From where he was seated, Luke twisted back and up towards a face that carried an assured grin. In response, his own smile spread quickly.
"Oh, hi there," Luke said as, with his friend’s reappearance, it seemed like the ‘I’ll tell you about that another time’ was back on! And now that it looked like Simon was on the road to recovery, Luke knew he could allow himself a bit more breathing space.
"I didn't expect to see you again," Elliott said.
Luke shrugged. "No. I guess it's a small world!" Though now he thought about it, it made perfect sense. He'd been consumed with his own problems until then, but now the penny dropped. Where else was Elliott's younger brother, Sam, likely to be housed other than in the children's ward?
From nearby, Elliott dragged over an overstuffed, bright orange beanbag, which he set in place opposite where Luke was sitting. Comfortably wiggling himself into it, he asked. "So how's your brother?"
Luke sat forward, delighted to be talking again. "Thanks for asking—it seems like he's going to be okay. Nothing they couldn't sort out. He's still in recovery from the anesthetic, but they say he should be coming up here soon. Mum and Dad have gone for a quick coffee." He looked at his watch—they probably still had a while to wait, but he didn’t mind now.
"Well thank God for that!" Elliott exhaled, and then he chuckled as he shifted around in the beans. "I mean about your brother, not the coffee."
Luke smiled too, enjoying Elliott’s easygoing manner.
As he made himself comfortable, Elliott said, "Look... I really wanted to say sorry for before." He held up his hand to forestall any interruption, and his face was reflective. "All the stuff that has happened to Sam—none of it’s right, but it was a bit crap of me to unload on you the way I did."
Luke shook his head with a tinge of bemusement. "It's fine, I didn't mind. You have a right to be quite pissed off—I would if it was me."
"Yeah...well I blame you," Elliott shot back. Relief eased his features as he chuckled again. "You shouldn't be so easy to talk to. You should really do something about that!"
Luke ignored the jibe, and asked, "And how's Sam?" He made a stab that was who Tiberius had stopped by to see earlier.
"Oh, Sam's being Sam, as usual." Elliott stretched his legs, and flicked his head to the nearest ward, where Luke could see beds through the open door. "He's in there, and the little toad has everyone running around after him!"
Luke laughed. "Just not you?"
"Well, you know how it is," Elliott murmured in that tantalizing accent as he ground himself further into the beans. He reached up and scratched his ear, a picture of restful indolence, then grinned. "There's only so much a brother can do."
Luke chuckled, but felt rather tongue-tied as the conversation stopped. He wanted to go back to the depth of fascinating discussion they had had in the cafeteria, but it was hard to know how to get there. He wasn't that good at chit-chat, and knew so little about Elliott anyway.
Elliott, it seemed, either felt the same, or wasn't worried by the silence. On a small, nearby wooden coffee table were a number of games and toys, including a couple of Rubiks Cubes. They were just within fingertip reach and Elliott stretched, snagged one and started working on it.
Settling back into the couch, guessing they were in for a quiet wait, Luke watched with interest. He'd had a go a few times with a similar puzzle that Simon had received once for Christmas a couple of years back, but it was never Luke’s thing. Elliott, however, seemed a dab hand! Luke was just about to make a comment to try to kick start a conversation, when his eyes widened.
His friend leaned on an elbow as he worked the cube, bending one of his legs at the knee to get more comfortable. Luke couldn't help it, and he certainly hadn't planned it, but from where he was sitting, the angle was just right to look directly up a pair of remarkably baggy, chocolate colored cargo shorts, and right up to the guy's backside!
Discomfited, he quickly looked away. But it was too late, and his imagination way too thirsty not to let his eyes drift back and drink it in. Before long, guilt nibbled at him again, along with a strong sense of self-preservation, and his gaze flicked up as alarm bells began to tinkle. However, despite his misgivings, it seemed that his friend was far too engrossed in the cube to be aware of where Luke's attention had strayed—or the impact that straying was having!
