They had timed their trip to the beach to coincide with low tide so that they could claim the bank of sand which jutted out into the sea when it receded. It was referred to as the finger, which was apt if dull, and was known to be the sun trap of the beach, well sheltered by reeds and, further away, hills.
Serenity stripped off into her swimwear with record timing, running through the shallow water and gracefully arcing into a cartwheel. Liam laughed at her enthusiasm.
“I would have preferred it if she had fucked it up,” Finn muttered to Liam, who turned to him and elbowed his chest.
“Don’t be so mean,” he admonished through a grin. “I bet you couldn’t do one better.”
“Aye, ‘cause I’m not a flexible spoon like her,” he tutted.
Liam snorted at the weird use of words, but he was learning to embrace Finn’s odd insults. He was originally from the north of Scotland or, in Finn’s words, the arse end of the UK, complete with the expected amounts of wind to go along with the comparison.
Serenity flicked some salt water out of hair. “I forgot to bring towels to sunbathe. Anyone bring towels? Finn?”
“I don’t give a crap if I lie on some sand,” Finn shrugged and flopped down on the bank. Liam followed his lead, and after Serenity groaned some more about getting sand stuck to her skin, she did too.
They peered out at the sea, occasionally shielding their eyes against the glare of the sun. Serenity had fooled him into believing that this stretch of coast was used by blue whales to migrate, but Finn’s bark of laughter had quickly set him right. Liam still hoped to see a whale or a dolphin one day. There were a few boats that took tours out, but they could get expense at the times of the year when there was likely to be sightings.
“Hey, was that a seal that just poked its head up?” Serenity asked, pushing herself up onto her elbows for a better look.
“You’re not fooling me again,” Liam warned her.
“Seals aren’t exactly rare, you tools,” Finn muttered sleepily, his arm slung over his eyes.
“No, it is a seal! Do you think it’s a grey one?” Serenity narrowed her eyes. “Finn. Finn!” She patted, and then whacked, her friend’s chest when he didn’t reply. He grunted. “You know about seals, right, what do you think it is?”
“Why am I the sudden expert?”
“Don’t they have seals in the north?”
“They have gulls too but I don’t know them all on a fucking first name basis, you absolute bawbag.”
Serenity squeaked with laughter at the insult.
They stayed as the tide encroached onto the finger. Liam moved back so that his trainers wouldn’t get wet but Finn stayed where he was, letting the water rise up his toned legs. It must have been all the skateboarding he did, Liam thought idly. Serenity, the more playful one of them, waded through the water and occasionally splashed it at Finn.
Finn leaned back to peer at the sky, letting Serenity’s words about their new English teacher wash over him. He was content like that – leaving her to speak, only interjecting with the odd remark or grunt. His head craned back, neck curved, until he could almost meet Liam’s gaze. He rolled his eyes, dark chocolate flecked with honey, as Serenity moved onto speaking about how mermaids could be real. Always the mermaids. Liam smirked.
“Your eyes are the colour of the sky,” Finn observed, raising an eyebrow. It was an odd expression upside down. Liam felt surprised by the comment and was saved from a flustered reply by Serenity huffing at them.
“Are you listening to me?”
Finn’s attention flicked away from Liam. “Always, unless you’re speaking.”
Serenity kicked more water at him, leaving Finn complaining about it going right up his shorts and freezing his junk. Liam laughed at them from behind his hand, glad to have fallen in with the two of them.
Summer’s fingers flew over the keys. It had taken her some time to get used to the school’s blocky keyboard, so unlike the shared laptop at home or even the spaced out library keys that practically had to be hammered down in order to type, but finally her fingers could keep up with the words flowing into her mind.
While her eyes rested on the screen, absently tracking the words filling the white document, her mind was far away. Her character, Shanna, arced gracefully in the air over two villains while slipping out the dual knives at her sides. It was a fight scene that Summer had been building up to for chapters. One of the villains was her uncle – a man who had tried to fool and manipulate her for his own gain – and the other had killed her older brother. Her fingers zapped across the keys, their clicking filling the almost empty library, her skin dancing with electric excitement as the scene unfolded around her.
