Megan was special. He could just tell.
He wasn’t sure how, but he saw something extra when he looked at her that he’d never seen in anyone else. He actually saw it, like it was shining out from her, like a halo. Maybe it was her soul.
No, of course that wasn’t it. That would be stupid.
But he secretly hoped it was.
It was his friend Baz yelling at him from across the road. The bus was already here, and they were all getting on. Evan was late meeting them, and he sprinted across, narrowly avoiding an accident with a silver Audi. It was only April and the sun was still low and blinding drivers. Not that Evan knew this, since he’d never driven.
He leaped aboard the bus, throwing change into the meter and tearing the ticket from the battered machine on his way upstairs. The others had already claimed the back bench seat, spread out noisily. They were all there – Jim, Baz, and Tom. Baz was Megan’s older brother, Tom was her boyfriend, and Jim was caught awkwardly in the middle, because he had a crush on her but didn’t know how to hide it like Evan did. It amazed Evan that none of them ever argued about her.
“Come on,” called out Tom, looking at his watch. “How are you always at least twenty minutes late for absolutely everything?”
“I’m a bit of a diva,” Evan said. “I enjoy making you wait for me.”
“Well, it was really good of you to finally show up,” Jim nodded earnestly, then blocked the seat with one arm when Evan tried to sit down. “Sorry, seat’s taken,” he said.
“We were here first,” Baz agreed seriously. He said everything seriously.
Tom laughed and unzipped the backpack next to him. “Let him in, lads,” he said. “I’ve got the goods and I’m feeling generous.”
He pulled out bottles of Cobra lager and opened them with his keyring one by one, handing them out. “Even Evan gets one,” he said. “Good job we love you, Evan.”
Tom was the tallest, and the unofficial Alpha. He always wore an unbuttoned plaid shirt over his T-shirts because he was obsessed with 90s grunge.
“I love you too, Tom,” Evan winked. “All hail the bringer of Asian beer!”
They cheered and clinked their bottles, then downed the first half in one go as they always did on trips into town. Evan knew his friends were idiots, and he knew he was one too. He opened the window next to him and closed his eyes as the cold air poured in across his face. He had a feeling he’d remember today for a long time.
The air felt damp in the alleyway, like it hadn’t yet woken with the rest of the day. There was a peculiar smell, of grease and old food and burning, mixed with something rotting. It led to the back of the pub, where dirty wheeled bins sat haphazardly alongside black bags, and steam billowed out of noisy vents. The Wetherspoon’s bouncer had turned them away at the door for looking too young, and only Tom had been carrying a driving license. The rest of them couldn’t prove they were eighteen, but since none of them were until next year it didn’t matter anyway.
Evan didn’t want to touch anything here, but Baz walked up to the kitchen door and tried it, and found it locked.
“Fuckers,” he concluded, then looked up at the black security camera fixed to the wall above. He looked around, found a brick, then hurled it at the camera, connecting with a loud crack.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Tom asked him calmly.
“Smash it!” yelled Jim.
Baz picked the brick back up and hurled it at the camera again, and with another loud crack it broke into pieces and swung from the wall by its wires.
“Headshot!” he yelled with a fist in the air.
They all cheered and high-fived Baz, then turned and ran.
“You do know,” panted Evan as they leaped over black bin bags back toward the alleyway, “we’ve just been recorded smashing that thing.”
“Yeah!” Tom laughed. “You’re on Crimewatch, Baz!”
Jim whooped siren noises as they erupted back onto the main street and carried on running, not stopping until they were safely around enough corners not to be found. As they rounded the last corner the sun caught Evan in the eyes and he stumbled, shielding them with one hand. It was an unexpected reminder of her, and its suddenness hit him, unprepared. For a moment he was weightless, panic surging as he felt he would fall and hit the hard pavement, and he swore he saw her just for an instant in the outlines of light and shadow-shapes flashing through his eyes.
In a second it was all gone, and he righted himself unsteadily. They slowed down and caught their breath up against the brick wall of a multistorey car park.
“Fuckers,” muttered Baz again.
“It’s your fault,” Evan said, trying to hide how shaken he felt. “You look way too young.”
“Me? You look about eleven, you babyfaced prick!”
“Relax, ladies,” Tom said. “You’re all babyfaced pricks. We had no chance.”
“Oh fuck off, Mr Driving License,” snapped Baz.
“Hey,” interrupted Jim, checking his phone. “Aren’t you meant to be meeting Megan about now?”
Evan felt his still-tingling stomach fold slowly around itself. He hadn’t realised Megan would make an appearance. It would probably only be for a few minutes before she and Tom went off somewhere, but still.
“Calm down, Jim,” Baz whispered loudly. He was joking, but there was a stern underline.
“Yeah, she hasn’t messaged yet,” Tom said, checking his own phone.
Evan felt a furtive thrill that the others had started ribbing Jim about it but not him. None of them knew about him. A secret so small it was invisible, but so huge it could be all of space. He shielded his eyes and looked back at the sun.
