By Jax Calder
Six words: A YA queer slowburn summer romance. What more do you need? Here’s an excerpt from the first two chapters from Jax Calder’s latest The Other Brother.
I spot him as soon as I arrive at the party.
At first I think it’s only someone who looks like Cody, because seeing him at Jamie Anderson’s birthday is like spotting a vegan at a steakhouse.
The Cody lookalike is sitting on the couch. I watch him out of the corner of my eye as I circle the room, doing the usual amount of backslapping and fist-bumping with my friends.
The party is already in its middle stages. Most people greet me with boozy grins and beer breath.
“Ryan, my man.” Oz gives me the shoulder nudge and high five combo we perfected in Year Eight. A random girl standing nearby stares at us. I’m not sure if it’s because she’s admiring our awesome-ness, or it’s due to the fact that with the same blond hair, brown eyes and swimmer’s build, Oz could pretty much pass for my twin after a few beers. “Why are you so late?” he asks.
“I was surfing. Lost track of time.”
“Catch any good waves?”
Harvey ambles over, clutching a beer. “You know what they say about surfing?”
“You should always take out insurance in case the waves start breaking.”
Oz and I groan in unison. Harvey is always good for a bad pun. I flick another glance at the couch. The guy who has Cody’s dark curls and lean build is facing away from me, his T-shirt riding up to show off a sliver of his tanned back. He turns to reach for the cup on the coffee table, giving me a glimpse of his narrow face and large eyes.
Crap. It is Cody. A mixture of feelings bubbles up inside me. Competitiveness, rivalry, comradeship, familiarity, nostalgia, and lots of other stuff all rolled into one tight ball that lodges in my throat.
I need beer to wash it down. I head to the kitchen, weaving through the next round of people saying hello, and help myself to the haven of magnificence that is the keg.
When I come back into the living room, I can’t help glancing back at the couch. It’s not like we’re friends or anything, but I’m curious about what Cody’s doing here.
But he’s not there any more. My eyes dart around the room, searching. I finally locate him standing up against the wall by the stairs. Actually, standing is a far too active term for what he’s doing — he’s letting the wall prop him up.
Holy shit. He’s drunk. I can tell by the looseness of his limbs and the way his gaze isn’t fixed on anything. Despite the wall at his back, he’s swaying slightly, like he’s moving to some song inside his head.
I can’t help staring. I’ve never seen Cody out of control before. He’s usually one of those people who makes a teacher’s pet look badly behaved. I grab my phone and tap out a message to Mel.
Codyʹs drunk. Party at 87 Sylvian Street. He needs to go home. A small part of me — okay, okay, it’s actually quite large — is happy as I press send. Because Mel’s had to bail me out more than once, but I’m willing to bet this is the first time she’s had to deal with a drunken Cody.
Yep, it appears pettiness is my mojo for the evening. After that, I try to get into the swing of the party, shooting the shit with Harvey and Oz, but I keep tabs on Cody the whole time. Cody, who’s still drinking. Or trying to. Only about half of what he attempts to get in his mouth actually makes it there. The rest slops down his front.
On the plus side, it’s taking him longer to get more drunk than if his aim was perfect. Unfortunately, he’s getting enough in to slide from being pretty drunk to really drunk.
I check my phone every few minutes, but Mel doesn’t message back. Eventually, I give up and call her. It goes straight to voicemail. Shit.
In the meantime, Cody has staggered to the bottom of the stairs and slumped over, his head between his knees.
Damn. I’d been looking forward to cutting loose with my friends before the summer holiday sends us sprawling in different directions. Now it looks like my night has encountered roadworks and is heading for a major detour.
I’m not his keeper. I’m about as far from Cody’s keeper as I can be. But I can’t leave him here like this.
I stride over to the stairs.
“Cody.” I shake his shoulder.
He stirs and lifts his head, opening one eye then the other. His gaze settles on me, and his eyes widen. Cody’s eyes could trigger the least inspired person in the world to write poetry. They’re bluey-grey with dark flecks in them and a darker navy outline around the iris. Add dark curls, a straight, strong nose, and the chiselled planes of his face, and he’s an incredibly good-looking guy.
A flash of attraction shoots through me. It leaves a weird aftertaste in my mouth.