She could see it in her mind’s eye perfectly. Her heart was pounding in her chest in time with Shanna’s. She wasn’t aware of the clock ticking ever closer to the end of lunch. She wasn’t aware of the librarian humming to herself as she replaced books on a nearby shelf. She wasn’t aware of the door opening with the sudden floral scent of Uma’s perfume.
Uma placed her hands either side of Summer’s head, giggling, and Sum startled. Her fingers froze. The scene in her mind crumbled out of her reach, fading into black. The words on her screen broke off mid sentence and she felt blood rise in her cheeks. She had been so inspired, so close! The scene had been alive and all the more magical for it.
“Summer?” Uma asked, after the silence had stretched for too long and become awkward. Summer blinked out of her despair over the interrupted scene. She turned the computer screen off and hoped her crush hadn’t noted the similar name mentioned while Shanna had thought of her lover.
“Yeah, um, hi Uma.” Summer spun her chair around to face the girl. She was happy to see her, of course, but her voice came out flat. She had been so in the zone! Would she be able to restart that feeling and catch the muse later?
Uma snatched her hands away from Sum’s hair. Her eyes seemed dull. “Sorry, did I interrupt you?”
It’s fine,” Summer shook her head quickly, aware of how rude she was being. Half of her mind was still caught up in the writing mood and it took her too long to realise that Uma had sought her out. “I just don’t like people to see my writing.” This wasn’t a lie. It was just not the full truth.
“Oh, of course.” She brushed her fringe behind her ear but, second later, it slipped back in front of her face. “I’m sure your writing would be great to read. You have nothing to feel worried about.”
The words did little to reassure Uma, though she still smiled. It was brittle.
“Why are you in the library?” Summer asked, torn between keeping the conversation going and picking up the scene where she had left it.
“Oh, the librarian can help you with that. She might even order it in if you sweet talk her enough.” That wouldn’t be hard. Summer was sure that Uma could sweet talk a wall. She had the perfect smile to convince anyone. She wasn’t wearing it now, though. Uma glanced over to the librarian and fiddled with her hair again. “What book is it you’re looking for?”
“One of the ones for English.” Uma’s cheeks were red. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“Better than Sunset Song,” Summer rolled her eyes. It was impossible to understand even if you were a Scot. “Can’t you get it from the shop?”
“Um, yes.” Uma laughed and shrugged. It struck Sum that there was something very awkward about the movements – like they were forced and stilted. She had no idea why that would be the case. “But why pay money for it when I can get it here for free?”
“Good point,” Summer agreed.
There was a pause. Summer curled hair around her finger. She wanted to get back to her writing. It was burning within her! She only had a few minutes until the bell rang, but that might be all she needed. It would be enough to note her ideas down and save the document, anyway.
Usually the conversation flowed between them. Uma was open and easy to speak to, but she didn’t seem eager to fill the silence. Her shoulders were curled in. Her fingers were fiddling with the fabric belt of her dress.
“Yeah – yes. Have fun writing.” She turned on her heel, casting an unsure gaze over her shoulder at Summer, and left without speaking to the librarian. Summer opened her mouth to remind Uma about the book she was looking for, but the girl had already gone.
Summer turned back to her screen and realised her inspiration had well and truly flown away.
The teacher’s shrill voice carried over the class like a black cloud, low overhead and impossible to ignore. Miss Davidson wittered on about report cards, placing her hand on a stack of white booklets at her desk. She was young and over-enthusiastic, not yet resigned to the sad fact that no one took PSE classes seriously. They were a skive because there was no coursework or exam and therefore no reason to pay attention – and since when did Faye need to know about why not to take drugs and what protection to use? Faye yawned and guessed an ‘H’ for the game of hangman she was surreptitiously playing with Uma.
While the teacher picked up the stack of cards and trailed up and down the class to hand them out. Uma slid her striped pencil case over their game and gave the teacher a benign smile when she handed theirs out. Faye didn’t even bother to look at hers and only yawned again.
