Updated: Sep 23
Sand in the eye hurt. Not only that, but John struggled to get it out, scrubbing his t-shirt over his face while Alex squealed in delight.
The sandpit overflowed with kids, and John sat crossed legged facing his baby brother.
He'd picked out the leaves, twigs and pieces of plastic from the sand to ensure the castle stood strong and uniform, better than all the other castles propping up and falling around them. John flipped over the bucket, and revealed the symmetrically perfect castle, even dusting a few loose grains off the top with something close to pride in his chest.
Alex grumbled and promptly used both fists to destroy it with an expression of thunder. His red cheeks glowed, and his eyes were unblinking. If Alex had more than two teeth, he would've been gritting them and growling.
John had no idea why the castle had insulted him. He’d not even had the chance to put a feather in for the flag, but it had brutally fallen and joined the ruins of every other castle in the park.
Alex’s chubby fingers curled into the sand, picking up a handful he tasted while John watched with no emotion. Then he flung the rest at John’s face with a whine. John winced, recoiling, and pulled the hem of his T-shirt to wipe his eyes.
They continued to burn, until tears dampened his cheeks. Alex laughed and reached for another handful. Not content on harming, he wanted to blind. John stood up at the glee on Alex’s face and abandoned him in the sandpit.
He moved to the grass verge and sat down as Alex started to grizzle. Good. He needed to learn not to hurt John. If he did, there would be consequences, like John not sticking around to be hurt some more.
“Look who it is.”
John froze at the voice brimming with confidence. He didn’t look up, but he didn’t need to. He recognised the football boots, bright white with black lines down the side. Even the laces were pristine. John had spent too long looking at them. He could even remember the way they click-clacked along the road. It had been a month since he'd been beaten up outside the shop, and the bruises to his face had faded.
If he ignored Scott long enough, he’d mutter an insult or a comment about him being rude, then leave. That was the socially acceptable response to John, and he found comfort in that routine, but instead Scott swooped down to sit beside him.
John's gut fizzled.
Scott stretched out his long legs and leaned back with his hands on the grass. A blissed sigh left his lips, and he tilted his chin back, showing his face to the sun.
John risked a peek at him. The sun looked good on Scott’s face, and the smile spreading his lips even better. His pose was relaxed, basking in the heat rather than scrunching his face up against it like most people in the park.
After a few minutes of Scott sat with his eyes closed, he turned, and John flinched. He’d been content staring at Scott’s peaceful face, and the raised eyebrows and the smirking told him he’d been caught in the act.
“Hey…” Scott’s brow scrunched. “You okay?”
John didn’t say anything.
“Your eyes.” Scott said. He tapped his forefinger beneath his own. “They’re red.”
Scott swung his head closer; John resisted the urge to fling himself away. The blue of Scott’s irises was the exact same shade as the summer sky. He feared his own murky irises would dull them if he looked too long. “I can see it in your eyelashes, here.”
He revealed his rucksack from his side, shoved his hand inside and pulled out a bottle. “It’s just water.”
“I’m not thirsty.”
Scott rolled his eyes, and made a move to push John’s shoulder, but he’d foreseen it, and shuffled away. “Right…I remember.” He went to put the bottle back before shaking his head. “It’s for your eyes. Hold still.”
John didn’t move.
“And close your eyes.”
He shot Scott a suspicious frown before doing as he said. Cold water trickled down his face. John dug his nails into the grass to stay seated and waited until Scott finished.
John’s frown deepened at the sound of a zip, followed by a loud sniff. “Yep, it’s clean.” Soft fabric pressed against the back of John’s hand. “Take it. For your face.”
He uncurled his fingers of his right hand from the grass and used the fabric to wipe his eyes. When he finished, Scott’s huge grin was waiting for him.
John shied away from it and looked at what he held in his hand. A football shirt.
“It’s clean.” Scott snorted.
John ran his fingers along the green stain.
“Well yeah, but that’s a grass stain, now a clean grass stain the number of times it’s been through the wash.”
“Thank you.” John whispered, holding it out.
Scott beamed. “No worries.”
