It was a Wednesday when we found the money.
I remember it being a Wednesday because I had science, PE, and RE all on the same day, and I didn’t think it could get any worse. Then it got better. It was like life had been listening to me.
If I’m being honest, Legs is the one who found the money. He stood on it and thought it was just a knot of leaves at first. He’s not the brightest spark – I’m pretty sure he was given less brains on account of his height – but he knows what the Queen’s face on the floor has to mean. It was an amazing moment when he held it out for all of us to see. Tom couldn’t believe his eyes, even with his glasses on. Rachel had to touch it to make sure it was real. At first, Midge didn’t want anything to do with it, until we’d reminded him of those roller skates he wanted.
This wasn’t just a ten-pound note, or even a twenty. Those were considered small fry, even for fourteen-year olds on the poorer side like us. Legs tucked it into his sleeve and once we’d found a secluded spot, we counted it all out, note by note. One of the more tattered notes had a bright blue number 29 drawn on in marker. Its corner was almost torn off.
“One hundred and eighty quid,” breathed Legs.
“Man,” I sighed.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about the person who might have lost that money. No doubt it was a lot of money, probably the most any of us had ever seen in one place. Maybe we’d have considered trying to find the rightful owner, but where would we have started? Newton had a population of about 3,000, and none us had that kind of time.
Naturally, there was the problem of who would be in charge of it. When it comes to money people get greedy, even when those people are teenagers. Most of the time we had better things to think about, like hanging out, playing basketball down at the field, sometimes girls. The internet might have been on that list, but none of us had our own phones and only Tom had a laptop. We were at the age when money doesn’t really matter – until its right in front of you.
“Obviously we split it between all of us. Five ways,” Midge said.
“You can’t split one hundred and eighty quid five ways unless you’ve got change and stuff. Which I haven’t,” Tom said.
“Nope,” I said.
“Someone needs to be in charge of it then. Take it home and hide it or something,” Rachel suggested thickly.
She was making her way through a bag of Rainbow Drops. If any of us even glanced at the bag, she’d shoot us the kind of look that told us she’d hit below the belt if she had to.
“Well, it can’t be Legs,” I said. “He’ll lose it. Midge, you’ll probably spend it and so will you, Rachel. Tom, you’ll probably run and show it to your mum, and parents can’t get involved, no matter what.”
“What? I wouldn’t show it to her!” Tom cried.
He’d always deny it, but it was common knowledge in our group that Tom was the biggest mummy’s boy. Midge once told me that when he’d stopped over at Tom’s house, his mum had gone into the bathroom to help him with something. We don’t know what that something was, and we didn’t want to know, but we could guess.
“Then how about you take it, Luke?” Legs said, offering me the money. “If you’re such a saint.”
I stared wistfully down at it, but shook my head. I shared a room with my two older brothers, and nothing got past them. They’d either find it and take it, or know I was hiding something and get it out of me, by force. Excessive force, too.
“We need to hide it somewhere else then,” said Midge.
“Yeah, but where?” Tom asked.
In the end, we buried it under the large oak tree that sits at the fork on the nature trail. Nobody hung around that tree apart from us, because it was a good one for climbing. We covered the mound of dirt with leaves and sticks, all of us desperately hoping that it would still be there tomorrow. I can’t read minds, but I can read faces. There was the glimmer of hope, the etched worry, and most of all, the fire of excitement in my friend’s eyes. It was probably in mine too.
I walked home with a spring in my step, going over the number in my mind – one hundred and eighty. One-eight-zero. Maybe not a lot of money to some people, like the people that lived in the large detached houses with the sprawling gardens down Brindley Drive. Maybe to any adult it wasn’t a lot of money. I’d often heard Mum complain about the food bill alone being close to a hundred quid, and that was just food. But to us, a group of teenagers who had no reason to worry about bills or mortgages, it seemed like we could buy the Earth itself.
The next day, we all gathered together near the history block for break as usual. Tom was the one running late, but he was most days this year, and we were used to it by now. Things were different this year and we understood that – different because of those dreaded things known as GCSEs. Tom had always been the smartest out of all of us, with Midge a close second, but he’d taken it hard this year. He wasn’t gifted anymore, the way he’d always been from the first day I’d met him in Year 1. He was struggling just like the rest of us. He stayed an extra five minutes in some classes to try and make up for it, but he was still only scraping Bs. It was better than the rest of us, at least.
When he finally arrived, Midge leaned in close. We all did the same, our heads almost touching.
“I’ve been thinking,” he whispered.
He glanced around dramatically, as if people might care about our conversation. Legs gave him a swift whack in the stomach to hurry him up. It was rare that Legs used words if he could use his fists instead.
“That money? We shouldn’t split it. We should use it all to buy something for all of us.”
“What?” Legs grimaced.
“Think about it, man. If we split it, we’ll only get, like…” Midge paused, counting on his fingers. “Something like over thirty quid each. Doesn’t sound like a lot. But with all of it put together, it is a lot. We can buy something way better.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“I dunno, er…like an Xbox or something. Or a Playstation 4.”
The majority of the group nodded, a ripple of approval moving through us. The idea of my own money had been interesting, but nothing compared to owning a Playstation 4. It was the new big thing that kids like us could only fantasise about. I had glanced at the price of one in the Argos catalogue before deciding against asking for one for Christmas. My main Christmas present was never any more than a Playstation 2 game, or a voucher for one of the more expensive shops. I supposed that was how it had to be when there were three kids and only one parent who worked full-time. Until now, a Playstation 4 had been the stuff of dreams.
