contingency plan

There is nothing like a big open sky to make my lumber town soul ✨nervous✨

Luckily we’re out of farm lands again now and up in the mountains where there’s a little more sky cover now. Yet another boring little town, this one more sparse, working class, with a dwindling population. I’m starting to judge the different towns we stay in by the quality of their cheap motels and this one was extra shitty.

Neal’s starting to look a little better though! His black eyes aren’t as dark or swollen anymore, they’re just sorta purple and green. We’ve been getting takeout and eating in the motel so we don’t draw attention to ourselves. I have noticed though that despite his honestly sort of abrasive cheerfulness, I’m not the only one having nightmares.

This morning we stopped by the police station for directions out to where we’d find our PUPPIES. The sheriff was a big, bearish man with a lot of hair who smelled like cigars.

“You know the Kellihers?” He was eyeing us with an expression of serious doubt, which like… fair enough. The Kellihers are the biggest, brawniest, knights in shining armor, and then we show up, and we’re like… well, Neal looks like he was just run through a tumble dryer, I’m bonk-eyed and feral at my very best, and Julian’s — I don’t know how to explain it really. He’s a little bit wild around the edges right now. He’s just twitchy with the stress, I’m sure he’ll be fine in a few days. We’re all still a little frayed after last week.

“Alright, well,” the Sheriff said. “I’ll take you out there where we saw them. Can’t guarantee they’ll be in the same spot, it’s been a couple days. Didn’t want to keep too close a tab on them, just in case they were dangerous.”

Sheriff was a practical man, with old, well-cared for boots, and no desire for any supernatural nonsense, and you know what? This week I really appreciate that.

It wasn’t far out of town, but it took a while because Sheriff kept stopping to unchain the logging roads.

We came to a stop in a pretty fully forested area, and from there it was a super short walk, behind one of the portables.

“This is where I saw them,” Sheriff said. “A couple loggers saw them out there, called animal control, and animal control saw feathers and gave me a call. They were good sized dogs, but they seemed like puppies. We didn’t leave food out for them. In case they’re dangerous, didn’t want them getting too comfortable with people.” I could tell he was eager to leave us to our work and wash his hands of the situation. “I thought it might be… your kind of thing. Didn’t want to get involved.”

Smart guy. Clearly he’s dealt with spooks before.

“Ya’ll think you can find your way out of here without me?”

“Of course,” Julian said. “Thank you, sir.”

The Sheriff scratched his beard. “Yeah, well,” he said. “You be safe now.”

We waited while the squad car drove off.

“Alrighty,” Neal said, clapping, and putting on a lopsided grin. “Let’s find these puppies.”

“You know, if there are more than two of these guys, we’re going to need a second car,” Julian said, and almost despite himself he seemed to be relaxing.

“Second car full of puppies!” Neal said.

Julian tried not to, but I saw him grin.

We found some big ass dog tracks in the mud near where the Sheriff indicated, so we knew we were in the right place, and followed those tracks out deeper into the woods.

“Beau’s gonna be so excited,” Neal chirped.

Madelyn and I have this theory that middle children are always chaos monsters who shapeshift to fill any social dynamic and Neal is like the poster child for that theory. He’s like the grumpiest piece of shit 99% of the time, but then Julian gets sad ☹️ and Neal goes 🤓🤪🥳🤡.

We walked a long time out in the woods. It was a nice day, not too cold, but not hot either. Birds were singing in the trees. We crunched through the underbrush. Apparently Julian was tracking the puppies, but to be honest, I wasn’t paying too close attention to him. The sun was filtering slantways through the pines, we weren’t hunting for anything that wanted to kill us, and Neal was playing would you rather with himself.

“Would you rather peel off the top level of your eyeball, or slice off your nipple?”

Julian crouched to get a closer look in the dirt. “I think someone else has been out here,” he said.

“Probably loggers,” Neal said. “Eyeball or nipple?”

“Neither,” Julian said, squinting out into the underbrush. “Do you see that breakage?” It did look pretty trampled I guess.

“One Nipple Neal,” Neal said, crouching too. “This is probably just loggers Jude.”

