Liam lay back on his freshly made bed, staring up at the plain ceiling. This room was where his mother had spent every other weekend, and although it had undergone a few makeovers since then, he could see the outlines of stars and planets on the ceiling. The glow in the dark plastic shapes were now on his ceiling back home. They were good to watch while waiting for sleep.
His room was simple and mismatched, with few personal items on display. Liam hadn’t taken much from back home. He didn’t have many things that were his alone.
This wasn’t to say that Liam wasn’t making this room his own; the rugs had been chosen by him, and he hoped to change the wallpaper eventually. Granddad had promised to help him, but it was a project for someone with a younger body.
His alarm clock buzzed next to him, sounding like a demented bee. He sat up and whacked it off with a yawn. He was already dressed for school – no uniforms, here – but he needed to get some breakfast before heading off for his first day.
Liam left his room to enter the similarly wallpapered kitchen. His grandfather was already sitting at the old and well-loved table with a slice of toast and homemade jam. Liam had tried the jam the other day and the sharpness had stunned him. Jams weren’t meant to be sickly sweet, according to his laughing granddad.
Liam opted for cereal instead and ducked into the fridge to grab the milk. “Morning,” he greeted, around another yawn.
“Good morning.” He wiped at the crumbs around his mouth with slightly unsteady hands. “There’s fruit and water out if you’d like it.”
“Thanks.” Liam grabbed a banana to put in his school bag later. He thought he would dread the first day of school. He always had before. This time, excitement buzzed in his chest. He took a seat next to his grandfather.
“Are you ready for school?”
Liam nodded, his mouth full of cereal, and continued to inhale the sweet shreddies. It had taken him long enough to convince his grandfather to buy something other than tasteless cardboard bran flakes.
“Are you excited?”
Liam swallowed and pushed his bowl away. He slouched in the high backed chair. For a second he felt the enthusiasm flee and a faint nausea was left in his place. His twin would have no such anxiety back home. Loxley did not care what happened around him in school, and never understood why others did. Even though he had been in different classes, Liam always had the knowledge that he was near. Now he had no such guarantee.
“Yes,” he said firmly. He wasn’t without friends. This summer had been filled with doing chores for people up and down the street, and he’d met a couple of other teens through that. “Oh-” he began, suddenly reminded, “Serenity, Finn, and I will probably go to the beach on the weekend, if that’s alright.”
“Of course.” As he spoke there was a light knock on the door. Liam snorted when he realised it was the closing tune to the last airbender, the show that three of them had started to watch together. He knew that behind the door, Serenity would be doing a silly dance as she knocked.
Serenity’s trilling laughter met Liam as he opened the door. Behind her was Finn, wide eyed with mock desperation. “Help me,” he mouthed to Liam, hitting Serenity’s hands away as she went to prod his side.
“All ready for school?” Serenity asked, raising her voice over the sound of Finn’s skateboard rolling back and forth over the hard path.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Liam replied with a shrug.
Becoming friends with them had required no work on his part. Serenity had approached him first, as he mowed the lawn of the elderly woman who lived next to her. She’d kept him company over the fence, chatting about the scientific failings of star signs, and then she’d pulled him away to hang out with her and Finn after he’d finished. Making friends with Serenity had been easy; she was effervescent. She was fire. Bright and impulsive and a force unto herself. Finn stood in her shadow and was glad for it, but once he had warmed up to Liam’s presence it was clear that while Finn may have been eclipsed by Serenity’s personality, he had his own when one was willing to look. Mischievous, sarcastic, and above all, flippant. He was the earth to Serenity’s sky.
Liam’s worries of not living up to his brother’s achievements, of not finding his place in the world, quietened when he was with them.
“Let’s go,” Liam grinned, grabbing his school bag and watching Finn skate away from their friend’s attempts to trick him up.
The last couple of weekends had seen them work obediently through their booklets. Today, their task was performing a simple polymerase chain reaction and using the products for gel electrophoresis. Loxley looked forward to the time spent at the lab more than anything else; although it wasn’t taxing work, it was still fascinating to see such methods and their results. The supervisor, Febe – who had turned out to be from Belgium – was away putting their samples in the machine next door. They could hear it whirring away. It reminded Loxley of the noisy washing machine they’d had when he was younger.
Bethany fiddled with the kinks in her hair while Lox hopped up onto the edge of the work bench. They weren’t supposed to perch on the benches for the same reason that they weren’t allowed to drink or eat in the lab: health and safety. Febe had brought a coffee into the lab in the morning, peeking around the door to make sure the older technician that haunted the rooms wasn’t in to see. Lox knew he could get away with it.
“Do you want to come here next weekend?” Beth asked, investigating an old piece of paper found in the pocket of her coat. Their coats had been ferreted away from the pile lent to first years who had forgotten theirs, so they were old and worn, but at least had been cleaned recently enough.
“I’d come here every weekend if I could,” Lox shrugged. The competition for the final place had quickly been shoved to the back of their minds. Neither of them wanted this to become an awkward or aggressive scenario.
