The phone call from the headmaster’s receptionist asking Jessica and James in for a meeting had made them both worried, their minds immediately going to Faye, but when the headmaster saw their drawn faces he laughed and apologised.
“This is in regards to Loxley. Please, take a seat.”
Their worry now changed to curiosity and they sat in the uncomfortable seats probably salvaged from a classroom somewhere.
“I’m happy to say that Loxley is doing exceptionally well, even though he skipped a year. Sometimes we find that they struggle with the work or even socially, but he has excelled. I’d like to talk to you about an opportunity that the University runs for all the schools in the area. It requires a bit of competitiveness and ambition, but the winner will receive an internship to aid a researcher in their projects over next summer. It’s fantastic for anyone with ambitions for science and particularly in research, which I believe Loxley has.” The headmaster cleared his throat, aware he had been talking for some time. “He’s a bit young but more than capable, and there’s no sense in giving the opportunity to someone older if they don’t have the same talent.”
“He has to compete with the other students that the schools put forward, by putting forward a proposal for a project that would be viable to carry out in the near future. The deadline is towards the end of the summer holidays, and two potential students will be picked just before school begins again. They will get picked by the judge, this year a man called Lukas Smith who is a lecturer and researcher at the university, and alongside their school work they will be asked to work on a collection of mini projects and make their results available. Just before next summer, the student which impressed him the most will be asked to stay on for the summer to work with him and perhaps be offered a scholarship to the relevant science degree. If Loxley gets that far, he will still achieve research and networking which is invaluable, especially at that age.”
“That’s amazing,” Jessica said with a bright smile. “I think he’d love to do this.”
“Thank you for thinking of him,” James added.
The headmaster slid across a leaflet with the information of the scheme. “I’m sure he’ll do great things.”
“What do you think, Lox?” James asked, once their son had read through the leaflet back to front, nodding to himself, his smile growing wider with each minute. “I have to say, I’m a bit disappointed you’re not aiming for a business career -”
“I, however, am proud that you’ve chosen science, which is clearly the better discipline,” Jessica interrupted with a quick nod.
“I have to agree with mum here, sorry dad.” Loxley put the leaflet on the chest of drawers behind him. “I think I’ve heard of the researcher. He did some work on retroviruses.”
“Are they vintage viruses?” James asked.
“Don’t be silly,” Jessica tutted. “Are you interested, Lox?”
“Definitely.” It was rare that Loxley was excited about something, but the hunger for knowledge shone in his eyes. His grin looked almost painfully wide.
“Fantastic.” James reached out to clap Loxley’s shoulder. “We’re so proud of you. I mean, I’d be prouder if you chose business but -”
“Oi!” Jessica laughed. “Don’t listen to him.”
“I never do,” Loxley smirked.
Liam hadn’t meant to listen in to his brother’s conversation, but he had detoured to the park from school and when he returned, he saw the car in the drive and heard his parents talking loudly about the university scheme. He sat on the sofa, chin on his arms, and kept his breathing quiet so he could hear.
Liam wasn’t jealous of Loxley, as such, because it was just who he was. He couldn’t help perfectly remembering every detail he learned, just like he couldn’t help understanding things that made Liam’s brain hurt. And it wasn’t like Lox rubbed it in on purpose.
No, Liam wasn’t jealous. He was happy for his brother. He only wished that he had some talent that meant he wasn’t going to be left behind while all his siblings shone without effort.
Skye had taken to wandering along the various walking routes at the weekends. She didn’t have much else to do after her homework was finished, and honestly staying in the small house could feel suffocating at times.
The weather was beautiful. The sun warmed her bare arms and the wind was light but deliciously cool. She took a small, almost overgrown path up towards the mountains and found herself joining onto a graveled road. She had no idea what was at the end and was surprised to find a sweet camping site crouched under the shadows of the mountains. There weren’t many people about, but she assumed that no one would mind her walking through and admiring the pond in the center. Sunlight glistened off the still water and she could see fish in the shadows of the tall reeds. How hadn’t she been aware that there was a campsite here?
A whistle cut through her thoughts and Skye startled, head snapping around to see that she wasn’t as alone as she thought. The boy – maybe her age, maybe a year older – waved at her with a grin so large she could see it from where she stood.
“Do you like the camp?” he asked, his voice friendly and upbeat. She blinked at him and felt her cheeks warm.
“Oh, I’m not staying here. I was just wandering around.”
“I know, I would have recognised you otherwise. But do you like it?” There was no missing the pride in his voice. Skye wondered why she hadn’t seen the boy at school before.
