“Have you ever thought about,” Charlotte says on 12 September, with a look in her eye all at once distant and wicked, “kissing?”
Shauna’s gulp of mineral water abruptly disagrees with the notion of being swallowed. She sputters and coughs, doubling over forward, earning a fit of giggles from Mildred. The boys, two paces behind them as they are every morning on the walk to school, seem to take a sudden interest in the conversation, surprising no one.
Shauna glances over her shoulder at them a bit desperately, as if to confirm that she really did hear what she thought she just heard coming out of her best friend, Charlotte Grote, Renouncer of Snogs. Jack’s face is fiercely red, Linton looks equal parts paralyzed and transfixed, and Sonny’s lips are all crumpled together nervously. Confirmed.
“In—” she finally manages to rasp, wiping her mouth with the side of her fist. “In what sense?”
“Like you know, how it came about,” Charlotte explains, with many gesticulations. She’s grinning now, that sharp and impish-looking grin that develops whenever she begins thinking about particularly mischievous things; it has taken on an even higher definition in the recent year due to the steady disappearance of her baby fat. “Like which obbly ole caveman thought it would be a fit idea to take the mouth he used for eating and biting and place it passionately upon another caveman-or-woman’s mouth, as an essential part of the mating ritual. And, how we came as a species to evolve into agreeing that it was a fit idea, and that the most important part of showing affection would be sucking on each other’s sucking-parts, you know, that the tongue would be the most effective tool in love-making.”
Mildred makes sort of an odd face at that, Shauna notices. She herself probably makes one, too.
“Oh, you know what I mean,” Charlotte all but brays, arms swinging. “I always thought the Eskimos had the right strategy, with all that nuzzling. Simple! Endearin’! An’ then Frood said it was all about suckling at the teat, some sort of subconscious desire! I suppose that’s possible. And we’re the only weirdos in nature who do it, you know. The only ones who thought, say, let me put my mouth on your mouth when we get married as a show of ultimate devotion. Let me peck my lips upon your lips for just too short of a time at the end of our evening out to signal to you that I have become disillusioned with you but am too frightened to say it aloud, good-bye, Phyllis. Lore! And it’s become well indispensable, to the point where girls will drive themselves mad with grief if they do not receive their first pash by a certain age, an arbitrary deadline predetermined by the universe! And for what? A load of spit and slobber? The lingering taste of their lunch on your lunch? What if they’ve eaten spam?”
“I’ve heard puffins will kiss actually,” Sonny chimes in, smiling cautiously. “And meerkats, and elephants.”
“Elephant kisses don’t count though, do they?” Jack mutters, largely to himself (Shauna can tell). “Not with the sticking of the snout in the mouth, and—”
“Can we talk about something other than kissing?” Linton’s voice cracks, which only makes Charlotte’s face take on an entirely new level of glee. “Such as perhaps, er… crime?”
“Have you done a crime recently, Linton? Are you trying to confess?” Mildred teases him.
Sonny’s eyes widen. “Oh, Linton, don’t do crime. Crime’s bad.”
“I didn’t do a crime!”
“What’s brought all this on, Lottie?” Shauna asks, unable to keep the concerned frown from her face. “All this talk of pashing. It normally never occurs to you, I mean. I mean it’s not got to do with strange Wikipedia articles and… Fox Mulder’s choice in ties.”
“It just started swirlin’ around in my thinkin’ space in the shower this morning, is all,” Charlotte explains, stretching her arms over her head as she walks on and smirking at the cloudy sky. “It seemed appropriate to muse about in the case of growing up.”
“It’s been a right tricky one so far,” Sonny says sagely. “The growing-up business. I’m not really sure how much I—”
“You’ve got experience with puzzling field of snogging, haven’t you, Shauna?” Charlotte demands over him. “Certainly more than any of us.”
She slings an arm around Shauna’s shoulder, waggling her eyebrows, and Shauna is fairly certain that that’s how she learns what it’s like to have a heart attack. Old people have it well bad.
“Wh—excuse me!” Mildred squawks, barging between them, hands indignantly in the air. “I’ve done plenty of snogging! I’m the champion snogger!”
“Oh, dear,” Sonny squeaks.
“Oh I know you have, Mildew, but Shauna’s so academic about these things. I’m merely ar-sking because perhaps she can compare notes with her bygone partner, for our collective benefit, researchically. I’m sure you both had a well good time of it, all that slobber.”