Bethany used the edge of her lab coat to wipe down around the sink before imitating Lox and jumping up onto the edge of the table. “You don’t want to spend some weekends resting at home?” she asked, watching Loxley with open curiosity.
“It’s a small house with many people.” One fewer, with Liam gone to their grandfather’s for good. Even so, Summer often retreated to his room to write in peace, especially when Faye was around. She was never quiet or tactful.
The machine in the other room came to a stop. They could hear Febe singing softly to herself, too quiet to make out the words. Lox assumed he wouldn’t have understood them anyway. Languages were one thing he’d never invested much time in, despite James’ best attempts to teach them French. Bethany was the opposite. She had surprised both Lox and Febe by asking her if she spoke German in that tongue; Febe had, and then they had started a conversation that Loxley immediately turned out of.
“How old are you?”
Lox linked his hands together. He hadn’t been dreading the question, exactly, only hoping that no one brought it up. “Fourteen,” he said with a modest shrug. Bethany’s eyebrows jumped.
“I would have guessed at least sixteen, like me. You don’t act your age.”
“You mean I’m not a petulant, moody kid?” Lox snorted derisively. “No, I have more sense than that. I’m not an idiot. There’s no need to run around swearing at the top of my lungs and thinking I’m cool to do that. The others my age are twats.”
Bethany laughed her full, open laugh with her head tilted back. “I won’t disagree with you there. Boys tend to take a while to grow up,” she said, a teasing edge to her words. Loxley merely shrugged again. Men tended to have a lower emotional intelligence than women. Whether it was crafted that way because of society, or because of genetics, he wasn’t sure. Maybe he should investigate it; there were certainly scientific studies on that subject out there.
“Do you have any siblings?” Lox asked, happy to keep the conversation going.
She shook her head, watching as Loxley slipped down from his perch to lean against the bench instead. “Just me. I was enough of a handful when I was younger that I put my parents off, I think,” she grinned, flashing straight teeth. “How many do you have?”
“Four,” he said with a sigh. Once more, her eyebrows flew up.
“My twin, Liam, lives with our grandfather a few hours away for now. He prefers it over there. I can’t say I blame him,” Lox said drily. “And then I have older triplets. All girls.”
“Christ.” Bethany leaned back and eyed a stain on the ceiling above her. It looked burned. How had that happened? “I like being an only child,” she said. “But it can be lonely.”
Lox was about to say that the loneliness wouldn’t bother him, but shut his mouth around the words. That was why he was so happy to have Bethany to talk to, if he was honest. His room was empty without Liam there to keep him company. “Even with a load of siblings, it can be lonely,” Loxley said slowly, surprising himself.
Bethany studied him. Her eyes were never dull; they were always alive with intelligence and curiosity. Lox appreciated that. Too many people had empty brains. “Maybe you should talk to your friends about stuff more.”
Loxley thought of school, of how content he was to take his lunch to a classroom and eat over extra work, of how he had no desire to talk to other students his age. High school was full of ridiculous cliques, a strange social order, and people too self-conscious to embrace an actual personality. He couldn’t stand any of them. “I’ve never bothered with having friends from school. They’re all so dull.”
“Then talk to me more,” Bethany said, her grin quick to appear.
Febe returned to the lab before Loxley could reply, though he wasn’t entirely sure what he would say. The moment was gone, anyway, and he turned his attention to the woman. “I have your samples here,” she said, holding up eppendorfs. “Bethany, you probably shouldn’t sit up there.”
“Sure, sure,” Beth said agreeably, slipping off and glaring at Lox’s smug smirk.
“We need to set up the electrophoresis machine. Did you read why we’re doing this in the booklets?”
“To see how far the DNA strands of the samples will go, and to match them to a reference sample, and make sure we have high quality results.” Loxley got in first and, at Febe’s nod of approval, winked at Beth. She rolled her eyes. So maybe there was some competition after all – friendly, though.
“And then we’ll sequence the DNA. I’ll give you the sequence, in your A, T, G, and C’s. You can match it up with a species through online databases and identify our sample. This method is great because you can use it to identify samples which are morphologically difficult to identify – like larvae, stomach contents, or decayed corpses. I’m going to give you a list of other species data too, and you can follow the instructions over the week in your booklet to make a phylogenetic tree. Do you know what that is?”
“A tree based on the evolutionary relationships of the samples,” Bethany answered obediently.
“Yes, but remember it’s still a hypothesis. There will be more in the booklet about how you can statistically test them, but I’ll leave that for you to look at. If you have any questions, you can ask me next time we meet.”
“Sounds great,” Loxley said, a ball of excitement growing in his gut. Now this was science.
It had taken Skye a week to build up her courage, but finally she traipsed up to the campsite. The sun was on her back, warming her neck, and she hoped it wouldn’t give her sunburn to deal with in the morning.