“It’s lovely. Are you here a lot?”
“Oh, yeah, my mum owns the place. We live in the largest cabin.”
Skye looked to where he was pointing in surprise. And she thought her house was small…
Skye picked her way over to the boy, avoiding stepping on the flowers as best she could. “Which school do you go to? I don’t recognise you.”
“Oh, dad homeschools me. He thinks regular schools are bollocks, but whatever. I quite like it. I’m happy to stay up here. Towns are too full of people.” He wrinkled his nose briefly and a flash of embarrassment crossed his face. “My name is Felix, by the way.”
“Skye,” she said in return. “What does your dad teach you about?”
“Anything and everything. I couldn’t pass an exam but I reckon I’d do well on a pub quiz. Mum teaches business and accounts, though. She wants this to become a family business.” Felix gave an airy wave to the campsite around him. Skye wasn’t sure what to say – she wasn’t used to people being so easy to talk to and so forthcoming with information.
efore Skye could say anything, Felix’s face lit up. His eyes shone with adventure and the excitement was tangible. Skye felt herself grinning in response though she didn’t know why.
It didn’t even cross her mind to question him. He was already far enough ahead by the time his instruction had sunk in and Skye hurried forward to follow him. “Is it far?” she asked. She was warm enough and the hike didn’t look all that appealing.
“Nah! Come on, slow poke.”
Obediently, Skye broke into a jog and caught up. As soon as she did, Felix laughed, a full and brilliant laugh, and began to run. Though Skye was subjected to P.E lessons twice a week at school, Felix was clearly the fitter of the two. He slowed down enough for her but when he finally stopped, it was her that felt the top stick to her back and he seemed fine in his jacket.
They were exposed to the wind where they stood and it cooled the sweat on her back immediately, making her shiver and wish that she had worn a different top. The thought distracted her for a moment, but when she noticed Felix looking expectantly at her – with big eager puppy eyes – she turned her attention to what she came to see, and gasped.
“The view!” she marvelled, round eyes taking in the town below her. She could see almost everything from here: every rooftop, every garden, every meadow. The sun beat down on it all and far away the thin strip of the ocean sparkled. There were no clouds in sight.
“I know, right?!” Felix said, linking his hands behind his head and leaning back, as if the view was too much. “No better place to go to think.”
That had actually been what Skye was doing on her walks. The peace of the outside world let her think about everything, from what subjects she wanted to pick at school to what book she wanted to read next. The house was too distracting for her to even hear her thoughts half of the time.
“Oh, nothing. I just have a lot on my mind.”
“Want to talk about it? We have ice creams in the freezer back home.”
The kindness of this stranger made her smile. Though it wasn’t obvious that he had grown up outside of high school, his manner was completely different from anything she had experienced before. It was refreshing.
“Sure,” she found herself saying. Felix beamed.
Skye couldn’t help but giggle. “You don’t look much like one.”
He recoiled from her in mock hurt and narrowed his eyes. “How dare you stereotype me!” He spluttered. “Listen, I can be whatever I want, that’s what my mum always said.”
Skye covered her mouth with her hand. “Okay, I’m sorry,” she said, trying to look as apologetic as possible. Felix waved at her in a regal gesture to continue. “I guess my sister is on my mind the most. Well, I have two, but Faye is the one I’m talking about.”
“Two sisters? That must be nice. I’d love a sibling.”
“It’s not all great,” Skye winced. “And I have twin brothers too. A very full house. You can barely think.”
“Yikes. Hence the walks.”
“Hence the walks,” Skye nodded.
Skye’s bum was getting numb on the hard seat, so she stood and faced Felix. She told him all about Faye and her growing attitude, and then explained the war between her and Loxley which never seemed to have an end in sight. Somehow it continued into talking about everyone in her family, including her own relationship queries. It took an hour, and that was only the condensed version. Her water bottle was finished by the time she couldn’t think of anymore to say. Still, Felix had listened the entire time, nodding along and making sympathetic noises when appropriate. His gaze didn’t wander, and, somehow, he didn’t seem bored.
“I take it back,” he said. “I’m glad I don’t have a sibling. What a headache. And well, I’m not exactly the best person to give advice on friendships or relationships, being out in the sticks as I am, but as a qualified agony aunt I can tell you that you don’t have to worry about other people’s problems.”
“But it affects them…”
“There’s a difference between worrying about their problems and worrying about them. You can make them feel better when life has them down, but obsessing over the whys will just exhaust you. And the whole relationship thing – maybe he’s a prude.”