Shauna wants very much to die. She immediately covers her burning face with her hands and nearly trips over herself due to her newfound self-inflicted blindness, which earns her nothing more than a chortle from Charlotte, her ex-best-friend, encroyarb trahison!
Jack hasn’t said a word. Shauna’s afraid to look at him. She’s also afraid to breathe, and live, and continue trying to live now that this horrendous catastrophe has descended upon her helpless mortal form.
“Oh, flipping Norah, Jack, take those ruddy earbuds out! This is serious business!”
The sharp path of descent that Shauna’s stomach had been taking only a moment ago changes its trajectory to something much more in the realm of relief. She whirls, hair following her, to shoot Jack a look that’s all at once offended and grateful, which he doesn’t notice, being that he’s trying to wrestle Charlotte off of him as she claws at his earbuds.
“Leave off him, Grote; I can call the police on you!” Linton threatens, leaping into the fray.
Shauna loses sight of Jack’s face and can only see his arms flailing wildly about between Charlotte and Linton’s warring, sniping forms. Sonny is looking on worriedly with his hands clasped at his chest. Mildred’s texting. Oh, no, no—there was a click, just now. Mildred’s taking photos.
Figuring that it’s the only logical course of action, Shauna keeps walking until she’s left them safely behind. She resolves for at least five minutes to never speak to Charlotte Grote again.
Mildred tells her later, after biting into an ice lolly and leaning back on one hand, legs kicking over the side of the short brick wall behind the library, “Lottie’s decided to take up matchmaking. And I mean it’s fun and all, good for her, et cetera, but the last time she tried it, it resulted in severe damage to both a beloved local pub and an innocent bridge troll’s psyche, so.”
“I don’t like Jack anymore,” Shauna declares, firm, frowning down at the open book in her lap that she hasn’t been able to absorb a word from.
Mildred’s smirk makes all of the air around them change. “Nobody said anything about Jack, Shauna.”
People are saying things about Jack soon enough, however. Not that Shauna’s paying a whole lot of attention, or anything! She will lend her ear occasionally, when it suits her. Otherwise she's quite unbothered.
“He’s where?!” she shrieks, fists bunched in Linton’s blazer and making a point of shaking him, on the morning of 20 October.
“Flip, Wickle!” Linton manages to choke. His arms are flailing about, but his face is full of spite. “Who died and made you queen of the Valkyries?!”
“That doesn’t even make any sense!” Shauna shouts, throttling him further. “I am unmoved by your poor references to Norse mythology! Tell me everything you know!”
“That might be a bit difficult, Shauna,” Charlotte drawls from beside her. “He is Linton, after all.”
Linton narrows his eyes pettishly at her and raises a rebellious finger. “Joke’s on you, Potty—”
“Oh that’s a rich one Linton, nice use of being nine years old—”
“Yeah real funny Linton—”
“—Jack,” he says over her (and a belatedly indignant Mildred), “is in London.”
Charlotte lets out a theatrical gasp that startles the whole hallway into brief stillness.
“I see! Finally accepting his true destiny as the Ripper two-point-oh! I didn’t think he had it in him. All Jack’s ever had in him is spluttered apologies and cryptic silences.”
“Linton, you… do know that was supposed to be top-secret,” Sonny interjects gently, worrying his hands together. “You did sign that blood oath he gave us, right, I… I didn’t imagine it?”
“Only a little bit!” Linton shouts. “There was a very very small amount of blood, so it was only half an oath, really!”
Sonny looks uncharacteristically grave. “It’s a blood oath, Linton. It’s either whole or it’s nothing at all; those are the rules.”
“All right, well, this is getting well creepy,” Charlotte declares brightly, leaning a bit closer to Shauna until her protuberant eyes are aligned with Linton’s. “Very reasonable grounds to call the police, all this talk of blood oaths; you know that is on par with fire in this fine village. So cough up the deets, Baxter, or your father’s next big collar will be vous!”
“You can’t frighten me with your badly implemented American noir slang, Grote!” Linton barks. Charlotte’s eyes twitch—just twitch, just slightly—and he coughs. “Er, well, what do you want to know, exactly?”
Mildred asks, eyes practically glittering with relish, “With whom has Jack eloped and on a scandal scale of one to ten, where would you place their tryst?” while Shauna simultaneously suggests, “Perhaps everything?!”