Pack it up! What the hell is wrong with you? Luke might berate himself, yet twinges of self-reproach were nowhere near enough of a deterrent to stay his interest as, once more, he eyeballed another thing that he'd got wrong.
Pure white boxers with a silver-grey waistband—that's what he remembered about Elliott from the opticians. Frankly, he’d become fixated with the idea, as if it were the only possibility for this guy: a bedroom chest full of innocent, yet beautifully stylish, soft white cotton.
So the cool mint green Elliott was sporting was a surprise!
Luke turned his eyes away, thankfully just in time for Elliott to look up and ask, “There's a pair. Do you want the other?”
Luke was totally flustered and verged on flushing. The other pair...of...what? It took a few moments to land on the second Rubiks cube, before he replied, “Sure, I’ll give it a go. Pass me one.”
Elliott waved the one he was currently holding. "Here...catch. I've started it for you." A colored cube arched in Luke's direction. Stretching again Elliott then retrieved the second cube before settling back into the beans—this time, more horizontally. Holding the toy in the air above him, he began working it with both hands.
“Race ya!" Elliott grinned. He didn't wait for a reply, which was a relief, as Luke didn't care to admit that he'd never once even come close to completing the puzzle!
Apparently oblivious of the interest in his dress sense, Elliott's fingers started flicking the new cube. Both legs were bent at the knee, with his feet planted firmly on the floor. The view wasn't as provocatively unconcealed as before, but Luke could still trace legs that could easily have been his own. Legs covered in a fine dusting of sun-bleached, blond hairs: legs that showed quite a bit of muscle as they passed up into the chocolate, to be snugged inside the light piquant mint of boxer briefs that looked like they fitted perfectly! He forced his eyes back to his own cube, realizing he was being a jerk.
“So how long do they let you stay?” he said, trying to make conversation to distract himself.
Elliott flipped the rotating blocks with careless ease. Without breaking his concentration, he replied, “Here on the ward, you mean?”
"Aha…" Though from what Tiberius had said earlier, Luke kind of knew the answer.
“As long as you like, really." Elliott's eyes flicked out from behind the cube he was holding. “Though they like you to stay out here and keep the noise down once the kids start going to sleep. We usually stay until Sam’s ready for bed.”
Elliott went back to the twisting and turning of the moveable faces, and Luke kept his eyes trained well away from what teased them. Even so, he couldn’t help but think about what he’d seen. Maybe it was the tone of Elliott’s skin or a combination of things, but what he had under those shorts was a surprisingly great color for boxers, as well as a great fit. And somehow, Luke suspected that they had been a choice.
No doubt about it.
For a start, Elliott gave the impression that he was a guy who handpicked everything about his style. You didn't need to look far to see that, and Luke bet it even went all the way to intimate clothing. So when Elliott had decided on the chocolate shorts that morning, the boxers had been coordinated. If it was him, Luke knew he would do the same—especially if his shorts sagged a bit, too!
Definitely they were planned. White, and now green. A multipack of different colors, maybe? Possibly, but he doubted it. From personal experience, he’d lay odds that boxers like those didn't come in off-the-shelf value packs!
Safe behind the facade of his own cube, which he twisted with little idea what he was doing, Luke looked past the toy and studied his friend's concentrated face. Those eyes were focused as Elliott twisted the colored faces back and forth, slowly unraveling its secrets. One thing was sure as the guy flicked the mini blocks around with ease: when it came to a Rubiks Cube, Elliott was a pro!
But what was going on in his head, behind those intelligent eyes?
He could see Elliott was getting close, and the colored faces of the Rubik's cube were taking shape before him; reds, oranges, blues, greens, yellows, the colors were changing at the turn of a hand. Nothing was left to chance; everything had its place. Even, it seemed for Elliott, his underwear. Today he disclosed chocolate covering an exquisitely tempting iced mint.
And tomorrow? Like today, Luke suspected that tomorrow's colors would be just as carefully chosen, to be subtle and soft, and a perfect fit. He shook his head and looked away. Getting bogged down thinking about those kinds of things wasn’t actually doing him any good!
