The back of the bus is sweltering hot, despite it being the coldest day in all of July. Moses is sat tucked away in the very last row, leaning his head against the window, scowling at the three kids laughing and bustling in their seats beside him. He’d realized too late he should’ve taken a seat closer to the front, and now he’s stuck here, staring out the window at blurry fields and patches of trees flickering by. He hates being here, it’s never going to be the same again. Not when he’s sat here on his own, ear buds blasting music loud enough that he doesn’t have to hear all the other kids’ excited bubbling about camp. He skips a few songs, until one comes on that makes a vivid memory of home flash across his mind. Well, what he used to call home. It’s only a bit over a year since they left, but already Emmerdale seems more like a distant dream than anything real and tangible in the past. He misses it more than he’ll ever say out loud, misses Tug Ghyll and his brother. Misses Mum and the way Ma used to smile when they were still back home. Misses the way they all laughed and danced to the song playing in his ears now. He skips the rest of the song, throwing a glance across the bus to the kids playing around, all of them here with their old friends or siblings, and a flash of jealousy goes through his brain. He should be one of them. Here with Johnny, or not at all. Just as the first drops of rain splatter on the window, his phone vibrates in his pocket and he digs it out, a message from Noah appearing across the screen.
Heard you’re off to camp today? How’s Ma? Did she cry?
Nah, I bet she’s glad to be rid of me for a week.
Idk, you’re all she’s got, bro.
Well that ain’t my fault.
Whatever. I’ll survive. It’s just a week without a phone. Or friends.
Moz, come on. You’ll make new ones!
You will. Have fun, yeah? I’ll call ya Sunday, k?
Johnny slams the car door shut, stomping his way around to the back of the car to snatch the duffle bag from his mother’s hand.
“Oi, watch the attitude,” Vanessa says sternly, ruffling Johnny’s hair in a gesture that says he’s mostly forgiven for acting out.
“Why’d you have to drop me off?” Johnny drawls, kicking at a small stone at his feet, “Everyone else is on the bus.”
“Because,” Vanessa pulls him into a tight hug, pressing a kiss on his temple that he fails to dodge, “I’m gonna miss you, Porcupine.”
Johnny rolls his eyes at the nickname, but stops struggling against his mother’s hug, and pats her on the back.
“Stop calling me that.”
It’s been a while since Mum, or anyone, has called him by the ridiculous nickname, the remnants of a spikey haircut Ma had insisted on giving him when he was five. It had been a running joke, but to hear it now makes a cold tingle go down his spine, and memories flash in his brain that he’d rather keep locked up in the back of his mind, where they’ve been for the past year.
“You know you love it.” Vanessa winks, earning a groan from Johnny as he steps back from the hug and heads towards the other end of the parking lot where a bright red double-decker has just pulled in.
“You’re gonna be fine, Mum, it’s only a week,” he calls out, waving his hand at Vanessa who seems glued to her spot behind the blue beetle, waving at him incessantly as if it’s the first time he’s spent a week at camp. He can tell she’s playing tough for his sake. Letting him out of her sight hasn’t come easy in the last year, not after everything that’s happened. He glances back one more time, giving Vanessa his best smile and a thumbs-up before hoisting the bag higher on his shoulder and making his way to the entrance of the campground where the rest of the kids are assembled in a circle around a growing heap of bags and sleeping bags being tossed out of the luggage compartment of the bus.
Johnny eyes the kids gathered around the coach, pushing his hair back in an attempt to look uncaring. He’s not entirely sure he’s pulled it off, but he supposed it doesn’t hurt to try and look unruffled. No one seems to be paying him much attention anyway. He shifts the bag on his shoulder and spots a group of kids picking on a scruffy-looking boy about his own age. It’s not a great idea, but he stomps over anyway.
“Oi, you want to leave him alone, yeah?”
The group of boys scatter back, obviously not keen on starting a real fight. They mumble something, but a stern look is enough to send them in the other direction and Johnny steps closer to help the kid up from the muddy ground. He offers the kid a hand, but when deep green eyes look up from under a sliver of blonde fringe, he freezes.
He yanks Moses up by the hand, but lets go once they’re both upright. The way Moses looks at him feels like whiplash, all of the air sucked out of his lungs, his brain ringing empty.
“I’ve gotta go.”
He turns away, trying to stop the tirade of words hanging from his mouth, but Moses runs after him, stopping him with a hand on his arm.
“Wait, J,” he sounds desperate, pleading, so much like Ma that it makes Johnny’s stomach turn, “we had to go. Ma wouldn’t let me call you.”
He turns back to face his brother, anger swelling in his veins, not sure if he even wants to hear the half of it.
“You just – you disappeared! You were my best mate, Moz.”
