They met in a café in Convent Garden. Neither of them could afford it, but it was busy enough that they wouldn’t be overheard, with a high enough staff turnover that they were unlikely to be remembered next year, and it was well established enough that it wasn’t likely to close any time soon. It was also just a few days before Christmas, so most other customers were too busy to notice that a mismatched couple were discussing the occult.
‘How have you been?’ Yanni asked, once they were both seated.
‘Oh, you know…’ Carla scowled at her lemonade.
‘Not sleeping?’ he guessed. ‘Nightmares when you do. Apparitions in the corner of your eye when you’re trying to watch TV? It’s all to be expected.’ Carla did not look surprised. But then, she’d probably known that before they started the ritual.
‘Has anyone approached you about James?’ Carla asked. Yanni looked at her over his beer glass.
‘No. I kept expecting them to, but no.’
‘Good.’ Carla drained her glass. ‘If they didn’t this year, they probably won’t.’
‘I was thinking,’ Yanni said as Carla started to gesture for the bill, ‘I’d love to read some of your books about Bishop’s Creek and the ritual you did. Maybe I could come up and see you sometimes, or you could come back to the Creek, to talk about what ha—’
‘No. If you hadn’t been there that night, nothing bad would have happened.’
‘You don’t know that—’
‘Oh, so you’re an expert?’ Carla had kept her temper for a full calendar year. Now she was glad she’d waited to at least see Yanni again before exploding. ‘You just turned up—’
‘By accident. I was aiming for the main road and took a cut through because I knew my dad would be out looking for me. You interrupted my one chance at freedom. When—when he disappeared, I knew I couldn’t leave you to face the consequences by yourself, so I went back home. And I tried to speak to you at school, but you insisted we only meet on the anniversary in case it looked suspicious that we were talking. Which it wouldn’t have done, because we were in the same geography class.’
Yanni threw a fiver onto the table and stood up without looking at Carla. ‘You’re welcome. See you in a year.’
By now, it felt like habit. 11am, café, drinks, quick chat about the lack of news, go. Neither of them ever remembered to wish the other a merry Christmas, and neither noticed. There was no point in prolonging a status report. But this year, Yanni had something substantial to share.
‘Some kids found the clearing.’
‘What! How?’ Normally, Carla wore a heavy coat and jeans—it was midwinter, after all—but this year her second-hand fleece had been replaced with a distinctly new-looking trench coat with a distinctly designer air.
‘Same way we did, I suppose.’
‘Do you mean by running away from home or by looking for magic?’
Yanni ignored her. ‘I don’t think they could have done anything. The conditions weren’t right. No full moon, no preparations. It’s unlikely they knew the incantations as well as you did.’
Carla was grudgingly proud of her one-time dedication to sorcery.
‘Anyway, five of them went and five of them came back. I think they just wanted somewhere to drink and take edgy photos for their Instagrams.’
‘Well. That’s good.’ Carla fidgeted with her necklace, clearly ready to leave, so Yanni figured he’d better get his second bit of news in quickly.
‘I saw James’s mum in town a few weeks ago.’
‘How is she?’
‘Honestly? She looked fine. She had the little ones with her. There are a million of them. How many siblings did James have?’
‘Six. Three older, three younger.’ Carla did not mention that this left James precisely in the middle, the part of the film no one remembered.
‘There are more than three little ones now. She’s taken down the last of the missing signs,’ Yanni added. ‘I think maybe they’ve decided he ran away.’
‘Maybe he did.’
They were quiet for a minute. Then Carla pushed her glass aside and gestured for the bill.
‘Well, if anything else happens in the clearing, call me.’
‘Really?’ Yanni had not forgotten their first meeting.
‘Yes, of course. I didn’t leave Bishop’s Creek forever, you know. I still go back and visit my mum.’ She chucked some change on the table. ‘How about you?’
‘Never really left, did I?’
Carla’s phone rang. It was June, so she wasn’t expecting Yanni to be on the other end and answered it at her desk without properly looking at the caller ID.
‘I saw him.’
‘Carla, I saw James.’
‘Hang on, hang on—’ Carla was already halfway down the stairs, hurrying down to the entrance of her building. Nestled amongst skyscrapers in the square mile, her office was on the tenth of thirteen floors. Down here, she could catch her breath with relative privacy. She had shared nothing of her life with her colleagues except that she enjoyed baking and had once been to Edinburgh.
‘Yanni, say that again.’
‘I saw him, Carla. On the high street. Exactly as he was when he disappeared. I mean, exactly.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I’m getting the next train back. Follow him and phone me with any updates.’
Half an hour later, with London receding and Bishop’s Creek looming, Carla allowed herself to picture the last time she had seen her best friend. Now half a decade had passed, she could look back without thinking too harshly of either herself or Yanni.
Carla and James, obsessed with the supernatural, following ley lines and exploring haunted buildings and reading every slightly-occult-might-be-magic text they could find. Their delight at learning that a copse outside their sleepy country town could be the site of an ancient and unspecified power source. Visiting during the winter solstice, mission: wake up whatever’s there. Running into Yanni, someone they’d only ever passed in the corridors. Realising that he was using the copse as a cut through to get to the nearest main road, their irritation that he was in their way. Doing the incantation anyway, as Yanni looked on with raised eyebrows. A branch fell from a tree. It was so loud that Carla closed her eyes for a second, certain they were going to be squashed.
When she opened them, Yanni was the only other person in the clearing.
It had taken Carla the best part of six years to get used to a Bishop’s Creek that didn’t have James in it. Did she really want to get her hopes up?
Her phone rang. Yanni’s number.
‘Carla?’ Not Yanni’s voice.
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