They used the same picture of Meggie in all the newspapers, back in 1997 when she first went missing.
It was a photo her dad took on the last holiday they’d had as a family, four nights in a Pembrokeshire caravan the summer before Meggie disappeared. They cropped the version they put in the papers so only a hint of the backdrop can be seen: a pebble beach framed by rolling hills, a few centimetres of overcast sky encircling Meggie’s head like a halo. Meggie stands alone in the centre of the frame. She’s wearing a crop top with spaghetti straps, the pale crescent of her arms and throat on display, so it must have been warm out despite the clouds. That expanse of soft white flesh makes the picture difficult to look at, Lauren thinks. Meggie seems delicate, unfinished, like a lump of dough yet to be shaped by careful hands into something a little more defined, a little surer of itself and its purpose.
Lauren thinks about this picture a lot. It’s hard not to; she sees it almost every Sunday. It’s framed on the wall in the Queens Head where her mum tends the bar, above a long-since-faded police appeal for information. Meggie’s face fascinates her. Something about how she’s not smiling nor frowning, but looks like she could be on the cusp of either, as if the camera caught her in the very last second of ambiguity.
The old men in their regular seats raise a glass to her on occasion when the night is winding down and the Doom Bar has softened the steel around their hearts. They look at Meggie, who is looking at nothing, and Lauren looks at them. Is it Meggie they mourn for, she wants to ask, or is it the myriad small losses of their own lives Meggie makes them grieve – the daughters who don’t speak to them anymore, the long-ago girlfriends and ex-wives who got away?
One time, maybe a year ago, Jack Holcomb had a few drinks too many and said it must’ve been local immigrants that took her, trafficked her into one of their rings, pretty little blonde girl like that. He’d said it loud so the whole pub could hear him, but his eyes were narrowed across the bar at Anwar’s dad. The atmosphere between them was tense and ugly until Rob, the owner, stepped in. After Jack went home the rest of the men filled his space with restless murmurs: well, you can’t really blame him, can you, didn’t his daughter run into some trouble with boys, away in the city for college? The whole time Lauren kept looking at the picture on the wall. Sometimes she thought it might be nice to join Meggie there, in that walled-off moment of eternal pause, that strange nowhere-place.
It’s not like any of them even knew Meggie, not really, but when someone disappears from a community as small as theirs, it leaves a mark. Lauren was only five when Meggie vanished and she doesn’t know anyone her age who didn’t grow up shouldering the weight of it. It made itself felt, first in their parents’ pinched worry, then in the taunting words of uncles and older siblings – you’d best be home before dark, or whatever took Meggie James will take you too – and finally, when they reached their teens, in the stories they made up at sleepovers. Thrilled whispers: Meggie was stolen by a serial killer who skinned his victims and dissolved their bodies in acid, and if you got into the bathtub and chanted her name three times—
It’s silly, Lauren thinks. She thought it then, and she thinks it now that she’s almost sixteen, the same age Meggie was when she disappeared. She feels like she’s on the cusp of something; a new kind of maturity, perhaps, or some sudden rush of understanding as to the mysteries nested like Russian dolls inside the notion of becoming a woman. Maybe boys will start liking her, start looking at her the way they’ve been looking at some of her friends since Year Eight. Maybe she’ll start liking them. Maybe Meggie’s expression in the picture on the wall in the Queens Head will become a cipher she can solve, as if the commonality of their newly shared age will shift them sideways onto the same transcendental plane. It’s the latest iteration of the same private wish Lauren’s held onto ever since childhood, since she first heard Meggie’s name invoked as a cautionary tale: to see what Meggie saw, to know her like none of the men drinking a pint on a solemn Sunday evening ever could, ever will.
So when Amy suggests the ouija board, Lauren shelves her disdain for urban legend and goes along with it. The tenth anniversary of the disappearance came and went a couple of months ago, still no leads, and the renewed national interest still has all the Year Elevens feeling giddy, hopped up on seeing their state comprehensive on the nine o’clock news. Energy like that needs an outlet, Lauren supposes, and there are surely worse kinds than this – a gaggle of school-uniformed girls sitting cross-legged in Amy’s attic on a Friday after school, their attention focused on the fussily ornate wooden board that Amy places reverently down on the ground between them. Amy, Lauren, Feyi, Alana, Chanel, arranged alphabetically by surname in a subconscious holdover from the beginning of secondary school. They’re in a circle, close enough to smell each other’s pubescent sweat and bubblegum-flavoured lipgloss, knees brushing lightly on every exhale.