Skye screwed her face up. “A what?” Wasn’t that a dried fruit?
“A prude! You know, gets flustered by all that stuff. Maybe he comes from a conservative household or something.”
Honestly, Skye had never considered that. She didn’t know much about his family – he didn’t speak about them much, and she didn’t feel like she could ask.
“Whether he’s a prude or not, though, you can’t force a relationship.”
“But what if I do like him? I don’t know how to tell…”
“Well I think that’s telling enough. You should be excited to spend time with him, right? Like, really excited. Like you’re going to eat an entire tub of ice cream excited.”
Skye raised an eyebrow. “You really like ice cream that much?”
Felix looked scandalised. “You mean to say you don’t?!”
A wispy cloud passed over the sun, only just thick enough to cast a shadow. It made Skye have a sudden fright and look at the time on her phone. She’d been out for ages, and dinner would be on the table by the time she got back.
“I really have to go,” she sighed.
“Have a nice walk back,” Felix waved, seemingly happy to let things end like that. Skye blinked, unsure if she should insist on coming here again, but Felix had already jumped off the bench and was picking at the odd weed on his way back to the cabin. Skye, strangely upset by that, had to turn her back on the campsite and hurry home before anyone could worry.
Jessica glanced at her daughter from around the door of the fridge. Skye looked – not worried, but deep in thought, her eyebrows drawn down in a deep frown. She usually looked serious, but now even more so.
“Skye,” Jessica replied, in the same tone. She picked out the milk and eggs. It was time for late evening pancakes, since there had been no dessert straight after dinner.
At her mother’s tone, Skye’s lips pulled up briefly. “I don’t know what to do?”
“That sounds ominous,” Jessica replied. “Do you mean in life, right now, or…?”
“What about Joshua?” Jessica hummed, peering over her shoulder as Skye hovered at her elbow.
Skye paused, frown deepening. The sound of her mother whisking ingredients together filled the silence; Jessica was quite used to her daughter gathering her thoughts and let her do so without being interrupted. “How did you know dad was the one?”
Jessica raised her eyes to the heavens and wondered how she should reply. Skye was fourteen, so surely crushing her dreams of The One wouldn’t be so disappointing, but then maybe there was no harm in dreaming about that if it meant she wouldn’t settle for less than she deserved.
Eventually Jessica sighed. She paused her whisking, her upper arm aching from the vigorous movement, and faced her daughter. “I didn’t,” she admitted. “I was afraid of commitment for a long time. I realised that he was worth giving it a go.” She winced at how that sounded. “I would always love spending time with him, though. Even if we were just in the same room in silence. There’s a comfort in it that I haven’t felt with many other people.”
Skye frowned further. “And what if I don’t feel like that with Joshua? What if I feel that way with someone else?”
Jessica turned to the pan and ensured it was hot enough to make a decent pancake. She poured some of the mix into the pan, sighing at the splashes of mixture on the counter top, and tried to think where to go with this sudden news.
For once, Skye didn’t need any prompting. She began to speak, her voice so quiet that it was only just heard over the hissing of the cooking pancake. “When I was walking earlier today, I met a boy at the campsite near the hills. We talked for hours. I’ve never done that with Joshua…”
“What’s keeping you with Josh?” Jessica asked gently.
Skye took in a deep breath. “I want someone to be interested in me.”
Jessica sighed and prodded at the pancake with her spatula, trying to dislodge it enough that she could flip it. “Honey, people will be interested in you. You’re only young and there is plenty of time for that. Joshua may be the first but he certainly won’t be the last. And in the meantime, trying to force a relationship with him isn’t going to make things perfect like you want it to be.” She tried to keep her tone gentle, but Skye’s face still fell. She still hoped for her mother to fix everything with the perfect words, but alas those days were long gone. Skye just hadn’t realised it yet.
Still, Skye wasn’t too disheartened. She seemed to have known this was what Jessica was going to say. She stared out the window while her mother flipped the pancake, the top almost burned. Jessica reached up to click the extractor fan on, lest the eager fire alarm start to shrill.
“How do I break up with him?” she asked in a small voice.
Skye chewed on her bottom lip. “I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”
“I can’t promise you won’t,” Jess said. “But you know you’ll do it as gently as possible because of that. Maybe he feels the same way and it’ll be mutual.”
Skye said nothing to that, resuming her sad thoughtfulness, and Jessica decided to distract her daughter with the first batch of pancakes.