My Little Brother by Diane Saxon (Digital Sample)

Read an extract of Diane Saxon’s brand new book My Little Brother – out 11th July!


Prologue

Friday, 15th October 2001

Children spilled from the wide open doors of Moryd-oer Primary School.

They swarmed into the weak autumn sunshine, voices shrill with excitement as they broke up for half-term.

Most raced for the school bus, or their parents’ cars to go home to the outlying farms and communities the village primary school served.

The rest made a mad dash to the playground at the far end of the school fields.

Sharp elbows jabbed each other as they vied for their favourite pieces of equipment.

New rubber flooring in cheerful blue slashed through with a curving yellow path had been laid in the summer to give it a bright, new feel.

The monkey bars had been removed, though. Health and safety, the teachers had said. Not that any of the kids cared about safety. Young Joshua Bailey had knocked his head, blood gushing from it as they’d crowded around to gape.

His mam had screamed blue murder.

‘Hysterical woman,’ the mams had all whispered. ‘Precious boy.’

Still, Mrs Bailey’s well-placed hysteria had gained a virtually new playground. The equipment was updated and painted in primary colours. Two double sets of swings, a roundabout, and a new climbing frame with two slides. The see-saw was generous enough but too heavy to operate without at least three kids either side. God only knew what the Council had been thinking when they’d installed it, but the kids piled on, regardless.

Dylan Davies, eldest in the school and tallest by far, charged to the front of the exodus. His gangly legs outstretched even the fastest of them as he tore through the schoolyard into the field beyond to the playground.

As kids clambered over the equipment like ants, Dylan set the daffodil-yellow roundabout in motion. He put his bony shoulders into it as the smaller kids scrambled aboard.

With one last push, he yanked six-year old Lloyd off his feet and leaped onto the roundabout with him, settling him in the middle. Dylan clenched the bars in his fists and leaned outwards, tilting his head way back as the sun slid behind a pewter sky.

Lloyd sank onto the painted wooden boards, pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped protective arms around his legs.

Heavy black clouds wallowed over snow-capped mountains on the horizon. Strains of sunshine ripped thin tears in the clouds for a few precious moments before they were stitched together again to bring an unnatural gloom to the day.

Not that any of the kids cared. Freedom was all they were focused on. A full week without school. Their voices pitched high with excitement, they exhausted themselves on final bursts of energy before they dashed off home.

Caryn Peeke swiped the mop of mud-brown hair from her eyes as she sank onto the blue-seated swing she seemed to have waited an age for. She gave a kick of her heel to the ground to set it in motion.

A grim mizzle settled, bringing with it a greyness that coated the purple hills and valleys to blend them all the same colour.

The wet soaked through her oversized coat and sent a chill deep into her bones.

She sighed as she watched Lloyd, her little brother. He was happy enough, for now.

Dylan stepped off the roundabout and gave a small, drunken stagger as he made his way over to the empty swing beside her.

‘You off?’

She squinted through the fading Welsh light at Lloyd. Oblivious to everyone else, he crouched on the roundabout as it completed another lazy revolution. Face tilted to sky, growing heavier with rain, Lloyd’s lips moved as he silently counted.

His thumb touched the tip of each of his fingers on his left hand in perfect rhythm.

Little finger, ring finger, middle finger, forefinger.

Relentless repetition.

Little finger, ring finger, middle finger, forefinger.

‘Not yet. Mam asked me to keep Lloyd out a bit longer this afternoon.’ She cast Dylan a sideways glance knowing she could tell him. ‘She had one of her heads on her.’

Dylan nodded his understanding as he rooted in his pockets.

She told him most things, but felt a stab of disloyalty to say her mam could barely get out of bed this morning. They’d had to get their own breakfast as Dad had already left for work. An early start, he’d said.

Caryn fidgeted with the anguish of keeping the secret, but if she told Dylan, he might tell his parents and her mam and dad wouldn’t like that. Older than most of her friends’ parents, they were private people. Especially Mam. She’d not been well lately, always tired.