‘Like this, yeah?’ Amy puts a finger on the planchette. The board belongs to her mum. Linda’s a hairdresser but she’s into tarot and reiki and stuff like that on the side, fancies herself a mystic. Some people in the village don’t like her because she says she can see patches of purple energy in the air that she thinks are the ghosts of dead people. She’d freak out if she knew what they were up to, Amy said, which is why they’re in the attic.
‘Okay.’ Chanel raises an eyebrow. ‘Who’s going to ask the questions?’
‘I will.’ Amy is bossy, but no one complains, so she sits up a little straighter, slides her eyes shut in a display of ceremonious grandeur. Everyone else joins their finger to hers.
‘Alright,’ Amy begins. ‘We want to talk to Meggie James. Meggie, are you there? Can you hear us?’
A nervous giggle. Amy opens her eyes and narrows them at the offender. ‘Feyi, shut up or this won’t work.’
‘It’s not going to work anyway,’ Alana says, then raises her hands placatingly when Amy turns her glare on her. ‘Sorry, sorry. I’m taking it seriously, I promise.’
‘Let’s try again,’ says Lauren, ending the argument before it starts. The role of mediator comes naturally to her. Amy shoots one last offended glance in Alana’s direction then closes her eyes again and sighs loudly.
‘Okay. Can you hear me, Meggie? Move the planchette to yes if you can hear me.’
Nothing happens. Lauren glances around the circle, averting her gaze when Feyi catches her eye and smirks. She doesn’t particularly like this, the way they’ve all reduced Meggie to an afternoon’s entertainment, but she’s excited too, and a little morbidly curious.
Amy shifts in place as if frustrated by the board’s refusal to yield to her obvious authority, her rolled-over skirt riding up another inch. ‘Meggie? We want to talk to you. Are you there?’
Nothing. Lauren is about to suggest they give up, simultaneously relieved and disappointed, when suddenly there’s a jolt beneath her finger and the planchette begins to move smoothly across the board. It travels in a straight line, stopping at the letter I.
‘What the fuck,’ breathes Alana, eyes rapt.
The planchette hovers over the I, jerks away, then returns to it, over and over again; I-I-I-I, a staccato rhythm, like the beating of a heart.
‘I?’ Amy’s expression is victorious, ignoring the uneasy murmurs of the other girls. ‘Is that Meggie? What are you trying to tell us?’
I-I-I-I-I. Amy’s questions go unacknowledged. Lauren feels a cold roiling in the base of her gut. The planchette moves faster until suddenly it changes direction and shoots across the board to the W. It pauses there for an instant and then keeps moving, spelling out a word.
‘I want? Want what?’ Amy leans in as if she can urge the planchette to keep going from the sheer force of her desire alone, her body a taut line of hungry, thrumming energy, the ends of her long blonde hair skimming the board. As she does, her bare thigh presses up against Lauren’s. A sudden firm line of contact, Amy’s skin soft and yielding and unexpectedly warm – Lauren twitches away on instinct and the planchette, still trapped under her finger, wobbles off to the side.
‘Oh.’ Amy slumps, and looks at Lauren, her brow furrowed. ‘You were pushing it, weren’t you?’
‘What?’ Lauren shakes her head. ‘No, I –’
But Amy’s already pushing herself up and away from the board, her shoulders tight. ‘Whatever,’ she says, and she walks off, slamming the attic door behind her. There’s a moment of silence, then the moody decrescendo of footsteps down the stairs.
‘I didn’t,’ Lauren says, looking around at the other girls. ‘I wasn’t pushing it, I swear.’
Feyi raises her eyebrows but doesn’t comment. ‘I’ll go after her,’ she says instead. She stands, then nudges the ouija board with her foot. ‘And this was stupid, by the way. I know one of you was pushing.’
Feyi leaves. Again the attic door closes, this time with a curt click. Alana glances sidelong at Chanel, her lips tight as if stifling a smile.
‘Was it you?’ Lauren asks.
Alana looks at her, face unreadable, then tosses her glossy black hair over her left shoulder and shrugs. ‘No,’ she says, after another moment’s pause. Lauren isn’t sure if she believes her. She doesn’t think it was Chanel, who’s currently turning the planchette over in her hands, frowning down at it, confused.