I’m an out and proud equal opportunities player when it comes to who I hook up with, so the moment isn’t weird because he’s a guy. It’s weird because of who he is.
“Ryan?” he slurs.
When we run into each other accidentally, we usually pretend we don’t know each other. I’m sure I started it five years ago when we were twelve and saw each other at the movies. I remember his eyes lighting up, and he opened his mouth, but I turned away, ghosting him. It gave me a thrill at the time but ended up just adding another complicated layer between us.
“Yep, it’s me. The one and only.” Going for minimum contact, I tug his arm, trying to manoeuvre him into a sitting position.
“Why are you here?” he asks as I prop him up. He’s not actively resisting me, but he’s not doing anything to help.
“I should be the one asking you that. How do you know Jamie?”
Cody appears to think for a while. “Music camp,” he finally says. The words come out sluggish, like his tongue is set on slow motion.
His answer makes a little bit of sense, although Jamie is in a heavy metal band, which is definitely not the sort of music I associate with Cody.
“It’s time to go home,” I tell him.
“Because you’re a mess.”
“Everything’s a mess,” he mumbles, his words coated in despair. Shit. I definitely didn’t sign up for the role of counsellor tonight. That’s taking it a step too far. A giant moon step too far.
As I try to lift him, I catch a whiff of his aftershave underneath the beer fumes. Cody lets me help him stand and does his best to get his feet to behave as if they’ve previously been acquainted and can work together. I support him with one arm as we cross the living room, ordering an Uber with my free hand.
I leave Cody propped up against the front door as I grab my jacket from the pile on the floor by the coat-rack.
“Who’s that guy?” Harvey saunters over, eyeing Cody curiously.
“Just someone I know.”
I’m not about to explain who Cody is right now as it requires sitting down with pen and paper and sketching out some complex family trees. Once upon a time, before Cody and I were born, Cody’s dad and my mum were married and produced my half-sisters Mel and Kate. But this is one story that definitely didn’t end with a happily ever after. Instead, they had a bitter divorce before marrying other people. Cody’s dad married his mum and they had him, while Mum met my dad and produced me. So Cody and I are connected by our half-sisters, along with the mutual hatred between our parents.
Harvey lifts an eyebrow suggestively, but I ignore it.
“You know what they say about alcohol?”
“It might not solve all your problems, but it’s worth a shot.”
“Oh God, Harvey, that’s bad. Even for you.”
Harvey walks off grinning.
My phone informs me that Mitchell, my Uber driver, will pick me up in two minutes in a Toyota Prius.
Right, time to get outside.
The night is icy with a sharp wind. I shrug into my jacket.
Cody’s standing there in a T-shirt with beer down the front. He begins to shiver. Shit. He probably brought a jacket with him, but there’s no way I’m hunting it down now.
He sloshes up against me as we stand on the kerb. I’m not sure if it’s for balance or warmth. I’ve never been this close to Cody before. His body is firm against mine, the hard planes of muscles causing me to swallow. Cody is an athlete, a New Zealand age-group tennis representative, among his many other talents. His muscles are well earned.
But appreciating them is a worse idea than a Brussels sprout sandwich. Of all the people on the planet, Cody’s high on the list of people I shouldn’t be lusting after.
Our ride pulls up, and I’m relieved to put distance between us. Cody gets in first and fumbles with his seat belt. I lean across and snap him in.
Mitchell turns and eyes us suspiciously. “He okay?”
“He throws up, you’re paying for it,” Mitchell says.
“He won’t throw up,” I promise.
I lean across to Cody. “Don’t throw up,” I instruct under my breath. He obeys me until we pull up outside his house and climb out of the Uber, but two steps later he’s puking in the gutter.
“Shit.” He wipes the back of his mouth with his hand and sinks down onto the edge of the pavement.
I tug on his arm. “Come on. We’ve got to get you inside.”
I eye the porch of his house with trepidation. I’ve heard way too many stories about how strict his parents are. Sneaking him inside will be a fun mission.
We make it up the stairs to the porch without incident.
“Where are your keys?” I whisper.
“They’re in …” He attempts to pat down his pockets, but he’s got none. I take a wild leap of logic and guess his keys are in his jacket. Back at Jamie’s house.
“I’m just taking a break …” He leans his head against the porch railing and closes his eyes.
Awesome. My night just gets better and better.
