W i t c h e s

I had the most incredible weekend. Witches dude. WITCHES. Like now I know why Madelyn and I were so obsessed with becoming them when we were kids.

We followed the Hawthornes to Seattle on Saturday morning. It was harrowing. Neal drives like a complete fucking maniac. But we made it there alive and pulled up in front of this super funky house on Queen Anne hill. It was white and kind of lopsided and HUGE and had this wild garden all around it like a jungle. Like it was obviously very intensional — there were fruit trees and vegetable gardens and things, but it was also totally wild. And the crazy thing is that even from the street we could tell it was a strange house because there were hummingbirds in the garden and like thirty crows on the roof.

There was nowhere to park, obviously, it’s Seattle, so we had to walk in from a couple blocks away, and I shit you not I could like feel the house as we got closer to it. We could have just followed the birds from anywhere.

Neal was edgy and impatient waiting for us on the walkway.

“Everything okay?” Tilly asked as we climbed the steep stone steps towards the house.

“It’s fine,” Neal snapped. Julian cast an apologetic look at us.

There was no one in the garden or the yard, but the porch was covered in shoes.

“You ready?” Julian asked Neal quietly at the door. Neal only sighed and knocked three times.

Above us the crows exploded with shrieking. Inside I thought I heard muffled hollering.

“Here we go,” Neal sighed.

There was a long pause. And then the door swung open and a teenage girl was standing there. She was plump and pretty, with narrow, cat-like eyes and blond curls.

She took one look at Neal and Julian and slammed the door.

Neal groaned. “For fucks sake.” He banged on the door. “Sophie, come on! We need your help!”

“Neal,” Julian began, but Neal didn’t even pause.

“Come on Sophie we only want to talk!”

“You’ve done enough talking!” Sophie shouted through the door. Neal’s chin dropped onto his chest. Julian looked like he was barely containing laughter.

“So… you know them?” I asked.

“In a manner of speaking,” Neal grumbled and then banged on the door.

“Sophie come on there are lives at stake —” but he stopped shouting abruptly when the door burst open and a young black woman was standing there in a long black dress, her hair braided back in three thick braids.

“You,” she said, ice cold.

Neal just stood there, looking like she’d bashed him over the head.

“Hi Celeste,” Julian said, stepping forward. “We’re here about a —”

“Case,” she interrupted. “I know.”

“Of course you do,” Neal growled, with a hostility that suggested a long and terrible intimacy and Tilly and I exchanged a gleeful look.

“Neal,” Julian warned.

“You’re looking for a missing girl,” Celeste said. “It was in the stars. You won’t find her. And if you do, she won’t be the same.”

My belly seared with rage. “How the fuck would you know?” I snarled and she turned to look at me with her dark eyes — the same narrow eyes Sophie had — and I found myself suddenly frozen.

“I know who you are,” she said, eyes flicking over me “You’re the one who’s dying.”

My stomach turned to ice. That was the end of me being feisty.

Luckily Tilly stepped right up. “What did you say?” she demanded, stepping forward around me.

“I said your girlfriend’s on the fast track to her death day. Coming here didn’t help,” Celeste said. “I can smell it on you.”

Tilly seemed about to ready to respond to that, but Julian pushed between us to stand on the doormat.

“Alright,” he said. “That’s enough. You don’t need to scare them Celeste, they’re just worried about their friend.”

Celeste shrugged. “The missing girl’s friends,” she said. “You thought you’d bring them here and we’d want to help you?”

And then from inside the house a low, even voice called, “Celeste? Are those Hawthornes here?”

Celeste rolled her eyes. “I’d prefer they not stay,” she called. No one else said anything and Celeste wrinkled her lip and stood aside. Julian went in first, but I glanced at Neal. He shrugged a shoulder and gestured me in. Sort of. It was more like an enter at your own risk sort of gesture.

The house was huge and crowded with old wooden furniture. Plants spilled out of pots on every window sill and hung from the ceiling. As we passed through the foyer a little girl, maybe twelve, galloped up behind us, side-swiping Neal.

“Jane!” the girl Sophie hissed after her but Jane, dressed in a long lace dress, only sing-songed, “Neal doesn’t mind,” and then looking up at him with big round blue eyes. “Do you Neal?”

“Neal would let Janey take a crowbar to his car,” Celeste said, looking over her shoulder at us so for a moment we saw her profile back-lit by the window. She pricked just a little bit of a smile. “Janey’s the only one of us Neal ever loved. Isn’t she?”

“She’s the only one who’s not a viper,” Neal replied and Celeste smiled wider.

“She’ll get there.”

Neal looked down to hide it, but I saw him smile back.

“Ah these Hawthorne boys,” said a voice as we came into the sitting room. It was a square room with elegant floral couches, high-backed arm chairs and bay windows. “Come kneel by my chair let me get a look at you.”

There were four women in the room, settled around in the different chairs like they were out of a Jane Austen novel. The speaker was the eldest, and she was properly old. Not old like 60 or 70, but real old, with white wispy hair and gnarled knuckles.

Neal went and knelt beside her obediently, and his expression softened. Celeste leaned against the doorway haughtily, watching dispassionately as the old woman brushed back Neal’s hair.

“You’re tired,” the old woman observed. “You’ve worn yourself too thin.”

Celeste scoffed but the old woman ignored her.

“Did you come here for help?” the old woman asked. “I’d like it if you did. All these girls in this house, it’s like a kettle and soon we’ll all start screaming.” As she spoke another girl padded in to stand by Celeste, a baby on her hip. She must have been Celeste’s twin they were so similar.

“We did come for help,” Julian said. For such an enormous person he sure could make himself un-intimidating. “But only for information.”