“Could we actually afford a PS4?” I asked.
“They go for cheap second-hand,” Rachel said. “That’s how my cousin afforded his. All the games too.”
“Anyone against this idea, raise your hand,” I said.
Hands remained down, and the matter was considered settled.
On the way home from school, we all went to the spot where we’d buried the money, under the oak. We dug it back up just to check that it was still there. We dug until we saw the Queen smirking up at us, dirty from the soil but all of the notes still curled up together.
“How about we do it this weekend?” Tom asked. “Go into the town centre, to one of those second-hand game shops and pick one up.”
All of us agreed eagerly, but in the back of my mind, a problem kept nagging.
“Who’s gonna take it home?” I asked.
“Take what home?” Legs frowned.
“The Playstation, man.”
Everyone looked at each other with some surprise, then with a shadow of doubt crossing their faces. Clearly, it hadn’t been an issue that had been on anyone else’s mind. I felt a stir of nerves in my stomach.
“Well, I found the money,” Legs said. “So it should be me.”
“You didn’t even realise what you’d found until we all pointed it out to you, Legs,” Rachel scoffed.
“I would have realised,” he bit back.
Midge suddenly got to his feet and stepped between them. It would have been intimidating if he wasn’t so puny. We liked to joke with him that he had baby hands, but it was only me he took it so well from. I was also the only one who could call him by his first name and not risk a winding. Probably because out of everyone, the two of us had known each other the longest, since nursery. The nickname might never have stuck, really, if it wasn’t for him and Legs sharing the same name – Richard. Neither of them were happy with the suggestions of Rich and Dick. Midge and Legs seemed only marginally better in my eyes, but they’d shrugged and accepted it.
“Here’s what we’ll do,” Midge ordered, turning to look at each of us. “We’ll take it in turns. One week Legs can have it, then me, then Luke, then Rachel, then Tom.”
“Why am I last?!” Tom roared.
“It’s the luck of the draw, idiot!” Midge cried. “Someone has to go last. Are we all agreed?”
There was a faint murmur of voices, most of which sounded as if they were agreeing, but some of which sounded less than pleased. Midge ignored the groans of uncertainty and kicked the dirt back over the money, bending to pat a few leaves down on top.
We all broke away, Legs heading to the alley that led to his estate, Tom backtracking to the main road. Just before Legs turned out of sight, he yelled his usual, “Smell ya!”
“Still can, scrub!” Midge screamed back.
Midge, Rachel and I turned right towards Back Lane, the narrow street that ran parallel to the main road. Rachel lived right at the end of Newton, on the estate that sat on the outskirts of Blackwell. It was rare that she walked the same way as Midge and I. Rachel was kind of like a closed door, one that was bolted and locked, one that stayed that way even if you tried to open it anyway. Out of all of us, she was the only one whose house I hadn’t been to, and whose parents I hadn’t met. She’d moved to our school only a couple of years ago, so there were a lot of years she hadn’t had with all of us. If it hadn’t been for Miss McIntyre pairing me up with her in drama, none of us might ever have looked her way. Still, I liked having her with us – and not because I had what Legs called ‘the hots’ for her. She just didn’t feel like a stranger to me, even if she tried to act like one sometimes.
Plus, she had a bright, neat smile. And she smelled better than any of the others, which probably wasn’t difficult to achieve. One of the great truths of the world is that girls smell better than boys. According to girls, anyway.
“What games do you reckon we should get?” Midge asked, his voice high with excitement. “I’m thinking GTA, Far Cry 5…Skyrim?”
“Midge, how much money do you think we have?” Rachel laughed. “We’ll probably only have enough for one game.”
I shook my head. “GTA. Definitely.”
He frowned over at me. I wouldn’t have admitted it, but I couldn’t have cared less about whatever game we got. The way I saw it, a game was a game and I’d be happy to play it either way. I just liked ruffling Midge’s feathers. He was easy to cheese off, and it was something I took pleasure in doing as often as I could.
“Skyrim,” he urged. “Didn’t you see the adverts for it when it was first released? GTA doesn’t hold a torch to it.”
“I heard that this GTA is the best one so far. There’s no competition.”
He punched me, lightly but with some force, on the shoulder.
“Shut up, Higgins,” he shot. “We’ll put it to a vote tomorrow, then you’ll see.”
We reached my house, a boxy little mid-terrace with a square of gravel for a front yard, and I stopped. Midge continued, then turned back. Rachel had stopped too.
“Come on, Rach,” he called. “This isn’t your house, genius.”
“I need to talk to Luke for a minute,” she replied. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Fine. See you tomorrow, lovebirds.”
“Shut up, Johnson,” I said, giving him the finger. “Go play in traffic while you’re at it.”
Midge was walking away, but glanced back over his shoulder, slapping an open palm against his bum.
“Kiss it!” he yelled. “Better yet, eat it!”
“Keep walking or I’ll beat it!”
The two of us laughed, his cackle echoing over the twenty yards now between us. Then I felt that same stir in my stomach from earlier, only this time, it was more excitement than worry. I turned to Rachel. Suddenly, I was noticing everything about her – not just her smile and the way she smelt, but her downy eyelashes and the tiny mole on her neck.
“What’s up, Rach?”
She poked at a loose pebble with the toe of her shoe.
“I’m worried about something,” she muttered finally. “Promise you won’t laugh?”
I grinned. “Can’t promise anything.”