In desperation, I dial Kate. She’s down in Wellington, but at least she’ll give me advice on the best way to handle this.
“Hey, Rhino, what’s up?”
I loathe Kate’s nickname for me, but I know that if I protest, she’ll just double down on it. Although Mel and Kate are my half-sisters, they’ve never been half-hearted in their hassling of me. And despite them now technically being adults, with Kate twenty-three and Mel twenty-one, we haven’t moved on from our habit of mocking each other ruthlessly at any opportunity.
“Yeah, I’ve got a bit of a situation here,” I tell her. “I was at a party, and Cody was there, and he’s totally out of it, and I thought I should get him home, but now I’m at his house and —”
“Cody’s drunk?” she interrupts.
“Um … yeah.”
“I thought he didn’t drink.”
Her words cause irritation to pound through my veins. It’s part of the theme song that continuously plays in the background of my life. Cody the saint. Cody, the brilliant musician. Cody, the amazing brother.
I’m pretty sure I was permanently disqualified from the favourite brother race at age four when I gave military-spec crew cuts to Mel and Kate’s Barbies, but even so, the knowledge that my sisters prefer their other half-brother always sits like undercooked meat in my stomach.
“If you like, I can send you strong photographic evidence that Cody does actually drink,” I say.
“Okay, okay. Where are you now?”
“I’m by his front door. But he’s lost his keys.”
“There’s a spare one hidden under the blue flowerpot.”
Because my night colour identification superpower is on the blink, I fumble around, lifting random pots before my fingers close over metal.
“His room is the second door down the hallway on the left. Be quiet, Dad and Heather’s room is at the end.”
“Look after him, okay?”
“What do you think I’m doing?”
I hang up on Kate, and channelling my inner stealth skills, gently unlock the door.
But trying to be quiet when you’re escorting a drunk through a house you’re not familiar with is like trying to waltz with an unco-ordinated giraffe.
At 6’1”, I’ve got a few inches on Cody, and I’m bigger too, so I half drag, half carry him down to his room.
I’ve never been in Cody’s room before. I leave the lights off, but there’s enough light coming in the window from a streetlamp that I can navigate my way around. It’s tidy, which helps. Of course he keeps his room tidy. I wouldn’t expect anything less. We stumble towards his bed, and I manage to haul him onto the mattress.
Cody immediately nestles into the pillows, his eyes closed.
I stand over him, looking down. I don’t want to undress him, because that’s taking this whole Ryan-rescue thing way too far. But I probably should at least take off his shoes.
I grab one of his Converse sneakers and tug. It sticks. I loosen the laces and try again.
It comes off just as light floods the room.
Blinking, I turn around, his shoe in my hand.
His mum stands in the doorway. My stomach hollows. She’s the lesser of the two evils, but not by much. I’ve heard a lot about Heather from Mel and Kate, who in their teenage years had a Cinderella com- plex towards their stepmother. She doesn’t look much like an evil stepmother now, though; she looks like a middle-aged woman who’s been woken unexpectedly. She’s got curly hair like Cody, only her curls are grey and currently sticking out in all directions.
The light causes Cody to stir, and he opens his eyes and turns his head towards the door.
“Hey, Mum,” he mumbles.
“Cody.” It’s impossible to imagine more disapproval could be squeezed into one word. She stalks over to the bed and stands over him.
“Have you been drinking?”
“Just a … little.” Cody’s not helping his cause by trying to sit up against the headboard and failing.
She swings her gaze to me. “How did he get so drunk?”
Shit. She hasn’t recognised me. It shows exactly how messed up things are between our families. Cody’s mum has seen me lots at Mel and Kate’s stuff over the years. Granted, I’ve probably spoken about twenty words to her in that time. And, the last time I saw her, my hair was still shoulder length, not short and spiky and bleached like now.
“I don’t know. He was wasted before I got to the party. I’m not even a friend of his.” I hold up my arms in a gesture of innocence, one hand still clutching Cody’s shoe.
She fixes me with a suspicious glare. “If you’re not one of his friends, then who are you?”
It’s the million-dollar question. Who exactly am I in relation to Cody?
I take a deep breath before I answer her the simplest way I know how.
“Uh … I’m Ryan. Mel and Kate’s other brother.”