It was Alana, probably. What’s the alternative? Lauren thinks about the message – the repeated I like a frustrated grab at personhood – and her stomach turns over. The other possibility, the one that somehow scares her even more, is that Amy had been right; that maybe Lauren, subconsciously, had altered the direction of the planchette’s movement. It doesn’t feel implausible – her body with its unruly growth and traitorous whims barely feels like it belongs to her these days. I WANT fizzes up through her bloodstream like a biological imperative. The secret realm of her desire is vast and monstrous; she is afraid of it, and tries not to let herself dwell there.
Her leg still tingles, not entirely unpleasantly. She rubs it with the heel of her palm, then pulls her skirt down to cover it, but the sensation doesn’t fade.
It’s only a few months later that a woman walking her dog in a patch of woodland near Easton-in-Gordano finds what turns out to be an exposed human femur protruding from a loose pile of twigs and dirt. The police are called in immediately, of course, and a further search unearths the rest of a young girl’s skeleton. She’s identified provisionally by the remnants of clothing found with the body, conclusively by dental records. The task force responsible eleven years ago for investigating Meggie’s disappearance is promptly reassembled.
‘We’ll probably have some answers soon,’ Lauren overhears her mum telling the regulars in the pub. ‘They can tell all sorts from bones these days, can’t they?’
Lauren doesn’t share her mother’s certainty. Meggie’s never been one to relinquish her secrets easily. And as it turns out, she’s right – Meggie’s remains offer up few answers save for the eradication of the theories that hinge on her still being out in the world somewhere, living. The absence of evidence soon gives way to speculation. What was it that had taken Meggie out there to rot? Wilbur from the pub whose son’s a constable says there were nicks on some of Meggie’s bones that could have been made by a knife, but they could just as easily be the results of post-mortem animal predation; there’s no way to know for sure. If they’d found her earlier, perhaps – and then he shrugs expansively and downs his drink, ostentatious theatre for a hungering audience. Leave her alone, Lauren wants to shout. It doesn’t feel right, these rapacious old men picking over Meggie’s bones; she wants to shield her, bury her even deeper beneath the leaves and moss, keep the vulnerable insides of her as private as they were when she was alive.
In the aftermath of the discovery, Lauren feels drawn to the woods behind the school. Pupils aren’t supposed to go there, technically, but no one really watches the fence that separates the trees from the football field, and the council doesn’t do much to maintain it, either, so it isn’t difficult to find a section of sagging chicken wire and to pull herself up and over. She starts going there after class ends on a regular basis, trudging through the undergrowth and keeping herself roughly parallel to the path she’d usually take home, so that she doesn’t alarm her parents by getting back significantly later than usual. If anyone asks, she knows she wouldn’t be able to explain the strange magnetism of the trees, not in a way that makes sense – these aren’t the woods that Meggie was found in – but no one notices her, so no one asks.
A few times, she sits at the base of one of the taller oaks and leans back against its trunk, closing her eyes and trying to make herself as still and silent as a corpse. Then, when she’s as still as she can manage, she sends out questing tendrils from her mind: Where are you, Meggie? What do you want? Will you tell me what happened to you? On one occasion she’s answered by the sharp crack of a twig nearby, as if someone’s foot had come down on it, and for the briefest second she’s convinced that she’s succeeded, that she’s managed to reach through to Meggie somehow across the impenetrable barriers of space and time, and when she opens her eyes the thing that killed her will be standing right there, looking back. Her body thrums with excitement and apprehension. But there’s nothing there when she looks, only her own pale legs sticking out in front of her, the same scuff marks on the toes of her patent school shoes, scabs on her knees as proof of the blood that pulses beneath her skin.
In July, school ends for the summer, and Lauren goes to a party. It’s the day of the regatta down on their stretch of the Avon, so everyone’s outside and half-cut already, shoulders and ears tinged pink from the sun. Lauren and her friends manoeuvre their way through bustling groups of rowdy middle-aged men. A crowd of men can be dangerous, she knows, especially drunk ones, but the girls linking arms grants them a kind of invisible armour that allows them to pass through unscathed. Together, they wander all the way to the back fields out behind the pub. There’s already a large group of kids from school there, girls sitting on the prickly grass eyeing up the shirtless boys passing around sun-warmed six-packs of Natch and Scrumpy Jack. It’s a strange kind of temporal dissonance for Lauren, who used to play in this field with Feyi when they were kids, one of their dads keeping a cursory eye on them from the pub’s back garden.
