Dylan Meadows can’t stop staring at what the lady’s about to buy.
Next along in the queue, she’s currently rummaging around in her handbag and so hasn’t fully noticed him yet – hasn’t noticed his mouth hanging open, his hand frozen at the till keypad, mid-scan. She hasn’t yet sensed how his eyes are enraptured, fixed on the giant heap of ice-chilled prawn packets sitting inside her trolley, packed tightly into the small space, layer upon layer of them, brimming right up to the top and nearly spilling out over that. So many prawns the very thought of it makes him feel dizzy and sick – imagining them all lying defrosted on this lady’s tabletop in a sweating pink pile of fleshy deep-sea stink – but it’s a nausea that falls by the wayside next to his sheer delight.
Because Dylan knows what this means, this hideously expensive joke purchase of hers. It means that she must know about the Moment. Yes, that’s right – this young woman, with her trolley full of prawns and her scarlet handbag and her glittering downturned eyes, must know the secret he thought was his and only his. Somehow, she knows too that the Moment is coming. And that means he’s no longer alone.
“Excuse me, hello?” The insistent voice cuts across his train of thought. With a great effort of will, Dylan drags his gaze away from the woman’s trolley and back to his current customer: a stocky Russian man in a corduroy coat who’s been kept waiting at the end of the till by his reverie.
“Excuse me, Mr. Dylan,” says the Russian, reading Dylan’s name badge off his chest, “is there some sort of problem with my apples?”
“Oh – erm, no – no, there’s no problem at all. Sorry about that, sir.” Dylan weighs the bag of apples, punches in their price on the keypad and slides them along to the end of the till, where the Russian scoops them up into a shopping bag, grumbling something under his breath. Yet another customer I’ve managed to alienate this year, Dylan thinks to himself. It must be over a thousand by now. Over a thousand people who’ve walked away from my checkout aisle in a foul mood, full of righteous fury, wanting to phone up management as soon as they get home and have me sacked on the spot.
On normal days, thoughts like these bother Dylan, even keep him up at night, cursing the myriad little bad impressions he’s managed to leave behind at work, festering in strangers’ skulls like tiny shadows. But right now Dylan hasn’t the space inside his racing mind to give a damn what anyone might or might not think of him – because today, at last, against all the odds, and in the most unlikely of places, he’s finally found himself a friend.
Admittedly, the lady in question doesn’t yet know that they’re destined to become so close. She’s only just finished rooting through her bag – only just started loading her dozens and dozens of fat prawn packets onto the conveyor belt – hasn’t so much as spared him a glance. Already, though, Dylan’s whole body is tingling with anticipation. In just under a minute he’ll get the chance to speak to her as he scans her prawns through the till machine, as slowly as he possibly can. He’ll make some small talk to start off with – maybe mention the weather as he often does when stunned by a beautiful woman – but then, subtly, he’ll begin to forge a real connection, inform her between the lines somehow that she doesn’t have to stand alone against the impending Moment, or be afraid. Because he’ll be there for her. He’ll be her bastion against the coming darkness, if only she’ll let him.
And Dylan’s excited. He imagines that in the process of telling her all this – in helping to lift the fear, the dread, the blind impulse-buying bewilderment, away from her young shoulders – his whole world will start to make sense again. He will finally have served a purpose, made himself useful in some small way, after twenty long empty years of drifting and scrabbling – and that, he thinks, as he scans in the Russian’s final item with a satisfying beep, might just bring him some peace.
“Are you paying by cash or card, sir?” Dylan asks, tapping his fingers while the Russian packs away his last few purchases. For all his thoughts of peace in the future, right now Dylan can’t help his impatience. He can’t wait for the Russian to cough up and walk off and leave so he can finally turn his attention to the woman in line behind him, still busy stacking up her absurd purchase on the conveyor belt.
The Russian coughs and tilts his head. “Say it again, young man, I didn’t hear you,” he says.
“Are you paying by cash or by card, sir?” Dylan makes sure to enunciate.
“Cash,” says the Russian.
Obviously, thinks Dylan, looking at him. Needn’t have asked.
He takes the proffered handful of banknotes and changes them faster than he’s ever done before in his life – drops the correct coins into the Russian’s palm and blurts out a cursory something about having a nice day. He then takes a few long seconds to watch the short man waddle away with his fruit-stuffed bags: making absolutely sure that he’ll be safely out of earshot by the time Dylan sets about making his last and most important friend on Planet Earth.
Twenty seconds pass, the figure of the Russian gradually receding in the busy supermarket. Going – going – a right turn through the entrance crowd – stumping his way through the automatic doors – going – going – gone.
That’ll do, Dylan decides. He turns back to the till, and immediately has to swallow his excitement because there she is, at last, her stacking completed, looking him right in the face for the first time. In that tingling instant he wonders if she can see the Moment in his eyes.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hello,” says Dylan, and activates the conveyor belt. The heap of prawn bags judders as it moves jerkily along towards him. He opens his mouth halfway to speak –
And freezes up, forgetting his opening gambit entirely.