Still, from the little he knew about the guy, that was how Elliott seemed to be, Luke decided. Someone who knew what he liked. And, however you looked at him, there was a hell of a lot to like there, too! Luke returned to his own cube as Elliott's last block slipped into place. How long had that taken his friend? Two minutes?
Something else caught Luke's eye. "That wrist band..." He pointed to the intriguing well-worn leather strap. It was intricate and not something he'd seen people wear much. You’d hardly find the like in Wal-Mart! "It’s really cool. Where did it come from? On your travels somewhere?"
The look in Elliott's eyes was unfathomable. He eased himself up and the mint green disappeared as he carefully put the cube back on the table. Studying his henna colored bracelet, there was curiosity in his tone as he said, "I've had it a while. Why do you ask?"
“No reason.” Luke shrugged. He wasn’t even sure himself.
“Actually, I got it in Spain,” Elliott said, but then turned his head as a familiar strident voice caught their attention. It sounded like Becky.
Out of the ward where Sam had to be, appeared Becky, flanked by two adults. They bore down on the two boys, and Luke found himself being scanned by the intelligent, searching eyes of the tall man standing just behind Becky. The eyes belonged to someone whose job, he knew, used to be out in the field, troubleshooting problems and training staff for DHL.
Quickly he stood.
* * *
Extract from Luke's notes:
Of all of their family, it was the first time I'd actually ever laid eyes on Benedict Carter.
It was quite odd in some ways. Apart from his name, I already knew quite a bit about him. Tall and imposing, confidently sure of himself, you could see immediately whose father he was. He and his wife—who I quickly found out was named Rose—made a striking couple.
* * *
"Dad...Mom...this is Luke." Heaving himself out of the beanbag, Elliott seemed quite at ease as he made the introductions. To Luke he said, "Becks you already know of course."
Elliott's father's eyes widened fractionally and Luke could see questions there—the many calculations being made that were taking the data and trying to figure out why on earth this kid would know anything about his youngest son's girlfriend.
"Hello, Luke." The man stretched out his hand and his tone was as sure as his grip. His eyes studied Luke, and that handshake was uncompromisingly firm, holding Luke for just that little bit longer than Luke felt it needed to.
"Benedict Carter," he said, before releasing him. Carter remained inquisitive, though he broke into an easy smile as he gestured to the lady at his side. "This is my wife, Rose."
Carter. The name came together at last. Elliott Carter.
"It's very nice to meet you, Luke." Rose Carter's voice was thrumming and softly musical. Her eyes were as black as her hair, and white teeth smiled warmly against milky-brown skin. "And how is it that you know Becky?"
In his head, Luke mixed the two accents and got Elliott, but it was Becks that saved him from trying to explain about Wales. She waved her hand, airily dismissive. "Oh, we've known the Summers for years. Isn't that right, Luke?"
"Something like that." He hadn't the heart—or was it the guts—to gainsay her, even though the Kears had only been in the States one year. "A while anyway."
"So are you here by yourself?" asked Elliott's father. Again, the subtle probing. Where do you fit?
"Oh, no sir," replied Luke hurriedly. "My parents just popped down to the cafeteria."
"Simon's hurt his willy," said Becky by way of an explanation that she seemed to feel everyone needed to know.
Luke cringed. God, did this girl have NO sense of privacy? This time he glared at her, and she had the grace to look like she'd been caught insider trading!
“Simon?” Rose frowned.
Elliott filled the gaping hole that Becky left in her trail, "Simon is Luke's brother, Mom."
"We’re just waiting for him to come up from recovery, but he's going to be fine," Luke hastened to add, seeing the generous features of Elliott's mum begin to fall. It had to be an automated mother thing he decided. "It's a minor thing. The doctor said they would keep him in overnight anyway, just to keep an eye on him."
He knew he was nervously dumping far too much information, but she was hard to ignore. He checked his watch again, wondering how long it might take for Simon to be transferred.