“Hm,” said the old woman. “You’re all in a mess, aren’t you. All four of you. There’s something ugly festering up north. I’ve been smelling it for ten years. Look at this pretty creature, all marked up for dying.”

Look that’s got to be rude, right? Like ‘you’re going to die soon’ has got to be on some list of things not to bring up in polite society.

“I wish people would stop telling me I’m going to die,” I announced and the girls, Sophie and Jane, giggled.

“Come here, girl,” the old woman said. “Let me see.” Neal moved to get up as I picked my way awkwardly over the Persian rug but the old woman put a hand on his shoulder. “Oh no,” she said. “You’re staying right here where you can’t cause any trouble.”

The old woman took a firm grip on my chin, turning my face side to side to get a good look at me. She had clear, watery eyes. She smelled like lilacs.

She clicked her tongue. “So young,” she sighed. “And so loved. By your Madelyn, and this lovely young lady.” She nodded at Tilly. “And by these boys soon enough.” She frowned and cocked her head as if listening to something faint. “Or maybe not. Maybe they’ll be too late.”

“Are you psychic?” I asked.

The old woman smiled. “Only recently,” she said. “Tell me why you’re here.”

“They’re here to ask about that little girl. The little psychic girl. The scared one,” said the woman in the bay window. She was darker than the other women, but lighter than Celeste and her twin, and maybe in her fifties or sixties. She had a bright yellow canary sitting on her shoulder.

“I want to hear it from her, Terra,” the old woman said. Terra rolled her eyes back down onto the book of what looked to be sheet music in her lap.

“We’re trying to find out what happened to Madelyn,” I said. “We found out that she was chained up in the cellar of the old Black Lake Coven house. The um,” I glanced at Neal. It was strange to be on the floor at his level. “The Hawthornes thought you might know something.”

The old woman looked at Neal.

“Why do you think that?”

“Julian and I think someones trying to start up the Black Lake Coven again. The house and garden are clean. Their book of shadows was open on the table when we were there. I think they’re trying reconnect to the magic there.”

The old woman nodded slowly. “Yes, that is true.”

“Did you see them?” Julian asked.

“We all did,” the old woman said. “They came here. They wanted to know how to become witches. They had that girl with them — Madelyn. The psychic.”

I grabbed that old woman’s hand so tight. “Who were they?”

She cupped my cheek and smiled sadly. “I don’t know,” she said. “They were liars. All liars with fake names and no magic.”

“You couldn’t see the truth?”

Celeste barked a laugh. “We see the future, not the truth.” She was looking hard at Neal. “That’s not our gift.”

He scowled at her.

“There were five of them,” Terra said. “Two men and three women, and then Madelyn. The youngest was in her late twenties probably. The oldest was a man maybe in his fifties.”

“Was she… did she seem okay?” I asked. “They had her chained up in their cellar, why would she go anywhere with them?”

The old woman smiled sadly. “I don’t know, my dear. They said there was a creature on their land. A creature that they believed to have magical properties.”

“We thought that might be the case,” Julian said. “There’s magic out there — enough magic that these two were able to cast a suprisingly powerful summoning spell — but I very much doubt they’ve reignited old Black Lake Coven magic.”

The old woman said, “It wasn’t that magic, no. But these people, this new coven — they want that old magic. They’ll do anything to bring it back, I expect.”

“Anything?” I asked.

“Anything they can think of,” the old woman said, looking me in the face.

So at this point my head’s going in about a thousand directions at once, imagining what kind of fucked up shit might have happened to Madelyn in that cellar in the name of getting these assholes magic.

And then one of the girls, a young girl, maybe my age said, “they hoped that with the right offering, the creature might grant them the magic they desired.”

We all turned to stare at her.

“Iphegenia,” said the old woman. “Have you seen something?”

“An offering,” she said. “A sacrifice to the creature in return for magic.” Then she gasped and blinked and looked around at us, surprised.

All my hair stood on end.

“Shit,” Neal sighed.

“But they couldn’t have made any sacrifices yet,” Tilly said. “They don’t have magic.” She hesitated “…at least, I don’t think they do.”

“Maybe it didn’t work,” Sophie said. “Mortals are idiots. They must have messed it up.”

“Or they haven’t made their sacrifice yet,” Celeste said, looking at Neal.

“Shit,” he sighed again.

My brain was grinding along at half speed. I said, “You think Madelyn was supposed to be their sacrifice?” No one wanted to look at me, which was an answer in itself. “We have to find her!” I cried. “We have to find where they’re keeping her!”

Julian must have heard the mounting hysteria in my voice because he reached out a hand towards me and I lurched away from him and then from Neal on my other side. I felt like I was spinning alone and everyone was staring at me.

“She’s alive out there, isn’t she,” I said. “They’re keeping her somewhere so they can — ” and then my throat closed up and I couldn’t talk anymore.

“Shiloh?” Tilly said.

I pushed past her and ran out of the house. The yard was full of crows. They scattered when I opened the door. I ran to the center of the yard and stumbled onto my knees in the wet grass and fallen leaves. I leaned my forehead onto the grass. I breathed in the earthy smell.

I tried not to think of Madelyn in a cellar somewhere. I forced myself to breathe.

“Shiloh?” Tilly said. She knelt down in the grass beside me and put a hand on my back.

“I’m okay,” I promised. I told her it was just a panic attack. We went and waited in the car.

So like it wasn’t my most graceful social dismount. But on the whole, the trip feels like real progress. I mean, I guess I can’t know for sure that these women are like… actual witches. They could have lied to us.

But I just…. don’t think they did. Or maybe I’m so desperate to make sense of everything that’s happening that I’m willing to believe anything, up to and including that my best friend was kidnapped by a cult trying to awaken an ancient magic by sacrificing her to a mysterious woods monster.

I’m losing my mind. Witches are still cool as shit though.

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