Still, Caryn felt dishonest, unable to tell her best friend.

And he was her best friend. Sharon and Annie were great, too, but they lived miles away and other than during school time, she never saw them. Some of the other girls couldn’t be bothered with Lloyd tagging along so they drifted off together after school.

Dylan was different. An only child, he kept an eye out for Lloyd.

Best friends since the day they started nursery, Caryn couldn’t imagine life without Dylan. Eldest in the school, something he was proud of. She was the youngest in their year. With her birthday at the end of August, she was only ten, almost a full year younger than him, bar a mere few days.

They’d make their move to senior school together, though. They’d always be together.

He gave her swing a hard push so a high-pitched squeal burst from her mouth before he settled onto the swing next to her. She gave him a quick sideways look as she leaned back encouraging her swing to swoop past his.

She’d probably marry Dylan one day. Become a farmer’s wife, tending sheep and milking cows. It was a fine ambition in life. To be like Dylan’s mam.

Caryn hitched her hood up as the swing slowed. She took a quick glance from under her fringe at the almost empty playground while the light dimmed prematurely before the October nightfall had a chance to lower its dark curtain.

The last of the kids slouched off home, leaving just the three of them.

‘Lloyd, time to go home!’

If she gave him plenty of warning, she might be able to shepherd him home without too much fuss.

With no sign he’d even heard her, she raised her voice. ‘Lloyd!’ She yelled as the swing slowed to a gentle sway. The thick metal chains she gripped icy enough to turn her fingers stiff.

‘Isn’t it your mam’s birthday?’

Caryn gave a small nod. ‘Dad’s ordered a cake from the bakery. To be delivered this afternoon.’

Dylan gave her a blank look, but it didn’t stem the ripple of excitement.

His mam had probably never bought a cake in her life, but Caryn’s mam wasn’t much for baking. She did love to indulge in a chocolate cake from the bakery on a special occasion.

Caryn’s mouth watered in anticipation. She could almost taste the thick, creamy chocolate icing and soft, rich sponge that melted in your mouth.

If she could grab Lloyd’s attention for a moment, she could persuade him with the promise of cake. Caryn hadn’t dared tell him before. There was no way he was capable of keeping a secret. It would blurt from his mouth and the surprise would be over.

It had been difficult enough for Caryn to keep the secret for almost an entire week since her dad told her. Her insides fluttered with the excitement of it. The anticipation of mam’s birthday.

‘We’re off to Rhyl for four days, too.’ She flashed Dylan a grin. ‘Don’t let on, otherwise Lloyd will never sleep tonight.’

Dylan nodded. She knew he would rather she stayed so they could play together, and milk the cows, but the excitement of running along the windswept beach almost burst from her.

‘It’s Mam’s “special” birthday.’

‘Special?’

‘She’s fifty.’

Dylan turned his head, wide eyes meeting hers. ‘Fifty? Bloody hell. My grannie’s only fifty-four. When did she get to be that old?’

Caryn pressed her lips together and frowned. ‘She’s not old.’ But her mam and dad were. They were older than her friends’ parents.

Dylan gave a shrug and they fell into silence.

He was a little jealous, Caryn could tell. He probably wanted to go to Rhyl too, but she wasn’t going to let it spoil her fun.

She couldn’t wait to see her mam’s face. Dad said they might have to keep it quiet until Lloyd was in bed. Caryn was often fast asleep well before him. He didn’t seem capable of switching his brain off. No wonder Mam was tired.

Dad said he might be home early from work. Lloyd would love that. She hoped Dad would bring some candles home for the top of the cake. They’d never get fifty on there. Fifty candles. She couldn’t imagine it. It would probably melt the cake.

She glanced over at Lloyd. He’d not moved since they’d arrived. Still counting.

It was all a matter of timing. She was good at that.

