Updated: Sep 23, 2022
Scott spied John from his upstairs window. He’d gone by the house several times, at one point in a flat-out run. When he didn’t return for ten minutes, Scott grew worried, but John reappeared with a look of determination on his face.
He pressed the buzzer on the gate.
Scott pushed off from the windowsill and bounded from his room to meet his new friend. His socked feet skidded on the marble floor as he came to a stop in front of his father.
His dad held the phone receiver to the gate.
“Whatever you’re selling, we’re not interested.”
Scott smoothed his crinkled shirt, making himself presentable before stepping into his dad’s field of vision. He stood tall, chin lifted, chest out, and waited to be acknowledged. His dad ignored him in favour of frowning at John on the TV screen.
“Did you not hear me? We’re not interested.”
Scott raised his hand, unsure how else to interrupt his father.
“That’s John. He’s…he’s going to help me with maths.”
“Really? He looks about eight.”
Scott cringed at his dad’s lack of tact, speaking down the receiver for John to hear.
“He’s not eight.”
“How old is he then?”
“I don’t know—
“What do you mean you don’t know?” He twisted, giving Scott his full attention. “And why does he have a baby.”
“It’s his baby—"
“That eight-year-old has a baby? What School does he attend? It certainly isn’t Hollybrooke.”
“No!” Scott’s shout lifted him onto his tiptoes. One fierce glare from his father and he shrunk back down, cowering as he scrunched his toes against the floor. “The baby is called Alex. He’s John’s little brother.”
“And he thought it wise to bring him to an apparent study session?”
Scott floundered. He didn’t have an excuse for that. He’d assumed John would come alone but he’d rushed by with the pushchair several times.
“If you fail Maths…” His dad warned, leaving the rest unspoken. He hung up the phone but hit the button for the gate. “I’ll be in the study. Keep the noise down, and I will be checking on you….at random intervals.”
Scott watched until his dad passed from view, then rolled his eyes. He hurried to welcome John and Alex inside.
“You heard all that didn’t you?” Scott hung off the front door with his face scrunched up.
He knew John had, but he still needed to state the obvious. John nodded slowly before pushing Alex’s pushchair into the house.
“Woah.” Scott rushed in front and put his hands up. “That’s far enough. My dad will freak if you get mud inside, just…put it over here.”
John did as he was told, and unfastened Alex from the chair. Scott stuck his tongue out and beamed when Alex smiled.
“I wasn’t expecting you to bring him.”
“I can’t leave him outside.”
Scott chuckled, scratching the back of his neck. “Yeah. I know. I assumed your mum would look after him.”
“Okay. Well,” he spun around and gestured to the hallway. “This is my house.”
John looked around with wide eyes. Even Alex gawped at the marble staircase and the crystal chandelier overhead. And yes, for no reason Scott had learned, there was a stuffed eagle above the door wearing a crown.
“You’re rich,” John stated.
“No. Not really.”
John raised his eyebrow. “Looks like it to me. The hallway is bigger than my whole house.”
“Don’t exaggerate,” Scott said, leading John to the stairs. “Come on, let’s go to my room.”
John’s gaze stalled on the suit of armour in the corner of the hallway. Scott winced, clutching his neck. The journey to the second floor took longer than Scott expected with John pausing at each wall as they ascended into the house.
One had his father's vintage swords collection. Another had a display full of expensive teapots his mother loved. There were original artworks too and a priceless grandfather clock that ticked in their silence.
They were rich, obviously so, but so were all of his friends from Hollybrooke and it wasn’t something they openly talked about, it was just a fact.
Hollybrooke was a private school for rich families. His father had told him never to be ashamed of it, but sneaking looks at John, Scott felt something uncomfortable in his gut, like maybe a display case full of vintage champagne bottles wasn't the norm.
He’d never seen Darren study each painting on the wall with an expression caught between disgust and awe. John tucked Alex’s arms to his chest to ensure he couldn’t touch anything. His eyes were drawn to all the sparkly and expensive things like John's.
“My room,” Scott said, stepping inside.
Technically, his room consisted of three rooms. The one with his bed. The one with his sofa, TV and desk, and the bathroom.
Scott winced. By the slightly scandalous tone, he suspected he'd confused John.
“Rooms.” He paused, chewed at his lip, then admitted, “So…I might be rich. But it's not a big deal, right?”