Just as Moses is about to answer, one of the camp leaders blows a whistle, and they start separating the kids into sections. Before they lose each other, Moses catches Johnny’s eyes and mouths ‘meet me at the campfire.’ And with that, he’s lost in the sea of kids moving towards the tents.
The first day of camp stretches long into the evening, the sun peaking out from behind a dark curtain of clouds just as it starts to dip below the hill at the edge of the campgrounds. Moses slumps down on a log right by to the fire and pulls out a Swiss knife from his pocket. Picking up a branch, he starts molding it into a skewer, whittling off piece by piece, his hands shaking as he feels the anger brewing in the pit of his stomach. Johnny has been avoiding him all day, opting for kayaking when he knows Moses hates water, and disappearing the minute Moses laid eyes on him in the queue for dinner. He flicks the knife hard, almost catching his own thumb with the sharp edge, and bites his lip. It isn’t fair, not when none of this is his fault. He hates Ma for what she’s done, he doesn’t want to, but he does. It’s not like he chose this. He swallows over the burning anger lodged in the back of his throat and tries to focus on the edge of the knife cutting off neat slivers of wood. It doesn’t really help, because he still sees Mum’s face on the last morning, hears the sobs that Ma thought she’d muffled into a pillow on the first nights they were away.
“Want some?” Johnny’s voice makes him jump, and his eyes shoot up to find a familiar half-smirk hovering between him and the fire, a bag of marshmallows being thrust in his direction. He stares for a moment, stuck on how much Johnny’s eyes look like Mum’s, before clearing his throat and nodding, shuffling to make room for Johnny on the log beside him.
For a moment neither of them says anything, Moses just hands the stick he’s finished to Johnny and starts on another one while Johnny pokes two marshmallows onto the first one and starts roasting them over the crackling fire. The air feels thick, and it sticks to the back of Moses’s throat, stopping the words he’s trying to form. It’s always been Johnny who’s good with words, witty and clever, spouting them out quicker than Ma on a good day. Only he seems to have lost some of that spunk, and Moses knows why.
“Where did you guys go?” Johnny’s voice is light, almost carefree, but Moses can tell it’s a practiced cool, an attempt at distance that neither of them really buys.
“Leeds,” Moses shrugs and hears Johnny scoff beside him, so he quickly adds, “I hated it.”
“I did. I never wanted to go, you know that, J. Ma just went and flipped out, I still don’t know why. She just –”
Johnny turns to look at him for the first time since he sat down, his eyes piercing, hanging on to whatever Moses is about to say.
“She never told me, okay? When I tried to ask her, she said I wouldn’t understand, and that it was adult business or whatever. Only...”
“Well, I wouldn’t stop asking her, right? And then one day she just kinda cracked and shouted that she had to keep us all safe. And then she locked herself into her room and the next thing I knew Noah came to pick me up for a sleepover.”
He watches Johnny pick at the burnt marshmallow at the end of the stick, his eyes squinting a bit too hard, a frown creeping between his brows.
“Wait, you’ve seen Noah? He knew where you were?”
“Yeah, he was the only one that knew.”
“He didn’t tell me.”
“Ma made us promise. She said you and Mum were in danger.”
“I don’t know,” Moses takes half of the marshmallow Johnny has finally managed to peal off the stick, and chances a small smile at his brother, “I am sorry, J. I should’ve tried to call.”
Johnny shrugs, biting into his half of the burnt candy.
“S’okay. We have to find out what’s going on though, so you guys can come home.”
The smile on Moses’ face brightens tenfold, and he bumps his shoulder against Johnny’s.
“I missed you, Porcupine.”
“Don’t call me that.”
They both laugh, and the knot in Moses’ stomach finally undoes itself. He’s got J back. Now they just need a plan.
“We could stage an accident! Almost drown while kayaking! Or, uhh, fall while rock climbing! They’d both have to come to the hospital.”
Johnny throws his hands up in the air, his voice exasperated, knowing full well this one isn’t any better than the last five plans he’s thrown at Moses. He’s been pacing back and forth in front of his brother at the edge of the football field for a good ten minutes, throwing ideas into the air, each one more ludicrous than the last. The last five have included various situations of breaking bones or disappearing into the forest, and Moses is looking at him with mild amusement painted across his face. He’s just about to start on another rant when something clicks behind his eyes, and he looks at Moses with a mad glint in his eye.
“Let’s switch places.”
“What? J –“
“Have you seen The Parent Trap?”
“Yes… But aren’t we kinda missing an integral part here?”
“Dude,” Moses rolls his eyes so hard it looks painful, “we’re not twins.”
“Right,” Johnny scratches his temple and Moses can’t help but laugh at how daft he looks. Johnny makes a face and punches him in the arm, and he quickly rearranges his face into a somewhat neutral expression.
“What about Noah?” Moses offers on a whim, “We could –”
“Moz you’re a genius!”
“Yes! Here’s what we’re going to do…”