They were 11. Their parents had just decided to sell their London home and move the family to the coast, giving them ‘more space and room to grow’. Adie now had a room to himself at the back of the house, with a huge bay window looking out across rolling green hills to the blue sea stretching beyond. It was just as messy and cluttered as his old room had been, and it still smelled like paint and plaster from all the redecorating they’d done before they moved in, but it was bigger, and that seemed to be the only consolation his mother could give him.
He sat on the floor in the middle of it, boxes of his belongings still spread out around him a week after they’d made the move. The sheets on his new double bed were tangled and sweaty from a restless night’s sleep, and his carpet was piled with week-old clothes and bedding and cushions and curtains that he hadn’t bothered to do anything with yet. He had his back to the open window, the wind blowing through it to gently tickle the hairs on the back of his neck. In his hands, he held a slip of pale yellow paper, the black ink spread across it turning grey with wear.
It had been a Saturday morning, and he and his twin sister had emerged from their room and stumbled into the kitchen with bleary, sleep-encrusted eyes. They’d slid into their spots at the table and slumped in their chairs, glasses of golden orange juice waiting for each of them, and helped themselves to piles of hot, buttery toast. Then their parents had dropped into the seats opposite them, big, anxious smiles on their faces, and announced the move. There were to be no ifs, no buts and no protests: it was happening, and they had a month to pack up, de-clutter and get used to it.
They’d sat at the table for another half hour, suddenly not really hungry, their stomachs churning with anxiety. London had been their home for the whole of their lives, and they couldn’t imagine ever living anywhere else, and yet they didn’t really have a choice. They tried arguing, begging and pleading, but there was nothing for it: the deposit had been put down, and the decision was final. But, his mother had said, they’d viewed the house the week before and it was much bigger than the one they had here, and it was more important than ever that they have their own space: they were growing up, and they needed space to be alone.
Adie had stormed from the table after that, marching back to his bedroom and quickly changing out of his rumbled pyjamas. One side of it- the messy one- belonged to him. The other side was almost too clean, meticulously organised by his twin. It was true, he realised as he glanced between both sides. They were growing up, and soon they’d be bringing people home and he couldn’t well bring any future girlfriends to a room he shared with his sister. Plus, he noted, glancing at the assortment of underwear dangling out the top of the laundry basket, his sister was growing in other ways too.
He’d slipped his trainers on and ran from the house despite his parents’ protests, his heart pounding and twisting and squeezing with fear and anxiety and the realisation that everything was about to change. He didn’t do this with any kind of plan in mind, and had no expectations about what he was supposed to gain from it, but he did it nonetheless, and once he started running, he found that he couldn’t stop.
It took him just over fifteen minutes to run to the high street, where he slowed to a walk with his lungs aching and gasping and his knees shaking in his jeans. His face shone red with sweat, his dark hair sticking in strands to his forehead as he struggled to catch his breath. He had no money and no plan, so he wound his way through the sea of people, gazing aimlessly into shop windows as he passed. He’d been standing outside a bookshop, looking through the glass and wondering whether to go in and look at the books just to kill some time, when the stranger appeared beside him.
She wore slender black high-heeled shoes and was almost twice his height, her long legs vanishing into a tight-fitting black skirt. Her face was hidden by a curtain of raven-black hair, which fell in cascades down the back of her blazer. She was ageless, both young and yet with an air of experience about her, and her sudden appearance sent an unseasonable prickling chill down the very middle of his spine.
Silently, she slipped a slender, carefully manicured hand into the inner jacket pocket and extracted a slip of yellow paper, the black words etched across the top of it obscured by her fingers. He found himself taking the paper from her, his fingers plucking it deftly from between hers and folding it into his palm. Then, almost as though she was never there in the first place, the stranger was gone.
He held this paper now, in the middle of his new bedroom hundreds of miles from his old one, the ink mostly worn away by the constant fiddling of his fretting fingers. It held a simple proposition, a tantalising invitation so out of this world that he couldn’t get it out of his mind. The flyer didn’t even look official, and gave him the impression that it definitely belonged to some kind of black-market organisation dealing in organ trading, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to put it down.