I watch as the knowledge of who I am sinks in and recognition takes over Heather’s face. I’m guessing she wasn’t expecting to see the child of her husband’s ex-wife tonight.
“I saw him at the party. I tried calling Mel, but she didn’t answer. And I couldn’t just leave him there …”
“Thank you.” Her voice, now drained of anger, sounds tired. I get that tiredness. Families are complicated, especially broken ones like ours.
“He probably needs some water.” I try to fill the awkward space.
“He threw up before, he’ll need to be rehydrated.”
She looks down at Cody then glances at me.
“How are you getting home?”
That’s my dismissal. It feels abrupt. I don’t know what I expected. It’s not like I wanted to sit by Cody’s bedside for the night making sure he’s okay.
“I’ll grab an Uber,” I reply.
“Don’t be silly. Frank will drive you.”
“Seriously, it’s no problem.”
“Frank will drive you.” Her words have a parental finality about them which I know not to fight. She heads for the door. I place Cody’s shoe carefully on the floor before following her, sending one last glance back at Cody as I leave the room.
A few minutes later, I’m stuck in the world’s most awkward car ride. Seriously, a dinner party with the ghosts of Hugh Hefner and Mother Teresa would be less awkward than this.
What do you say to someone who used to be married to your mum and had two kids with her before they split up? Who has then been engaged in bitter warfare with her for twenty years over the way to parent your two half-sisters?
If his relationship with Mum hadn’t soured, she wouldn’t have met my dad, and then I wouldn’t have been born. So, I guess I owe Frank for being a first-class jerk.
I glance at his profile as he drives. I’ve only ever witnessed Frank looking immaculate, so it’s mildly amusing to see his rumpled mid-night look. He’s pulled a sweater over his pyjama top, but I notice the flannel bunched at the neckline, and his blond hair looks like it has been roughly finger-combed to hide his bald patch.
Frank’s forehead is furrowed. I’m guessing he’s trying hard to find something to say to break the silence.
“How’s soccer going?” he finally asks.
“Good. We’re in the semi-finals.”
He switches on the indicator to turn right. We’re leaving behind the sprawling lawns and shiny, large houses and venturing into my neighbourhood, where the houses are stacked closer together and have a stale look about them. My life has always been a slightly crumpled version of Cody’s.
“Do your parents know you were at a party tonight?” Frank asks before the next silence can settle.
Ah. That’s the Frank I was expecting.
“Yeah, they know.” I can’t help twisting the knife a little. “They trust me to be responsible.”
Frank’s face sours. He and Heather were way stricter about stuff like parties for Mel and Kate than my mum and dad. It was a major source of arguments when they were teenagers.
But given I’ve just delivered his baby boy home almost comatose while I’m sitting here relatively sober, I’m guessing there’s not much wind propping up his sails right now.
He pulls up in front of our house.
“Thanks for the ride.” I unclip my seat belt.
“Say hi to your parents.”
It’s hilarious how they do this. Act like things are normal and civilised between them all. Like we’ve never witnessed the hissed conversations that happen when they’re together, the yelling on the phone, Mel and Kate’s tears when they’ve been caught in the middle of whatever the current battleground is.
“Sure thing.” I get out of the car.
He winds down the window to call after me. “Ryan?”
I thrust my hands into my jacket as I turn back to face him.
“Thanks for looking after Cody tonight,” he says. His expression is so like Kate’s when she’s forced to do something she doesn’t want to do that it almost makes me laugh.
“It was no problem,” I reply.
The next morning, I’m lying on my bed ignoring the English assignment sitting on my desk that’s due Monday when my phone beeps.
hey, Mel gave me your number. thanks for getting me home last night. Cody.
I stare at the message for a second. Then pick up my phone to type my reply.
no problem. how much shit you in today?
My phone beeps immediately with his reply.
shit is rating high on the shit-o-meter.
I bite down a grin. Suppressing my smile is overkill given no one is watching me, but I never want to give Cody the satisfaction of laughing at his jokes. He’s got this dry sense of humour that comes out when you least expect it. But being the funny one is one of the few things I’ve ever had over him, and I refuse to relinquish ground on that front.
tried to smuggle you in but your mum caught me.
no worries appreciate you tried
I stretch back on my pillow and think about Cody. About all the random stuff I know about him. He was obsessed with dinosaurs, LEGO, and Star Wars when he was a kid. He loves cornflakes with sugar sprinkled on top. He’s great at Battleship but hates Monopoly. He always picks raisins out of anything. I’ve seen him remove every single raisin out of a slice of fruit cake. For the record, there’s not much left behind from fruit cake once you’ve taken those nuggets of grapey goodness out.