He shoved it back in the rucksack along with the water bottle.
Alex’s grizzle up graded to a full-blown scream. John stared at him in the sandpit, red-faced with tears on his cheeks and handfuls of sand awaiting John’s return. He looked at his brother, knowing he should go over there, stick him in the pushchair, or shove a potato chip in his face, but he couldn’t release his death grip on the grass verge.
Scott darted looks between Alex and John. The smile left his face. He wasn’t the only one shooting concerned glances in Alex’s direction. Out of the corner of John’s eye, he saw a group of parent’s gathering, whispering between themselves, no doubt wondering who had abandoned their child in the sandpit. Fingers were being pointed at the other side of the park, singling out random mums and dads.
“Where’s your mum?” Scott asked.
“Are you here by yourself?”
John curled his fingers further into the grass, no longer clutching, but spearing through the blades and digging his nails into his palm. He nodded as his eyes shut on their own accord. Alex continued to scream and cry, and the parents by the bench began openly voicing their concern. John’s skin heated up, and he scrunched his face against the scrutiny and the burn of the sun. He needed to get up and see to Alex, but he couldn’t force himself to move. Sweat coated his skin; the heat became stifling and thinned the oxygen in the air.
The lack of it left John too weak to move.
John heard Scott shift beside him and knew by the shadow across his eyelids he’d stood up. The pinks of his eyelids brightened again. Scott had gone, and John didn’t blame him one bit. It only surprised him Scott hadn’t given up on talking with him sooner.
John didn’t want to see him walk away. He wanted to wait until Scott had gone from the park rather than see the back of him hurrying to put distance between them. He took a deep breath, and when he exhaled it, he noticed Alex had stopped screaming.
Fear sprung John’s eyes open, and he released the death grip of his left hand. He blinked once, twice. Scott’s back blocked out the sight of Alex in the sandpit, but the crying had stopped, and instead a giggle he rarely heard reached his ears.
He shuffled along to get a better look, and to learn how Scott was getting such pleased squeals from Alex. Scott held the bucket out, and encouraged fistfuls of sand to be thrown inside, and each time Alex threw some with his cheeks burning red and his two teeth gritted against gums, Scott gasped, and covered his mouth in fake surprise.
John tilted his head, studying the overly repetitive game. Alex didn’t seem to grow bored of throwing sand or Scott’s mock shock. He managed to fill the bucket, and when Scott flipped it over, Alex bobbed up and down at what came next.
Chubby fists pulverised Scott’s sandcastle, and he gripped his hair, and let out a long ‘nooo’ that set Alex off in a chuckle that tipped him backwards.
Scott steadied him before he could fall.
John found he could breathe again. If anything, he breathed too fast. His heart skipped in his chest as he watched Scott with his brother.
A woman rushed into view with a child secured to her hip. “Scott, you can’t just start playing with babies in the park.”
She looked around, trying to locate Alex’s mother or father. John had enough strength to get to his feet and hobble over.
“He’s John’s little brother.” Scott said, blinking up at the woman.
“And who’s John?”
He appeared on her right, not confirming his identity, but kneeling down beside Alex who reached out his arms. John sat him on his knees, with his back to John’s chest. He nestled his nose in the fine blond strands on Alex's head, picking out the traces of strawberry scented shampoo.
Even though the woman wore sunglasses, the top of John’s head burned with her gaze. The wind brought the scent of sun cream and moisturiser to John’s nose, and he didn’t know whether it was her, or the young child she held onto.
She placed the baby on the sand, and he hurried to get into Scott’s lap. “This is Albie.”
“Albert.” The woman corrected. “He’s named after your fathers’ father.”
“Face it, mum, he’s going to be known as Albie when he gets friends. Might as well start earlier.”
The woman sighed, hiked up the hem of her long dress and sat down on the sand. “My name is Sally. What’s your brother called?”
“His name is...” John swallowed the nails in his throat. “His name is Alex.”
“How old is Alex?”
Sally smiled. “Albert is ten months. They’ll be in the same school year.”
“He won’t be going to school.”
