack’s mother said, placing a steaming bowl of mashed potatoes on the table “It might get the professor a bigger slice of pie for dessert.”
“After the day I’ve had, I could use a bigger slice myself,” Jack’s father said. “You would not believe the size of the order the school district just placed for…” His voice trailed off as the color crept up Beth’s cheeks. “Should I be worried?” he asked.
“Nobody got hurt,” Jack repeated. “It’s not that big a deal.” He pulled out his chair, and then Beth’s.
“Actually,” she said, sitting, “it sort of is.”
As the salad bowl moved from place to place around the table, Jack and Beth recounted the events of the morning’s bus rides.
“You said this was sort of a big deal,” Jack’s mother said. She’d barely touched her salad, let along the slice of pot roast on her plate.
“I am reminded of something that happened some years back,” the professor said. “The circumstances aren’t exactly the same but—“
“Dad, no,” Beth said. “This isn’t the same.”
“No, dear, of course it isn’t,” the professor said. He patted Beth’s hand.
She sat back, tried to smile.
“This is quite a bit worse.”
Beth swallowed.
“We lived for some time at one of the bigger Lakota reservations,” the professor explained. “I was working on a — oh, but my work isn’t important. The natives simply adored Beth. They called her ‘Zizi,’ a play on their words for both ‘blonde,’ and ‘pale.’”
“Gee, wonder why they called her that,” Charlotte murmured.
“Back then, her hair was much, much longer. She’d nearly sit on it if she didn’t wear it at least part of the way up. The other girls in her class were only too happy to braid her hair. There was one, though… Oh, what was her name?”
“Does it matter?” Beth sighed.
“Abigail?” the professor mused.
“She hated me,” Beth said, setting her fork down.
“Oh, she did not hate you. Bernice?”
“She did,” Beth insisted. “And her name was Alice. Alice Two Crows.”
“Alice! Yes, that was it. Well, she thought that Beth’s hair was a gift from the Sun King himself. Apparently, before Beth had come to their school, Alice was the queen bee, so to speak.”
“She was a —“ Beth bit her lip. “She wasn’t very nice to me.”
“She was your best friend at that school.”
“Bob, is this story going somewhere?” Jack’s father asked.
“What Dad is getting at is that I sort of… shorted out the entire school house,” Beth said.
The professor cleared his throat.
“It wasn’t a very big school house.”
“And we put the fire out before it could spread.”
“The… fire?” Jack’s mother asked.
“The lock of hair that Alice cut off sort of… went ‘poof,’” Beth said.
“Your hair caught fire?” Charlotte asked, leaning forward.
“It’s not like I made it,” Beth said. “It just sort of… happened.”
“I find that…” Jack’s father began.
“Hard to believe, I know,” the professor said. “It made the papers. Of course, they said that the electrical short caused the fire.” He looked around the table, and his smile faltered. “Oh, not to worry! Not to worry! Nobody was hurt. There was very little damage. Alice even got that award, you remember?”
Beth glowered. “I was the one that poured the water in the wastebasket.”
“Well,” the professor said. “My point in all this is that we found a solution to these little… accidents.”
“Little?” Charlotte asked. She scooted over in her chair to avoid her sister’s elbow.
“So, Bill, Margaret, children, I don’t want you to worry.”

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