She smirked up at me from beneath her fringe, still batting at the pebble.
“Do you think we’re stealing, technically?” she asked.
“You mean with the money?”
I froze. The thought had passed me by but I hadn’t really dwelt on it for too long. To me, all it really was was a case of finders keepers. Someone had lost the money, and we’d found it. Simple.
“Nah,” I shrugged. “It’s not like we took it by force.”
“So it’s okay to keep money you find, if you need it?”
“Yeah, sure. And we do need it, right? We’re all as poor as each other. What’s this all about anyway, Rach? Don’t tell me you’re getting cold feet about spending it?”
“Don’t be stupid. I want that Playstation as much as any of you guys.”
Then she stooped, picked up a small rock and lobbed it as far as she could. I clocked where it landed – just past the nearest lamppost. I picked up my own pebble and threw it, and it landed about a metre behind hers.
“Show off,” I grinned.
“I’d better go. Thanks for the talk, weirdo.”
“No problem, weirder.”
Then, in one swift movement, she leant forward, grabbed both my cheeks, and kissed me hard. Her lips mashed against mine, and for a moment I could feel her hot breath on my face, my heart in my throat. She was there for a few seconds, then she was gone, already walking away while I was still figuring out what had just happened.
“You know you’re my favourite!” she called back, breaking into a jog.
I couldn’t manage a reply.
A few slow days went by. School always made the time drag, but it dragged even worse now because we knew what awaited us. Saturday afternoon was like the finish line at the end of a long race. I spent maths and science daydreaming about the moment we’d be able to pick up our own console, about the games I’d finally be able to play on it. There was the small issue of my brothers and Mum wanting to know where I’d found the money to get such a thing, but I’d find a way around it – probably by hiding it downstairs and only getting it out at night. No doubt I’d get caught. I’d been worried about having to hide the money, and hiding a PS4 would be a million times harder. But there was no way I was giving up my week of having it all to myself. It’d be worth a telling off, or even a grounding.
The only thing that made school bearable was seeing Rachel. She was the only thing that I thought about more than the Playstation. It wasn’t just because I had ‘the hots’ for her, though I suppose I can’t deny that I did – it was because now there was a chance she had ‘the hots’ for me. It was the second biggest thing to happen to me that week. We didn’t go around holding hands, and I only plucked up the courage to kiss her on the cheek once, but that kiss we’d shared was our little secret. That was exciting enough.
Most days, after dinner, I’d go to the oak and dig the money up, just to make sure it was still there. I’d eat, make some excuse about nipping to the shop and run all the way there instead. Obsessive, maybe, but the idea of that Playstation 4 meant a lot to me. It meant a lot to all of us. I kept having horrible visions of us digging for the money on Saturday morning, and it not being there, stolen, or vanished into the ether. For a fourteen-year-old, loss of hope is about more than disappointment – it’s a kind of devastation. For that entire week, my life revolved around the idea of that console. Without the money, the idea would be nothing but smoke.
It was still tucked into the hole when I checked on Thursday afternoon. When Friday came around, I checked again. I bolted my dinner, jogged to the oak and dug with a stick I’d picked up along the way. I got to the point where the money normally sat – we’d only buried it about half a foot deep – and it wasn’t there. I frowned, digging a little deeper. There was only soil. Wet, sticky soil, earthworms and bugs crawling over my dirty fingers. No Queen smirking up at me. No roll of notes, curled up together in the dirt.
It wasn’t there.
I scrabbled for a bit longer, even digging a few more holes in case I’d got it wrong. There was no way I could have, but I was desperate. I dug and dug until my hands were sore and my fingernails were thick with earth. Then I sat back, dazed, my stomach sinking to my feet.
It was gone. Stolen. Vanished into the ether.
Except things didn’t just vanish. Not when they were buried beneath half a foot of heavy soil, beneath a random oak tree in the middle of nowhere. I’d rather it had simply vanished, because it seemed a thousand times easier than accepting the alternative. There were only five people that even knew about the money, let alone where it had been hidden. And every single one of those five people were my friends. Every single one of those five people I trusted, some with my life, and yet it had been one of them.
I sprinted home, burst through the door and used the home phone to call Midge. My hands were still brown from digging.
His mum answered, and went to fetch him for me.
“What’s up?” he asked, sounding distracted. “You’ve Been Framed is on.”
The home phone was on the windowsill in the living room, which was empty, but Mum was washing up in the kitchen. I kept my voice low.
“Midge, it’s the money. It’s gone.”
“Yeah,” he said, somewhat wistfully. There was a pause, a laugh track playing in the background, then he hissed, “wait, what did you say?”
“I said, the money’s gone.”
“How do you know?!”
“I just went to check up on it, y’know. I wanted to make sure that it was still there. It was yesterday, but now…gone.”
I heard him curse under his breath, followed by a dull thump. He’d probably socked the sofa.
“Well, what the hell do we do?!” he said.
“I don’t know, man!”
“Someone’s taken it,” he said.
“Yeah, one of us.”
I paused then, his voice droning on somewhere in the distance. Calling Midge had been the first thing I felt I needed to do. He was my best friend, after all, and stuff like this called for a chat between friends. But as far as I knew, he was as guilty as the rest of them. He was my best friend, but I couldn’t give him a free pass. With a sickening jolt in my stomach, I thought of Rachel. I couldn’t give her a free pass either, hots or no hots, kiss or no kiss.
Guilty until proven innocent. Even Midge. Even Rachel.