“Flipping Norah and all the ruddy saints,” Linton groans, dropping his head against the wall with a thud. “Jack’s not eloped, all right, and he’s not following in the footsteps of the nineteenth century’s most prolific serial killer! He’s playing a secret show, you know, with his band?”
“His what?” the girls exclaim incredulously.
“I wouldn’t expect any of you to be on the scene,” Linton says, smug, crossing his arms and closing his eyes haughtily, “but, yes, Jack’s band has caught the attention of an indie record label in London. He’s slipped off from school to go and play for them, do some bespoke riffs, demonstrate his talents.”
“Which he has quite a lot of,” Sonny adds, beaming.
“I can’t believe it,” Shauna breathes. It is the truth. She cannot. Her brain is making no room for the belief; it is too cluttered with visions of Jack playing the guitar, oh, help.
Abruptly, Charlotte slams her hand on the wall next to Linton’s head, which earns her a squeak of terror, and leans in the way a seductive but tortured greaser boy e.g. James Dean might, expression lecherous.
“Are you,” she purrs, “doing anything Friday night, Baxter?”
“I—what,” Linton says flatly, eyes wide. “The.”
“Because that is when we will set out for London to rescue Jack from the clutches of his killer instincks and his perhaps new wife!” Charlotte crows, raising her head majestically. “And Sonny will pay for it!”
“I,” Sonny whimpers, “o-okay.”
TEXT sent from: Shauna / to: Jack
Hello Jack! How are you? Anyway we’re coming to London to see your band sorry it was Lottie’s idea and you know but er yay exciting!!!!!!!!! See you soon!!
Heart emoji? No heart emoji? Flipping Norah, of course no heart emoji; that would be on par with panda stickers. Um. In a fit of panic, she adds a flexing arm emoji and hits send.
“Oh good,” Charlotte would say. “Looks well threatening now. That is the best way to ensnare the male sex in your web of womanly wiles; they love fighting.”
It’s been five minutes. Is he very busy being cool and hip on the London music scene? Oh, no!! Has he died? No, worse—he’s ignoring her. Had she perhaps come on too strong with the flexing arm emoji? Isn’t that the point of the flexing arm emoji? Get it together, Wickle!
TEXT sent from: Jack / to: Shauna
oh. oh that is er something. we are very awful please don’t come. see you soon?? turtle emoji.
A turtle emoji? That’s a right cipher. What could it possibly mean? Is it perhaps meant to call attention to Jack’s endearing similarity to the creature, prone to retreating into its safe shell but actually all soft and cuddly and shy underneath it all, feeding awkwardly on greens? It can’t be. Anyway Jack is very much a wolf now. Like a very young wolf from that animated version of The Jungle Book. Clever and smart and the best of all dogs. Or maybe Jack is just the best at being Jack. Yes, Jack is the best Jack.
And Shauna Wickle chokes on her own throat in that moment, because she realizes, to the sound of a phantom’s organ ominously screeching a funeral dirge in her head, that she has allowed the return to her heart of those things called feelings. Jack Finch feelings. The most dangerous of all.
TEXT sent from: Shauna / to: Jack
I AM SURE YOU ARE GREAT AND THE BEST BAND. PANDA EMOJI
WHAT HAS SHE DONE?
“What am I going to do?” she moans two hours later at Lottie’s, hugging herself in the hopes that it will provide some comfort, which it does not, because she only wishes it was Jack hugging her and blah. “How did this even happen?”
“Well, I reckon it’s a bit like when you use too much soap washing dishes,” Charlotte muses as she lifts her hands as if to indicate something quite academic. “At first you think you’ve only squirted out a bit since you can’t really see it, and it smells very nice, but then suddenly there is foam everywhere and you can’t stop it and you can’t wash it out no matter how much you run it under the tap, and your mum starts shouting at you to use things in moderation.”
“That analogy’s remarkably specific, Lottie.”
“I don’t see how that helps, really,” Mildred comments, arms akimbo, frowning dubiously. “It’s not as though Shauna can wash out her fancying of Jack with a lot of hot water.”
“I thought I only liked him a little, but I liked him too much by accident!” Shauna wails. She has abandoned the pursuit of hugging herself and given in to flinging her arms into the air, hoping the angels will throw her down some ruddy salvation. “And that was all so long ago! And I’m still waiting for my Keith!”
