Louie’s is not what I was expecting. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting. An old bachelor pad probably. Some grungy old shack, bristling with weapons and like I dunno car shit or something. Hahaha I don’t even know what a man world would look like I’ve spent so much time with women I can’t even imagine. A whole world of foreign Man Stuff.
It isn’t like that at all. It was a big white house sitting above a wide river. The porch is enormous and piled high with boots. There’s a tire swing and a lot of sunshine. The garden is full of flowers and there’s a vegetable plot in the back.
When we pulled up there was a man kneeling in the vegetables viciously ripping up weeds. He looked up when we crunched to a halt in the driveway and beamed at us, waving with a handful of weeds, and making a face when he sprayed dirt on his face. Neal and Julian got out of the car, smiling already.
Neal called something in French and the man, who was Louie, laughed. He had an enormous mustache and was very short with very big hands, which he used to pat Neal solidly on the back when they hugged.
I got out of the car more slowly. The wind was warm and smelled sweet, like cut grass. The man Louie had Neal’s face between his hands and was examining him, humming and clucking, while Neal squirmed. He was leaving dirt streaks on his cheeks.
My shoes made some noise on the gravel as I awkwardly followed Neal and Julian and Louie looked up from his examination of Neal’s face and fixed me with his dark eyes. I smiled queasily, feeling shabby in my unraveling cutoffs and grown out roots.
Louie said something in French and Julian answered. All three of them stared at me.
“So you are the girl,” Louie said. His English was charmingly accented. “You know in all their years of traveling they never bring home a girl? And why not?”
Neal, to my utter delight, was blushing.
“I will tell you why,” he said to me. “Because they are scoundrels, that is why.” He squinted hard into my eyes, flicking between my normal one and my black one. “But look at you, you are a scoundrel as well.” He humphed as Julian and Neal both laughed. “All scoundrels and ruffians in this house. Come and we will make lunch. I have a bottle of wine I have been saving, Julian will like it, Neal will like it not as much. Where is Jasper?” And then, raising his voice, “Jasper?” He waited barely a second before waving his hand. “Bah! Missing always! All of these boys always missing!”
As we made our way up to the house the screen door burst open and two boys and a girl pounded across the lawn towards the river.
“Ah!” Louie shouted. “We’re making lunch now! Back in the house! Wash up!”
They were probably between 8 and 12 and they began to protest vocally until they noticed Neal and Julian and then they all got all quiet and obedient, glancing at the Hawthornes and whispering to each other.
“They will be very good now,” Louie grumbled conspiratorially to me. “You’ll see, it will be all pleases and thank yous in this house until you leave.”
We were climbing the porch steps when Jasper closed a cupboard door and revealed himself standing there in the kitchen. I knew it was Jasper immediately because he was in his mid twenties and a pair of ragged overalls without a shirt underneath, and when he looked up and saw us through the screen he froze like a rabbit. He had a spoon of peanut butter in his hand.
I just about ran into Neal in the doorway he stopped so abruptly.
They stared at each other for several beats too long, until Louie behind me bustled up behind us, knocking us all aside, clucking at how slow we were.
Julian followed him into the kitchen. He and Jasper embraced, thumped each other’s backs. Jasper reached up to bat Julian’s bun, laughing. Louie dug through the fridge, shouting for kids to set the table. One of them shouted up the stairs, summoning yet more children, who stampeded into the kitchen. They eyed the Hawthornes with mixed awe and enthusiasm and Julian was warm and friendly, mussing hair and giving out high-fives.
It all had an air of coming home from college. I mean I guess I don’t know that having never come home from college, but you get the idea. The kids swarmed the kitchen, bouncing around their feet, all talking over each other. A pair of skeptical ten year olds cornered me against the counter, squinting into my eyes, right up in my face.
“Are you blind?” one of them asked.
“One of her eyes is normal,” the other one snapped back.
“Oi!” Neal said, whapping one lightly on the back of the head. “Manners! She’s not a zoo animal.”
“Alright,” Louie said, whirling, cutting through all the chirping and bickering. “Lunch is ready! I need four on table setting detail! Volunteer now or be doomed to clean up!”
The ensuing chaos mounted to a dull roar and it was all I could do not to be flattened by the stampede.
Look, I was not adequately prepared for that many children in one place. I am an ONLY CHILD. I have ONE PARENT. Ever seen those videos of salmon swimming upstream to spawn and it’s just salmon squirming around in the water as far as the eye can see? It felt like THAT except I wasn’t a salmon I was a smaller, lesser fish, who wound up there by mistake.
Neal reached out and grabbed me by the back of the shirt and steered me through the crowd towards the stairs. He must have seen the panic in my eyes.
“Louie, where should I put us?” Neal called.
Louie, wading towards the dining room carrying a vat of pasta over his head, shrugged. “Anywhere you can squeeze in dear, we’re running a full house here.”
“You can bunk with the twins,” Jasper said, climbing the stairs before us. “They both snore.” He creaked open one of the doors in the long hallway upstairs. Inside was a mess and bunk beds. “They’re also 12 so watch for socks.”
“Who’s in my bed?” Neal asked.
“I am,” Jasper said. “Best mattress in the house.”
“Yes I know,” Neal said.