At that moment my brother, Dan, thundered downstairs, shooting me a look that was filthier than my hands.
“Hurry up and get off that phone,” he said, waltzing into the kitchen. “And wash your hands, minger.”
“Luke?” Midge asked.
“You don’t think it’d be a stranger?”
“Not unless there’s a stranger out there with laser vision.”
“Yeah, right. It could be any of us. Well, obviously, not you or me. Right? You wouldn’t have called me if you thought I’d taken it.”
“Right. So what do we do?”
Midge paused, probably thinking. “We’ll meet tomorrow morning like we all arranged. That’s when we’ll tell the others. Who knows, maybe one of them’ll come clean.”
We said our goodbyes and hung up. Dan kegged me for taking too long on the phone, and grabbed me in a headlock when I took a swing back at him. I wasn’t tired but I headed up to bed.
Rachel was the last to arrive the next morning. She looked as tired as I felt. We were all sat, waiting, on the grass beneath the oak, and I was trying to ignore the pulsing behind my eyes. I’d had about three hours of sleep at the most. I’d laid awake, dreading the morning. When I did sleep, I had nightmares about the money being in my pocket, and my friends coming for me with fists raised and murder in their eyes.
When we were all there, Tom snapped, “come on then. What are we waiting for?”
Midge nodded at me, and, heavily, I got to my feet. I looked round at them all and wondered if I was wrong. Maybe it had been a stranger. I knew the chances were slim, but I couldn’t have pegged it on a single one of them then.
“Last night,” I sighed, “I went to check up on the money and it was gone.”
Legs grimaced up at me, his nose wrinkling. “Gone?”
“Yeah. It wasn’t there. It was there Thursday, but not yesterday. Feel free to check for yourself.”
There was a brief pause, then Tom and Legs both scrambled forward and started digging desperately. They got about two feet down before they stopped, hands dirty, their faces dazed.
“Where the hell is it?!” Legs cried.
“We hoped one of you guys might know.”
A cold wind blew over us. Tom got clumsily to his feet, followed by Legs, and they both took a step towards me.
“What do you mean?” Tom asked. “What would we know about it?”
“Only the five of us knew where that money was buried,” Midge said, also getting to his feet. “So only one of us could have taken it.”
Legs swiftly turned on the balls of his feet. He towered over Midge by what seemed like four feet. Midge had to crane his neck to keep eye contact with him but he did it, and I respected him for that.
Rachel was also on her feet now, moving towards them.
“Come on, guys,” she said. “Just chill-“
“What, you think we took it?” Legs hissed. “Is that what you’re saying, midget?”
He gently pushed Midge in the middle of his chest, but it was enough to set Midge off. Like I’ve said, he was easy to cheese off, particularly if it was Legs doing the cheesing off. It had been seven years since Legs had become part of the gang, and him and Midge had never managed to get along.
“Yeah, maybe I am saying that, you lanky piece of-“
A fist swung. It hit Midge square in the face and he was thrown off his feet. Rachel screamed from behind me. I leapt forward, shoving Legs as hard as I could, making him stumble backwards against the oak’s trunk, narrowly missing Tom.
“What the hell, Legs?!” I yelled.
“Don’t act like an idiot, Luke! That git thinks I took the money!” He paused, then cocked his head at me. “You probably think so too, don’t you?”
“What? Look, I don’t know who the hell took that money.”
Midge groaned from the floor, cupping his nose in his hand, fresh, red blood oozing through the gaps in his fingers. I helped him to his feet. Tom, who hated the sight of blood, turned to throw up into a nearby thicket.
“I might be the poorest out of all of us,” Legs snapped, “but I’m no thief. I thought you knew that about me, Luke.”
I looked up at him, still angry, but I felt that anger begin to soften. I’d met Legs a long time ago, in junior school, back when our biggest problem was figuring out the times table. He’d had no friends before he’d met the three of us, mostly because he smelled as if he hadn’t washed for a while, and he probably hadn’t. But it was also because he’d been accused of stealing a chocolate bar from the local newsagents, and nobody wanted their children hanging around with a kid like that. We didn’t know if he’d stolen that chocolate bar back then – the way I saw it, he was a kid and so was I, and we got along. That was all that mattered. The truth never came out, and that still doesn’t matter to me.
But this was different.
“It’s nothing personal, Legs,” I said. “I’m not trying to attack you.”
“Then what are you trying to do?”
“I’m trying to figure this whole stupid thing out!”
“Yeah? Well maybe it was your little boyfriend who took it, ever think about that?”
“Shut the hell up!” Midge screamed, trying to struggle free from my grasp.
“What are you gonna do about it?!”
“I’m gonna rip your head off! Then I’m gonna rip your mum’s head off!”
That was the spark that started the fire.
Midge wriggled free and the two stormed at one another. Fists flew. Tom tugged at the collar of Legs’ shirt and tried to drag him away, but he took an elbow to the face. Rachel, shrieking at them to stop, tried to get between them. I tried to do the same and got socked in the eye for my trouble.
It took all three of us, but eventually, we pulled them apart. Rachel and Tom held Legs back, and I tried to talk some sense into Midge. The two looked as if they’d had enough anyway. They were both panting heavily, blood dripping from Legs’ lip, a few cuts and grazes on both of their faces. They were still glaring at one another, but it was more of a tired, watchful look, especially from Legs. He looked almost defeated, and I felt my heart sink.
“All this over a bit of money?” I asked.