“I don’t think your Keith ever even attended our school in the real timeline, Shauna, so clearly the fates decree it is not meant to be and say-lah-vee.” Charlotte folds her arms authoritatively, sticking her nose up. “Although I must say, your decision to fall for beanpole mimes continues to perplex.”
“I’d advise against it, Shauna,” Mildred says gently, placing her hand on Shauna’s shoulder. “Not because I think it’s wrong, or anything, but Mimi could well murder you if she found out.”
“Sacray boo! How true,” Charlotte gasps. “And unusually timid for you, Mildew. Has your body gone and been snatched?”
“I just don’t think Shauna could survive drowning like I did,” says Mildred.
“Mimi’s not some nutty selkie.”
“Well, no, but you know how the French are about their wine.”
“I suppose we’re going and failing the Bechamel Test, aren’t we?” Shauna mumbles, dejected and ashamed, before plopping down on the bench. “Purge me of these feelings. I’ll do anything.”
Charlotte’s eyes slowly rove leftwards, and her mouth begins to curve up. “Anything?”
“We’re not building the ruddy robot, Lottie!”
Even after a bus ride of being forced to play travel Scrabble and cribbage with Linton and Sonny and Charlotte’s special, original deadly disease cootie catcher game (“It tells you what horrible medieval way you’ll spend your final days fighting feebly through! A Charlotte Grote Joint”), and even after panicking over what could very well be fleas but actually just turn out to be flakes of thyme from previous tenants at the youth hostel in Earl’s Court, and even after bungling their way around the tube system for hours before finally, mercifully telling Charlotte to stuff it so that they can really find Camden Town for God’s flippin sakes—even after all of that, Jack’s band is well splendid.
And Shauna isn’t just saying that because of the way the red stage lights linger in his fringe and his adorable—no, his very normal ears. They really are well splendid! So well splendid, in fact, that afterwards, when they’re all trailing around after him out of the indie record store and into the street, she decides to tell him exactly that.
“Jack that was well splendid,” she exclaims with all the dazzled brightness in her, clenching her hands into passionate fists. “I mean I knew it would be, but worrrr!”
“Yes, if I didn’t know any better I’d say it was rather like watching a rock star,” Linton dryly adds. At Jack’s withering look, his smug grin only grows.
“It was all right,” Charlotte says with a wave of her hand and a masterful flip of her hair, speaking her opinion as though nothing in the world could be more important or damning. “Could have done with a bit more kazoos, I think. And maybe like a mad bear on drums.”
“You let me know if you find one.”
“I verily will, Finch!”
“Some of the songs were a bit er well,” Sonny interjects, prodding his index fingers together and pointedly staring at a tree instead of Jack's eyes, “Rude? And rather loud.” He smiles. “I enjoyed it, though! You have a gift!”
Linton leers, “Impressive, considering he learned to play from a man with a hook hand.”
“Do you write the lyrics, Jack?” Mildred demands before Jack’s already swiftly moving elbow can collide with Linton’s soft stomach. “Tell us all of your band secrets. I’m well intrigued.”
“Don’t be silly, Mildew, he can barely string together hello and good-bye, let alone pithy versical sorts of things,” Charlotte declares. She punches Jack heartily in the shoulder, making him cough. “There! Saved you the shame of saying it out loud, Jacky; everyone knows you must be swiping your lyrics from the likes of the Doorknobs, and similar."
Jack’s nose wrinkles with such passion of cantankerousness that it looks as though he has significantly aged. “I don’t steal lyrics, Grote, and even if I did I certainly wouldn’t do it from the Doorslobs.”
“Eek!” Mildred, overjoyed, grabs Jack’s arm and starts violently jostling it until his cries of protest go all wobbly. “So you do write them, then? En-croy-arb!”
“Of course he does,” Shauna says stoutly. “Jack always was quite good at that sort of thing.”
She feels herself fixing Jack with an adoring gaze and wants to set herself on fire, put bluntly. Peculiarly, he goes a bit pink at the ears, but the gleam in his eyes is bashful.
“I was?” he mutters, glancing briefly over at her, one side of his mouth tilting just barely up.