Rose was near enough to make physical contact: a simple brushing touch on his arm. It was the difference he learned over time, between cold cultures like the UK where personal space was never invaded, and warm cultures like Southern Europe and Latin America, where those limitations were bypassed, and physical contact was all part of good communication.
"You and your family are from the UK, I take it?" she murmured, changing the subject with gentle ease, drawing out the words with a husky Latino lilt. "Are you just visiting, or do you live here?"
"Oh... We live here, Mrs. Carter."
"So how is it that you two know each other?" Her husband turned his head inquisitively. "School?"
The questions weren't challenging in any aggressive way, Luke decided, and Benedict's demeanor was certainly not overbearing. In some ways he seemed a bit like Luke's own dad. He knew the right questions to ask, in the right way and at the right time to keep everything, and everyone, on track.
Luke was still wondering how to answer him, when Becky—declaring it almost as if it were a coup she'd single-handedly pulled off—blurted, "Luke and Simon are at the Academy."
"The Academy?" Another fact appeared to slide into Benedict's archive. "Good school, I heard. So—" He left the obvious question hanging.
This time it was Elliott who provided an answer. "Actually we just met downstairs at the cafeteria, Dad." His eyes flashed, and there was a teasing fun in his tone that surprised Luke.
The interrogation seemed to be over as Rose shifted her attention to her eldest son, changing to a more practical tone. "Sam is just having the dressings changed. The nurse is in with him now. It should only take a few minutes. In the meantime, we might just go down for a coffee and sandwich." She repositioned the leather strap of a beautifully handcrafted bag more comfortably on her shoulder.
"You three go," said Elliott, apparently understanding what they were expecting of him. "I'm happy to keep Sam company until you get back."
Rose brushed her fingers lightly against his cheek, and then asked, "Do you want to come with us, Becky?"
“I'll just wait here in case Sam needs me,” said Becky. There was determination in her expression.
Luke hid a grin at the subtle signs of relief in Rose's face. It looked like she needed time-out from the young firebrand, too!
"Maybe we can bring you something?"
"Thanks, but I'm good," said Becky.
"We won't be long," said Benedict, and he and his wife turned to leave. The three teens watched them stroll, hand in hand, in the direction of the lifts before taking to the couch again.
It wasn't long before Becky spotted a nurse coming out of the ward she had recently vacated. She jumped to her feet. "That's her! She must be finished. Come on then!" She scuttled away, presumably to take point guard on her boyfriend once more.
"We'll be there in a bit," Elliott called after her.
Luke smirked after Becks had disappeared into the ward, as there was no sign that Elliott was going to rush in after her.
"I can see where you get that accent!" he chuckled, now they were alone. "Your folks seem nice by the way."
"What accent?" Elliott laughed as he got to his feet. "Yeah, they're okay. Come on, let me introduce you to Sam."
“Sure.” Luke followed him across to where Becky had gone.
Stepping through the swing door that Elliott held open for him, he found the room wasn’t what he expected. “I thought everyone had private rooms in the States?” he said. That was the impression you got from the movies anyway, and it was not like the big multi-bed wards in UK hospitals.
“It’s a bit unusual, isn’t it,” chuckled Elliott.
It was certainly different! The ward was a big open-plan space, but it had been divided up with walls—some full height, and some half height—to make discreet bedroom areas. Each bedroom contained two or three beds and had been colorfully decorated to appear homely and fun, despite all the usual hospital trappings: clipboards, monitors, tubes, curtains, pitchers of water, and the odd bowl of grapes.
All told there had to be fifteen to twenty beds. Most of them were already in use, some with family arrayed around the occupants, and they all had a lot more space than you would normally find in an English ward.
“They’re quite progressive here,” continued Elliott. “There are still plenty of private rooms, but they say that research has shown that kids do a lot better if they’re put together with other children in a place like this, rather than stuck by themselves in their own room.”
“Yep, it seems so. Even Sam seems to like it. The kids interact a lot more, and are a lot more relaxed because of it—and they say that they tend to recover quicker too.” Elliott grinned. “Maybe the Brits do it better after all?”