John watched as the wrinkle at the top of her nose deepened into a crevice. “Why is that?”
“We’re taught at home.”
“Oh, I see.” Her forehead smoothed over. “Is it your mother or your father that teaches you?”
Sculptured eyebrows appeared above the shades. “Then who—”
“My mother works a lot. She pays someone to teach me.”
“And where is your mother today?”
“Jesus mum, give it a rest would you.” Scott held the bucket in the centre of them all and encouraged Alex and Albie to throw sand inside one at a time.
Alex bounced up and down as he awaited his turn.
Sally lifted her shades, revealing the laser intensity of her gaze.
“She’s at work.” John managed. “She works a lot.”
“And leaves you to take care of your brother?”
“I’m very responsible for my age.”
“How old are you, John?”
He didn’t answer, and no amount of her glaring would make him. She gave up pressing for information with a huff and turned her attention back to Scott. Both Albert and Alex giggled as he pulled expressions of outrage and surprise.
The castle got built, only to be flattened by four fists instead of two. Scott pretended to weep, leaving Alex and Albie in hysterical laughter. John wasn't convinced on the message of the exercise. Destroying for the shock factor was funny. Not a message he could condone, but there was no nicer sound than Alex’s giggle.
“Mum. You said we can go for ice cream.”
John stiffened at the new voice and peeked a look over his shoulder. The girl stood on the wooden edge of the sandpit with her arms crossed and her chin out. She had the same dark hair as Scott, but instead of his chiselled cheeks, she had rosy ones.
Pink heart shaped sunglasses covered her eyes. John wondered whether they were the same sun-shine-sky of her brothers.
Sally groaned and rubbed her head. “Why did you have to say that so loud?”
“Albert’s a baby. He doesn’t understand.”
John looked at him, wide-eyed and staring at his mother. Scott’s antics were no longer making him laugh. He’d locked in on the word ice cream and wobbled his bottom lip at his mum.
“Fine.” She stood up and reached down for Albert. “Let’s get ice cream.” Sally paused and glanced at John.
“Would you and Alex like to come too?”
Before he could answer, Scott had got to his feet and picked up a squirming Alex. “Course he does.”
John found himself packing up all Alex’s toys and shoving them beneath the pushchair. His heart beat too fast in his chest, and part of him wanted to strap Alex in and rush in the opposite direction, but Scott had hold of his little brother, and they were both smiling at each other.
Scott pulled a silly face and when Alex gently swiped his cheek, he changed to a different expression. Lots of different ones. Alex never got bored, and Scott seemed to have an arsenal full of faces. John paused and watched.
He pinched himself, but he wasn’t dreaming. It was him that broke the moment. His staring had drawn Scott’s focus. He swung Alex onto his hip and held him with both hands as he looked over to John.
No. He wasn’t. But he couldn’t translate to Scott why. He didn’t understand it. The whole moment in the park had flung him far from his comfort zone. Scott wasn’t supposed to eye him with concern and step closer. He was supposed to turn his back on John and never make eye contact again.
He managed a stiff nod.
“Ice cream.” The girl yelled from across the park, standing on her tiptoes, and caving her hands around her mouth to project her voice. John heard at least three parents groan as the wailings, and grumbles of babies and small children began to drown out the laughter.
“You push and I’ll carry.” Scott said, leading the way with Alex.
John tried to understand what he was feeling for the ten-minute walk.
Scott didn’t speak, and Alex stayed quiet.
The only sound came from the two pushchairs rolling over the pavement, and the chatter of Scott’s sister speaking with her mum.
“You have to leave your pushchair outside the shop.” Scott said over his shoulder.
John nodded despite him not being able to see, and parked Alex’s pushchair beside Albert’s.
“Go find us a table, Felicity.”
The girl bounded into the shop, and Scott followed. John hesitated on the step long enough the door closed. He darted a look up the street. Part of him still wanted to run, but he spied Scott slipping Alex into a highchair through the window.
It wasn’t Scott this time, but Sally. “Is something wrong?”
“I don’t know.” He whispered.