“Out this far?” Julian said. “Same trail as the puppies? Also, why would I do permanent damage to my vision when I could do the nipple thing?”

“Yeah my eye’s fucked up enough, thanks,” I said, even though I would rather do almost anything more than slice off my nipple like are you serious where did you even get that.

“Maybe they were following them. Wouldn’t you, if you saw a bunch of dogs gliding through the forest?” Neal said. And then, “would you rather boil yourself alive or boil me alive?”

“In general I’d rather boil myself. Right now? You, for sure,” Julian replied cheerfully, examining a place in the bark that had been torn up, probably from flying puppy claws. “Something doesn’t feel right.”

Neal cupped his hands around his mouth and howled as loud as he could. Julian rolled his eyes.

“Come on, it doesn’t work if I’m the only one who does it,” Neal said and Julian smiled in spite of himself, took a huge breath and howled, too. Neal nudged me with his elbow, grinning and howling and looking like a raccoon on crack with those black, bloodshot eyes, but damn if I didn’t howl, too. Three idiots, howling in the woods, until Neal, raised a hand to his ear. When we all went quiet I could hear them in the distance — cackling, hiccuping, little howls.

“See? They’re out there,” Neal said. “Would you rather be stuck in one place forever like a barnacle, or have to be in constant motion like a shark?”

“Neither,” Julian said.

“You can’t say neither,” Neal scoffed.

“Will you stop trying to be cute and just ask me what you want to ask me please,” Julian said, and he said it in such a good natured, casual way, that I was totally unprepared when Neal said, without hesitation and in a completely different tone, “What are you going to do if I die first?”

Julian stopped in his tracks. “Neal —”

“We need a plan,” Neal said.

Julian took a deep breath and I sensed him retreat deeper into his signature Julian calm.

“I’d spend some time with Bev,” he said. “And then Shiloh and I would go to Palefish, and I’d take a job teaching. You?”

“I’d go stay with Louie and Jasper for a while,” he said.

“No hunting with Jasper,” Julian said.

“No,” Neal agreed. “And then depending on what Shiloh wanted, I’d go work with the beasts at the Emporium. Shiloh?”

“What?” I asked, hella shrill because I didn’t know we were gonna go from shaving off our nipples to death contingency plans and I was NOT PREPARED.

“If we die first, what are you gonna do?”

“What?” I squeaked like a frantic little mouse and then my embarrassing ass burst into tears. It was for SURE not my finest moment, but it’s been a really fucked up few weeks, and you can’t just AMBUSH ME like that!!!!

Neal laughed at me, which tbh I appreciate because if they’d been all worried I probably would have impaled myself on a tree branch, but he also wrapped me up in a big hug, which I have no strong feelings about I promise.

“You big baby,” Neal said, but he said it in a nice way. “It’s just better to have a plan now than get stuck somewhere.”

“I don’t know,” I said, and I might have been sort of wailing a little bit, which in my defense is SUPER FAIR because I genuinely have NO IDEA what I’d do if I was suddenly ALONE. What the fuck would I do???? I literally have no one else on earth!!!!!!

“You’d call Beverly or Jasper,” Julian told me. “You’d go back to the motel room and wait until they got here. They’d come get you, and help you deal with —” he hesitated “—cleanup. Then you’d go to Palefish and get a degree, and from there you could decide what you want to do. Okay?”

Which like, oh, yeah, that’s exactly what I’d do, that’s true. And once it was all laid out I really did feel a lot better lmao.

“Feel better?” Julian asked, and I nodded but he wasn’t talking to me. Neal shrugged.

“Can we find these puppies please, yeesh,” he said and Julian rolled his eyes, and after that the atmosphere was a whole lot lighter.

We still hadn’t found them by late afternoon, and we weren’t prepared for a full night in the woods, so we headed back to the car and drove back into town, and now we’re eating surprisingly delicious Chinese takeout and watching Paranormal Activity, which considering all the possession we were dealing with last week, you’d think would be traumatizing, but actually if you watch it from the demon’s perspective it’s an awesome movie about enabling a pretty girl to get rid of her SUPER toxic boyfriend, and I’m into it. Team demon 4 life

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