Legs swiped at the blood on his chin. “Money that you both think I stole,” he said. “We’re supposed to trust each other. That’s what friends do, isn’t it? They don’t even question each other.”
“I do trust you-“
“Shut up with the brown-nosing, Luke.”
He shrugged Rachel and Tom off of him, then turned and began to walk away.
“I hope you and your boyfriend’ll be very happy together.”
He muttered it, but I still heard him. So did Midge.
“Git!” Midge called.
Either Legs didn’t hear him, or he was done with replying. My stomach sank to my feet again as I watched him go, the same way it’d done when I’d discovered the money missing.
When it comes to friendship, sometimes you can suffer arguments and come back stronger. It’s like when a mirror gets broken, and when it’s fixed it still looks half decent. But sometimes those cracks are too deep, too obvious and raw. They can’t be ignored, no matter how many times you try to cover them or pretend they aren’t that bad. At that moment, I didn’t know if I could fix the cracks that had appeared between me and Legs. This wasn’t just a little tiff between pals. This had been the kind of clash to rival thunder and lightning.
Tom stood there awkwardly for a moment, scratching at the chicken-pox scar on his forehead. Then he spat once into the grass and sighed.
“You guys don’t really think I took it, do you?” he asked.
Midge and I shrugged. Rachel crossed her arms tightly against her chest.
“Nobody knows who took it,” she muttered.
“What about Rachel?” he continued, as if she hadn’t spoken. “For all I knew, it could have been one of you two.”
“Yeah, exactly,” Midge quipped. “It could be any of us. It’s not my fault he took it so personally.”
Midge gestured an impatient hand in the direction Legs had gone in. I could have sworn he was giving the finger.
“Well it wasn’t me, or Legs,” Tom said. “He went to visit his grandma yesterday and I…there was a movie on that I was watching, so…”
I stifled a smirk. The only movie I’d noticed being on last night was Disney’s Snow White, but I figured it was probably best not to mention it.
“Yeah, so what?” Midge said.
“So, it wasn’t us.”
“Look, any of us could have snuck out at midnight and taken that money,” Rachel snapped. “Maybe we’ll never know who, but who cares? It’s gone now.”
I nodded. “Rachel’s right. No point crying about it.”
There was a long, horrible silence that sent a chill down my spine. I didn’t like the look on Tom’s face. It was the kind of face I can remember making when I was younger, when Dad failed to turn up to take us out for the day. Disappointment, hurt, defeat. That was probably the worst thing about it – the defeat. He looked as if we’d beaten him into submission, and he was reluctantly, finally, giving up.
“I’m gonna go,” he murmured, cocking his thumb over his shoulder. “There are probably things I should be doing.”
“Yeah. See you at school Monday?” I asked.
He nodded absently, not looking at me, and walked off.
Midge, Rachel and I were left. We all stood, staring down at the empty hole in the ground where the money should have been, but wasn’t. I felt the bite of tears in my eyes and wiped at them fiercely. I wouldn’t let myself cry. Hell would flood, freeze over, then thaw again before I let the others see me cry.
“That went well,” Midge scoffed, kicking at a bit of long grass. “I’m going home too. Need to clean myself up.”
Neither of us tried to stop him. When it was just me and Rachel left, she turned to me.
“You alright?” she asked.
“Nah. But I will be.”
“Who do you think took-“
“I don’t know!” I spat. “And I don’t think it really matters anymore. Tom’s probably never gonna speak to me again, and Legs probably wants to sock me one. In fact, I wish he would. It’d be better than him giving me the cold shoulder.”
The words flowed out of me like a jet of vomit. When I was finished, I felt my cheeks burn with the guilt of snapping, then with the shame of honesty. It wasn’t like I couldn’t talk about my feelings – I could – but I usually did it with more control, with more grace.
“They’ll speak to you again, Luke.”
“They will. My best friend still spoke to me after I dropped gum in her hair. She had to get so much of it cut-“
“This is different.”
“You dropped it, so it was an accident. And gum is gum – it’s supposed to stick. None of this was accidental. When you accuse someone of something, it means you believe that they’re guilty.” I sighed, and sat back down on the grass. “The money was missing, and I suspected those guys straight away, and they knew it. I really thought one of them was guilty. I tried not to be biased, but is that even possible?”
“Why them?” Rachel asked, sitting beside me. “Why not me, or Midge?”
I thought about the question for a moment. Midge was my best friend, my oldest friend out of everyone. Rachel – I didn’t know exactly what she was to me, but I knew that we’d kissed, and that was huge. But Tom and Legs were my best friends too. Not my oldest friends, and I hadn’t kissed them – thank God – but they were my friends. Still, there must have been a reason why they were the guilty ones in my mind. Maybe it was Legs’ history, or Tom being a mummy’s boy and maybe wanting to do the right thing and hand in the money. But none of that should have mattered, not between friends. At that moment, I wondered if maybe we were friends, and if we ever had been.
I shrugged. “Someone had to be guilty out of the five of us. Maybe it was just easier to think it was them.”
Eventually, Rachel left to go home. I offered to walk her there, but she said she needed the time alone, whatever that meant. I didn’t go home straight away after she’d left. I stayed out beneath the oak, even when it began to rain, and wondered how things had got so bad.