Jasper grinned this crooked grin that showed off his teeth. He was tanned and covered in freckles and his sandy hair was unkempt and I realized oh shit okay so he’s hot then.
He said, “you’re welcome to —”
“— don’t you dare,” Neal interrupted him, absolutely no-nonsense.
Jasper held up his hands in surrender but he was looking smug as shit. Neal rolled his eyes and reached out to shove him lightly and Jasper bared his teeth and for a second my brain was doing this !!?!??!?!!!?!?!!?!?!?!!?!?!?!!? and then finally Julian finally goes, “Is my bed open?” And Jasper all but clears his throat.
“Yeah of course,” he said. “I’m not interested in your sub-par mattress.” Julian opened a door down and went inside, already swinging his bag down off his shoulder.
“Neal, Nolan’s old bunk is open,” Jasper said, and then, when everything got real uncomfortable for a second, he added more softly, “I switch with you.”
“It’s fine,” Neal said, not looking at anyone as he went into the room, leaving me and Jasper alone in the hall.
“Hi,” he said. He offered me a broad hand. “I’m Jasper.”
I took his hand. “Shiloh,” I said.
“Shiloh how do you feel about bunking with five girls under fifteen?”
And that’s how the rest of my night went.
We discussed the case over pasta. It’s like this: three farmer’s kids have gone missing. All were last seen out in the fields. Jasper already did all the research work. We’re as certain as we can be that it’s Corn Wolves out there, and tomorrow night we’re off to deal with them.
In the meantime I’ll leave you to imagine the chaos that is me and five other children navigating one cramped bedroom. The oldest, Abby, had dyed black hair that she wore in her face and some good old fashioned emo eyeliner.
“Sorry,” she said, after detangling a fight that broke out over the ownership of an apparently unremarkable sports bra. “There used to be a guest room but we just got some new kids in a couple weeks ago and that was the only place to put them.”
“What is this place?” I asked.
“Oh, did no one explain?” Abby asked. “We’re an orphanage, basically. Guess how many kids parents get killed by monsters every year?”
Oh. My expression must have looked appropriately crestfallen because she said, “yeah. Louie takes us in when the only other option is ending up in the system. Cuz you know… when your parents are eaten by sasquatch or whatever, psychiatrists tend to think you’re crazy. Better to come here where everyone at least believes you.”
I don’t know if she was serious about people being eaten by sasquatch. But everyone here being orphaned by monsters seems like it’s probably true. When I woke up in the middle of the night it wasn’t to my own screaming for once hahahahahaha.
The girl having nightmares was probably eleven and no one in the house seemed particularly surprised to be woken up by her screaming in her sleep. Abby climbed into bed with her, there was some mumbled apologies and then everyone turned over and went back to sleep.
Not me tho. Hahahahaha oh no, not me. Every time I closed my eyes I was back in the mother fucking woods, or in the cave, or in the hospital.
Eventually I gave up and hoisted up the window. My apartment never had a rooftop to sit on outside my window, but Madelyn’s did.
Unfortunately I wasn’t the first to come to that conclusion.
There was a flurry of hushing and laughter, and someone said, “hello?”
I didn’t answer.
“Is that you Marta?” Jasper said. “You can come out, it’s just me and Neal.”
I didn’t know who Marta was.
“Neal I think she’s afraid of you,” Jasper said. Neal laughed, and I heard bottles clinking.
“I’m not so bad,” he said. I could hear in his voice that he was drunk.
“Yes you are,” I said.
Neal laughed. “Shiloh,” he said. “Screaming wake you up?” His tone was so knowing and sympathetic and for some reason that curdled my stomach. Writing this now, hours later I get that probably that wasn’t a super rational response to being seen through like a sheet of glass, but at the time, unable to sleep in this strange house, surrounded by what amounted to his family which I knew nothing about — I wasn’t feeling particularly happy to be known.
“Yeah,” I said. I used Bitch Inflection.
“Come on out,” Jasper said. “Let’s meet the Hawthorne’s latest project.”
Enter THE RAGE stage left. I swear people talk about me like I’m a cute pit bull with one leg they rescued from a life of dog fighting.
“It’s fine,” I said coldly. “I should go to bed anyways.”
“Rest up for tomorrow night,” Jasper said. “Wise call. We should probably follow her lead.”
“Shiloh’s not coming with us tomorrow night,” Neal said.
“The fuck I’m not,” I said.
“Why not?” Jasper asked, ignoring me.
“She doesn’t know how to shoot,” Neal said.
“So we’ll put her on flashlight duty,” Jasper said. “Someone’s gotta.”
“It’s too dangerous,” Neal said.
“So?” Jasper said back. “Shiloh, you want to come?”
“Okay then,” Jasper said. “How are you gonna stop her?”
Neal said, “Okay fine, but if she dies you can call her mother.”
Jasper scoffed. “She’s not gonna die,” he said and then everything got suddenly real tense. I wondered how often they told each other that going into dangerous hunts. I thought probably often. I wondered how often it wasn’t true.
We all thought of Nolan.
“I’m going back to bed,” I said.
“Night Shiloh,” Neal said quietly. They were still quiet as I closed the window and got in bed, but I heard them after a minute, talking. Not their words, they were too quiet, but the rumble of their voices through the wall for a long time before I finally fell asleep.