The tiny local cafe was Liam’s favourite place to eat lunch at, and throughout the summer he had been working his way through the entire menu. They were going to change it to suit Autumn soon enough, and he hoped he would be here to see it. The idea of going home made his stomach tighten and his shoulders slump and then, inevitably, the guilt set in. What about his family? He’d heard the hurt in his dad’s voice over the phone.
Liam stared at the candle between him and his grandfather. There was no flame but it had been lit several times before; there were trails of wax hardened against the pale body. He picked at it sullenly, flicking wax onto the floor where they became lost within the dirt between the stones.
“What’s going on in that head of yours, Liam?”
Although they had been close before Liam lived here, he had found that the friendship between them had blossomed within the last month. Sam had made a lot of effort to make Liam feel at home, which he truly appreciated, and seeing his grandfather watching him with admiration and pride when Liam started to become part of the community had made him happier than ever. It wasn’t like his parents weren’t proud – he knew they were, or at least they had said it often enough – but knowing that Sam was taking note of every moment meant so much more. Here, he didn’t have his siblings to take away from his time or achievements.
“They aren’t mad,” Sam said. “They’re upset, but not mad. And I think they’ll understand when they come here.”
“Do you think so?” Liam asked miserably. “What if they tell me to go home?”
“Then you go home,” Sam said simply. “It doesn’t mean you’ll never be back. Or that it’ll be bad to go home. You’ve changed a lot in these past few weeks, Liam. I think it will be good for you to stay here, but I also think you’ll be okay if you go home.”
“I feel bad for even wanting to stay,” Liam blurted out, looking away from his grandfather and staring instead at the cafe doors, hoping to see his food being brought out soon. He winced, hoping that Sam wouldn’t take his outburst the wrong way, but his granddad only sighed.
“Oh, Liam, it’s alright. You can love your family but still want time away from them. Sure, it’s unusual, but so is having four other siblings in a small house. At your age, there are so many questions and complications and hormones, and sometimes you need space to figure that out.”
Liam leaned his feet against the table leg, rocking it alarmingly until Sam reached out to steady it. He peered up at the sky. It was a nice day, though Sam was never out of his warm clothes, claiming that his age made him more sensitive to the cold. Liam was sweating in just his white t-shirt.
When their plates were empty and they were about to leave, Sam reached out to Liam, placing his wrinkled hand on top of the much younger, smoother one. “Thank you for keeping an old man company.”
As summer was coming to an end, so was his project proposal deadline. Lox had submitted his with a week to spare, priding himself in the quality of it. He hadn’t been worried about getting through – after all, there was always going to be another opportunity around the corner, if you knew how to find them – but it was a pleasant surprise to have received the phone call from the researcher and judge himself.
Loxley had made it clear that he was available at whatever date the researcher chose, and so ended up finding his office on the same Saturday that his parents would be travelling to see Liam. He tried not to think about it.
Loxley turned his attention to the girl he would be competing with for the final place at the end of the school year.
She was, probably, a couple of years older than Loxley. This didn’t faze him. He was confident that his intelligence and maturity was on a similar level to hers, if she didn’t also have a genius IQ. He’d have to see.
When she introduced herself (as Bethany McAdam), her voice had a faint lilting quality that made Lox think of Ireland. The bright ginger hair and prominent freckles would certainly support his hypothesis. Since they would be working in the same area, if not together at points, he was interested in learning more about this girl. From the initial observation, he could tell that she liked the colour black, interesting fashion choices and wearing a hat indoors.
“I’m Loxley Williams,” he introduced himself smoothly, nodding at his rival/companion, who smiled pleasantly back. She didn’t seem openly hostile, which made things easier.
Lukas greeted them both in turn. “So we’ll work with you to schedule your time at the lab. Obviously you’re not going to be able to be in there alone, so one of the technicians will accompany you, and they will handle the more complicated or expensive equipment. We’re aiming to have you work at about first year university level, but we will give you a few induction lessons on the lab, the equipment, the aseptic technique and systematic experiment design. I’m sure some of those things will be familiar to you, but it’s more so we can check the boxes. I hope you understand.”
“Will we have much time under your direct tutelage?” Loxley asked politely, keeping an eye on Bethany. She gave a thoughtful nod and turned to Lukas for his answer.
“Once every two weeks I’ll be earmarking two or three hours to give you guidance or just see how you’re doing. You’re essentially here as research assistants working on parts of my projects with the hope that, at the end of the school year, you’ll be taken on full time at the summer with a wage and more autonomy with how you work. If all goes well, you’ll be welcome to stay on.” Lukas had an accent that Loxley couldn’t quite place; each time he thought he’d figured it out, he questioned himself again. At points there seemed to be a very faint Spanish twist, and then within the same sentence it was perfectly, nauseatingly posh English. Sometimes he would even throw in the occasional Scottish word, expertly spoken, almost like he’d lived here his entire life. It was bizarre and intriguing.