I plodded to school on Monday morning, my feet as heavy as my heart. Midge was running late, and Rachel wasn’t at the place where she’d normally wait for us, so I walked alone. English, the period before break, was probably the worst. It was a lesson I shared with Legs, so normally we sat together on the back row. Instead, he swapped seats with Jessica Kilburn, who stuck her hand up for every question. He barely looked over at me, even when I was picked to read out that day’s poem. When the bell rang I packed my stuff away as fast as I could and tried to catch him, but he sped out of the room as if he had rockets on his shoes. It was as if I’d stopped existing in his world. I saw Tom at break too, but he only nodded at me vaguely and carried on his way. Apparently it wasn’t much better for Midge. We found each other at break, leant against the wall and looked down at our feet.
“Either of them spoke to you?” he asked, through a mouthful of Freddo.
“No. Barely even looked at me.”
“Sounds about right. Tom wouldn’t even partner up with me in science. I was walking over to him, and I swear he saw me, but he went off with that Leighton kid instead.”
He shoved the rest of the Freddo in his mouth and seemed to swallow it whole.
“Who needs them anyway, right, Luke?” he scoffed, holding out his hands. “I know I don’t. It’s actually kinda peaceful without them, for once.”
“C’mon, Midge. Don’t you miss them?”
He paused, drawing in a deep breath, then puffing it out.
“It’s a shame about Tom,” he said eventually. “He was alright. But miss them? I miss them both like a hole in the head. Especially that bloody walking lamppost.”
Any other day I would have smiled at this, and Legs probably would have too. It was the kind of good-natured insult that they’d pass back and forth to one another. Now, there was a kind of venom behind it that unsettled me.
“Have you seen Rachel?” I asked.
“I saw her this morning, but not since then.”
Neither of us saw Rachel for the rest of the day. Either she’d gone home early or she still ‘needed the time alone’. During lunch, I did a few rounds of the school looking for her, but there was no sign. When I arrived near the sports field I saw Legs kicking a football around with the usual group of lads that played at lunch. I didn’t know any of them from Adam, and neither did he, as far as I knew. Still, he was fitting right in. The thought dropped a stone into my stomach. He’d have a new gang soon enough, and we’d be a distant memory, something to reminisce about when he was old. Tom wasn’t with him, but that didn’t surprise me. I didn’t think Tom even know what football was.
That night, I crept into the kitchen while dinner sat in the oven. Mum was buttering bread, slice after slice, spreading it as easily as paint on paper. I leant against the wall behind her and when she sensed me, she turned to eye me suspiciously.
“What do you want?” she smiled.
I smiled back. I wasn’t exactly the type to come into the kitchen to help with dinner, and ‘quality time’ wasn’t considered a sacred thing in my family. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d had a heart-to-heart with Mum. That kind of stuff was usually reserved for Midge, or buried at the back of my mind until I didn’t need to talk about it anymore. Plus, Mum was too busy most of the time to sit down and listen.
I shrugged. “Dunno.”
“What’s up, Luke? Something’s bothering you, I can tell. Either that or you’re in a mood, in which case, beat it.”
“I’m not in a mood. Something’s just kinda bothering me.”
“Either it is, or it isn’t.”
“Then it is.”
Mum finished buttering and turned to me, her face flushed and expectant.
“I…I think Tom and Legs have fallen out with me.”
“Legs?” she frowned. “You mean that Richard boy? The gangly one from Clare Street?”
“Yeah. And Tom.”
I knew that she remembered Tom. He’d come over one night after school to play Crash Bandicoot on my old Playstation 2, and he’d brought his maths homework with him. Mum had found it hilarious.
“And why do you think they’ve fallen out with you?”
I froze. I didn’t want to mention the money, or the argument, or the fight. I especially didn’t want to mention the way I’d accused them both.
“We just disagreed about something and it blew up. I think they’re still mad about it.”
Mum waved a hand dismissively and bent to peer into the oven.
“They’ll come round.”
“What if they don’t?”
She stood up straight again, smoothed out her top and put one hand on the counter, one hand on her hip. She meant business – at least, that’s what it looked like.
“Luke, you’re only fourteen. At some point, you have to realise that friends come and go – like money,” she scoffed, grinning. “It’s not often you’ve always got it, but it’s nice when it’s there. You miss it when it’s gone but you know you’ll get more, eventually. Just don’t hold on too tight. Not all friends are supposed to be for life.”
“What if it’s your fault they’ve gone?”
She shrugged, bending down to look at dinner again. “You figure out what you did wrong, and you don’t do it again. But if I were you, I wouldn’t be too sad to see the back of those two. Something off about them.”
I didn’t say anything else. I knew what Mum thought of Legs. She’d heard that he’d stolen a chocolate bar all those years ago along with all the other parents, and she’d made her own judgements. The only difference was that her son hung around with the kid who’d apparently stolen it no matter how many times she told him not to. That didn’t mean she had to like him, though, and she made her feelings known.
I could barely eat dinner that night. It felt like ash in my mouth.
Rachel wasn’t in school the next day. I thought about calling for her that morning, but decided that it could probably wait until after school. Midge offered to go with me but, of course, I politely said no. He didn’t know about the kiss – that secret had stayed between me and Rachel, like a hidden treasure – but he knew enough. He gave me a sly smile, slapped me on the back, and said, “say no more, Higgins. Say no more.” I punched him in the arm and told him to shut up.
On the way to Rachel’s I stopped at the newsagents to pick up a bag of Rainbow Drops. The newsagents itself was the same one that Legs had apparently stolen that chocolate bar from all those years ago. There was a different woman behind the till, the shop was a little shinier and the prices were higher now, but it was the same little shop at heart.