Ten minutes hadn’t helped him sort out what he was feeling. He’d need a whole day to process his thoughts and even then, he wasn't sure if he'd be able to translate it into words.
If she’d heard him, she didn’t say anything. John stepped into the shop and went to join his brother at the table. Scott sat down on the other side of him, and Felicity parked herself in the chair opposite.
“I’ve not seen you before.”
“I’ve not seen you before either.”
“My name is Felicity after my grandmother, but everyone calls me Flick.” The girl flung herself at the table.
John shot back in his chair. “You’ve got really pretty eyes.”
John blinked. She’d said something nice to him. He swallowed, unsure how to react.
“Mum look, he’s got silver eyes.”
John didn’t move, but he heard Sally hum. “Oh yeah, very unique.” She slipped Albert into a highchair and gave him a Frank the Firefly. “Three ice cream sundaes and a single scoop each for Albert and Alex?”
Before John could reply, she’d gone over to the counter to order.
She returned with a coffee. “They’ll bring them over.”
John reached into his pocket and pulled out his rolled-up wad of notes. Scott’s eyebrows hit orbit, and he pushed John’s hand with the cash below the table. John shot away from him and crashed into Alex’s chair.
“I’ve got to remember that.” Scott scolded himself. “Sorry.”
John wordlessly uncurled one of the notes and pushed it across the table.
“That’s okay, John.” Sally gave him a warm smile. “It’s my treat.”
John shook his head and slipped the note closer.
“You don’t need to.”
He insisted, flicking it another inch.
“If you don’t want it, I’ll take it.” Felicity snatched the note of the table.
“Give that back to John right now young lady.”
Felicity rolled her eyes and handed it over. John slipped it across the table, and Sally gave in with a tired sigh and a weary smile.
“How’s the maths going?” Felicity asked.
Scott eyeballed her across the table. “It’s going fine.”
“Those extra classes helping?” Sally asked.
Felicity lifted her eyebrow. “Why so many red crosses on that test in your bag?”
“The mock test?” Sally said. “You said you got 40 out of 45.”
Scott itched the back of his neck. John heard his nails catching on the skin, clawing at it. “I did better than normal.”
“But not 40 out of 45.”
“No, more like…20 out of 45.”
Scott squeezed his eyes shut. “19 to be exact.”
“Right.” Sally announced, throwing her handbag down on the table. She searched inside until she found her phone.
“What are you doing?”
The panic in Scott’s voice injected adrenaline into John’s heart. He glanced at the door, bouncing his feet beneath the table.
“I’m calling the school.”
“It’s Saturday. They’re not open.”
“First thing Monday.”
“What are you going to say?”
She looked Scott in the eye. “You’ve been doing extra classes twice a week. You should have made some progress. I’m going to have words with your teacher—
“Yes, Scott! Clearly, he’s not teaching you if you’re not making any improvements. Show me the test.”
Scott punched his fist into his bag, huffing under his breath as he brought out the crumpled sheets of paper. He laid them out on the table, and John couldn’t resist leaning forward to get a good look at the questions.
The waitress came over with a tray full of sundaes, and two pots with a scoop of vanilla. Scott’s mum flashed her a smile of thanks, but her scowl came back in full force and locked onto Scott.
“You’re in the top set, any less than seventy percent and it’s a fail.”
“They’re only GCSE’s.”
“Don’t let your father hear you say that.”
Alex waved an arm in John’s direction, and he launched into action, scraping a slither of ice-cream onto a spoon and holding it out to Alex. He dived mouth first, almost impaling himself.
Scott pushed away his own ice cream and folded his arms. Felicity began chatting away about her friends from the park, and John divided his time between Alex and Scott’s math test.
“I’m good at maths.” He said softly.
Scott gestured to the page of overwhelming red crosses. “This is harder than your level.”
Scott snorted and leaned over to reach for his bag. “Prove it then.”
He left the pencil on the table and scooted his chair behind John to get closer to Alex. He took over as ice cream server, and John got to work on the equations, and problems, and algebra. He loved algebra. Felicity continued to chat to her mum.