Trouble was, if she told Lloyd now and they arrived home too early and the cake wasn’t there, Lloyd would kick up a storm of a tantrum. Mam would take to her bed and Dad and Caryn would sit in miserable silence staring at the cake over the kitchen table. Too guilty to eat it.

She couldn’t be bothered with that.

But she did want to go home, now, before it was full dark.

The thrill of the present she’d bought for the first time, all by herself, taunted her. To see the pleasure on her mam’s face, as she unwrapped it. She couldn’t wait.

Mam might scare the living crap out of them from time to time with the snap of her temper, but Caryn loved her with a fierce protectiveness for the woman’s frailty. None of her friend’s mams suffered such pain. Headaches to blind a person, according to her mam. It had been worse since the summer had slipped away and the days had become a dull drudge.

Caryn tugged her hood up over wet hair for the umpteenth time and stared at Lloyd while the roundabout continued to turn.

‘Lloyd.’

She hunched her shoulders up to her chin. She wanted to go home.

Why couldn’t he take notice of her? She hated when he ignored her.

Her annoyance kindled, a slow burn to sour her stomach.

She scraped the soles of her shoes against the rubberised surface to draw the swing to a standstill.

Why did they have to stay out, just to keep him happy?

It wasn’t fair.

It should be about their mam.

Not Lloyd. They’d be home by now if it wasn’t for him. For her mam just wanting a little longer without him on her birthday.

Caryn pressed her lips together and scowled from under her heavy, wet fringe, the drift of anger settling deeper.

It was always about him. Never about her mam, or her. Not any more.

Not since Lloyd’s diagnosis.

‘He’s not right, your brother. Not bloody right in the ’ead.’ A puff of smoke came from Dylan’s lips to circle her head as he grumbled from his own swing seat. How long had she been staring at Lloyd? She’d almost forgotten Dylan was there, but for the smell of cigarettes.

The build of irritation extinguished in a burst of laughter as Caryn turned her head to meet Dylan’s mischievous gaze. Impressed with his rebelliousness, she watched as a stream of smoke flowed from his nostrils to be snatched away by the bitter blast of wind.

‘Where’d you get that?’

‘Uncle Rich chucked a packet in the bin. There was still one in it.’ Dylan screwed up his face as he held out the cigarette butt towards her. A challenge glinted in his eyes. ‘You want a drag?’

Temptation beckoned as Caryn took a sneaky glance around the otherwise empty playground.

It was surrounded on two sides by a wide band of brown, freshly tilled fields flowing to the horizon where they dipped into a gorge of thick woodlands. Grassed fields came to an abrupt end on the third side with a fence line to protect the children from streaming out onto the narrow lane from Wrexham that hugged the perimeter of the fields, and circled past the school, through the village.

Beyond that, vast swathes of grazing land sectioned with dry-stone walls stretched south as far as the Berwyn summits, with Moel yr Henfaes and Moel Fferna lying to the north end of the Berwyn range. Ghostly monsters in the failing light.

Edging the fourth side was a tree-lined football pitch that butted onto the school playground.

Enough places for old Mrs Turner to lurk with her scabby Jack Russell. Old as the hills. Both of them.

If Mrs Turner caught her smoking, the old bag would delight in telling her mam and Caryn would be grounded until her twenty-first birthday.

Caryn shook her head at Dylan. ‘No, ta.’

‘Coward.’

She ignored Dylan and dragged her attention back to her little brother, irritation lacing her voice. ‘Lloyd!’

‘Lloyd!’ Dylan bellowed above her ear and almost made her pee herself.

Absorbed in his own world, Lloyd ignored them both.

Tempted to grab a quick drag of Dylan’s cigarette, Caryn cast it a longing glance, impressed with his sophistication. She wished she could be as cool.

She didn’t dare. She searched the skyline for prying eyes. Did she?

Folk in their tiny village of forty-five houses were always willing to dob her in.

Even if nobody saw, the smell would cling to her saturated coat. Mam would give her hell and then she might tell her dad. His long, narrow nose would tighten so his nostrils whitened at the edges.