I walked briskly towards the border of Newton and Blackwell, weaving through the alleys and shortcuts. There was a dirt road that cut across a large corner, so I followed it and came out onto Rachel’s estate.
All of the houses were like mine – boxy little terraced houses, almost identical like a deck of cards lined up side by side. Like I’ve said before, I’d never been to Rachel’s house itself, but I’d seen it from a distance. There had been times where we’d meet her at the bottom of the dirt road I’d just come down, which was on a slight hill. I’d seen her leave her house and run up to meet us several times. Hers was the red brick one from the end with the peeling blue door, on Bligh Street. I headed down to it. To the left of the door was a doorbell hanging by one wire. I knocked.
Her mother answered – at least, that’s who I assumed she was. She was a solid, formidable woman, her hair tied up in a strong bun. A vest strap clung to her chest, and to the rolls beneath. She looked down at me with an icy glare.
“Yeah?” she grunted.
“Er…hi. My name’s Luke. I just wondered if Rachel was-“
“Rachel!” she yelled, turning her head towards the house.
I almost jumped out of my sneakers. When there was no answer she lumbered further into the house.
“Rachel?! Get down here! Now!”
From somewhere in the house I could hear a baby laughing. It struck me then that I didn’t really know a thing about Rachel. She never talked about her parents, her home or her siblings. I didn’t even know she had siblings.
Rachel suddenly appeared around the corner. When she saw me her mouth puckered with surprise. She pulled on her shoes, shrugged on a jacket and came to meet me at the door.
“Luke?” she hissed. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Watch your bloody mouth!” her mum yelled.
“I came to see you,” I frowned. “What else would I be doing here? You weren’t at school, so-“
“Yeah, I know. Just felt under the weather recently.”
She stepped outside and began to close the front door behind her. The wedge of her mother’s arm held it open.
“Need you to put some electric on for us, Rach,” she said, fishing in a tatty purse.
“What? Mum, I’m not going out.”
“Shop’s just up the street. No electric, no TV. No dinner either. So scram.”
Her mum held out an electric key and a twenty-pound note to her between two sausage fingers. Rachel snatched them from her, stuffed them in her jeans pocket and gave a dramatic sigh.
We started walking to the one corner shop near Rachel’s. It was even older than the newsagents, and the guy who ran it was probably older than the Earth itself. Most of us were sure the shop was on its way to shutting down, but it proved us wrong every year.
Rachel draped her hood over her head and turned to me.
“So you missed me.”
“You missed me,” she repeated. “You must have. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”
I shrugged. “School’s just quieter without you.”
“Bet it’s quieter without Legs and Tom too, right?”
My stomach jolted. Most of the time, if I was distracted, I could avoid thinking about the two of them. Sometimes it was unavoidable, and it didn’t hurt any less with time.
“Haven’t even spoken to them since Saturday. They’re avoiding me. Midge too. Have you…?”
“What?” she asked absently. “Seen them? Talked to them?”
She shook her head. “Nothing. At least you’ve got Midge, though, right?”
“I’ve got you too, haven’t I? And you’ve got us.”
Rachel watched her feet as she walked. When she looked up she didn’t quite meet my gaze. I wanted her to, because there was that familiar swirl of nerves in my stomach again, only this time, it was more worry than excitement. I don’t know why. It almost felt as if that kiss she’d given me was dead now.
I didn’t push the issue, even though every part of me wanted to.
We got to the shop and stood at the counter. The old guy hobbled out from some hidden room, and Rachel brought the twenty-pound note from her pocket.
That’s when I saw it.
The note was tattered. Its corner was only hanging on by a thread now. But that bright blue number 29 written on it in marker was as bright as ever.
I felt all of my insides clench at once. I opened my mouth to speak but the words were gone, vanished into the ether – stolen. I watched her hand over the note and the key together. It was like watching a movie playing out in slow motion. It was as if it wasn’t really happening to me and yet it was, undeniably. It was right there in front of me, in full colour, in full HD.
The dead kiss was all but forgotten. The swirl of nerves in my stomach were engulfed by the hot fire of anger that burned like a hot plate. When business had been sorted, we left the shop.
“Can’t stay out tonight, Luke,” she said, a few paces ahead of me. “Still don’t feel a hundred percent, y’know?”
“Yeah. Weird, when you think about it.”
“What? What’s weird?”
She turned to watch me, walking backwards. I watched her with what I hoped were steely eyes, but I was worried I just looked pathetic and upset. I was upset, but I wasn’t about to admit it.
“Well, I think I’d feel on top of the world if I were you. Isn’t that how people are supposed to feel when they’ve got money? One hundred and eighty pounds of it?”
She was a good actress, I’ll give her that. But for one brief second, I saw a flash of panic cross her features and I knew she was worried. She’d been found out and she knew it. Whether or not she admitted it was a different thing entirely – I could see that same panic cross her face a thousand times, but if she didn’t admit it, I wouldn’t be satisfied.
She stopped walking, and so did I. “What the hell are you talking about, Luke?”
“The money, Rachel.”
“You think I took that?”
“I know you did!”
The silence was unbearable. She was looking at me with that panicked look again, but there was shame there too. That was hard to look at. Not because I pitied her – I’m not sure if I did at that moment – but because I believed she knew what she’d done. To me, and to us. To the gang. We’d fractured and split apart because of that stupid wad of money, and we’d never be the same for it. If she didn’t know what she’d done, then I wanted her to know.