Charlotte brays out a scoff and claps Jack so hard on the back that it knocks the smile out of him. “Don’t encourage him, Shauna. That’s the last thing up-and-coming rock stars require. Before you know it he’ll grow his hair all out and start pashing trash cans because of the drugs and the ego. The ego of drugs.”
“You really don’t know how drugs work, do you?” Mildred deadpans.
“I’d rather we not talk about drugs, please,” Sonny interjects feebly, and Linton, pounding a fist into his open palm, vehemently adds, “Seconded! With utmost urgency! I can get arrested just for knowing how to spell drugs.”
“Anyway the point is,” Shauna says over the din and clatter of the growing argument, looping her arm through Jack’s without thinking and just deciding to leave it there when he doesn’t draw away, “You were brilliant.”
Jack is looking with great focus at the sidewalk underneath them. His fringe is obscuring his eyes, but his mouth is starting to quirk up again, soft but indescribably pleased.
“I was?” he repeats, quieter this time. “I mean really, I really was?”
Shauna, in her younger years, would almost certainly have nudged her shoulder into his and insisted, in a loud and bright voice, “yes, Jack, don’t be silly,” but she has learned recently how to put the glow of that enthusiasm into something smaller, harder to see if you don’t look for it, but undoubtedly there. So she lets her knuckles bump into Jack’s, turns her gaze back out to the night-covered road, and answers, “Oh, well, you were all right.”
They all walk around for a while, pub-watching and laughing at the size of people’s nostrils in London, before winding up at the entrance to the tube. Charlotte wishes to experience a true London dinner; shoe leather steak, perhaps. Linton does not want Charlotte to get food poisoning, Sonny does not want Linton to become so stressed in Charlotte’s presence that he bursts a valuable blood vessel, and Mildred is cold, so the four of them agree to search for sustenance.
“I’m not really hungry, um,” Shauna says, looking hesitantly over (up) at Jack. Perhaps she’s gone mad, but she swears that he glances away very quickly as though he’d been gazing at her. No, can’t be.
“Oh, ohhhh, I seeeeee,” Charlotte practically sings. “Hungry for a different kind of meat, are w—”
“Charlotte Grote!” Sonny gasps. “Your mum would be ashamed! Repent!”
“My mum’s the one who taught me, Sonny, but who’s going to nitpick,” Charlotte says, waving a hand.
“Are you hungry, Jack?” Mildred asks while making sure to shoot Shauna her most fiendish smile.
“Hm? Oh,” Jack says, apparently very fascinated with a distant telephone pole. “No thanks, I already ate.”
“Then it’s settled,” Charlotte declares with a clap of her hands. “We shall wander the streets of London in search of meals wrapped in newspaper, and you and Shauna shall. Do whatever it is you and Shauna do. All right ta-ta!”
“What,” Jack and Shauna deadpan in unison.
It’s too late. They’ve all already vanished as if on a joining thread into the station.
“Well,” Jack croaks after a time. “Do you want to. Uh. Walk.”
Shauna taps her chin thoughtfully. “Now there’s a tough choice. I could do just as well standing.”
“Standing, then,” Jack says, shuffling his feet.
“Oh my lore Jack I was kidding,” Shauna laughs, jostling his arm with her hand out of habit. “Walking sounds lovely.”
“Right. Lovely. Okay.” He clears his throat abruptly, one fist in front of his mouth. “I do know a place nearby. It’s got trees.”
“I love trees!” Shauna cries, flinging her arms skyward.
“Perfect then.” He turns away before she can check to see if he’s smiling. She thinks she hears it, though. She thinks the whole city changes and gets brighter around it.
They wind up in a park. Jack hadn’t been selling it short; there are an awful lot of trees. They reach a bench right when Shauna’s in the middle of issuing rave reviews of Jack’s band’s set list, and plop onto it in precisely the same way. Shauna remembers how his head used to feel in her lap. Warm. Perfect. Oh no she must continue her critique.
“And I quite liked ‘Girls,’” she tells him, gesticulating enthusiastically in a way now beyond her control. “Although it did contain some noticeably misogynistic undertones.”
“Yeah Linton helped with that one,” Jack replies. His hand is on the back of his head, an age-old habit. Shauna can't take her eyes off his arms, which is odd; they aren’t especially remarkable arms, but they’re awfully nice and like… soft-looking? “He’d just broke up with Elaine. It was a real mess.”