She called her hair “brown” but that was a dull word for what it really was. Evan saw a deep world of varnished woods, each strand a shade different from the rest. If colours could be measured, every one of those strands was distinct by a mere atom, so that the whole was like an ever-shifting painting.
Evan spent a lot of time thinking about her.
“Yeah, I’m good,” he replied. He took a deep breath but hid how light-headed he was after she’d hugged him. Tom, and then him. Not the others. “Haven’t seen you since last weekend, what’s new?”
“Not a hell of a lot,” she shrugged. “Same old. You know how it is, nothing really happens at my college.”
“Yeah, mine neither,” he said. “I’m just glad to get outside to be honest.”
“Me too!” She laughed an embarrassed laugh and rolled her eyes. “God listen to us, we’re so dull!”
Evan smiled at her. “Megan, if there’s one thing you’ll never be…”
She grinned at him. He could see it, just there. Something in the way she stood in the light. There it was, shining out from her, like she was the moon at night, reflecting the whole sun.
“Stop trying to charm my lady, Evan,” Tom said with a big smile. He was too confident to feel genuinely threatened by anyone.
Megan went over and threw her arms around Tom, pressing her cheek into his shoulder. “Were we making you jealous?” she laughed.
“With this lot? No chance.”
“We love you too, Tom,” said Jim.
Evan wondered if they ever saw it too.
They all walked through town and Evan went with them, watching her, taking her in from the corners of his eyes. He was no longer sure where they were or where they were going, just caught in the wake, an empty bottle bobbing in the current.
He smiled. He always felt a burning inside whenever he saw her soul, or whatever it was. A yearning, a thirst, a fire, and it felt like another world. All the school and homework and even his family and friends were just part of the normal world, the heavy world, with gravity that pulled him back down. Real life was her, and he orbited her.
She had to feel it, too. How could she not? How could something so strong and so endless spiral around her for so long without her feeling a thing? Even if she only felt a tap on her shoulder, or maybe she dreamed of him but forgot when she woke. Maybe she found herself thinking of him but didn’t know why. He knew there was some part of her that knew. He thought about her when she wasn’t there, and he watched her whenever she was with Tom. But there was no envy, no dark seed taking root, no deep need to punish and to own. Just the need to be close to her, to burrow and nestle, to be a part of her.
“Does it ever bother you how much Jim likes your sister?” he asked Baz.
“Not really,” he said. “He knows he doesn’t stand a chance and he’s not weird about it, so…” he shrugged. Typical Baz answer.
Jim was up ahead, talking to Megan, trying to make her laugh. He was succeeding, too. He was a funny guy, Jim. Tom was almost doubled over laughing. Evan couldn’t quite hear what they were talking about. He’d always be the goofy one, Jim. That’s how she’d always see him – funny, harmless. She must have known he liked her, but it didn’t seem to bother her. She must have been used to being adored.
“You said you knew where it was,” Baz complained.
They’d stopped on a street corner which they all sort-of recognised, but none of them really knew where they were anymore.
Tom studied his phone. “Yeah, I was pretty sure I did.”
Jim glanced at his watch. “We’ve already missed the beginning anyway. Who’s up for more booze instead?”
“Come on, there’ll be about a week’s worth of trailers first,” protested Megan.
“Yeah, we can’t give up at the first hurdle,” Evan chimed in, studying Google Maps on his own phone.
“First?” said Jim with an almost pitying expression.
Megan laughed, but tried not to in case Tom got annoyed at everyone digging at him.
“Okay, I think I know where we are,” Tom announced, oblivious to the discontent. Then he frowned and looked around him for a while, immediately doubting himself.
“Look,” said Evan, “ditch that Apple Maps bollocks, we need to go back this way, and then take that left.”
He pointed back down the way they’d just come, then showed his phone to the others who crowded around it.
For once, Evan led the way. The cinema was Megan’s idea, so he was determined to get them there. As they set off he heard her just behind him, talking with Tom, joking that the pack had a new leader now. Evan smiled but pretended to be too engrossed in his phone to notice.
“Okay, we’ve definitely missed it now.”
Jim looked genuinely flustered, constantly mopping his hair with one hand.
“Don’t stress, buddy,” Baz said dismissively. “They’re probably just out on patrol.”
“Two cars? Speeding toward that exact Wetherspoon’s?”
“You don’t know that’s where they were going.” Baz was completely unfazed. “Anyway, it was me that smashed it.”
Megan shook her head. She looked half-amused but half-disgusted. “What’s wrong with you lot?”
“Might as well get us some beers,” Tom said.
“Are you sure you know where to get them from?” Jim asked quietly.
“Shut it, Jim,” Tom replied, equally quietly. “We’re still in the town centre, pretty much. There’s got to be a cornershop here somewhere.”
“Make mine a cider,” Evan said. “I really want a nice, strong cider.”
When he turned around, Megan was standing there smiling at him. Just standing and smiling, then she looked away.
