riding in cars with girls

I ate lunch in the library yesterday, which is not strictly allowed but I hid my sandwich under the table and took furtive bites of it when the librarian Ms. Baker wasn’t looking. This is only relevant because that’s where Tilly found me.

She slid into the seat across from me and we just stared at each other for way longer than was comfortable.

“Did you look through the phone?” she asked.

I nodded.

“And?”

I hesitated.

“Look,” she said. “You called me. I’m the only other girl to wake up out there this year. I’m part of this.”

Her dark eyes were bright and fierce and boring into mine, and I’m a mere mortal, there’s nothing I could do.

“Okay,” I sighed and she smiled in this self-satisfied way and leaned in. “There were a few weird things.”

I explained about the doctor’s visits first, about the nightmares and the psychiatrist first.

“She was dreaming that you died?” Tilly asked, and there was something sympathetic in her expression that made my guts squirm.

“Yeah,” I said.

“And she didn’t tell you?”

“I think she tried,” I said.

Tilly reached across the table and squeezed my hand briefly, but didn’t say anything sympathetic for which I was very grateful.

I told her about the hotel visits next.

“Was she with family?” Tilly asked and I hesitated.

“I mean I guess I don’t know,” I said. “But if she was on a family vacation she would have told me, right?”

“It might have been medical. Maybe she was seeing a sleep specialist?”

But if she was seeing a sleep specialist, why didn’t the calendar just say that? Up until then her doctors visits had been labeled. Plus, why would there be dollar signs if she weren’t paying for those stays herself? It doesn’t make sense.

“Okay,” Tilly said when I explained this to her. “Then I guess we need to go there. Right? Isn’t that what detectives do when they get a lead?”

She’s so fucking cool.

She said she couldn’t go today because she had homework, but she was driving to south to Seattle tomorrow (today) for band practice anyways, so maybe I should just come. Obviously I agreed.

I didn’t get around to telling her about the psychics then. I don’t know, it felt too private to tell her right there in the library with my sad peanut butter and jelly sandwich hidden under the table. It was too strange and intimate a detail about Madelyn to just tell the first pretty girl I saw. I don’t know. I just didn’t tell her right then.

So then today I met Tilly in the south parking lot after sixth period. She came out the back door with Simon and Erica as usual.

There’s nothing more stressful than standing in a high traffic walkway in a high school by yourself under the best circumstances. These are not the best circumstances. I could practically hear them all thinking there’s Madelyn’s best friend, she’s alone now. Georgia brushed by me without even looking.

But then there was Tilly, smiling at me, and I fell into step with her and her friends, all casual, like I do it every day. Even Erica said hi to me.

When we were alone in the car and Tilly was pulling out of the parking lot, she offered me her phone to choose the music.

“Just put on whatever you want,” she replied and I side-eyed her.

You don’t just put on whatever in the car with Tilly Marlow. Like, it’s a delicate operation — if you’re gonna play something cool it better be so cool that she’s impressed because otherwise she’ll just know you were trying to impress her and failed which is unacceptable. If you’re not confident that you can impress her, then you gotta go for either an old beloved anthem, or something slightly ironic.

I know — pretty girls’ spotifys are fraught with tension.

I buckled under the pressure. I wasn’t planning for the occasion. I went with the illusive fourth option, the I-don’t-give-a-fuck-about-impressing-you option, which is honestly not my usual approach to these things, I love to play the game. But I was in the mood for Cardi B’s 2018 instant classic Invasion of Privacy. What’s a girl to do.

Tilly knew all the words. She rapped like the whole first half of the album. It was fucking epic.

“So,” she said later, driving through Everett. “You want me to like drop you off at the hotel? Or you want to come with me to practice?”

I obviously didn’t want to go to the hotel by myself, which she must have noticed because she added, “I kinda want to come to the hotel so I’m hoping you’ll come to practice with me. The girls are cool, you’ll love them.”

So I went.

Tilly’s band mates were freshmen and sophomores at Seattle U and they lived on capitol hill, in a house with like seven people in it. There were a couple girls smoking cigarettes on the porch and they greeted us as we went in.

Okay I’m going to be super honest here: I was totally star struck. The house was so cute and like old fashioned and they’d covered one of the walls with butcher paper so they could draw all over it. There was no reason to the layout of the furniture. There were like four people sitting on the kitchen counters drinking cheap beer, which they offered us on our way in.

The actual band practice was down in the basement. Her band mates were already set up, tinkering with their instruments and drinking.

“There she is!” the drummer, Izzy Liddiard, said as we ducked under the exposed beams.

“Hey guys,” Tilly said. “This is Shiloh.”

“Fake date girl?” said the bassist. Tilly shot me an apologetic look.

“That’s me,” I said.

They all laughed. The lead guitarist patted my shoulder. “Idiot,” she said.

They practiced for a couple hours. Tilly’s the lead singer, which I didn’t know, and the girl can fucking wail like if I didn’t have full blown heart eyes for her before I sure as hell do now.