“And if we have questions about the research we’re helping with, or anything of your past research, we’re welcome to talk about it, Mr. Smith?” Bethany asked, keeping perfectly professional except for a slight smile towards Loxley. Good question, he thought.
“Oh, of course, I’d be happy to discuss research. I’m sure some of my colleagues would be too, if you had interests in other areas. And please, call me Lukas. We tend to like a first name basis at university.”
The meeting continued for another half an hour, discussing the dates and times that would be suitable for their projects. They agreed that they would be happy to be in most weekends for the project’s length, which meant that Loxley and Bethany would be spending a lot of time with each other.
Lox, generally, didn’t mind having company or being alone. Caring what other people thought or wanted from you was a waste of time and energy. Still, after Liam had moved out for the summer – and possibly longer – Loxley had found himself becoming strangely lonely. His sisters tended to be busy (Summer with her writing, and Skye with her boyfriend, and Faye wasn’t worth thinking about), so he wasn’t going to complain about the opportunity to make a friend, however that was supposed to happen.
Jessica and James had been welcomed into Sam’s home with warm hugs and the offers of a hot drink. Each time Jessica visited, she was struck with deja-vu. The house didn’t seem to change over the years, and the smell of lavender scented fabric softener brought her right back to her childhood, to the weekends spent here. In the living room, a picture of one of her drawings was pinned to the wall, as it had been since the day she’d made it. She remembered the mess she had made on the kitchen table with the crayons. Her father hadn’t minded one bit. He had always been so soft and peaceful.
Next to her drawing was the clumsy hand prints of her children; tiny ones from Liam and Loxley when they were too young to really understand what they were doing, and larger, more enthusiastic prints from the triplets. She sat on the sofa with the mug of tea steaming away in front of her and battled against the nostalgia.
Liam perched on the edge of the sofa, fiddling with the leaves of the plant next to him. He looked hopeful. His eyes were bright.
“Can I stay here? Please?”
“We can discuss that a bit later, Liam, your parents only just walked in the door.” Sam offered the milk jug to Jessica and she poured half of it into her cup. The jug was almost identical to the one she’d broken as a teenager while stroppily doing the washing up. It had been part of Sam’s favourite set. Even now she felt bad for it.
James rubbed at the back of his neck with a sigh. “Maybe we should talk about it now. Get it out the way and then enjoy the rest of the day.”
Liam perked up and sat straighter. He reached up to fiddle with his hair, running his hands through it until it stuck up at all angles. “I love it here. Why can’t I stay?” His voice took on a whining quality, the one all kids seemed to learn at some point, much to their parent’s dismay.
Sam sighed and patted Liam’s arm. “There are better ways to bring up the subject, Liam.”
“It’s just we don’t know if it would be good in the long run, to be away from home,” James told him, speaking quietly but clearly. “It’s a big decision.”
Liam shot up and folded his arms over his chest crossly, eyebrows drawn down. It drew Jessica’s attention to the pictures behind him; they were a new addition to the house, which was to say that they were only about five years old. Sam liked his consistency. “I know it is,” Liam insisted. “But I made my choice. I really want to stay here.”
Jessica leaned forward and placed her mug on the coffee table. “We didn’t say you shouldn’t,” she sighed, pushing strands of hair behind her ears. She felt old, which was a great contrast to her father who looked young and livelier than ever. Having a teenager around would certainly put a spring in your step, if you had the patience to deal with them when they were surly.
“If you feel like staying here for the school year is the best decision for you, then we will let you make that decision.” James took a sip of his tea, the steam momentarily blinding him by fogging up his glasses. He and Jessica had talked extensively – through the night and well into the morning, and then throughout the entire drive down – and had come to a conclusion; Liam needed to feel like he had direction in his life, and more importantly that he was in charge of that direction. Letting him make this decision would be what was best for him, even if they didn’t want the answer.
“Of course.” Jessica stood and Liam approached her. His excitement was snowballing, gaining momentum rapidly, but for now he held it off. He hadn’t expected them to agree. “You’ll be home on the school holidays and every other weekend. That’s all we ask. We need to see you too, Lee-lee.”
Liam laughed with the sudden feeling of relief and grinned at his parents. “Of course!” he cried. “I’ll miss you if I didn’t!” He bounced forward and wrapped his arms around his mother, who flailed for a balance and giggled. She met Sam’s gaze over the top of Liam’s head and he smiled and nodded his approval.
“Okay,” James said, clapping his hands together for attention. “Let’s go do something. Enough of this being serious nonsense.” He got up, grabbing the car keys from the table, and paused to bring his son in for a hug. Liam beamed up at him, blue eyes sparkling. Looking at how happy their youngest was, there was no way they had made the wrong decision.