John frowned, seemingly thinking about it. "Not unless you make it into one."
He set Alex down on the floor in front of the sofa and slipped the bag off his shoulder. Frank the Firefly made an appearance. Alex clutched it and rammed one of the wings into his mouth.
“What’s with the muddy shoes?” John pointed to the perspex box mounted on the wall.
“Football boots,” Scott said, leaping to their defence. “Those are Eric Reece’s Football boots. He scored the winning goal in the 1997 champions league for Chelsea.”
“What do you mean, right? They’re worth a fortune!” He rocked forward on his feet, then slapped himself in the face.
John startled. “Why did you do that?”
“I sounded like my dad.” A full-on body shudder ran from Scott’s feet to his shoulders. “That was horrible.”
John gestured to the TV, and Scott handed him the remote.
“Alex loves Itchy the Spider.”
Scott smiled. “Yeah, it’s hilarious, always stealing Mr Pete’s keys and hiding them around the school.”
John stared at him blankly. “You watch it?”
“Albie does. Sometimes I just happen to be in the room.”
“You think it’s hilarious?”
Scott shrugged. “For a show for babies. What do you think?”
“It’s a simple, repetitive storyline.”
“But it’s not for you, is it?”
John lowered his gaze. “I guess not.”
“Alex likes it.”
“It makes him laugh.” John’s throat bobbed. "I don't know why."
Scott opened his mouth but found he had nothing to say to that. He exhaled a breath through pursed lips and gestured to the desk. “So…shall we.”
John slid a chair out and sat down. He glanced over at the sound of Alex’s laugh, but he didn’t smile, just watched as his brother giggled at Itchy the Spider.
“I thought we’d start with something easy,” John said, flicking his eyes over to Scott.
He’d been caught smiling at the rainbow spider and hurried to join John at the desk. “That sounds like a good idea.”
Scott pressed his lips in a firm line to stop the ‘what?!’ bursting through them.
“Here.” John jotted down an equation in his notebook. “I’ll give you an easy one so I know where you’re at.”
Scott bristled. “I’m not a baby.”
“But you enjoy Itchy the Spider.”
“Screw you.” Scott went to push him but remembered at the last minute and swept his hand through his hair instead. “Let’s see it then.”
John pushed the notebook in front of Scott. “It’s a simple one.”
The equation seemed to swim in and out of focus no matter how long Scott stared.
(x+1)(x-5)=0 John waited. Scott realised he was supposed to do something.
He gestured to it. “Yep. Correct.”
“What do you mean correct?”
Scott folded his arms and nodded. “It’s the correct answer.”
“Do you even know what you should be doing?”
“Checking the equation.”
John tilted his head, studying Scott. “You’re supposed to be working out the value of x.”
Scott gaped and leaned back in his chair until it creaked. “Whaaa?”
John had endless amounts of patience. Scott found he didn’t. He groaned and banged his head on the desk. Alex glanced up and laughed so he did it again with an overly dramatic wail.
“It’s simple really.”
Scott turned his head, squashing his cheek against the desk. “If you keep saying that John, I’ll drop-kick you out the window.”
John looked neither amused nor scared. His blink seemed to take five seconds too long. “But it is.”
Scott sighed. “You’ve just told me there are two answers. How can there be two different answers to the same equation? How can x be two things.”
“X can be infinite things.”
“Kill me now!”
Alex tipped back into the sofa, giggling. Even Scott’s dramatic outburst had gotten a small reaction from John. The teeniest twitch of his lips, but it had been upward, not downward. Closer to a smile than a frown. That helped with the growing headache pounding against Scott’s temples. It fended off the full-blown migraine.
“When was the last time you laughed?”
John’s brow folded in deep concentration. Scott imagined he pulled a similar expression while looking at each equation and explanation John wrote down for him. A perplexed look.
“I don’t know.” He frowned some more. “I can’t remember laughing.”
Scott pushed his face off the desk. “That’s…not right.”
“It is. I promise I can’t remember.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Scott hummed. “Can I try to make you laugh?”
“Are you distracting me from teaching you?”
“Maybe. And maybe I want to make you laugh. Can’t it be both things?”
John’s lips flicked upwards. A blink and you’ll miss it smile, but Scott had seen. He got giddy with it and pointed at the edge of John’s mouth. “You found that funny.”