Maybe they did, but the one time Luke had ended up in hospital overnight when he having his adenoids taken out as a kid, he didn’t remember it being anywhere as nice as this!
They walked down the middle of the space, and it wasn’t long before he spotted Sam’s bed in an area halfway down on the right. Sam lay propped up on pillows, with Becky perched on the mattress next to him.
This was going to be interesting.
The first words Sam Carter ever spoke to him were, “What’s he doing here?”
Like Elliott, Sam’s accent was mixed, though nowhere near as strong as his older brother's. The spunky, impertinent features were paler than Luke remembered, drawn out perhaps by the discomfort of whatever Elliott had earlier described as ‘sandblasting’.
“Sam, this is Luke.”
Sam stared at him with impudent, beady eyes. “You were at the clinic.” It was a statement rather than a question. “What are you doing here?”
“I told you," said Becky, rolling her eyes. "Simon’s hurt his willy!”
For God’s sake! She was impossible. It was like a mantra to her!
“So what?” Becky returned Luke’s glare evenly, and seemed barefaced this time. “It’s only us. And anyway, what is it with you guys and your willies?”
“Becks! Do you have to?" Even Sam seemed abashed. He recovered quickly and bore into her with suspicion. “And who’s Simon?”
“Oh, for flips sake!” she grunted. “I already told you. Luke’s brother! They’re just putting him right. Now stop freaking out...you have the best willy in the world!”
Luke tried hard not to snigger as her bearing became matron-like. “Now how is it?”
Sam grimaced. “Sore!”
Becky perched on the bed, and Luke’s eyes bugged as, without hesitation, she kissed her boyfriend. “Better?”
Sam’s eyes popped wider too, and he grinned. “Kinda…”
It appeared that they had forgotten that he and Elliott were there, as she snogged him again. This time, Luke’s mouth dropped. It seemed hard to conceive that a thirteen-year-old knew how to do that! It was almost indecent! Across in the bed the other side of them, he noticed a young kid staring at them too. It was hard to tell whether the expression on his face was one of distaste or jealousy!
After a moment, Sam extracted himself and squirmed. A squeak of discomfort passed his lips. Feeling slightly embarrassed by their blatant display, it wasn’t hard for Luke to guess what part of the lad’s anatomy the pain was emanating from. Or why! He struggled not to burst out laughing!
“For God's sake! Have you two finished?” Elliott kept his voice low, and sounded exasperated, though Luke got the impression that this wasn’t new to him.
“What?” Sam remained impudent. A perky grin crossed his face, and he put his arm around his girlfriend. “I can’t help it. She’s hot!”
Becky leaned back on the pillow next to him and, despite her tender years, carried that self-contented look of a girl who knew how to please her man.
Apparently sated for the moment, Sam got back to scrutinizing him and Elliott, and Luke found himself at the end of an interrogating stare, not unlike the one Carter senior was good at. Then Sam’s focus flicked to his brother and a snarky look crossed his face. “Te gusta, verdad…”
Luke did a double take. It was yet another surprise—that a middle school kid could suddenly drop into what seemed like perfect Spanish. Even his accent sounded completely natural!
Elliott scowled as he replied in the same flawless accent, “Comporto o les diré a chorro de arena de nuevo! No es más que un amigo.” The words came fast and, at the same time, narrowed eyes glanced quickly at Luke.
What was he expecting, Luke wondered? A translation? Knowing how to say ’Mr. Brown went to the bakery and bought a cake’ in French, suddenly seemed pitiful!
“Sí. Muy bien!” Sam’s voice was taunting as he fired back.
“Oh pack it up you two!” Becky stared icily at the pair. “They do this all the time—gabbing on in Spanish! It's freaking annoying!"
“Sorry,” Elliott muttered, flushing for some reason. "My brother’s just being a dickhead." He gave Sam a dirty look. “Do you need anything?” By his tone, he seemed quite pissed at whatever that fast exchange of Spanish had been all about.
Sam returned his brother’s glare with equanimity. He smirked, pulled Becky closer and said. “Nope – I’m good. I got what I want!”