“It does sound quite bad,” Shauna says. She must stop thinking about Jack’s arms; she must! “How did you come up with some of those others, though? They were well poetic. Particularly that one with the line about, um—” She makes a miserable effort at singing. “I’m so fixated on the girl with the soft sound…”
Jack goes very red all of a sudden. Shauna, perplexed, or perhaps merely empathic, also goes red for no apparent reason.
Jack hasn’t looked over at her for this whole conversation, choosing instead to devote his attentions to a large crack in the sidewalk, but she swears for a moment that his eyes flick over to her and then right back to where they were.
There’s been a whole lot of eye-flicking from Jack this evening. There’s a mystery she’s not sure she wants to solve.
“Or erm,” she appends hastily, slamming her hands down in her lap to dispel the automatic instinct to put them on his, “I mean if it’s awfully embarrassing, you don’t have to—”
“No, it’s not embarrassing,” Jack stammers, looking very embarrassed. “It’s just that, er…”
Shauna gasps when an idea grips her brain. “Jack, you didn’t really steal from the Doorknobs, did you?!”
“No!” Jack groans, flinging his arms into the air. “That’s not it!”
“Oh,” Shauna mutters, slumping a bit. “Well, all right. Musician’s secrets; I understand.”
“Magician’s secrets,” Jack corrects her.
“Oh well they’re functionally the same thing. Getting washed up quickly, doomed to entertain five-year-olds in their twilight years to make a living. You may be writing tunes for that big yellow bird soon, Jack.”
“Ha hah,” Jack grunts without inflection.
Fondly, Shauna nudges her shoulder into his. “Don’t worry. I’ll still be your fan when your songs are about how to wee instead of the mysterious beautiful girls of your past.” She leans away slightly, and makes a face at him. “And drugs, possibly.”
After grimacing, Jack buries his face in his hands. “Linton dared me.”
Shauna’s eyes bulge and her ribs all seize up together in horror—no, not Jack; he’s always been good! “To do drugs?!”
Jack indignantly yelps, “No!” and several pigeons flee in terror. “Just to write like I was, er… experienced in that particular field. Quit that gasping, Shauna; I’ve never actually done anything; the goal was to trick people into thinking I had."
“Linton seems to be behind an awful lot of the dark spots in your history, doesn’t he,” Shauna says.
“He’s decided to be the bad influence.” Jack begins picking at a loose thread at the knee of his jeans. “Taken it upon himself. Since you know none of us have ever been keen to fill that role. He’s not very good at it, but he’s better than Sonny at least."
“Sonny is the guiding light that holds you two errant souls together,” Shauna swoons, quite dramatically, draping an arm across her forehead. “Keeping you on the path of good, sharing his Mars Bars with you, loaning you all his good extra coats that you never return… a saint and an angel, he is.”
“He’s a bit like having another mum and a… a hopeless little brother all at once,” Jack says.
They slip into companionable silence after that. Shauna kicks her feet absentmindedly. London is always bigger than she remembers, lots of lights and car noises and pigeons, but the park they’re in is empty save for a napping elderly man a few benches away. She grins to herself. Leave it to Jack to track down the quietest spots in even the most bustling of places.
“So what’s been up lately, I mean,” Jack mumbles, fidgeting slightly. “You’re not round much.”
“Oh, studying for A levels has been ghastly,” Shauna says, even though it hasn’t. She finds studying somehow… meditative, but the time drain it presents is certainly less than desirable. “Hardly time for anything at all other than knowing things. But you’re one to talk. Off slouching about with your band, brooding and bein’ gloomy, breaking frail hearts and composing secret chords for David to play, et cet’ra. The Lord will be well pleased.”
“We don’t slouch,” Jack mumbles with a slight frown. “And sorry.”
Shauna gives him a funny look at that, to match the funny feeling that pinches her stomach. “What for? Is this just you and your strange instinct to spout out ‘sorrys’ at least six times per conversation?”
“Being busy? I dunno.” The redness has returned to his face, and he’s urgently begun drawing something in the dirt with the toe of his sneaker. “Sorry. Never mind. Sorry.”
“Wait, no,” Shauna protests softly. “I’m sorry. I miss you, too. I mean I miss everyone.”
Oh right nice save Shauna.
“And all the things you,” Jack says slowly, in a voice that sounds different, heavier maybe, and his sneaker has stopped, “Used to do?”