There wasn’t a breath of wind. The trees surrounding the site were completely still, the only movement of the leaves caused by birds or squirrels swinging the branches. She saw a magpie hop along the outside of a tent, pecking at crumbs leftover from a barbeque the night before. Feeling silly, she paused nearby and whispered, “Hello Mr Magpie, how’s your family?” It stared at her for a moment before turning away and retreating to a nearby tree. Skye cleared her throat awkwardly. She was only ever superstitious for magpies.
There were voices coming from inside the tents and someone was whistling while they showered. Skye’s gaze swung to the main building where Felix had told her he lived. Though the town wasn’t big, and the countryside was but a breath away, Felix truly lived smack in the middle of it. She felt a little envious. It must be peaceful.
Straightening her shoulders, Skye marched over to the front door. The sweet smell of morning flowers was thick but not overpowering, and it mixed with the dissipating smell of barbequed meat. She knocked on the door and wondered what to say to Felix when he answered.
Of course it wasn’t Felix that opened the door. Skye wasn’t sure why she had assumed that would be the case. Instead it was his father, who looked a lot like his son but for the colour of his hair and roundness of his face. He had the same smile – easy and amiable. “Hello, good morning. How can I help?”
“Oh, I’m – I know your son. I’m Skye. Is he in? I’d like to talk to him.” She twisted her fingers together and wished she had rehearsed this better.
“Oh yes, he’s in his room upstairs.” His father reached out for her hand and she let him take it, wondering if he felt as awkward as she did. Then again, he was so welcoming and warm that she thought this must come naturally to him. “Please call me Dylan. Are you staying with us?”
“No, I live nearby.” Skye gestured, rather uselessly, in the vague direction of her house. Her answer clearly pleased Dylan. She had thought it impossible for him to seem more cheerful, but he perked up and happily gestured to the stairs.
“Please, go on up. His door is the one on the right as soon as you go up the stairs. If you’d like anything to drink or eat, just call on down. We always have food about.”
“Thank you,” Skye nodded, making her way to the stairs.
Skye knocked on the door she hoped was Felix’s. She didn’t call him, worried that he’d ignore her if he knew it was her. Every night, Skye had recalled the moment with him on the bridge. She’d hurt him a lot. At least he hadn’t told his parents about her.
“Come iiiiin,” Felix called. Skye opened the door and peeked in. He saw her and his good mood was short-lived; confusion flashed over his face before it melted into a carefully made mask of indifference. “Hi,” he said shortly, turning back to his book.
“Hi,” Skye murmured. Since he wasn’t telling her to leave, she slunk into the room and pushed the door shut. “Your house is lovely.”
“No,” she promised. “Why would I?”
“It’s hardly normal,” he shrugged. “Living on a campsite, a tiny wooden house. Modest, is what people call it when they’re trying to be tactful.” He rolled his eyes.
It was then that Skye realised there was more to this than just her words last night. Felix was being far more churlish than she had expected. She twisted her fingers together, hesitant, but finally sat on the rug next to him. Felix didn’t look at her.
“Hey!” he spluttered, splotches of red forming on his cheeks.
“You weren’t reading it,” she pointed out. “I’ve come to apologise. I don’t really think of you as a stranger. Maybe we haven’t spent enough time together to be friends, but… I’d like to be.”
“You don’t think I’m too weird?” Felix asked, mouth twisting into a grimace. He reached for his book and Skye let him, though he only marked his page before setting it down again. He brought his knees up to his chest.
Skye shook her head. “Do you worry that you are?”
“It’s what other people tell me.” Felix rested his chin on his knees and let out an explosive sigh. He deflated and looked far younger, and far less sure, than he ever had before. “I know I’m not exactly normal. I don’t want to be. But it kind of sucks when no one your age wants to hang out with you because of it.”
It was exactly because Felix wasn’t like the others at school that Skye liked him. He was ebullient, enthusiastic to carry out whatever impulsive idea he had, whether it was to swim at the beach or take a stranger on a walk to the highest accessible point in the town. She was drawn to him and his charisma.
“Well, I want to,” she told him stubbornly. “I think you’re great because you’re not like others in school.” Insipid was the word Lox used. She hadn’t known what it was at first but could glean the meaning from context and his contemptuous tone. “I’ve always been too nervous and embarrassed to be… who I want. It’s nice to find someone who isn’t.”
Felix, whose face had been tenaciously closed-off, now softened. Warmth returned to his eyes. He let out a breath and relaxed. “I get why it’s hard to be yourself at school. Sometimes I struggle even when I’m out and about in town. People are vicious.” He nudged her. “You shouldn’t compromise yourself though. Wouldn’t you rather be happy with who you are than happy because you don’t stand out?”
“It’s simple when you say it like that,” Skye sighed. She looked at the record player sitting on top of a wooden table in the shape of a pig. It was clumsily made, without any fine skill, but it had been sanded down to remove the edges to it and was unmistakably swine-like. She knew it was Felix’s work without asking.
“It becomes simple in practice after a while,” Felix shrugged.