His displeasure would be a quiet glance of disappointment and nothing more. The only response she got since Lloyd’s ‘condition’ demanded so much of his attention.

She’d ceased to exist in his world.

All she wanted was the warmth of his gaze on her. Instead, constant strain etched furrows into a brow which had deepened in the past year as age and anxiety pushed his hairline back.

She loved her parents.

It was her mam she was daft scared of when her temper erupted, but it was her dad’s disappointment that sliced her in two.

If ever they split up like Sasha Wright’s parents, Caryn would live with her dad and leave Lloyd with her mam. Mam would have to deal with him and stop putting so much pressure on her and her dad, just because her head hurt.

Dylan held the cigarette out to her again as if just dangling it in front of her would change her mind. He narrowed his eyes against the smoke circling upwards.

She shook her head and her hood slid backwards once again. Drops of moisture sprayed from her fringe and the cold drizzle of it snaked its way down her cheek to drip inside the collar of her coat. Her teeth chattered.

She was cold, and she was tired. She wanted her brother to get off the roundabout so they could go home where the coal fire would be burning and there’d be tea and cake. A smile would curve her mam’s lips as Caryn handed over the wrapped present. It wasn’t much. All she could afford from the local combined post office shop and chemist. A small bottle of Panache perfume. Caryn preferred Charlie, it was more modern, but her mam would love Panache.

With a sigh, Dylan brought the cigarette back to his lips and took another long pull before huffing the smoke out as he nodded at her brother again.

‘What did you say was wrong with him?’

She sniffed before she answered to give herself a moment to get it right, the word still awkward on her tongue. ‘Asperger’s.’

Dylan’s lips twisted. ‘Never heard of it.’

Nor had Caryn, not until recently when her parents had spoken in hushed tones about it.

She’d always known there was something different about Lloyd. It didn’t matter to her, he was her brother. He might irritate the hell out of her, but she loved him.

It appeared her parents had only just noticed he was different. Or acknowledged he was. Perhaps the fear of it had closed their eyes until they could no longer ignore it.

‘Still doesn’t make him right in the ’ead.’

‘Makes him a little genius, apparently.’ She couldn’t keep the swim of bitterness from her voice. There’d been a distinct change in their lives since his diagnosis. The change hadn’t come from Lloyd, but from their parents. ‘Don’t upset Lloyd. Keep Lloyd happy. Let Lloyd have it, do it, see it…’

‘Genius, my arse!’ Dylan leaped from the swing and left it to rock wildly behind him. ‘Right, I’ve got to get off home to help Dad with the ’erd.’

He dropped the cigarette butt and ground it under the heel of his boot before he tucked his hands into his coat pockets. He swung around to face her. ‘You think you can persuade the genius to come along now, or do I need to leave you both here?’

Caryn pushed to her feet. More controlled than the lanky-legged Dylan whose arms and legs seemed to have grown faster than the rest of him.

She raised her chin, her voice strident. ‘Lloyd, it’s time to go.’

Other than to swapping finger-tapping from left to right, Lloyd ignored her.

Caryn swiped a wet drip from her nose with the back of her hand. Her fingers had turned orange and the strong smell of iron from the link chains on the swing lingered in her nostrils. ‘Looks like we’ll be a while longer. You’d better go.’ She tucked her reddened hands deep into her coat pockets. There was no point trying to force Lloyd, he’d just have a meltdown and then it would take ten times longer to get him home.

She’d give him another minute and then tell him about the cake. That should move him. Then he’d be off like a rocket.

Dylan hesitated, his reluctance to leave her evident in the uncertain bob of his head. ‘Dad will give me hell if I don’t get back to help milk the cows.’

Caryn doubted it. Dylan’s dad wasn’t quick to temper. She helped on Saturday mornings when she could roll out of bed early enough. Easy in the summer when it was light at half four, but since the darker mornings, the only thing that kept her going was the generous wad of money he stuffed into her hand for helping. Not coins, but real notes.