He’s not my friend, has never been my friend, yet thanks to my sisters and the time I’ve spent with him over the years, I know more random stuff about him than I know about all my friends combined.
I grab my phone and stare at his unfamiliar number. Then I save it under my contacts. Just in case.
Two weeks later, I see Cody again at Mel’s flute showcase.
This is when we normally see each other. Birthdays. Graduations. Concerts. Our sisters are overachievers like him, so our parents dragged us to lots of celebrations over the years.
He sits with Frank and Heather two rows in front of me, so all I can see of him are his dark, curly hair and tanned neck. He seems intent on listening to the music, while I’m having to pinch my thigh to stay awake. Flutes must be the most boring instruments on the planet. There’s a reason all those Indian snake charmers use a flute-like instrument to put serpents to sleep.
After what feels like hours but is only 20 minutes, the torture ends and I make a beeline for the after-concert supper.
The food is always fussy and pretentious at these things, but they serve alcohol. I toss up whether the bar staff will ID me but realise even if I get past that particular hurdle, I’ll still have to dodge my parents and Mel. Not worth it. So, I order a Coke instead.
As I’m sipping on it, Cody walks up to the other end of the bar. He’s dressed in a light-blue shirt with tidy black pants and polished dress shoes.
I think back to the party and the momentary sizzle of attraction I had for him.
He does have incredible eyes. And based on the experience of having him pressed against me, he also has an incredible body.
But I can’t lust after him. He’s my nemesis. Okay, maybe not quite nemesis, because that would imply we’re an equal matchup.
Cody and I were born two months apart. So, I guess it’s natural we’ve always been compared to each other. Natural that our parents, who despise each other, would look to one-up the other when it comes to their nonshared offspring.
Unfortunately for my parents, Cody has always blown me out of the ballpark. He was reading by age four. Identified as a musical prodigy at age six. Not content to be simply intelligent and a brilliant musician, he also turned out to be exceptional at tennis.
Why can’t you be more like Cody? Although my parents have never uttered those words, Mel and Kate have, plenty of times. Every time I pulled a normal little brother stunt like putting food colouring on their toothbrushes or balancing plastic cups filled with water over doors. Because apparently, Cody wasn’t that kind of little-brother. Apparently, Cody was the type of brother who volunteered to take their turn loading the dishwasher if they had assignments they needed to finish. Me? Not so much.
I sidle over to the perfect brother now. “So, not getting into the beer then?”
He scowls, grabbing his glass of orange juice from the bartender. “Are you going to give me shit about that?”
“Bro, I had to wash splashes of your vomit off my jeans. I think I deserve some mileage out of it.”
The scowl fades from his face, and he shifts onto the other foot. “Yeah, sorry about that.”
“No problem. We’ve all got to let loose now and again.” I lean against the bar. “So, were you grounded?”
“Oh, yeah. A month.”
“That sucks,” I sympathise.
“It’s okay.” His voice is soft, his gaze on the ground. “There are worse things than being grounded.”
Here’s the thing. I’ve always been envious of Cody. Not just for his talents, but for the fact he’s so focused, so sure of his path in life. He plans to study at the New Zealand School of Music and become a professional pianist.
Meanwhile, my parents give me crap about being directionless. I’m about to go into my last year of high school and I still have no idea what I want to do with my life. Bumming around surfing every day isn’t a legitimate career option according to both my parents and my career counsellor.
But as Cody looks at the floor, his eyebrows draw together and his mouth pinches, and I realise maybe being Cody isn’t as easy as it looks from the outside.
“Hey …” I begin, hesitant.
“What?” Those otherworldly blue eyes lift and skewer me. My heart speeds up.
“You were pretty cut up at Jamie’s party. And both Mel and Kate said you don’t normally drink. Everything okay?”
He swallows, looking away. “Just some shit I’m dealing with.”
“Well, everyone’s always telling me how smart you are, so I’m sure you’ve figured out drinking isn’t the best solution for dealing with shit.”
“Yeah, consider that lesson well learned.”