“A little,” John whispered.
“Oh, I got one.” Scott slapped his hand down on the desk. “Why should you never start a conversation with PI?”
“I don’t understand—
“Because it will go on forever.”
John flashed another blip of a smile. Scott waited for it with wide eyes and slapped his hand down on the desk. “Yes. I can make you smile, but how to make you laugh? Alex and Albie are easy, I just pull faces and pretend I’m hurt. Babies love that.”
“How do you make Felicity laugh?”
“I tickle her,” Scott’s fingers twitched. John eyed them with a weariness. “Don’t worry, I won’t do that.”
“I don’t like…” John rubbed his hands up and down his arms.
“To be touched,” Scott finished.
“If you don’t wish to be touched, then you shan’t be touched.” Scott tapped his fingers to his chin. “Now…how to make you laugh.”
A knock interrupted Scott’s plotting. The door opened on his mum, smiling sweetly with a tray of drinks., pretending she wasn’t checking up on them. “It’s only me. We’re back from violin practice. Thought you might be thirsty.”
“It’s milkshake mum,” Scott said. “Bit babyish.”
“Oh, okay then.” She turned to leave. “I’ll take it downstairs.”
“Wait!” Scott surged to his feet. “We might as well drink them now that you’ve made them.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Thought you might say that.”
She cooed at Alex as she stepped across the room to the desk. Her gaze lingered on the pages of maths problems, Scott’s frustrated scribbles and his drawings of footballs that John had put a prompt and brutal red line through.
“John’s a genius,” Scott said.
“What’s the name of your tutor, John? I think I might need to call her.”
Scott slammed his head back down on the desk. “No, Mum. Not another tutor.”
“You need to pass.”
“John can help me pass.”
John frowned. “Miracles have happened.”
“Please, mum,” Scott begged with his hands. “Give it a few weeks with John helping me, and if my next mock test hasn’t improved, you can call John’s tutor and force me through that ordeal again.”
He begged with his eyebrows, jumping them up and down his forehead. She sighed and placed a plate full of biscuits on the desk. “To dip into your milkshake.”
She placed the tray against the leg of the desk and leaned in to pinch Scott’s cheek. “For my biggest baby.”
Scott glanced at John in time to see another minute smile. His cheeks reddened, and he brushed her fingers away. “I’m not a baby.”
“You like Itchy the Spider,” John whispered.
“Oh, I see how it is…. you two ganging up on me.”
His mum laughed, John smiled, Scott’s insides tickled and his headache vanished.
“Albert’s downstairs playing,” She looked at John. “Would Alex like to join him?”
Alex abandoned Frank the firefly and crawled closer. He grabbed a fistful of his mum's dress and tugged for her attention.
“If you’re sure it’s, okay?”
“Of course, it is. He’s probably due a change.”
“His bag is under the pushchair.”
“And when’s his next milk?”
“Is he on four feeds a day like Albert?”
John’s cheeks grew redder. He dropped his gaze to his lap and picked at his jeans. The only sound came from the TV, and the silence grew to an uncomfortable level. Scott glanced at his mum, and she shrugged in reply, but there was no missing the stack of worried lines on her forehead.
“Um…Johnny?” Scott tried.
He kept his voice light, teasing, but John didn’t lift his head. Scott’s mouth dropped when he noticed the dark patches on the knee of John’s jeans. He pushed his chair away and dropped down on the floor so he could look up at John’s face. His grey eyes swam with tears and his bottom lip trembled.
“Hey, what’s wrong?”
“I…I forgot the milk.”
“I put it on the side but forgot to put it in the bag.”
“We’ve got formula in the kitchen.” Scott looked at his mum as she spoke softly. "Does Alex have normal formula?"
John nodded, shaking free more tears.
“It’s not okay.”
John shot to his feet, sending his chair back like he’d done in the café. His mum caught it and set it down on the floor. John spun around. His gaze snapped to the door, and he shifted around his chair, only to knock his hip into the desk, and spill one of the milkshakes. It fell in slow motion, tipping strawberry milkshake across the surface, soaking their papers.
Scott snatched his phone off the desk just in time.
John slapped his hands up to cover his face and breathed in great gasps. Scott backed up a step, unsure what to do. His mum seemed equally stunned and reached for John’s shoulder.