It’s her, it’s all her fault. Now that they’re alone together – or as close to alone as they’ll ever get in this seething Sunday morning supermarket, no one behind her in the queue and no one manning the adjacent checkout aisle – she’s far too beautiful for him to bear. It’s those gleaming eyes up-close, that wavy hair, the way the ceiling strip-lights illuminate her cheeks from high above. What had it been? What had he planned to say?
“Nice weather, isn’t it?”
Oh, yes, that was it.
Wait – what?
She just spoke. She just spoke to me first.
“Pardon?” Dylan says out loud, not quite believing his ears. Meanwhile, instinctually, his hand reaches out, taking hold of the first prawn bag and scanning it through.
“I said it’s nice weather, isn’t it? If you’re a duck, that is.” The young woman’s laugh is quiet and sweet, like a mid-treble tinkle on a grand piano. She’s looking at him intently, through long, long eyelashes.
“Um, yeah. Right – duck.” Dylan gives her a chuckle, although he’s heard the joke before, and scans another bag. He finds himself recovering from an inauspicious start. “Feels more like winter than autumn, doesn’t it?”
“Wonder why that is,” she says, idly running a hand through her hair. “What with global warming and all that stuff. You’d think winter would have burned up forever in all that heat.”
In a flash, Dylan sees an opportunity to steer the conversation toward the Moment, and seizes it. “Well,” he says, “maybe this is winter’s big comeback. Maybe we’ve had the long hot summer they all warned us about. Maybe the worst of global warming is already behind us, and now we’re in for a long dark winter.”
She laughs again. He watches her face carefully for a specific reaction – a spark of recognition, an epiphany to match his own from earlier – but doesn’t find anything, not yet, anyway. That’s reasonable, he figures. Maybe she just needs more prodding in the right direction in order to realise that he knows all the same dark secrets she does.
“Maybe,” Dylan continues, “you’re only laughing because deep down you understand exactly what it is I’m talking about, but you’re too frightened to stop and think about it properly.”
It’s only when he listens to the hanging after-echo of these words that Dylan realises how forceful they are – how potentially overwhelming to someone who may still be struggling to come to terms with the Moment. “Maybe,” he qualifies.
The woman doesn’t laugh this time. “That’s a lot of maybes.”
“Well, I would give you a few definitelys, but seeing as how I’m only a lowly cashier I’m not sure I’m qualified yet.”
Thankfully, this gets another laugh: that same gentle, melodic laugh, absolving Dylan from his lapse in conversational judgement. “You’re very funny,” the woman says, wrinkling up her face and looking awkwardly down at her shoes in a way that has his heart simultaneously jumping for joy – because she’s so cute it hurts – and twisting with pity.
It’s becoming clear to Dylan that she’s still firmly in the denial stage of dealing with the Moment. She’s refusing to confront it head on, hiding from the truth, and now she’s doing this strange, desperate little thing – buying a whole trolley-load of prawns she’ll never eat – in a futile attempt to prove to herself that life still holds just as much wildness and promise as it did before. Rather than an elaborate absurdist joke cracked in the face of the imminent void, as he’d first thought, he’s now realising that this lady’s purchase is nothing but part of a doomed struggle to feel alive – and that just breaks his heart.
“Yeah,” she’s continuing. “You’re funny. Strange, but definitely funny. What’s your name?”
“Dylan.” He beeps another one of her prawn bags through the scanner, counting them off in his head. Five down so far – still loads and loads to go. Ample time to broach the subject properly, he hopes. However painful it may be for her, they really, really need to talk about this. It’ll be so much healthier for both of them than walking off separately into the rain at the day’s end, alone again. “See, look, it’s on my name badge if you can read it,” he says to her. “Dylan Meadows.”
“Well, it’s good to meet you, Dylan Meadows. Maybe. I’m Sophie. You don’t get my last name yet, I’m afraid.”
“That’s fine. I’m more than happy with that very promising yet.” Beep.
“Don’t read too much into it.” Her eyes flash. “I’ve heard what happens when you start reading into things I say, Dylan Meadows. Winter and darkness and terror, that’s what.” Beep. “You must be some sort of, I don’t know, frustrated gothic writer underneath that uniform.”
“Maybe. I guess we’ll never know now,” Dylan says.
Beep. Beep. The beeps of the packets as he scans them are starting to become rhythmical and stirring and Sophie’s pretty eyes are right on him now, boring into the heart of things unsaid, almost pleading with him, like she wants nothing more than for him to set her free, and he’s never been the best speaker, really, or the bravest person, or anyone remotely worthy of saying the grandiose life-changing words on the tip of his tongue, but what the hell, she’s beautiful and she’s been kind to him, and he feels he owes it to her.
“I guess we’ll never know what sort of frustrated writer I am,” he repeats, “seeing as how the universe is ending in a week’s time.”
Beep. Beep. Beep.