What did he want to do for the rest of his life? In what way did he want to distinguish himself from his siblings? How could he figure out his own niche, as it were, when so many of them were taken?
His mind ended up in wild places. He could travel the world and find hidden secrets (except where would he even start?) He could become a famous rockstar and wow thousands of people every night he was on stage (except he’d never touched an instrument in his life). He could move to further south and become a famous Broadway actor (except he could barely remember his quotes for English essays, how could he remember his lines?)
What could he do?!
“You look deep in thought, Lee-lee,” James said, wiping his hands on his loose shorts after shoving a full bin bag into their dustbin. Liam looked up and rolled his eyes at the use of his childhood nickname, feeling a prickle of anger at his dad for interrupting his important thoughts.
“I’m trying to figure out what I want to do dad. I don’t want to be forgotten for the rest of my life!”
“Whoa, slow down.” James didn’t bother asking if he could take the other seesaw seat and simply sat down on it, causing Liam to go shooting up. James liked to think that was because of his muscles but, really, he hadn’t been to the gym with Aiden for months.
“Kane didn’t even remember my name, dad.”
At the mention of Kane, James frowned. “How is he? I haven’t seen him around much.”
“Who cares?!” Liam wailed. “I’m having a crisis.”
James opened his mouth to argue. He very much cared about Kane, with how much the lad had opened up to him, and worried that he wasn’t coping well. With a resigned sigh, he gestured for Liam to go on. One thing at a time.
Idly, James pushed from the ground and they began to seesaw, the rocking motion soothing the tension. He watched his son frown, open his mouth, close it, and frown deeper.
“Hey, come on, what is it?” he asked gently, knocking his knuckles on the wood of the toy to get Liam’s attention.
“I feel like I’m going to just… grow up, doing nothing interesting with my life, and die without anyone remembering me. Lox is going to be a world renowned scientist, Summer a famous writer, Skye is probably going to raise a hundred adorable kids and Faye is – well, Faye. She always makes an impression.”
For better of for worse, James almost added. Faye worried him a lot too, but there was nothing he could do for her right now. Liam stared dully ahead.
“You’re too harsh on yourself. You’re still so young – you have so much time ahead of you and you don’t need to be a famous anything to make an impression on the world. Your mother is hardly a famous scientist, but her work has still given some cool breakthroughs that I don’t understand.” James paused but Liam didn’t even laugh at his lame joke. What an unappreciative audience.
James thudded to the floor as Liam pushed up hard, anger fueling his strength, and James grunted. He was going to have a bruise in the morning.
“I just feel so… useless. I take up space and I contribute nothing.” Liam stared at the ground and swallowed. His eyes welled up with tears but he blinked them away before they could fall.
“Oh, Liam,” James sighed. “I have no perfect words for you. Things will take time to happen, okay? You’re hardly contributing nothing. Your family loves you very much.” Seeing that this was doing nothing, James decided a change of tack was in order.
Before he could even formulate his thoughts, though, his son plowed on ahead. He kicked at the ground with his shoe, flinging a clump of grass through the air, and glared at it. “I want to go away for the summer.”
“Wh-” James took in a deep breath. “What? Where? Liam -”
“I’m old enough,” he said fiercely, hands tightening around the metal handle, knuckles turning white. “I want to go somewhere away from here.”
“Don’t call me that! I’m not a child anymore!” Liam panted, his nostrils flaring, and a spark of rage igniting in his eyes.
“You’re not even thirteen, Liam,” James said firmly. “If you want to go anywhere, you can go to your grandfather’s house for the summer.”
“I’m just sick of being in this house!” Liam cried, jumping off the seesaw and kicking at the geraniums, sending whole flower heads flying into the sky. Torn petals spiraled helplessly through the air. James had only just saved himself from an incredibly painful landing and sprawled off the back of the seesaw.
“Liam!” he scolded, standing up with a wince and brushing grass off his shorts.
“No, it’s not fair!” His face was bright red. “Loxley is always getting everything right and perfect and then there’s me and I – I -” His eyes filled with tears but more anger flashed in his eyes, momentarily twisting his face into something ugly. “If you can’t even fix the mess Faye is, then how can I expect you to help me?!” The surprisingly well thought out sentence was punctuated with a stomp of his foot into the soft ground, leaving an imprint behind. He ignored the stricken look on his father’s face and barged past, clomping down the road and leaving a trail of mud from his right shoe.
“Liam-” James pleaded, but his son continued to walk away. The town was as safe as one could be in Scotland, so he was hardly worried that something were to happen to his twelve year old in broad daylight, but he was in two minds. Should he go after him, or leave him to cool down first?