“Don’t touch him.” Scott blurted. “He doesn’t like it.”
His mum shot him a questioning frown but retracted her hand. They darted helpless looks at each other as John stood in front of them, covering his eyes and panting for breath. Alex let out a shriek, and John shuddered, knocking into the desk again.
Scott steadied the other milkshake before it could fall.
“I’m sorry,” John mumbled between pants. “I didn’t mean to spill it.”
“I know sweetheart.” Scott recognised that tone of voice. The one his mother used on them when they were sick, and she was trying to soothe them into getting more rest. “It was an accident, we’re not mad.”
Scott nodded. “If anything, milkshake has improved those equations. X equals strawberries. Who’d have thought?”
“I’m such an idiot.”
“You’re definitely not an idiot.”
Scott watched as his mum scooped Alex off the floor. She bounced him up and down until he stopped crying and flicked her head in John’s direction.
“I’ve got this.” Scott mouthed.
“We’ll be downstairs.” She widened her eyes at Scott. “Call if you need anything.”
She paused in the doorway and pointed at the desk. She mouthed the words, “Clean that up.” Scott nodded and the second the door latched behind her, he rushed into the bathroom to grab some tissue.
John continued to stand with his hands over his face, drawing in laboured breaths.
“She’s gone,” Scott whispered. “I’m just going to clean up the mess. There’s still one milkshake left. We can share it. Biscuits are a bit soggy, but who doesn’t love a soggy biscuit.”
“I shouldn’t have forgotten it.”
John shook his head. “I’m supposed to be taking care of him.”
“He looks pretty well cared for to me.”
“I forgot the milk.”
Scott finished dabbing tissue over the spill and gathered up the wet papers. He threw everything in the trash can.
"Stupid," John whispered. He curled the tops of his fingers, digging nails into his hairline.
Scott took a deep breath and braced himself. “When I was in primary school, they used to warn us never to forget our PE kit. If we forgot it, they’d make us do it in our underwear.” Scott poured half of his milkshake into John’s glass. “And more weeks than not, I forgot it.”
“And had to do PE in your underwear?”
“They let me keep my T-shirt on, but I had to run around in my y-fronts in front of everyone.” Scott sat
back down. “But this one time…it’s one of the worst moments of my life actually, maybe I won’t tell you.”
John peeked through his fingers. “Tell me.”
“Well, I woke up late and was in a huge rush to get ready for school. Mum was busy getting Felicity dressed and dad had shut himself away in the study. I grab the first pair of underwear I see and shove them on, pull up my school trousers, and off I go.”
Scott got to see more eyeballs through the gap in John’s fingers, red-rimmed, but they met his gaze. “Then what happened?”
“I went to PE. Didn’t have my kit so the teacher asked me to come out in my T-shirt and pants. I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t exactly my first time, my parents had a meeting with the school and everything about it, thought I was a nudist in the making or something.” He waved dismissively. “I’m getting off-topic.”
John dropped his hands from his face. He wiped at his sore cheeks. Scott patted the other chair and he sat down, sniffling.
“So, I come out from the changing rooms into the gym, and everyone starts pointing and giggling. Even my teacher Mr Flint, and I look down, and I see this silky pair of knickers with lace trim, and these straps that hang down to attach stockings.” Scott stuck his tongue out and pretended to be sick. “I was wearing my mum’s underwear.”
John’s lips twitched, more than twitched. They stretched into a smile, and a choked sound escaped through them. His body shook instead of trembled, a pleasant jogging of his chest, that set Scott off laughing too.
“It’s not funny,” Scott said.
It was totally funny.
“And it gets worse.”
John wiped his eyes. “How?”
“They sent me to the office and called my mum. She was so embarrassed she denied they were hers and tried to convince the teachers I’d found them at the park. Found some stranger's sexy underwear and decided to wear them to school so I could reveal them to everyone.” Scott slapped his hands to his burning cheeks. “So yeah. I’m forgetful too. Now stop smiling at my expense and drink your milkshake.”
John took a sip. “It’s really good.”
“But all that sugar, it’s really bad for you too. Huh. I think I understand how x can equal two different things.”
“I spent an hour trying to teach you that, and all I needed was a milkshake?”
Scott shrugged. “You should’ve made it simple.”