A knock at his door disturbed him, and Megan had slipped into his room before he had time to tell her not to. “You know, now that we have our own space, you’ve got to respect my privacy.” He said simply and sarcastically, looking up at her from where he sat. He curled his hand into a fist around the paper- they never kept secrets from one another, but for some reason, he found that this was something he was unable to share.
“You haven’t unpacked yet,” she said in reply, her eyes focused on the yellow paper half-hidden in his fist. “What’s that?”
“Shopping list,” He said automatically, his lips forming the words before they’d even entered his mind. “Stuff I need to pick up before school next week.”
She nodded, but she knew it was a lie. He could see it in her face.
He heaved himself to his feet, weaving through the boxes to his desk and tossing the paper into the top drawer. “What did you want?”
“I wanted to hang out. I feel like I haven’t seen you all week.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“Doing what?” She asked incredulously, motioning towards the mess of his room. Sure, he’d pushed his furniture into some sort of permanent-looking arrangement: his desk was positioned against the wall underneath the window, and his empty bookshelves were stacked between the desk and the bed to make a kind of division between the two. His bed had been pushed into the corner so that there were walls on two sides and bookshelves on the other, and his wardrobe and chest of drawers (although both empty) were at least built up and ready to be filled.
He took one graceful step over a smallest stack of boxes and fell onto his bed, twisting to look up at the old, beamed ceiling. Megan flopped down beside him, tucking her legs beneath her and playing with the strands of hair hanging either side of her face. They didn’t speak for a long while, the silence between them broken only by the noises from outside and the low clanging of their mother cooking in the kitchen below.
“Do you want some help unpacking?” Megan asked finally, her eyes fixed on the stacks of brown cardboard boxes spread across his room, each marked with a thick letter A written in black marker. “If we do it together, it won’t take long.”
He didn’t answer, so Megan dropped to the floor and peeled the tape off the closest box. It was full to the brim with books of all shapes sizes and colours, some of them well-loved and soft with age, others never read and still crisp at the edges. She extracted a handful and threw them into her brother’s lap, then took the rest of the box over to his desk and began to stack them on the shelves.
“What are you doing?” Adie asked, dumping the books on his bed and racing to stop her. “I said no.”
“You didn’t say anything, actually,” Megan put another couple of books on the shelf, then ducked beneath his arms to grab those from the bed. She put these next to the others, then scrambled for another box. “The way you’re acting, it’s as though you think you’re going to get the chance to move out any day now.”
He thought about the yellow paper in his desk, the opportunity being offered to him.
“Megan,” Adie pleaded with a sigh, dropping back down onto the bed. He frowned and extracted the last of the books from beneath his back, throwing it at her with only half an intention to do any damage. “Can you stop?”
She paused then, frowning back at him. “Why?”
“Because it’s my stuff,” He said simply, rolling over to face the wall. “And I don’t want to unpack. Not yet.”
“Because I don’t like it here. This isn’t my room.”
Megan looked around in confusion. Sure, it didn’t look like his room, and it didn’t smell like his room, but then three-quarter of his stuff was still packed away in boxes and after all, they’d only really been there for a week. She sat down beside him, slowly starting to understand what he meant. She’d felt it too, and tried to push it away no matter how many times the feeling came clawing back. “I miss it too,” She said, leaning her head on his shoulder.
They’d never show this much affection around their parents. They were siblings, and they were expected to have disagreements and fight about everything, from who gets the last slice of toast to who gets to use the shower first. It was in these few moments of peace, when one would feel exactly what the other was feeling, as though it was radiating across the space between them.
Adie leaned his head against hers, gazing into the gaping emptiness of the wardrobe propped up against the wall beside the door. Sadness rolled within him, and he could feel it within Megan too. His sadness felt like waves crashing against every inch of him, cold and sharp and living and loud, spinning him over and over and dragging him under. Megan’s was softer and calmer, smooth and slow and defeated instead of angry and wild. It was almost as though she’d given up being mad at their parents and had just accepted it, and he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t.
“It’s quiet here,” he said matter of factly. It was more of a statement than anything else: he didn’t expect a reply and he didn’t get one. Instead Megan sat silently at his side, her determined calm wrapping around him and holding him down, working like a blanket to muffle the noise of the storm boiling up within him.