My brother is waiting just outside the door, slouched against the wall with his hands in the pockets of his jeans. He pulls his headphones down around his neck, but he hasn’t bothered to turn off the actual music. I can hear the tinny noise escaping. “You alright, Kit?”
I shrug. “They don’t think so.”
“Not what I asked.” Even so, he doesn’t push the matter. “What happened in there?”
“Not a lot,” I reply. “He asked some questions.”
“He?” My brother’s eyes widen. “Shit. I’m sorry. I’ll talk to mum, we’ll get you someone else next time.” He attempts to put his arm around my shoulder, but I stiffen, and he quickly takes it back again.
“Look, James, I know what you and mum think, and you’re <i>wrong</i>, okay? I know this isn’t just about my schoolwork.”
If my brother’s surprised, he doesn’t show it. He just fixes me with one of his stares, sizing me up for a moment. “You want me to level with you, Kit? Yeah. That’s exactly what we think.” His hand reaches for his face, and he grips the bridge of his nose tightly, a habit leftover from wearing glasses in his childhood. It’s one of the only things that I remember from before he left.
He shakes his head. “You have any idea how worried mum is about you? I mean, Christ, Kit. We come back and you won’t breathe a fucking word of what’s been going on.”
“Nothing’s been going on!” My right hand clenches into a fist of its own accord. I take a deep breath. “Look. I’ll go to counselling sessions because mum’s worrying her head off. I know that. But you... You just don’t have a clue, okay? There’s nothing to tell! Dad and I got on fine while you were away, but I just don’t want to be around him anymore!”
James watches me for a while, saying nothing. Then, in a low voice, “If nothing happened, why are you getting so angry about it, Kit?”
“Because.” I try to stop my voice from shaking so much. “I really don’t want to talk about it.”
“So there is something to talk about.” He picks up on it before I’ve even registered what I’ve said.
“I really don’t want to talk about it,” I repeat, hating how much my voice betrays my emotions.
James just nods. “That’s fine. You don’t have to.”
I take a step backwards, confused by his sudden change of heart.
“Come on.” He puts out his hand as though he’s going to hold mine, then takes hold of my shoulder and pushes me forwards instead. “Mum’ll burn the dinner if we don’t get home soon.”
I nod, and follow him through the corridors. The last school bell rang about an hour ago, and most of the kids have already left. There’s always a chance of someone I know still hanging around, though. That’s part of the reason James is here. As soon as mum signed me up for counselling, he joined the school football team. If anybody sees us, I’m waiting for him to finish practice. Our mum’s the sort who wouldn’t let either of us catch the bus alone in the evening, so it’s a believable enough story.
“How was practice?” I ask, as we walk toward the school entrance.
“Awful. Can you move your sessions to Tuesdays so I can join choir instead?” He grimaces. “The coach is a jerk.”
We pass the school gates, where a few students are still milling around, waiting to be picked up. I don’t recognise any of them, but it seems some of them recognise James. A girl with short dark hair and glasses calls out to him. “Hey. What’re you doing here so late?”
He grins. “Football practice.”
She pulls a silly face, but still ends up looking surprised. “You’re turning into a jock now?”
“Not likely. The coach hates me and I’m not sure how much longer I can last before I break a bone.”
“Well, just make sure it’s not your wrist.” She smiles. “Are we still on for tomorrow?”
“Sure,” James tells her. He flashes his hand up rather than waving goodbye, and keeps on walking down the street.
I wait until we’re far enough away from the school before tugging on my brother’s arm. “You could’ve told me you had a girlfriend.”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” he says, but his expression tells a different story. “She’s a girl in my history class, that’s all.”
“So what was that about tomorrow, then?”
“We have the same study periods. We’re working on a project together.”
“Uh-huh.” My sarcasm is rewarded with a light punch to my arm.
By the time the bus arrives, it’s begun to get dark. James won’t say anything more about the girl – he claims he doesn’t know much else – even though I tease and threaten to tell mum. He gets irritated and tells me to mind my own business, but he says it in such a half-hearted way that I know he’s not that bothered.
At least it takes the conversation away from dad.