Tilly and I drove to Bellingham to see Serena Wiley after school today. She already had a table at the coffee shop when we arrived. She was studying while she waited for us, her books spread around her in piles.
She beamed when she saw Tilly. I realized while they hugged that they would have been fairly close — Serena and Caitlin were inseparable since grade school so Serena would have been like Tilly’s other older sister.
“Serena, you remember Shiloh Tamblyn,” Tilly said and I offered her my hand. Serena took it with a smile.
She was not like the Serena Wiley who graduated from Black Lake High School two years ago — that girl had chopped off all her hair with a pair of kitchen scissors and wandered around school like a strange ghost with her hood up.
This Serena was more like the girl I’d admired from afar growing up. She was two grades above me, pretty, cheerful, openly friendly, with thick hips and a soft belly.
“Hi,” she said. “I do remember you I think. We had a drama elective together my senior year.”
I hated that class so much. Serena was good though, she was funny. Well, she was good until after that Spring break anyways.
Tilly and I got ourselves drinks and we sat around the table. It was awkward for just a moment before Serena said, “so… how’s Caitlin?”
“She’s doing really well,” Tilly said, slightly cautious. “She’s about to do a quarter abroad in France.”
Serena smiled a small smile and said into her coffee, “that’s great.
“You should call her,” Tilly said. “I’m sure she’d love to hear from you.”
Serena set down her coffee and didn’t look up from it as she said, “is that what you wanted to talk to me about?” she asked.
“Well… no,” Tilly admitted. “But she really does miss you, you know.”
Serena’s brow furrowed. “Yeah,” she said. “I miss her too. But… well, you know. Maybe I’ll see her at Christmas or something.”
“Well,” Tilly said, glancing at me, slightly nervous. “We’re actually here to ask you about — about a motel you might have stayed in last summer. With Madelyn Sexton.”
“In Seattle,” Tilly went on. “It would have been at the end of July.”
There was a long quiet. Serena’s face was frozen.
Then, very carefully, she said, “Tilly, you need to drop this.”
“But —” Tilly began.
Serena interrupted her: “Madelyn woke up out there, didn’t she?”
“Yeah,” Tilly said, and I added, “we all did.”
Serena leaned closer. “Drop it,” she said. “Please. For your own sake. You have to drop this.”
Something in me snapped. “I can’t,” I said. “If you were with her in Seattle then you know something, and I need to know too. I have to find her.”
Serena’s brow creased. “I wasn’t there,” she said. “I wasn’t.”
I brought out my phone and slammed it on the table. “Then why was your name on the list of check-ins?” I demanded, pointing.
Serena picked up the phone with delicate fingers. Her nails were chewed so short I could see where her nail beds bled.
“Fuck,” she breathed. She looked up at me earnestly. “They must have used my name. Fuck, I — I wasn’t there okay, you have to trust me. I wasn’t there. They must still have my old ID or something.”
“Did they hurt her?” I said at the same time Tilly said, “who’s they?”
Serena covered her face with her hands before answering: “I can’t tell you. They’re dangerous you guys. Tilly, you have to trust me: you don’t want to know.”
It was so strangely and desperately directed at Tilly specifically that we were both taken aback.
I think we both sort of wanted to leave then, but I had to know more. I leaned forward. “Does this have anything to do with magic?”
Serena froze. “How did you know that?” she said in a low, even voice. Tilly and I exchanged a glance. “Are you… are you here for them? Oh my god, are you with them?” Serena stood abruptly and began frantically packing up her books.
“What? No!” Tilly said. “We don’t even know who they are!”
“I should have known,” Serena said, more to herself than to us. “I should never have trusted you, not after—” she seemed about to cry, and in her haste dropped one of her notebooks, but she barely paused. She glanced at it, wild-eyed, but then left it.
“Serena!” Tilly cried, reaching to catch her arm.
And Serena wrenched away and full-throat screamed at her, “DON’T TOUCH ME.” The whole coffee shop turned to stare. Tilly stood, stunned, her mouth open in surprise.
“I’m sorry,” Serena mumbled, ducked her head and, hugging her books to her chest, fled the shop.
We followed her out pretty quickly after that. All the other people in the coffee shop kept shooting us glances.
Tilly was quiet on the way home. I couldn’t think of anything to say to her so we just drove in silence. She didn’t even put any music on.
We were getting off the freeway when Tilly finally said, “did it seem like she was talking to me specifically?”