When Amy delves into a nearby cooler and comes out with an armful of sweaty ciders, she takes the one that’s offered to her, pops the tab, tries to drink without shuddering the way everyone else seems to have mastered already.
For the first time, she gets drunk. The setting sun casts long streaks of orange and violet across the sky, and the light makes everyone look beautiful. Alana leans back on her elbows and stretches out her legs, crossing them at the ankle like she learned from The Princess Diaries. She’s kicked off her sandals, and her bare big toe presses lightly against Lauren’s knee. After a minute Lauren begins to feel dizzy, so she lies down on the grass, staring up at the darkening sky. The sound of people talking fades into a comforting buzz. She stirs only when she hears someone say Meggie’s name, the sound of it bringing her back abruptly.
‘– sure, yeah, I heard that’s where they found her body.’
Lauren opens her eyes – when had she closed them? – sits up and looks around for the speaker. A guy, several feet away, talking to a girl. They both look to be around Lauren’s age, maybe a little older.
‘Really?’ the girl says, her tone somewhere between sardonic and aloof. Lauren squints to see her better in the low light. Her mouth is cherubic, her eyes lined in black.
‘Those woods over there.’ The boy raises his hand and points to a thatch of trees on the horizon. ‘My brother saw –’
‘That’s not true,’ Lauren says, without meaning to. ‘It was further away. Out by the services.’
‘Oh yeah?’ The boy looks unimpressed by her interruption. He stands up straighter, crosses his arms. ‘How do you know?’
‘I just do.’
‘You just do,’ the boy repeats. ‘Right.’ He smirks at the girl he’s with, but she’s looking at Lauren, a glimmer of interest on her face.
‘Do you know a lot about her?’ the girl says.
Lauren shrugs, uncomfortable and a little embarrassed. ‘Not more than anyone else around here.’ More than this guy, she wants to say, but she manages to keep the words back. She glances around for her friends, looking for a way out of the conversation she’s blundered into, but they aren’t there. They must have wandered off while she was dozing. She feels a brief jolt of panic at being abandoned but then she spots Amy, over by the cooler with Chanel and two boys from their Maths class.
‘Relax,’ the girl says. Lauren looks back at her; the girl’s gaze is amused, penetrating. ‘Don’t worry. I wasn’t going to, like, interrogate you.’
‘No, I –’
‘It’s just interesting, isn’t it? Something like that, happening here.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘This seems like the kind of place where nothing ever fucking happens.’
‘It is, mostly. Um – are you not from here, then?’
The girl shakes her head. ‘From Leeds. We just moved down, me and my mum.’
‘Oh.’ Now that she’s looking for it, Lauren notes the traces of an unfamiliar accent.
‘I’m Nat.’ She grins at Lauren, a rapid flash of dimples and pointy canines. Beside her, the boy scowls, walks off. Nat doesn’t seem to notice.
‘So did you know her? The girl who died?’
‘No,’ Lauren says. ‘She went missing when I was a kid.’
‘I thought everyone knew everyone, around here.’
‘Well, kind of, but…’ Lauren bites her lip. It dawns on her suddenly that she’s afraid of losing Nat’s interest, of revealing herself to this pretty newcomer with gothy makeup as being just as dull as everyone else, so she blurts out: ‘Me and my friends tried summoning her, a while back. With an ouija board.’
Nat raises her eyebrows. ‘For real?’
Lauren can’t tell if Nat’s impressed or if she thinks Lauren’s stupid, just a kid messing around. The latter, probably. Lauren flushes, wishing she could take it back.
‘Did anything happen?’
‘Uh…’ Lauren hesitates, shrugs, and says, ‘Yeah. Kind of.’
‘Shit,’ Nat says. Her eyes are wide – suitably impressed, Lauren decides – but then she glances to the side and frowns. The boy from earlier is standing nearby with a gang of his mates. He’s staring down at them both with a sneer. ‘Come on,’ Nat says suddenly, turning back to Lauren. ‘Let’s walk.’
‘You want us to go for a walk?’ Lauren repeats. The sky’s gotten properly dark over the last few minutes. ‘Now?’
‘Now,’ Nat says, decisive. She’s already on her feet, extending a hand out in front of her to help Lauren up.