The air was starting to get cool now, with the faintest breeze. The shadows looked long. Evan felt like he used to when he was little, when he was on holiday with his parents, the way the days used to end with them walking through the empty streets after the beach, all the shops closed, and the air was just like this. Back then there would be the faintest drifts of sand in the road and the smell of sea in the air too. They were miles from any ocean now, but Evan pretended, and it made him smile.
The next bus was the last one home. They stopped running at six in this corner of town, for some reason. The driver of the one before wouldn’t let them on because they were all still drinking, so they all had to down the last of their bottles before this one arrived.
When it pulled up, Evan was there at the front, waiting for the doors. He felt dizzy, having been the first to down his drink, and his drink having been a very strong cider. Megan came up to stand next to him. They both heard the smash of glass behind them, along with Tom’s voice.
“Fuck’s sake, Baz, there’s a bin right there.”
“Fuck you, Tom.”
They all got on, and Jim managed to duck behind the group and avoid buying a ticket.
Evan tried to stay with her as they raced upstairs, trying to sit next to her, but the others were far too rowdy and they got separated to opposite corners of the back bench seat. Within minutes Tom was all over her, attached to her face, and Evan simply looked away with a hole in his stomach rather than join in hurling insults with the other two. Soon, Baz and Jim had lost interest and were both huddled over something on Jim’s phone. Evan drew his feet up and sat with his chin on his knees, watching the sunlight flash through the windows, escaping into old daydreams of sea-salt and sand.
“It’s a fucking industrial estate, Jim,” Baz exclaimed as the bus drove away.
“It can’t be too far from home,” Jim said, looking around at all the grey block-shaped buildings and scratching his head. “I’m sure there’s a shortcut to the park somewhere.”
“The park is miles from home, Jim,” Megan said.
“It’s close to my home,” he said sheepishly.
Tom sighed and stepped closer. “Okay, so what do you say we all go back to Jim’s, chill for a bit, get a takeaway and nick his dad’s ale, then get taxis or buses home, yeah?”
Jim shrugged. “Should be fine, my parents are still away.”
Baz’s angry face melted. “Well that’s not a bad plan,” he said, appeased.
“It’s getting cold,” Megan said, hugging herself. “We should hurry before the sun’s gone.”
She tried to put the hood of her hoodie up, but her hair was too long and it slid back off.
“Chase me, boys!” yelled Jim, and he took off down the road, disappearing around a corner.
The others followed, laughing and shouting, utterly without restraint, and Evan was last, suddenly caught up in the laughter and not even knowing why as he ran. He rounded the corner onto a long, straight road, and the sun hit him in the eyes again, making him stumble just a little before he righted himself and laughed even harder, almost hysterical as he ran out of breath.
Megan was just ahead, her hair and her arms out of control as she sped along the street like a wave escaping an estuary, her laughter ricocheting between the empty factories and offices.
The sun was just going down behind the buildings as they ran, bobbing up and down over the horizon of roofs with every footfall and blinding Evan in flashes. Soon he was laughing so hard he had to slow down to catch his breath, and he saw Megan do the same just ahead. She turned and saw him, and she stopped and waited for him to catch up as he began to walk.
She smiled at him, the others all running off without them, oblivious.
“It’s a beautiful sunset,” she said. The whole sky was turning orange ahead.
Evan nodded, too breathless to talk, and Megan simply took his hand and slipped her fingers between his. He felt his stomach turn inside out and his head swim, and he smiled back at her with the sort of amazed look a child has on Christmas morning.
She knew. After all that, she knew.
They walked on in silence, then slowed right down as a gap in the buildings revealed a slice of the sky, blazing and rippled with torn-up cotton clouds. They looked, and the sun flashed out. His eyes blurred for a moment as his vision faltered; the sun was her, her shape became only light. She was the soul he was sure he’d glimpsed, a corona with the whole sun as her head. She slowly turned to him, shining into him. He felt like he wanted to leave his body now, but a sudden sob choked in his throat and he missed a step, almost tripping over. He only looked away for a second to regain his balance, but when he looked back she was the old Megan again, the walls of her body now turned back in like normal.
“You okay?” she asked him.
“Yeah.” He felt tears in his eyes. “The sun just got in my eyes for a sec.”
She stopped walking and leaned into Evan, shading her eyes with one hand to watch it set.
“We’re gonna remember today for a long time, aren’t we?” she asked him.
“Yeah,” he replied, watching the varnished strands of her hair light up. “We are.”
She sighed, then they walked slowly to the others, who had finally stopped at an overgrown alleyway near the end of the long road. Jim must have found his shortcut.
As soon as they were close, Megan took her hand from his, and everything went back to how it was. He never got to hold her hand again, or see her soul-sun shining.
But then that’s probably not what it was anyway. It was probably just his eyes playing tricks after too much cider and running. It couldn’t have been her soul. That would be stupid.
But he secretly hoped it was.