Her mam wasn’t happy about it. She’d pursed her lips and fallen silent the first couple of times Caryn came back, holding her money in the air with a proud wave.

You’re too young, our Caryn. You don’t need to work. What will people think, us sending you out to earn a living at your age?

But she loved it, and she wanted the money. That’s how she’d managed to buy the present.

Her mam was more uptight that time spent milking the cows was less time for Caryn to look after Lloyd. She’d not said anything further since Caryn had started taking him with her.

Dylan’s mam liked Lloyd. They made cakes together while Dylan and Caryn were in the cowsheds. He loved to weigh the ingredients, took his time, and made sure it was exact. Unlike her mam, Dylan’s never once lost her rag with him. Then again, he’d never had one of his meltdowns in her presence either.

Perhaps the reason he didn’t was because she paid him attention. She didn’t make a fuss if he spilled something, or made a mistake, or a mess.

Dylan’s mam was brilliant.

Dylan prodded her with his elbow to bring her back to the present. ‘Walk with me as far as the gate, Caryn.’

She slipped one hand from her pocket and chewed on her thumbnail, pulling a face at the metallic taste coating her tongue. ‘I shouldn’t leave him.’

‘Don’t be daft. You’re hardly leaving him. The genius will be fine for a minute. Besides, I won’t see you all week.’

‘We’ll be back midweek.’

‘But not till then. Come on, Caryn.’

She ducked her head to hide her smile as she nodded.

It was only to the gate onto the lane. They’d not even be out of view. Lloyd would be fine. Besides, Caryn glanced over at Lloyd as he continued to count, he wouldn’t even notice. She raised her chin and projected her voice. ‘Lloyd, I won’t be long. Don’t move from there.’

‘He doesn’t hear you, no matter how loud you shout.’ Dylan held out his hand and she allowed him to wrap her frozen fingers in his larger, warmer ones, his skin weather roughened from the work on the farm.

She gave a small shudder as she walked alongside him and hoped no one spotted them. They’d always held hands, but things between them were changing and a slide of shyness stopped her from replying.

She glanced at him from beneath her eyelashes.

He might even be her boyfriend soon.

If he asked, she’d say yes.

The light drizzle turned heavy as the clouds brought mist rolling from the mountains across the acres of brown farmland, ready to engulf the village.

Caryn blinked the stream of water from her eyes as fresh gusts of wind brought a chill with them.

The lights of an approaching car cut a ribbon through the heavy descending greyness as it glided through the puddle-lined lane towards them.

In case it was someone they knew, Caryn slipped her hand from Dylan’s and hooked her hood up again as they neared the gate. They came to a stop, and she tucked her hand back into her pocket while they were spotlighted for a brief moment in the slash of bright headlights.

Dylan turned to her as the car swished by, a grey ghost blending into dark hedgerows, windscreen wipers thrashing to keep up with the downpour. The dark outline of the driver blurred through steamed-up windows.

As it passed, spray splashed up to soak their black school trousers. The darkness it left cast shadows over Dylan’s face, plunging his eyes into deep pits. ‘I’m off now, I’ll see you when you get back.’ He hesitated and made her pulse flutter. ‘Are you going to let me kiss you?’

It was a question he’d asked every other day for the past few weeks. A joke. A test.

She was pretty confident she knew how to kiss. She’d been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It didn’t look that difficult.

If she said yes, would he laugh and call her a sucker?

She shook her head unwilling to take the chance. ‘Not today, Dylan.’ It may not always be her answer, but it was for now. She might change her mind another time.

She caught the flash of his slightly crooked, white teeth as he grinned and knew he’d expected that answer. Perhaps she’d shock him next time and say yes. It might be worth it to see the surprise flash through eyes prettier than any girls’ with their thick black lashes framing them. Lashes she’d die for.