Elliott turned his back on them and said, “Perhaps Simon will be here soon. Maybe we should go check?”
Luke nodded. It was a good idea, and maybe they would know more at the desk by now. His mum and dad would probably be back shortly, too. They left Sam and Becky to their own company.
As it turned out, the staff at the reception desk had no specifics about when Simon Summers would be coming up to the ward.
"It all depends on what the doctors decide," said a bright-eyed twenty-something. "Usually the first we know is when they come through the door!"
Luke checked his watch. Actually, it had only been fifteen minutes since Tiberius left. Simon might not be up here for another quarter of an hour. To try and keep his mind off it, he asked, “So what was all the Spanish?”
“Sorry about that.” Elliott shrugged and sounded awkwardly apologetic. “We grew up speaking Spanish as much as English in our house. It just feels natural to drop into it.”
It didn't answer the question, but Luke let it drop. “Do you need to go back in?" He nodded in the direction of the ward, but Elliott shook his head, still seeming to have been rattled by his younger brother.
“Later maybe. Sam’s best in small doses at the best of times, and when he's with Becky, he's just...”
Luke chuckled. Elliott didn't need to finish. The kid did seem a handful. “Like you said earlier. Brothers—don’t you just love to hate 'em!”
“Something like that." Elliott creased into a grin and seemed at ease again. The couch where they'd been previously sitting was occupied, so they strolled further down the ward.
"So how’s your sister?" Luke asked. It was hard to forget the lively little girl that had been choosing frames at the opticians that day.
"Natty you mean? She's good. She’s at home with my grandparents. They came up from Caracas for a couple of weeks to see us."
Elliott nodded. "Often we go down there, but..." he smirked, "...with Sam's sandblasting, they came our way this time. They're nice. You'd like them."
This time, Luke couldn’t hide his intrigue. “Sandblasting? What the hell is that?”
Elliott grinned. “Well, imagine ordinary sandblasting, like with stone and metal, and apply that to the end of your dick!”
That stopped Luke in his tracks. “Oh my God! You’re kidding! What for?”
“Sounds like torture, doesn’t it! It’s meant to be some modern technique for scouring away all the thick hardened skin over a guy’s head, but you wouldn’t want to try it without anesthetic!”
“Bloody hell—I’ll bet!” Luke grimaced and tried not to imagine what that was like.
“It’s tender for weeks,” laughed Elliott. “You should have heard Sam the first time they did it. God was he grumpy! Still, they say it seems to be working.”
Elliott pointed towards the far end, where there was a pool table with nobody on it. Two little girls had just dropped the cue, hurrying away to watch a cartoon that had just started on one of the TV screens. "Fancy a game?"
With nothing better to do, they started walking that way and Luke changed the subject. "I'm guessing you know Owen Kear?"
“Becky’s brother?” Elliott nodded. "Sure—he’s the same year as me at Creek. He's friends with Olly, the guy in the wheelchair."
Same year? That fixed the age question, then.
"Olly Wyman, you mean?" Luke smirked, knowingly, “Did you get run over yet?”
Elliott's pursed his lips and he chuckled. “More than once! So I’m guessing you’ve met him too, then?”
“Kind of. Strange guy. I actually saw him yesterday. He was there at a friend’s cookout. Him and Owen both.” They reached the table and began setting up the balls. There was only one cue and no chalk, and the cloth had a couple of rips, probably made by kids who had no idea how to hold a cue. Other than that, it would suffice. He picked up the cue and studied the worn tip. “You wanna go first?”
It was a simple setup. The pool table looked to be three quarter size—made for kids, Luke assumed. There was a set of reds, a set of browns, a black and a cue ball, but at least they were all there—unlike the triangle—and they gathered the balls together the best they could.
While Elliott leaned against the wall and waited, Luke lined up the first ball and hit it hard. Too hard, and the cue ball leapt over the top of a red ball and went skidding across the floor.