Shauna softly answers, puzzled, “Well yes, I suppose.”
Then the better part of her brain catches up to the words, still dangling in the tepid air. Her eyes bug out a bit. It probably looks worse with the glasses.
“Oh,” she whispers. Her heart is no longer doing backflips and high jumps; it feels like it’s got a red hot needle stuck in it. “Oh Jack—”
“Have I just gone and said something stupid?” Jack abruptly shouts, making her jump and her hair puff up. His eyes are wrenched shut and he’s pinned his hands under his legs. “I’m not sure. I think I might have just blacked out for half a minute if that's possible."
The needle leaves off gradually. The remaining feeling isn’t horrendous pain and panic, but rather a bittersweet sort of warmth. Jack has folded his lips tightly in as he often does when he’s nervous. His outburst had awakened the gentleman on the distant bench, who is now blinking owlishly around, shell-shocked.
And Shauna starts to laugh.
“Um,” Jack says, as though he’s worried he’s broken her.
“Just—Just go along with it, Jack; you may find it helps,” Shauna manages to get out through her giggles. Her stomach hurts. There are tears in her eyes. Oh, lore, cotton on, Jack Finch; she’s handing you an out, because she’s noble.
She can feel him staring, equal parts concern and bewilderment, for a little while. After a time, when her chortles have become merely chuffs, she hears him say with a smile in his voice, “You’re a funny one, Shauna Wickle.”
“I guess I am a little,” Shauna squeaks, pulling her glasses off to wipe her watering eyes. She hasn’t the faintest idea why hearing him say that has only made her smile grow wider.
They sit there a bit longer, talking about the year’s best albums and what Mr. Bough’s toupée must be made out of and a great deal of nothing at all.
Nothing seems quite as scary when you’ve got all of nighttime London staring back at you. Shauna says as much.
“I dunno,” Jack mumbles with a shrug. “I confess myself a bit scared.”
Shauna’s brow wrinkles. “Of what?”
“Things?” Jack replies, and there’s that eye-flick again, that flushed tint to his cheeks that’s visible even in the dark.
“Oh well we’re all scared of those, I reckon.”
“...You, a bit?”
Shauna blinks. “Sorry?”
“I er,” Jack flummoxes, toying urgently with one string of his jacket hood. “I said… stew.”
Everything inside of Shauna has rushed together into the shape of a tiny, rustling butterfly, right at the back of her throat. The words that get past it are, “Oh, Jack, I’m—I’m scared of stew, too.”
Finally, his eyes (the best eyes) meet hers and stay there. “I reckon it’s more scared of you than you are of it. Sort of like an opossum.”
Shauna shakes her light head. “I wouldn’t be so sure. I-I mean, stew’s so lovely and it can keep you warm and it’s very… hearty… but it can also make you sick with heartbreak. Er, a stomachache. Stomachbreak.”
“I—oh,” Jack says. “I um, I don’t really know what we’re talking about now, but yes, those are all true of stew.”
“Yes,” Shauna says in a higher voice than usual. She clears her throat loudly to try to make it go away. “But I… really do love stew. Despite.”
“I…” Jack murmurs, ducking his head, grimacing with effort and uncertainty, “Do, too.”
“I’m glad we settled that, then.”
Shauna continues to be glad that they settled it right up until, a few minutes later, Lottie and the others come parading down from the tube stop two blocks down with all sorts of teases ready to be slung. “Home now, Jeeves; we mustn’t be late for our beauty rest,” Charlotte shouts to the whole bloody park. “Especially you, Linton.”
Jack sits next to Shauna on the tube ride back to the hostel. His shoulder is very warm, and they’re both quickly immersed in the tricky game of not looking at each other.
Shauna loses. Spectacularly.
TEXT sent from: Jack / to: Shauna
stew is nice though because you can always come back to it if you’ve kept it right and it will be just as good. the point is i’ll always really like stew the best.
Shauna shimmies further under her paper-thin youth hostel sheets, taking care to turn down the brightness on her phone screen, even though the brightness in her heart is illuminating practically everything suddenly.
She smiles. It fills her all the way up.
TEXT sent from: Shauna / to: Jack
Sparkling heart emoji. That is how I feel about stew.
TEXT sent from: Jack / to: Shauna
panda emoji. gnight shauna
TEXT sent from: Shauna / to: Jack
Panda emoji. Good night Jack.