Picture this: Tilly Marlow, barefoot in black jeans, clutching the microphone, eyes all screwed up, hair haloing her face, all round, and curly and dark, singing like Aretha Franklin’s punk kid sister — and then the set ends and she sorta wipes her forehead and says, “Alright, you ready to go?” as if I didn’t just watch her go through a full on anime magical girl transformation.

Her band mates tried to convince us to stay, and I was sorta tempted. They live in this whole other world, a world hazed with weed and beer and historically significant novels. And Tilly moved through it totally casually, like this was how she’d grown up, not out in a tiny town in the woods like me.

Only Madelyn could have pulled me out of there.

“What did you think?” Tilly asked in the car as she navigated the weird, steep one-way streets.

“It was amazing,” I said, though that hardly covered what I thought.

Tilly grinned. “Thanks,” she said. “We were totally showing off for you. Usually we’re way more distracted.”

I love that she said that.

The hotel was north on Aurora, a shady, filthy place that offered rooms by the hour. We sat in the parking lot squinting up at the neon sign skeptically.

Tilly said, “I can’t imagine Madelyn staying here.”

I shook my head.

The woman at the front desk had big hair and smudgy mascara. I could smell the last cigarette she smoked from across the counter.

“You two looking for a room?” she asked without looking up from her game of solitaire on the desktop.

“Uh, no,” I said. “I’m um… I’m hoping you’ve seen someone.”

“Got a cheating husband or something?” she asked, smacking her gum.

“I’m seventeen,” I said and she finally looked around at me.

“Right,” she said. “Alright, let’s see it then. You got a picture?”

I had the distinct impression that she got this question frequently. I pulled up a photo of Madelyn and handed my phone across. She held it away from her face and squinted at it for long enough that I actually hoped she might have answers for me.

But then she said, “nope,” and handed it back to me.

I took my phone back numbly, realizing how much I’d been counting on this leading somewhere.

“Are you sure?” Tilly asked. “Did you get a good look?”

The woman scowled at her.

“Okay,” Tilly said. “Well, do you keep records of who signs in? Her name is Madelyn Sexton.”

And then I saw it, a flicker of recognition.

“Madelyn?” she said. “Let me get another look.”

I handed back my phone and she picked up her glasses from the chain around her neck.

“You know I did see her. A couple times. The first time with a group, the next time all by herself. Paid in cash. Fake ID if I ever saw one.”

“She was here with a group?” I asked, eagerly leaning forward. “What kind of group? Do you remember?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Several adults and then her. Didn’t make a lot of sense.”

“What name did they sign in with?” Tilly asked.

The woman gave her a scornful look. “It’s illegal for me to tell you that,” she said.

“It’s illegal to rent a room to someone underage, too,” Tilly replied, all flinty and cool. “Especially a girl who’s since gone missing.”

The woman sighed. “Alright,” she sighed, and began to tick away at her keyboard. “When was it?”

“July 23rd,” I said.

“Alright,” she said, tilting the computer. “Here’s the list I have.”

“Can you print it?” Tilly asked.

“You know I can’t do that,” the woman said, already tilting the computer away again, so I, acting on instinct, leaned forward, snapped a picture of the computer screen, and yelped,

“RUN!”

We ran. We pushed through the door and spilled out into the parking lot, sneakers slapping the pavement, laughing and triumphant. Tilly pealed out of the parking lot and we howled as we sped down Aurora.

The photo isn’t like super legible, but I can read the names if I scroll in and squint. I pulled it up as Tilly put on music.

“You recognize any of the names?”

“Not yet,” I said. I was too elated for close study or too much thinking. Instead I watched Tilly as she squinted between the street signs and her cell phone, searching for the freeway entrance.

She smiled slightly when she noticed me watching her.

“What if there aren’t any names we know on that list?” she asked later, when we were on the freeway heading home. It was nearly eight and the sun had long set. In the dark, with the hum of the road, and the music all low, it was easy to tell Tilly about Madelyn’s psychics.

Tilly didn’t say anything at first.

“Psychics,” she said. “You have an appointment with them yet?”

I told her I have one with a guy on Friday.

“Have you Googled him yet?”

I hadn’t even thought to do so. Tilly rolled her eyes. “It’s like you’ve never used the internet before.”

Which wasn’t fair, alright, I come from a one parent household, the internet is practically my father.

We listened to the music for a long time before Tilly said, “Do you think she really thought she was seeing psychics? Like… you know, real psychics?”

“I don’t know,” I said. And then after a moment, I said what I’d been thinking all along: “I think that these dreams were so real, and so intrusive that she went to therapy, and when that didn’t help, she went to the church and that didn’t help either. So she finally said fuck it and decided to try asking a psychic. I think she was desperate.”

Tilly was quiet for a long time. One of Mad’s favorite songs was playing.

Tilly said, “I hope that if I ever run away someone looks for me the way you’re looking for Madelyn.”

I thought that if she hadn’t been driving, if I’d been able to reach her, I’d have kissed her then. Instead I just held onto the grab handle so tight my knuckles turned white.

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