Still leaning over the cue, Luke surveyed the damage. Too much had happened that day for him to get worked up, and he grinned. “I’d better warn you, I’m really good at this.”
“Hmmm…I can see that.” A grin creased Elliott's face as he looked to where the ball had ended up. “At least the good news is that we’re in the right place if you hurt someone. Do you want to try it again?”
“Better not risk it.”
Chuckling, Elliott took the cue and dropped a ball down into a pocket. He put down another, and then the cue was swapped back and forth as Luke kept pace with him.
"You were talking about Olly earlier," said Elliott as he lined up his next pot. A clunk and it went down, and he looked up. “What did you mean ‘strange guy’?”
“Well, I was talking to his sister, Stacey.” Luke watched Elliot make the next shot. At least that one didn’t go into a pocket. He took back the cue. "I guess you know her?"
“Know of her, more like," said Elliott. He studied the table and then moved to the other side, out of the way. "I wouldn't say I know her that well. They're twins aren't they.”
“I think so.” Luke paused to take the shot. It bounced, but he was gratified that this one stayed on the table, and even more that one of his reds—though not the one he'd planned—dropped into a pocket.
"You jammy sod!"
Luke grinned. That pulled him level. “Actually, I went to Stacey's sixteenth birthday. They were inviting lots of people." It was an event he tried hard to forget!
"Anyway, she was saying that there’s no reason why Olly couldn’t walk.” He took the next pot, but wasn’t so lucky with that one, and had to pass back the cue. “That’s what the doctors say, anyway.”
Elliott made another ball in silence, before saying, “I didn’t know that.” He seemed reflective. "How come?"
Luke shrugged. “Stacey told me the docs seemed to think it was a confidence thing."
“Confidence?” Elliott’s look of surprise was predictable for anyone who had encountered the outspoken teen.
“I know. Hard to believe, isn't it!” Luke paused and frowned. “You have to wonder how that kind of thing works?"
Elliott went back to the table, reflective again. Between them, the balls had dwindled, until they only had few each. “I dunno. Your head can really mess with you sometimes. Especially when shit happens.” He took a simple shot, missed and pulled a face. “Like that!”
Despite the quip, there had been an intriguing tone in his voice. It caught Luke’s attention and he said, “Sounds like you’ve been there?" He took back the cue.
“And got the T-shirt to prove it!” chuckled Elliott, rolling his eyes to take the edge off it.
Luke rephrased what he was thinking and approached it from another direction. "Do people ever get over bad stuff? Like if crap happens and it's not their fault?" He was thinking of Ryan as he leaned across the table to take another shot.
Elliott took back the cue and chuckled to break the morose direction of the conversation. "That time is a great healer, you mean? Maybe.”
Luke watched him from behind as Elliott leaned across the table to take his shot. There was nothing wrong with the view, though he was struck again that what seemed to be on the inside of this guy was as intriguing as the outer layers. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had such a deep conversation with a relative stranger.
Elliott passed back the cue and changed the subject. “So when do you guys go back?” he asked. "You're just starting your junior year, right?"
Luke nodded. “Next week—on Wednesday. You?” On a roll, he dropped another ball into the pocket. One more and the black.
"Junior too," replied Elliott, though Luke had already figured that out. “Wednesday for you? Lucky sod. We start Monday.” He peered at the table as Luke leaned over it again. The way the balls were placed, they both knew it was going to be hard for him to miss them. “I’d better warn you," Elliott chuckled. "I’m a really bad loser.”
“Prepare to be pissed off, then!” Luke smirked as he nudged the last red down. Just the black now. “So what’s the prize?”
He lined up for the back that was already teetering on the edge of the middle pocket. With a solid clunk, he dropped it with undisguised satisfaction. Sadly, he never got to discover if there even was a prize; he spotted his mum and dad walking down the corridor in the distance. They were deep in conversation with Elliott's parents.
How the hell had that happened?
Elliott tracked his line of sight too. "Looks like they’re back!"