Her mam wasn’t much for make-up, but she liked to flick through the well-read Cosmopolitan magazine she brought home once a month from the mobile library. Her only indulgence, she’d say as she swung her legs up onto the bed and leaned back against plumped-up pillows.

Caryn was too young to read it, her mam told her, but she sneaked a peek at the photos of models whenever she could.

She dreamed of the time when she could apply mascara to her pale lashes. To darken, thicken, lengthen them. Just like the women on the slick, glossy pages. Her mam said she was too young for that too, but Victoria Jones started to wear mascara as soon as she went to senior school. All the girls did. They went out in the morning with lush eyelashes and returned home with dark smudges under panda eyes. The Cosmopolitan told you how to deal with that, too.

Dylan hunched his shoulders against the rain as it plastered his black hair to his head. ‘Later, then. I’m off.’

‘See you.’

‘Have a good time. Wish your mam a happy birthday.’

She watched for a moment as the curtain of rain swallowed him before she turned and headed back to the playground. She tugged her hood close around her face and smiled to herself. Excitement quivered through her as she ducked her chin into the neckline of her coat and made a dash back to the playground. She’d tell Lloyd about the cake, now. That would make him move. They’d have to be quick. She was absolutely bursting for a wee.

She couldn’t wait to get home.

Mam was going to have a lovely birthday. She may sing along to the radio, like she sometimes did after tea. Especially if Lloyd was happy too. She was going to love her presents.

Caryn raised her head and her steps faltered.

An eerie silence dropped like a woollen cloak and the smile fell from her face.

She swivelled on her heel back to the gate, tempted to call out for Dylan, but he was gone.

Her breath caught in her throat as she faced the playground again.

Visibility shortened until she could barely see ahead of her.

Something was wrong. Her full bladder cramped.

The excited quiver of a moment ago turned oily in her stomach.

With panic making her heart race, Caryn sprinted towards the playground, her shoes squelching through the sodden grass.

At the railings, she paused, her breath heaving. In the cotton-wool white noise of rainfall, broken only by the soft squeak of one of the swings giving a lazy pendulum to and fro, Caryn’s chest gave an uncomfortable squeeze.

‘Lloyd?’ Her voice came, soft and unsure.

One step at a time, she made her way into the centre of the playground.

No longer in motion, the roundabout was empty.

Her brother wasn’t there.

Caryn squinted through the failing light, her frantic gaze roamed each piece of playground equipment.

‘Lloyd?’

She stepped onto the roundabout and gripped the painted iron bars, convinced if she looked hard enough, Lloyd would appear. Fingers stiff with cold and fear, she let go and stepped back off the roundabout.

He should be here. Right where she left him.

Where was he?

She’d not been away long. Had she?

Barely any time at all.

Fear choked her, so her voice came out a rusty whisper. ‘Lloyd?’

The steady pound of rain filled her ears as she strained to hear his reply.

Nothing.

A soft sob escaped her. Darkness pressed down. Lloyd wasn’t there.

She was all alone.

She took two stumbling steps, the toes of her school shoes caught on the rubber flooring. Circling around, she narrowed her eyes in the hope that her vision would pierce through the thick veil of cloud and reveal her little brother.

‘Lloyd! Where are you?’

Her legs turned heavy as she flung back her hood, her breath coming in quick, panicked snatches.

Hell, where was he?

Had he gone home without her? If he got back before her, she was in deep poo. Her mam would kill her. If he crossed the road on his own. What if he got hit by a car?

She turned her head to where she’d left Dylan.

That car.

Her stomach cramped and the hot scald of urine soaked through her knickers and trickled down the inside of her thighs.

Icy fingers of rain trailed over her cheeks to mingle with her tears.

A frantic shriek tore from her throat as she bolted across the playground, heading for home.

‘LLOYD!’


Diane Saxon’s brand new psychological thriller My Little Brother is out 11th of July.

Pre-order your copy here: 🇬🇧 https://amzn.to/3k3NnTX 🇺🇸 https://amzn.to/3jZNWhG