Numbers. Fucking numbers. I stare down at the mock exam paper, the equations, fractions, and percentages all blending and blurring into one. I hate numbers. I can hear Mum behind us stirring a pot of soup and Dad in the garden mowing the lawn. I look up at the clock. Five fifteen. I have another forty-five minutes to get this shit done before I can escape.
Glancing across to Jake, I find his head down, his pen darting across the paper—as if his brain is working too fast for his hand to keep up. Probably is, the brainy bastard. I slip down my chair and kick my leg out, catching him on the shin. He stops writing. Looks up at me. His green eyes, a perfect match to mine, stare at me tiredly. I grin, harder when I spy his killer smile, and take my pen to my mouth. Slip it between my teeth. Start thrusting it back and forth. His lips purse as he tries in vain to hold back his laughter. He fails, snorting over his math paper. Of course, Mum’s quick to whirl around, abandoning her soup, to find out what the disturbance is. And, of course, she’s quick to reach her conclusion, despite it being Jake falling apart in his chair.
“Jesse.” She clips me around the ear, and I flinch but smile wider. “Stop distracting your brother.”
“I had a tickle in my throat,” Jake says, fast to defend me as always. “It’s fine, Mum.”
“Sure you did.” She gives him a fond smile and goes back to her soup. “You’ve forty minutes left.”
I glance at Jake’s paper. He’s on the last page. Kicking him under the table again, I get his attention and then point to my own paper. The first page. Then I shrug. He shakes his head in despair, peeking across the kitchen cautiously. Mum’s in the pantry, out of sight and earshot. Jake knows I could do this shit if I put my mind to it. I just can’t be bothered; I have better things to do. And I
want to get on and do them, for fuck’s sake. Jake turns his paper over, back to the first page, and I lean across to see.
“What are you doing?” Amalie whispers, appearing beside me. “Cheating?”
“No. Using my initiative.” I flip my little sister a wink and send her on her way after a quick peck on the cheek.
Thirty minutes later, I have all the answers I need. “Done,” I say, slapping my pen down on the table. Mum looks over her shoulder, her face suspicious.
“Done,” Jake mimics, refusing to look at her.
I jump up from my chair, keen to escape. “I’m going.” I’m out of the kitchen before Mum can protest, grabbing my jacket and shrugging it on as I jog down the hallway to the front door.
“Jesse,” she yells after me. “We have guests arriving.”
“Which is exactly why I’m going out,” I mumble to myself, not slowing my pace. I swing the door open.
And come face to face with our guests.
“Jesse.” Dad’s friend, Alan, thrusts his hand out to me, smiling his usual jolly smile. He’s a doctor. Thinks he’s superior to the fucking world.
“Hi, Alan.” I accept, because that’s the polite thing to do, and try my hardest to avoid, Lauren’s, his daughter’s, eyes. She makes me . . . uncomfortable. We would never work, no matter how much my parents try to convince me—and themselves—otherwise.
“Are you going out?” he asks as I smile my hello to his wife, still avoiding Lauren’s eyes.
“Meeting some friends.” I skirt past them and make my way toward the lane. “Good seeing you,” I call back, feeling untold guilt for leaving Jake at the mercy of our parents, their insufferable friends, and their daughter.
I pull out a pack of Marlboros, slowing to a stop when I hear Jake calling me. That’s a crisis call. He wants saving.
I turn . . .
And crash into my father. Fuck. It was a warning call.
Jake gives me apologetic eyes. “Get back in the house, Jake.” Dad’s voice is cold, stoic, and nearly a whisper. It pisses me off, and Dad knows it. My irritation only multiplies when Jake backs up, his silent apologies multiplying. He has nothing to be sorry about.
I pull a drag of my cigarette and exhale over my words. “I did the math paper. I helped Mum chop veg for her soup. I swept the patio. What more do you want?”
“I want a respectful son.”
“You have one,” I say, pointing over his shoulder to Jake’s retreating form. “Expecting two would be greedy.”
“Don’t give me your smart mouth, boy. You’ll be out on your arse faster than you can blink.”
I shake my head to myself and turn, getting on my way. He won’t throw me out. He’d never be able to face the questions posed by his equally arrogant friends at the country club. “I’m just meeting some friends.”
“We have visitors.”
“I said hello as I left.”
I hear Jake in the distance calling Dad, trying to appease our father, telling him to let it go. I hate that he’s caught in the middle of our clashes. I hate that he’s trying to protect me and at the same time keep our parents happy.
“It is not okay, Jake,” Dad barks. “Go make yourself useful and help your mother get our guests drinks.”
My hackles rise, and I pick up my stride before I blow my stack and do some true damage.
When I get to the end of the road, I stop and look back up the lane toward our house. Dad’s nowhere in sight. Neither is my twin brother. My gut twists. I can’t leave him there alone to put up with that shit. I flick my cigarette away and jog back, rounding the back of the house and peeking through the window. I growl under my breath when I see Dad throw Jake a warning look as he enters the kitchen. I circle to the next window, hoping I can get Jake’s attention. Poor bastard is pouring tea for our guests. Fucking tea. Mum will have the biscuit tin on the table next. And as if she’s heard me, it appears, covered in pictures of the Queen from each decade. The delight on Lauren’s parents’ faces makes me roll my eyes.