“You took the money and you let my friends take the fall for it. You let me blame them. You let us fight over it-“
“Don’t put that on me,” she spat. “You guys were stupid enough to fight over it so I let you. I mean, I didn’t want you to. I’m not a sicko. But it showed your true colours, didn’t it? Yours and Midge’s. Maybe it’s for the best.”
“Shut the hell up. You don’t even know what you’ve done, do you? Do you?!”
I screamed the last part and saw her visibly jump. Then her eyes shone, and she began to cry, and suddenly the anger was gone. It was as if someone had thrown a bucket of water onto it. I wanted to be angry. I tried to light it again, to get a spark going, but I couldn’t. I hated that she could make me feel like that.
“Of course I know what I’ve done,” she sniffed.
“Then why, Rach? Just tell me why, and I’ll drop it. I’ll leave you alone forever. Swear.”
“You won’t understand. And it’ll sound stupid.”
“I don’t care how it sounds.”
She hooked her sleeve over her fist and wiped at the tears and snot on her face. It left a dark smudge on the fabric. Her hood was still up. She looked lost beneath it.
She wanted to sit, and it’s not like I didn’t have the time. We found a bench near the old, dilapidated kid’s park and sat down together, a few feet between us to prove a point. I tried not to look over at her, but I could feel her watching me. I think she wanted me to reassure her that things could be alright between us, between all of us, but she must have known I couldn’t. Things would never be the same between Tom, Legs, and any of us for a start. And secondly, she’d committed one of the biggest betrayals I’d ever personally had to face at that point in my life. If I couldn’t even look at her, then I didn’t have much hope for our friendship – or for whatever it might have been.
“I took it because we’re poor as hell,” she said simply.
I blinked. “What?”
“You heard me, Luke. We’re poor, so I took it. Alright? Mum kept going on about how we barely had enough electricity or gas to last us the week. She kept going on about bills this, bills that. I did what I thought I had to.”
“It’s really that bad?”
“It was. The money helped a lot.” She shrugged. “Most of it’s been spent now, I think. It hasn’t bought a Playstation, but it kept our heads above water for a while. What else can I say other than I’m sorry?” There was a pause, and I was about to reply when she continued. “Y’know, actually, maybe I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry that I put my family over a game console.”
“Rach, why didn’t you just tell us you needed it?”
“How could I?” she scoffed. “We’re all as poor as each other, pretty much. All of us were entitled to some of it.”
“And you still took all of it?”
“I didn’t feel like I had a choice.”
For a while, I didn’t reply. I watched the few people on the park, the mothers with their young children on the swings, the roundabout, the slide. They were laughing and joking and probably had no worries in the world other than what vegetables their parents were putting on their plates. It annoyed me to admit it, even to myself, but I understood what Rachel meant. We were poor, of course we were. Mum had done more overtime than I cared to mention. Bills had stacked up before and Mum’d always fret about how they were going to get paid, let alone the rent. We’d always got by, somehow, but I could understand the desperation. Mum probably thought I was too young to understand any of it, or too young to care, but I got it. I understood the idea of homelessness, of owing money and of needing it to live. I worried just as much about where that money came from. And I knew that if there was ever a month we weren’t going to get by, I’d have taken that money too. Without a doubt.
“I get it, Rach. I really do.”
She didn’t say anything. She was looking at me though. I could feel her eyes on me.
“I’d have done the same as you, if I needed to.”
“You would have?”
“Yeah. Who wouldn’t? If I’d been in your shoes there’s no way I’d have let my family starve for the sake of a Playstation. The others act tough, but if you asked them all the same question, they’d all say the same thing. They’d all have taken that money.” I looked at her now and she met my gaze. “You think they wouldn’t? You think they wouldn’t jump at the chance to save their own skin?”
There was the faintest trace of a smile on her lips but it didn’t grow into anything bigger than that.
“You’re not mad at me, then?” she asked.
“No. I’m mad at myself for thinking you betrayed us, or something. I guess it’s not that black and white.”
I felt the crinkle of the bag of Rainbow Drops in my jacket pocket. Grinning, I pulled it out and thrust it at Rachel.
“Brought something for you, by the way.”
Now the smile widened into something bigger. Much bigger. She took them from me carefully as if worried I was still angry and might bite.
“No problem, weirder.”
I walked her back to her house. On the way, she opened the Rainbow Drops and shared them with me. I hadn’t had them in years and they tasted a thousand times better than I remembered.
At her door, before going in, she asked, “are you gonna tell the guys about this?”
“No, of course not. What do you take me for? As far as I’m concerned, this whole thing is over and forgotten.”
“Thanks, Luke. You know you’re my favourite.”
We smiled at one another. She leant forward then, and for one horrifying moment, I thought she was going to kiss me. Not that I didn’t want her to, but after everything that had happened, things were different. I understood what she’d done, and I understood why. But it’s like what I’ve already said about friendship being like a mirror. Mine and Rachel’s had taken a bit of a beating, and that was okay – it wouldn’t be impossible to fix. I could tell from the way we could still joke together, and the way she looked at me. The cracks would probably show, but over time we’d be stronger for it. That was the thing though – ‘over time’. We’d be stronger eventually, but right now, we were only weaker. We needed time to pass, to let the broken pieces fuse back together on their own. If we forced it, we’d only be making it worse.
She didn’t kiss me, in the end. She just pulled me into a tight, quick hug, before letting go and running inside and slamming the door in my face. She’d shoved what was left of the bag of Rainbow Drops back into my jacket pocket. I ate them on the way home.