Skye and Josh lay in the large patch of sunshine streaming in through the ridiculously over-sized window in his ridiculously over-sized house. His room was the size of Skye’s, and she shared it with two siblings.
There was always something that struck her as odd about his room – and the rest of his house. She had never quite been able to put her finger onto it until recently. While her room was awash with colourful bedsheets and piles of clothes and masses of makeup, Josh’s was blank except for the bright picture she had bought for him on a whim one day. His walls were beige and his bedsheets were white and perfectly flat, as if someone had ironed all the wrinkles out, and knowing his uptight mother Skye wouldn’t have been surprised. Even his bookshelf was bare of anything but educational books or classics, which she knew he didn’t particularly enjoy. His violin, which she had heard him play in the music room during lunch – though play was a bland word for how hauntingly beautiful he made it sound – was again something he had been told to do, not something that he had wanted to do.
It was a weird contrast to her house and her life, where her parents were happy to indulge in their children’s phases and desires.
Skye’s mind returned to the subject always in the background of her mind: breaking up with him. It had disappeared for a couple of weeks while she enjoyed his sudden displays of affection, but it couldn’t fix everything she felt was missing. As before, every moment they spent together was dragged out by her internal dilemma, and she thought of their approaching dates with dread.
Blind to her emotions, Josh wrapped his arm around her and snuggled close. She squeezed her eyes shut. It felt so suffocating. The room felt suffocating. Despite its size, or maybe because of its size, it felt like it was trapping her and it made her so nauseous and panicked that she had to focus on her breathing.
Josh hummed, a contended sound, and Skye let her breath out slowly.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she whispered. She had meant to speak the words clearly but her conviction left at the last second, leaving her with a breathless confession.
“Do what?” Josh sounded puzzled and she could imagine his expression perfectly; bewildered but still smiling politely, as if he wasn’t allowed not to have an awkward smile in place at all times. Again Skye thought of his mother with her glued-on smile that seemed to convey everything she thought about Skye without a word needing to be spoken.
“Be your girlfriend,” Skye said miserably, feeling her eyes fill with tears. “I’m sorry.”
She scrambled up and turned to face Josh, who took his time in getting to his feet. His expression was blank, but she had learned to read him when he did this, and she could see that he was hurt and confused. He must have thought it was going so well, and this was out of nowhere…
“I’m sorry,” she said again, wiping away tears with shaking hands. “I just… I don’t know… I’ve tried to make this work but I’m not happy anymore. I like your company and your friendship but I don’t want to date you anymore.” She was sobbing now, and that was so wrong, wasn’t it? She was breaking his heart, not the other way around, and here she was, crying selfishly, when it was him that was getting hurt. “I’m so sorry,” she cried.
“No it’s… it’s okay. Don’t.. hey, don’t cry.” Josh reached out but stopped himself, a flash of pain passing over his face when she shook her head.
“I’m, I’m so sorry. I hope we can be friends still but I… I’ve got to go. I’m sorry.”
She heard him mumble another ‘it’s okay’ at her back as she left, and she ran out of the house crying, crying harder because she had hurt him so much and yet he had tried to comfort her, crying harder still because she had started to understand Josh and she knew how much this would hurt him.
She ran away from Josh’s house, aiming to run the entire way home, but quickly realising she was out of breath and a stitch was forming at her side. It was a fair way, too, even with the short cuts. She wiped at her sore eyes and wished she had a tissue to clean herself up a bit, though it would be entirely pointless until she stopped crying. At least she had made it up the hill. It was all downhill from here.
“Skye,” Felix repeated, his voice softer and concerned. She shook her head and pulled her sleeve over her hand to wipe at her face and glasses.
“I just want to go home,” she whispered, desperately trying to make herself seem a bit more presentable. She hadn’t thought she would run into anyone; the shortcuts were mostly cross country. Of course, the campsite was between the two houses, something she had completely forgotten.
Skye hadn’t succeeded in calming down, and Felix had let her sob, only murmuring the occasional word in support. He had tried to make casual conversation at first – talking about how the school year was starting tomorrow – but it had made her feel worse to know that she would see Josh in classes and everyone would wonder why they weren’t sitting together at lunch and-
Before she knew it, they were home, and before Felix could reach for the door it swung open. Her father stood at the entrance, alarmed and suspicious of Felix, who winced and gently pushed Skye towards him.
“Um, I don’t really know what happened,” he stuttered, hoping to clear himself of suspicion. Skye reached out for her dad who took her inside.
“Josh,” she wailed. “I broke up with him.”
James nodded in understanding and reached to shut the door, giving Felix an awkward thanks and entirely missing the pained look on his face.
School would begin tomorrow, and James was sure this was just the start of another hectic year.
I completely keep forgetting to say but Felix, Uma and Kane have all been made by tumblr users (pixelevia, plumbmeow and simphonious respectively).