Lauren nods, then pushes herself up without taking the hand that’s been offered, staggering a little on the uneven ground. Her heart thuds, but she doesn’t want to seem afraid, or uncool, and she’s already gone against her parents’ wishes by drinking, so – ‘Not past the edge of the field, though, okay?’
Nat shrugs like she doesn’t care.
They walk across the field towards the trees that line the furthest edge. ‘Sorry,’ Nat says after a moment. ‘I didn’t want to keep sitting there with Jake staring at me.’ She spins around to face the crowd of people they’re walking away from and raises her middle finger, safe under the cover of darkness.
‘I get it,’ Lauren says.
‘Fuck him. Him and all his douchebag friends. But whatever, tell me more about your ouija board. I love scary stuff like that, you know, like, occult shit.’
‘Oh. I mean, it was probably just my friend messing around. But the thing – the planchette thing – it moved.’ The ground dips suddenly and Lauren stumbles. Nat’s hand steadies her, a warm weight on the back of her arm. Closer to the treeline, they stop, as if in unspoken agreement.
‘Did it give you a message?’
‘Sort of? Like – just words, not a whole sentence or anything.’
‘What did it say?’
Lauren pauses. Remembering it now sends a shiver up her spine. ‘I want,’ she says. Out here in the night, spoken aloud, the words sound like a declaration.
‘I want,’ Nat repeats, hushed. Her eyes are big and dark. ‘Spooky.’
‘Yeah,’ Lauren says. The atmosphere between them has changed, somehow, as if they’d let something in by saying the words out loud. Lauren remembers the rumours about Meggie’s ghost, about what would happen if you said her name in the bathtub, and she wonders – what might she summon now, if she looked at this girl and said I want, I want, I want?
‘Wow.’ Nat laughs, low and throaty, and tosses her hair back. ‘Probably your friends messing around. Hey, do you smoke?’
‘Do you mind if I do?’
Lauren shakes her head.
Nat rummages around in her pocket, comes out with a cigarette and a cheap plastic lighter. She puts the cigarette in her mouth. Her lips are a deep, dark red in the flickering light of the flame. Lauren watches, mesmerised, as she takes a drag, and exhales a plume of smoke. ‘I know I should quit,’ she says, noticing the direction of Lauren’s gaze. ‘But we all have our vices, right?’
Lauren feels herself blush but she doesn’t avert her gaze. ‘Can I try it?’ she says, emboldened.
‘If you want.’ Nat doesn’t seem surprised, just passes Lauren the cigarette, watching her in the same way Lauren’s friends do when they’ve dared her to do something.
Lauren takes the cigarette. She holds it between her index and middle finger like she’s seen people do, and brings it to her mouth. The filter is slightly damp when she puts it between her lips. The smoke burns her throat but she doesn’t cough, tries to look cool as she blows it out.
‘There. Now I’ve corrupted you.’ Nat’s expression is mischievous. When she takes the cigarette back from Lauren, their fingers brush. Lauren’s breath catches, and in the silence of the night, it’s audible, but Nat doesn’t laugh, only smiles with her lips together and steps closer, smoke coiling around both of their heads like a translucent veil rising to shield them from the rest of the world.
Maybe it’s because they’d just been talking about her, but Lauren finds herself thinking of Meggie, even as she reaches up to take the cigarette again. Did this ever happen for her, the crackle of a flare being lit in the pit of her stomach, her lips closing over the shape of someone else’s mouth on a cigarette? Or, perhaps, a real kiss, her eyes sliding shut, someone’s fingers in her hair? Lauren hopes, fiercely and suddenly, that it did; that before everything ended for her in that acre of shitty woodland she’d had the chance to feel out for herself the shape of the adulthood she’d never reach, sparks in her chest and fireworks lighting up the black space behind her eyelids.
And Lauren also knows, deep down, that Meggie won’t always mean as much to her as she does right now. Within a few short years Lauren will be gone from here, away at university or travelling the world, and she won’t think of Meggie much at all; a fleeting memory now and then, a gentle heart-tug spurred by the shape of someone’s face or the private look in their eye as they turn away. Meggie belongs to a moment that’s passing, that might already be gone, and when Lauren, too, lets go—
But stars are at their most radiant just before they sputter out, and for now, the moment endures. Lauren looks up, up at the girl who’s watching her and smiling with her chin tilted high like anything might happen, and the face that shines in her head is vivid, bright, alive.