Scott pulled faces at Alex.
The happy laughs of his younger brother uncoiled the knots of tension in John’s shoulders. His heart resumed steady beats, and his breathing no longer felt forced.
“Done.” John said, glancing back at Scott.
He dragged his chair back under the table and took a long hard look at the piece of paper, then he quirked his eyebrow, and smiled. “You do know I failed this paper? I don’t know whether this is right or wrong.”
“Let me see.” John stiffened as Sally reached down the table. She pulled the piece of paper towards her with the hint of a frown. John sat still while her eyes jumped around his reasoning, then she nodded.
“From what I can see, you’re correct. Well done, John.”
His face caught fire, and he hastily reached for his ice cream. Scott pulled his closer too, and they both ate in silence except the taps of metal on glass. Even Alex didn’t grizzle or scream for more.
Felicity stared at him. Chocolate ice cream lined her lips. John frowned, eager to return her earlier compliment.
He raised his voice. "You have really nice…" the small mermaid in her hair dazzled him. "Hairclips."
Scott’s spoon clanked into the glass. Sally lifted her eyebrows. Both of them looked at Felicity.
She found it with her fingers, then smiled. "Clip. I only have one. It was the last one in the shop. You should have seen Jasmine’s face when she saw it."
Felicity blinked. "Because it was funny."
"You shouldn't gloat, Felicity." Sally shook her head. "Jasmine is your friend."
"What's happened now?"
John zoned out to their chatter, and side-eyed Scott finishing off his ice cream.
“I can teach you maths.” John said for Scott’s ears only.
Scott shifted his chair and leaned over to whisper back. “Why would you do that?”
John dropped his voice even lower, so low his heart thumped louder. “I’ll help you with maths if you’ll be my friend.”
There was a beat of silence where John thought his heart might explode, then Scott burst out laughing, snorting into his sleeve. John’s face reddened until his eyes began to burn. He stood up, flinging his chair backwards. It clattered to the floor, but he ignored it and the resounding silence in the cafe and reached for Alex.
He didn’t make eye contact with anyone, not even his brother as he hoisted him out of the chair and held him to his chest. Melted ice cream and dribble soaked into his T-shirt, but he didn’t care. All he cared about was leaving the shop, and he managed it with his heart thundering and his breathing rasping.
Sally might have called after him, but he couldn’t be certain.
“Hold on would you.”
Scott’s voice managed to break through the walls of indifference in John’s head. He flared his nostrils as he hooked his foot around the back wheel of the pushchair. It tipped when he yanked it out but didn’t fall.
No. He would not look up at Scott. If he ignored him, he’d leave. They could both forget about his embarrassing request. John placed Alex in the pushchair, but his shaking hands made it difficult to fasten the clips.
“I’m sixteen.” Scott said. “And you’re…”
“Why does age matter? Why does it matter that I might be younger than you?”
“There’s no might be about it.”
John finished securing Alex and sprung to his feet. “But why does it matter?”
“It doesn’t.” Scott had his elbows propped up on the pushchair’s handles. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to laugh; I just wasn’t expecting you to say that.”
“I wish I didn’t.”
John’s cheeks burned. The sting to his eyes intensified, and his stomach rolled with nausea. Those were the reasons, but he struggled to voice them.
He scrunched his eyes shut and took a deep breath. "It was a mistake."
“John…” The coaxing in Scott’s voice forced one of John’s eyes to crack open.
John spied him, smiling, the sun behind him lighting his hair up in the glow of a halo. His blue eyes shimmered, and John watched the movement of his mouth when he said, “I’d love to be your friend.”
John opened both his eyes and stared at Scott’s mouth. His lips stretched into a smile, one John had no hope of mimicking.
You shouldn’t stare directly at the sun.
John had read that in a book.
It could have serious, irreversible consequences.
John had never wanted to stare at the sun, but he wanted to stare at Scott’s smile whether it damaged him or not.
That smile lit something in John's chest, something precious.
It glowed bright in the darkness. Too bright.
He didn’t care if it blinded him, he just never wanted to see that sun beaming down on him go out.