We share a wry smile, and for some reason I don’t want to move away. We stand in silence for a few minutes. Cody’s watching the crowd, an expression sliding onto his face that is both cynical and sad.
I follow his gaze and discover the reason. There’s drama unfolding. Awesome. Our family always picks the best time to have their little histrionics.
Mum is having an intense discussion with Mel, who then has an intense discussion with Frank and Heather. Annoyed faces are sprouting like poisonous toadstools. I know from experience that it’s best to steer well clear of these types of conversations, so I stay put. Cody meets my eyes, and I know I have an identical look of resignation on my face. Should I say something to acknowledge how messed up it is that our parents continue to haul their past into the present?
But before I have a chance to conjure the right words, one of the other flautists comes up and starts talking to Cody. She must be Mel’s age, but that doesn’t stop her gushing over him with all the accompanying hair twirling and eyelash batting. He laughs softly at one of her jokes.
A quick scan of the crowd reveals all the parental expressions are back into the normal zone now. Standing here listening to the girl flirt with Cody isn’t really filling me with happiness, so I head over to Mel.
“What was that about?” I ask.
Mel tucks a strand of her blonde hair that’s straggled from her bun behind her ear. “Just the usual. Both parents wanting something from me that clashes with what the other wants. But I think we’ve found a compromise.”
I idly pick up some weird pastry thing from a platter. “What’s the issue?”
“I’d agreed to stay at the beach house so it can be painted while Dad and Heather are in Europe. But Mum wants me to stay at your house when her and Max go to Aunt Ethel’s.”
I narrow my eyes as my suspicion swells. “Why does Mum want you to stay at our house?”
“So I can babysit my itty-bitty brother.” Mel tousles my hair, her eyes shining with suppressed laughter.
“Like hell,” I mutter.
I stalk over to my mother, Mel close on my heels. She’ll never miss out on a chance to see me humiliated.
“I don’t need Mel to babysit me,” is my leading line.
Mum gives me a look. “We don’t want a repeat of what happened when we went to Melbourne.”
“You’ve got a memory like an elephant,” I say grumpily.
“It would take a lot to erase the memory of your friends’ butts as you all skinny-dipped in the pool,” Mum replies.
“If smartphones hadn’t been invented, you’d have never known about it,” I declare. “I blame the inventors of smartphones for my current predicament.”
“Perhaps instead you should blame your propensity to disobey the rules and get naked at any opportunity.”
“If God gives you a thing of beauty, it’s your job to share it with the world.”
“It’s all organised now, Ryan. I don’t want to argue with you, too.” Mum’s voice is weary, her forehead creased. She’s playing the I’ve-just-had-to-deal-with-my-bastard-ex-husband card. It’s a powerful one.
“How has it been organised?” Suspicion coats my words.
“Frank and Heather have agreed you can stay with Mel out at the beach.”
Okay, I did not see that coming. I glance at Frank and Heather. I can’t believe they’ve agreed to let me crash at their beach house. They’ve always seemed underwhelmed by me. Some stunts I pulled at family celebrations when I was younger may have left them with the impression that I’m an irresponsible mischief-maker. Maybe my recent rescue of their precious son helped to soften their stance?
“Is Cody going to be there?” I ask Mel. Casually. Like, James Bond has nothing on how cool I manage to deliver that question.
“No. He’s staying in the city for his piano lessons.”
So Cody doesn’t need to be babysat when his parents are away, but I do. Slightly unfair, given recent events.
I open my mouth to protest, then shut it. Because three weeks at the beach isn’t exactly reform school.
I’ve heard lots about the beach house at Orakahau which has been in Frank’s family since his grandfather was a kid. I’ve always been jealous that my sisters get to trundle off to live at the beach every summer while I’m stuck in the city begging rides off people to go surfing.
There’s awesome surf on that part of the coast. And although she likes to talk tough, Mel isn’t a jailer. I’m certain I can convince her to let me invite some friends out to crash for a few nights.
Surfing every day and partying every night. Not a bad combination.
My gaze snags on Cody. There’s always a possibility he could come out to the beach house during the weekends.
My stomach flickers as I imagine spending time with Cody. A whispery shiver tickles its way down my spine.
My summer just became a whole lot more interesting.
The Other Brother
By Jax Calder
Published by OneTree House