“When?” I asked.
“When she said I needed to drop this,” Tilly said. “She said I don’t want to know. Not we don’t want to know. I don’t. Why would she say that?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said. “She knows you. She doesn’t give two shits about me, but you’re her best friends little sister.”
Tilly chewed her lip. “I guess,” she said. But then after a moment, “they’re not friends anymore.”
“Why not?” I asked. “What happened between them?”
Tilly shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “Caitlin said she had a mental breakdown. You remember that Spring break when she went all weird? Well, Mr. Herman got her an internship in Washington DC I think? And when she got back she was totally different. She like refused to come to our house anymore, and she like stopped eating and cut off all her hair and didn’t want to go to New York. Then suddenly Caitlin just wouldn’t see her anymore. They must have fought but Caitlin never told me what they fought about. I assumed it was because they were supposed to go to New York together and Serena was bailing.”
We pulled up in front of my house. Tilly said, “I guess I need to call Caitlin.”
I nodded. I was hesitating to get out of the car. It seemed like Tilly had something she wanted to say to me, and sure enough, after a moment she said, “are we sure we want to keep looking into this?”
I stared at her.
“Look, I don’t know if I believe your monster hunter guys, okay, but there’s no denying that something fucked up happened on Halloween, right? Like, I don’t know about this pools of magic, monsters from other worlds bullshit, but something definitely happened to us. There’s definitely something in those woods. And now Serena says there’s dangerous people involved and…” She trailed off.
“I have to find Madelyn,” I said, slightly stiffly.
“I know,” Tilly said. “I just… I mean maybe we should tell my dad.”
“No,” I said. “What would even tell him? He’d never believe us.”
Tilly looked down at her hands, loosely gripping the bottom of the steering wheel. “Yeah, I know,” she said. And then she glanced at me. “Aren’t you… like, scared?”
And here’s the thing I am scared. I’m terrified like, all the time. My nightmares are only getting worse, I can’t sleep, I swear to god my hair is falling out and weird shit is still happening around my house and I might actually believe in literal magic all of a sudden and my best friend is gone. Don’t even get me started on my grades because they’re terrible. I mean really, new lows all the way around. Teachers keep pulling me aside after class to ask if there’s anything they can do. My life is in literal shambles.
But all I said to Tilly was “I won’t blame you if you’re done with all this. But I can’t give up on her.”
I didn’t mean it. I thought that if Tilly said she was done helping me I’d walk into the lake.
Tilly’s eyes filled up and she looked back down at her hands. She didn’t say anything so I opened the door, climbed out of her car and started towards my door. I was fumbling with my keys and wondering if I could convince my mom to bring me a tub of frosting on her way home from work when I heard a car door slam.
I turned to find Tilly storming towards me. Her expression was so fierce I dropped my keys.
“I just asked if you were scared!” she snapped. “I almost died doing literal fucking magic spells in the woods with you and then I came back for more, so don’t act like I’m not fully committed to this — this thing that we’re doing okay because obviously I’m all in!”
I knew that when she said this thing that we’re doing she meant trying to find Madelyn. But I thought she might mean all the rest of it, too. The lunches and the long car rides in the dark with music playing and the band practices and the binge watching old TV shows.
So instead of saying anything, I took the steps towards her, grabbed her by the front of her coat and I kissed her. It lasted for just one blazing moment before breaking apart with a snap. When I saw the surprise on her face I wondered for a moment if I’d fucked up — this is why you ask friends, just ask — but then she smiled, her lips so close to mine and said, “finally,” before leaning forward to kiss me back.
We made out on my porch for so long that the motion sensor light went off — and then came back on again when she pushed me up against the door — and then went back off again. It wasn’t until her phone rang that we both realized how cold we were.
“Shit it’s my mom,” Tilly sighed. “I should pick this up.”
I felt all lightheaded and flushed so I nodded instead of saying anything. When the weight of her moved off of me it was all I could do not to melt off the door onto the welcome mat.
I didn’t hear what she said to her mom, mostly just a lot of uh huh, yeahs.
“I have to go,” she said when she hung up. She grinned, giddy. “I’m freezing.”
I giggled. And then she also giggled. And then we kissed again and it took another ten minutes of confusing the motion sensor light before she finally disentangled herself. She ran to her car. I saw her wave as she pulled out of the parking lot, and I just leaned against my door, breathless and giggling to myself like an idiot before I finally retrieved my keys and let myself into the dark apartment.