Uma put hers in her bag. She glanced over at her friend and fiddled with the loose strap on her bag. “Does Summer talk about school much? Or friends she has at school?”
Faye was thrown by the odd question. She frowned at Uma who was trying her best to appear casual. “I dunno. She talks about her day with Skye and Lox sometimes.”
“I just don’t often see her hanging around others. I wondered if she mentioned any friends.” Uma cringed and distracted herself by taking out her report card, smoothing it down, and putting it back in her back.
“What? Um, no, not that I’ve heard. She’s a loner. Prefers characters and books over real life people like you and me.” Faye shrugged, stuffing her report card into her back without much care.
“Oh,” Uma said, and that was that.
They were walking home, taking the long route through one of the parks as they tended to do during late Autumn, and Faye came to a stop. She slipped her hand into her bag and pulled out her report card with a wink at her friends, who all watched her keenly.
“Oops,” she giggled. The card dropped from her hand and fell to the ground. With some help from her foot it tumbled into the small pond. The card quickly grew dark as it absorbed water and began to sink before long. A duck paddled up to it and gave it an experimental peck. A disgruntled quack informed the others that it wasn’t for eating.
“Oh, Uma, you’re such a spoilsport,” Faye teased, sticking her tongue out at her friend.
“I’ll say I didn’t get one. Who cares?” She giggled again, half hiding her mouth in a way she thought made her look elegant and poised. “Miss Davidson is such a pushover anyway. I’ll just turn on my charm. I lost it, Miss, when I was walking home. You guys can back me up.”
Faye stepped onto the path and out of the mud near the pond. She glared at Uma. “You’re my friend, aren’t you? Don’t be so lame.” Faye turned away from Uma, who was clearly now being ignored until Faye decided otherwise. “What about you two?”
“See, Uma? Court’s a better friend than you are.” Faye linked arms with Courtney and stuck her tongue out at Uma again, though it was clear her words were barbed. Uma tutted and said nothing, wrapping her arms around herself and trying not to let the bad day get to her.
Their friendship was easy, so simple that Loxley wondered if this was how it felt to other people normally. They were both often on the same wavelength and if Beth ever noticed Lox’s tendency to ignore the unspoken social rules, she never commented on it. They very quickly settled into a friendship that suited them both, and could tease each other mercilessly while a hundred unsaid comments and questions buzzed between them, each rapidly answered without needing any words spoken.
They had completed the workbooks the week before and were finally moving onto Lukas’ projects. Today there was nothing to do in the lab, but they had to think about systematic designs of the experiments and that needed cooperation and a knowledge about what supplies they needed to gather.
And, in truth, Loxley was quite happy to be at the lab rather than at home. Even after some redesigning of his room it still felt appallingly empty.
Lukas was a very exact man when he was at work, though Loxley had a sneaking suspicion that this organisation flew out the window when the man was at home. Still, it benefited Lox and Beth because they knew when and where they could catch him, if his advice was needed.
At exactly one, Lukas would be in the small break room that seemed to only be used by him. It was in an awkward and half-hidden part of an already convoluted building, so Lox suspected that few people actually knew it existed, and often forgot how to get there. This worked to their advantage; it was a quiet place to get lunch and tea, since they couldn’t eat in the lab.
Lox entered into the room and went to turn up the lights, which were usually left on low. He only noticed Lukas was inside when the man greeted him, and it was then that Lox remarked silently on how bright blue that the scientist’s eyes were. They almost shone in the dark.
Unfortunately Lukas had to check on something Febe had earmarked for his attention; he promised to return shortly so that they could talk. Lox nodded and watched him hurry out of the door. He still had never managed to place that accent, but it wasn’t the only part of Lukas that was a mystery. He moved so fluidly that Lox hypothesised he was, or had been, a dancer of some sort. Or perhaps a gymnast. He didn’t have the build of a sporty man, and anyway there weren’t many sports which honed the sort of liquid movement that Lukas possessed.
Loxley shook his head and made a coffee, yet again thanking the almost-secret of the break room, allowing them to invest in a coffee machine that was miles better than the ones in other rooms, which churned out some sort of watery mud with the texture of stagnant water.