I become more alert when I see Jake leave the room. Yes. I dash around the side of the house.
And go arse over tit.
“Fuck!” My legs get caught up in the hose pipe hanging off the wall, and I land with a thud in Mum’s flower bed, flattening her shrubs. I drag myself up and brush down my jeans, grimacing at the mud stains. “Bollocks,” I mutter, trudging round to the win
dow of the downstairs bathroom and finding the upended plant pot I always use as a step to reach the window. Except today when I stand on it, I overshoot the opening. Well, fuck. I’ve grown. I kick it aside and shove my head through the open window.
Jake jumps out of his skin, losing his aim and spraying the back of the loo seat with his piss. “Jesus, Jesse,” he hisses, grabbing some toilet paper and wiping up his mess.
I laugh as I watch him, his dick hanging out. “Your dick has some catching up to do.”
“Get stuffed,” he grumbles, quickly tucking himself away. “What are you doing?”
“Very funny.” He flushes and washes his hands. “Dad will go through the roof.”
“And?” I ask, seeing him falter as he grabs the towel. “Live on the edge.”
“You live on the edge enough for the both of us.”
“But I want to live on the edge with you,” I whine, pouting pathetically. Jake laughs, his eyes sparkling. There’s not much similar about our personalities, considering we’re twins, but our laughs, eyes, and smiles are identical.
“It’s not worth the hassle,” he says lamely. It’s a cop-out. He’s desperate for me to take him to the wild side, and it pisses me off that he refuses to relent because of a misplaced honor. We’re nearly seventeen, for fuck’s sake. We’re supposed to be out having fun, not revising for finals that are over a year away and eating custard creams with the local snobs.
“Come on,” I coo. “There’s a house party. We won’t be too late. Just a few drinks with my favorite brother.”
“I’m your only brother, you twat.”
I grin my megawatt smile and am rewarded with his in return. I’ve got him. Jake looks over his shoulder to the bathroom door. Thinks. And then he’s up on the toilet seat, scrambling out of the window with my help. It’s been a while since I escaped through this window, so I’ve neglected to consider that we’ve both grown considerably.
“Shit,” Jake curses, his arms and legs all bent and twisted as I tug him. “I’m stuck.”
“No, you’re not.” I start laughing as I dig my boots into the mud to get a better grip of him, imagining Dad barging in and be
ing confronted with Jake’s arse. “Turn a bit.”
“There’s no damn room.”
There’s nothing left for it. I increase my grip and heave with all my might.
“Whoa!” Jake dislodges and falls out of the window.
Right on top of me.
I grunt on impact, coughing. “You definitely weigh more than me.”
“Piss off. We’re the same size.” He gets up and brushes himself down.
“You’re not gonna pull the ladies looking like that.”
I stand and pull a few twigs from his blond mop. “Come on.”
Both our heads snap toward the window when we hear the door in the bathroom open. Oh shit.
Lauren appears at the window, frowning, but her eyes light up when she finds the pair of us outside. “What are you doing?”
I grab Jake’s arm and pull him toward the lane. “If anyone asks, we fell down the loo,” I call, casting a smile over to Jake when he laughs, slinging my arm around his shoulder. Me and my brother. This is what makes me happy. That and girls. And a few beers. Tonight, I get all my favorite things.
“She fancies the pants off you,” Jake says, and we both glance back to find Lauren still at the window, watching us.
I smile to myself. “Who doesn’t?”
“You’re a bighead.”
“Weird, though, eh? Since you’re the one with all the brains.”
Jake nudges me, and I stagger a few paces on a chuckle. “I heard Curtis White screwed her in the pub toilets a few weeks ago.”
I look back to the house again. Lauren is still at the window, still watching us. I shake off a weird shudder when she locks eyes with me. “Yeah,” I say quietly. “And I also heard she threatened to spread nasty rumors about him if he didn’t.”
“You’re kidding me?” Jake says, alarmed, swinging back to look at Lauren. He definitely shudders too.
“No kidding,” I confirm, pulling him back. Call me paranoid, but that girl isn’t right. There’s some kind of crazy in her eyes. “Anyway, back to the matter at hand.”
“I’m gonna get so drunk,” Jake declares.
“Easy.” I laugh, stopping us as we reach the main road. “Just a few,” I reiterate, trying to sound serious, hiding my smile. The shackles are off; he’s being himself. But he’s not used to alcohol so I need to monitor him.
“Fine, just a few.”
I reclaim him, slinging my arm around his shoulder again. “I love you, bro.”
“Love you too, Jesse.’ He moves stealthily and gets me in a headlock. “You’re a cocky fucker, but I love you.”
“Don’t swear, Jake.” He’s too good to swear. Too pure. “It doesn’t suit you.”
“Yes, the good boy mustn’t swear,” he says tiredly. “For fuck’s sake.”
Wrestling my way out of the headlock, I throw him a sideways scowl. “Watch your fucking mouth,” I grumble, and he breaks down in fits of hysterics.
I roll my eyes and give him a playful shove in the back.