Liam stomped down the road, hands balled into fists at his side. His skin was fever hot, his cheeks tingling, and the cool wind dried his tears before they could roll far down his face. The impact of each tread sent a jarring shockwave up his legs, but Liam was too furious to care. The sensation almost felt good.
The road wound down the hill until it joined the centre of the town. At the junction, an abrupt change happened: the old and worn road, with many potholes that Liam had almost twisted his ankle in, became shiny and new with freshly painted road markings. In his anger, he barely bothered to check to see if the road was clear before he strode across it, leaving a trail of mud behind him.
He remembered the glow in the dark hedgehog key chain given to him at school, and the adverts with the theme tune instructing him to stop, look and listen. But this was a sleepy rural town, and he was fine. He just didn’t know where to go next.
With a deep, shuddering breath, Liam felt that this situation was very similar to what he was battling with now.
And so his eyes came to rest upon the building to his left, a structure with both sombre and joyful connotations. Inside it could be used to host a wedding, and around the back was a titchy graveyard. It was a morbid place to get married, but then there were few venues around town suited for such a purpose.
For no reason that Liam could put into thoughts, he clattered towards the building. It would be locked, that he knew, but he wasn’t looking to go inside. The decorations within were all too chipper and romantic to suit his mood, and it would only sour him further.
Liam ducked into the small space between the lush but rather overgrown hedge and the bare stone walls. He squelched through the mud, hardly bothering to check if the ragged hems of his jeans were getting filthy. Dark splashes of dirt adorned the back of his legs. Liam couldn’t bring himself to care.
Mud rapidly changed to gravel and then to paving stones. Liam rubbed his shoes off the rushes in the hope to remove some of the mud clinging to the fabric, but with a great and stroppy sigh, gave up and slumped onto the bench instead. His shoulders curled in and his eyes stung as the breeze dried his tears before they could fall. This side of the building was not sheltered from the wind and he shivered, rubbing his hands up and down the goosebumps on his arms.
The graveyard was pretty for what it was. It was only for the church congregation, Liam vaguely recalled, which was why it was so small and maintained so perfectly. The pond was clear of weeds and he could see fish swimming about, their bodies deft under the rippling water. He remembered Loxley saying something about the pond at some point, when they had come here on a walk. That they had to keep it clean or there would be no oxygen for the fish, and they would start bobbing at the surface in their desperation. Liam shook his head.
How did his twin excel so much? Why was it that Liam was always dragging behind?
Liam looked away from the sound of his father’s voice, gentle and all too kind. He felt the guilt of what he’d shouted settle deep into the pit of his stomach. When he blinked, he could see his father’s shocked and hurt expression as he stormed away. He couldn’t bear to look at his father now, but there was an uncomfortable silence, and curiosity got the better of him.
His father was watching him, eyebrows drawn down and eyes churning with worry. Liam closed his eyes and let out a small breath. He was doing everything wrong, wasn’t he? All he wanted was to find something to define himself, to set him apart from his siblings. He didn’t know who he was. All of his personality traits seemed to blend in with his family until his own identity was indistinguishable.
Maybe he was the sibling that made everything difficult. The son that made his parents upset. The son that lashed out and hissed spiteful words meant to hurt the people who cared about him the most.
“I’m sorry,” Liam muttered, turning away again and staring at the pond. A cat sat near a tall grave shaped as a cross, her intelligent eyes on the fish gliding through the water.
James sighed and folded his arms over his chest, feeling his thundering heart through his clothes. He’d given chase to Liam once he’d got out of the car, worried that his son was going to go on a cross country trek (and, frankly, James wasn’t wearing his trekking shorts and didn’t fancy finding ticks in his nighttime shower). And now he was worried about his youngest child, which sent more adrenaline pumping.
“I know you said it because you were angry,” James said, keeping his voice carefully soft. “But if you want to be treated like an adult, then you have to act like one. That means not saying things in anger, okay?”
Liam gave a distant nod, a barely perceptible movement, and stared at something far away.
What James would give for his parents’ advice right now.
“I’m going to let you in on a secret, Liam.” His father slid onto the bench beside him, lips turned down. His tone was entirely too grave for Liam’s liking, but then, he’d made that happen, hadn’t he? “Parents don’t always know what they’re doing.” Liam’s gaze flicked up to his father, and James felt a bit of tension slide away. At least he’d got his son’s attention. “There are thousands of books written on the subject, oodles of advice and pamphlets and fellow parents to talk to, but you never know if you’ve made the right choice. It’s hard. And it means that sometimes you won’t make the right choice.”