He nosed into the fridge in search of milk, his hand pausing halfway to the green-lidded plastic jug when the iron-dark red of blood caught his eye. He snorted to himself, noting the label on the blood pack (”perfectly good pig’s blood infested with viruses for research, please don’t move”) and let the door close. This wasn’t the first time that scientists had used communal places to keep products for experiments, and with as scatter-brained as many academics seemed to be, it would hardly be the last.
Lukas returned some ten minutes later, interrupting Lox’s assessment of one of the posters up on the wall. He was trying to fathom the strange poetic paragraph, the handwriting not dissimilar from Lukas’ elaborate looping letters, and eventually came to the conclusion that it was either coded in a way that he’d need more than ten minutes to figure out, or it was absolutely gibberish in the first place.
“Ah, are you trying to make sense of the poster? Febe put it up; it’s something to do with the witch hunts. Half of it isn’t even English.”
Lox stared at it and finally saw that he was right; the cursive was so decorative that each block had been difficult to identify as an English word, so it was no wonder he hadn’t spotted the foreign ones.
Lox’s mind went to another mystery – how Lukas moved so quietly. Perhaps it was an extension of his flowing movements, but each time the man came out from nowhere, the hairs on the back of Lox’s neck stood on end and he had the distinct feeling that he was prey.
It was absurd, of course, but Lox wasn’t just going to discard unlikely evidence. If scientists stopped being curious, well, then no one would have ever found the evidence of water on Mars.
Skye perched on the edge of Felix’s bed. Like everything in his room, it was perfectly tidy. This was at distinct odds with Felix’s character; he often became messy when he was interested with something, flitting from one task to another and forgetting to tidy up in between. Since his room was so tiny, though, he made an effort to keep everything in its place.
“Well why don’t you go into town and find some new clothes, if you want to change your look?”
Skye sighed and rested her chin on her hand. She shrugged, her eyes staring vacantly at the rug. “It’s expensive. And I don’t know if I’m brave enough. I’d love to dye my hair, pierce my nose, that sort of stuff but – but it’s so… bold.”
Felix grinned at her. “Small steps! That’s how you do it.”
Skye contemplated this, wondering what she would start with. The more she thought about what she wanted to do in life, who she wanted to be, the bolder her answers became. Sometimes she went to sleep envisioning herself clad in black leather and on a roaring motorbike, tattoos curling around her arm. What would people think?
It was only when Felix answered that she realised she had spoken out loud. “Who cares? You’re not here to cater to them. Life is boring if you do.”
“I know. But knowing it and believing it are two different things! I can’t help but feel my toes curl with embarrassment at the thought of people laughing at me in school if I try to dye my hair and it goes badly, or doesn’t suit me. Or if they see me in town wearing clothes they don’t like and teasing me about it.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they did,” she said glumly.
Felix opened his mouth to reply but his father shouted up to them. Skye had met him twice since coming to apologise to Felix and he was an infinitely kind and patient man; she could see a lot of him in Felix, albeit more mischevious and livelier. Felix gestured for Skye to wait and he slipped out of the door. She could hear him bounding down the stairs to ask what his dad wanted, their bright and bold voices resonating throughout the house.
“Dad’s going to make some cupcakes. There’s a kid of one of the couples on the campsite and he offered to look after her while they had a date or something. He’s talked me into helping out and I reckon we’re going to put a film on or something if you want to stay?”
Skye shook her head, feeling brave. “Actually, I’m going to go into town and see if there are any clothes that catch my eye. You know, small steps.”
“So am I,” she admitted, staring at the wooden walls of Felix’s room, their dark grain suiting the walls beautifully even if it did make the room seem so much smaller than it already was. “I might stay for a cupcake though.”
He laughed, the sound filling his room, the bed shaking, and nudged her hard enough that she slipped off the bed with a squawk. He giggled again. “I see how it is! But dad’s baking is the best so I can’t say I blame you.”
Long chapter, whoops. I hope you didn’t mind!