Sliding the cue back onto the table, and with Elliott right on his tail, Luke hurried back their direction. As they got closer, he saw his parents stop by the main desk. Elliott's folks kept going, and on into Sam's ward. From the frown on his mum's face, it seemed that no news—good or otherwise—was still all there was.
As he drew up, he was greeted by his mum, "Hello Luke. And you must be Elliott!"
Luke turned, surprised. He'd assumed Elliott would have peeled off towards the ward, but his friend was still at his shoulder.
"Hello Mrs. Summers." Politely, Elliott extended his hand, and already seemed to have come to the same conclusion as Luke. "You met my parents then?"
"Yes we did. It's not often you hear people in these parts talking about the Gunners!"
"Ah... That would be Dad!" A knowing grin lit up Elliott's face. He nodded in the direction of his brother’s ward. "Anyway, I’d better get in there and see how Sam is. Nice to have met you."
They watched him go. “Nice family,” said Lucy, looking thoughtful.
Luke smirked. She hadn’t discovered Sam yet!
"We found a snooker table," he explained, filling in for what he'd been doing since they went for coffee. He decided against crowing about the result. "Still no news on Si?"
"They say anytime soon," she replied. She looked slightly better, he thought. More human.
"They told me that too. By the way, you'll never guess who's over there with the Carters." He gestured towards the ward where the Carters had gone, mostly to give them something to think about other than Simon. His mum and dad followed his line of sight and then looked back at him with blank expressions.
He hung on the reveal for a moment like some TV talent show. "Becky Kear!"
His mum's eyes widened in surprise and he quickly realized she had the wrong idea. "No, not like that. She's not ill."
Annoying, but not ill!
Still, he felt quite smug with the knowledge of what she really was. And whatever his and Elliott’s parents had talked about when they met, it hadn’t been that!
"You won't believe it, but Becks is dating Elliott's brother, Sam!" Even now, the idea of it made him smile, almost as much as his mum's shocked expression. He smirked and waited, and would have happily laid odds on what she would say.
“Becky?” His mum looked deliciously scandalized. “She’s far too young to be dating!”
There you go! Sadly, he would have lost out on doubling his money with, ‘Does her mother know?’
His dad seemed to be on the same track, and winked. “Bet you Mum is thinking, ‘It wasn’t like that in our day’!” Even she broke a smile, and Luke guessed his dad had been on the mark. It helped and the worries of the day eased back a little more.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw an empty hospital bed being wheeled out of the ward where Sam was ensconced. He thought little of it, but the bed coming from the opposite direction, away from the central bank of lifts, definitely got his attention. He nudged his mum and pointed. “I think that’s him.”
The two beds passed in the corridor like silent ships; one empty, the other with cargo. In this case, precious cargo; a boy lay under a loose sheet, looking like he was asleep. They stood and waited its approach.
Luke stared at Simon. Asleep, or just with his eyes closed, his brother looked drawn and pale. The past half an hour had been a pleasant distraction, but it had masked much of the awfulness of why they were there in the first place. All at once, it hit him again; the terrible sounds of pain, the rush to the hospital, the long wait. Without even knowing it, he had put his own feelings on hold. Now? Now, as his brother drew near, he nearly started crying and had to bite down hard on his back teeth to hold it back.
“Mr. and Mrs. Summers?“ The nurse in charge intercepted them as they started to move towards the bed. “Just give us a few moments. You can go in as soon as we've got Simon settled.”
So they had to wait outside and Luke almost lost it again when he saw his dad turn away and quietly wipe his eyes on his sleeve.
SHIT! If there had been somebody to blame for Simon’s trauma other than his brother himself, he would have gladly beaten the fucking bastard to a pulp! He scrubbed his eyes as they waited. It was times like this that he realized how easy it was to take life for granted.
“Come on you two. Pull yourselves together," said his mum, though she was wiping her own face with a tissue from her bag. “We can’t go in like this!”
Luke blinked through eyes that prickled, and he forced a chuckle. It was the only thing he could manage when the thing he really wanted to do was go find a bathroom and weep. They didn’t have to wait long, and soon the nurse came out to find them.