There was a pause. Liam rested his chin in his hands and his elbows on his knees. The tops of his shoes were caked with drying mud. A woodlouse scurried from the shadow of the bench into a crack spreading the entire length of a paving slab.
“I’m sorry if you feel like you’re somehow worth less than your siblings. You’re not. If you feel like we’re prouder of them? We’re not. If you feel like we ignore you in favour of them – we try not to. We love you, Liam. And we’re so proud of you. You don’t need to have a path in life already. Hell, most adults I know don’t. It doesn’t mean you haven’t accomplished anything. Okay?”
James allowed the question to hang in the air. The reeds rustled in the wind, plant heads bobbing and swaying in front of the bench, and it was almost hypnotising. Nearby the cat pounced on a butterfly and, with round eyes, watched it flutter away until a cloud passing over the sun sapped her attention away. The entire graveyard darkened in a matter of moments and Liam snapped out of his thoughts.
Thoughts that had been decidedly confused. He understood what his father said. He understood the serious sincerity of the words. He did not understand why this made no difference to the anxious tightening in his stomach or the pain in his chest. “Okay,” he said simply.
“But maybe… if you think it will help to – to have some breathing room… Maybe you should go to your grandfather’s. If he’s happy to have you with him, even for the whole summer, then you can do that. It might help give you space to think, and there would be no better place to do that in a new town where no one has any preconceptions – um, ideas, about you.”
Liam’s eyes – so blue they matched the colour that the sky had been moments ago – met his father’s. “Really?”
And, despite the twinge in his heart, and the sinking feeling that he and Jessica had failed Liam somehow, he smiled and nodded. “Really.”
“Hey.” James’ voice, so soft both in volume and tone, caught Jessica’s flighty attention. His hand circled her thin wrist before she could pace past him yet again, tight enough that she was jerked back. Jessica frowned down at him, brushing dark hair out of her eyes. He looked concerned. “Don’t be upset.”
“We’ve failed to help Liam, James. How can I not be upset?” Her frustration bubbled through her words and she bit her bottom lip, causing dry skin to crack.
“We’ve not failed,” James said, quite reasonably, though similar thoughts had been whirling around his mind for the last few hours. “In fact, if we didn’t let him go to your father’s, we would be.”
“I just – I feel like – I -” Jessica squeezed her eyes shut and gave a quiet groan. She’d never been the best communicator and couldn’t put the mix of guilt and disappointment that seethed in the pit of her stomach into words.
Her partner’s face softened. The faint lines around his eyes disappeared. His warm hand squeezed her wrist and he tugged her towards her. “I know,” he promised, and he did.
At first she resisted, but James could be stubborn when necessary, and continued to reel her in until she lay on top of him on their slightly too small sofa. The hard arm dug into his back, but James found that he didn’t mind. He was distracted by Jessica’s spicy orange scent (a new hair care product, maybe? She had plenty lying around their shower to choose from…) and her face, almost the same as when he’d first seen her one morning in her university dorm’s kitchen. She looked a little more drawn, perhaps, but except for tiny crinkles by her eyes, there were no differences to be seen.
“What if this doesn’t help him?” she asked, voicing the doubts that had been plaguing both of their minds. Still, James was good at dispelling such thoughts, and giving good advice to others often helped him too.
“Then we’ll try something else. He’ll be alright, Jess. He’s got his family around him. We’ve just got to remind him of that sometimes.”
Jessica gave a slow nod, chewing her bottom lip and thinking it over. “You’re probably right.”
A blond eyebrow arched up. “Probably? Excuse you. Have more faith.”
Jessica giggled, and the momentary lapse in worry was enough to brighten her eyes and bring some colour to her cheeks.
“I can’t help it,” she mumbled, resting her head on his shoulder. He smoothed her hair down, the velvet softness a distinct contrast to her rough dry lips, and then snaked his other arm around her waist. His fingertips circled the bare skin at her back, tracing over the body he knew so well. It was times like this that his heart swelled and he was reminded of how much he loved this woman, of how much he treasured the memories of their university time together, and of how lucky he was. She better appreciate him back.
“What are you thinking?” Jessica muttered, eyes narrowing at the distant look on his face.
“Oh, just how lucky I am that you flashed your knickers at me all those years ago.”
She made a noise that he could only describe as a garbled and outraged gasp. “That – it – I can’t believe – it was an accident!”
James sniffed. “I don’t believe you. I think you did it on purpose. To entice me. And I couldn’t resist your womanly ways.”
Jessica rolled her eyes and settled back on his shoulder, enjoying the feeling of security and the sound of his steady heart that echoed in her ears. “Asshole.”