Here’s the thing about Cara: I might be obsessed with her. I love that she spends so much time taking care of her hair and skin. I love that each individual item of clothing she owns costs more than all of the clothes I own together (excluding the leather jacket, in some but not all cases). I love when she says mean shit to Neal.
I’m a literal puppy dog. I follow her around wagging my little imaginary tail hopefully. I can feel myself doing it. I love her. I have no aunts, no cousins, no older sisters. I can feel myself imprinting on her like a baby duck.
I think Neal noticed because yesterday, while we were by the pool, waiting for the gallery to close so we could have another crack at the painting, he said, “She won you over, didn’t she?”
Julian was swimming laps to get out some of his pent up energy — turns out that weird restlessness Julian gets is a symptom of secretly being an entire monster, and he needs regular exercise, like a big excitable dog — and Cara was lounging on a pool floaty, reading again.
“Look, I get it,” Neal said. “But be careful.”
Which like… Neal, you’re going to warn me about CARA? Of the dangerous things I’ve encountered since embarking on this road trip of nightmares, Cara’s super not the thing I’m worried about.
I must have made a face because he added, “I just don’t want you to get burned.”
He’s just annoyed he’s not the coolest one in the room anymore hahahaha.
It was a really good day. Cara’s such a bitch all the time, and the boys always talk about her like she’s a total snake, so I guess it took until now to see how well they all know each other. It makes me want to know what they were like back in the day, when it was the Hawthornes, Cara, Beverly, and Jasper, all hunting together. Today Cara opened her makeup trunk to find a lipstick, and there was a picture of them tucked into the little mirror on the top. She saw me looking so she passed it to me to get a good look.
“We were probably seventeen in that picture,” she said, using a wand on her eyebrows. “We’d just done our first solo case.”
They were babies. Neal was wearing BLACK NAIL POLISH and GUY LINER. He was also licking Jasper’s face like a lion. Julian was starting to fall out of frame was covered in acne. Cara had freckles and a page boy haircut. Beverly was laughing.
It made me feel a whole mess of weird nostalgia, which makes no sense because when they were all learning to hunt cryptids, I was 11. Madelyn and I were just going into our witch faze.
LOL I don’t know why I felt a weird sense of loss and nostalgia over this photograph of best friends, I say, after fleeing my home and all my friends, and very obviously coping poorly with my best friend’s disappearance.
But we’re not here for sadness hour with Shiloh. We’re here for how the fuck we got rid of the spook in the painting.
We had to break into the gallery, which meant I got to see Cara in action.
“They have an alarm,” she explained, as she tucked her hair into her black beanie. She had a whole burglar look going on — black leggings, black turtle-neck, black beanie. She’s so cool I want to be her.
“Do you know the code?” Neal asked. She looked at him like he was the saddest, wrinkliest little vegetable at the bottom of the produce drawer and didn’t answer.
Instead she just knelt down and in literally like 4 seconds, picked the lock.
We hurried inside, while Cara went to plug in the code.
“Okay,” Cara said. “Show time. What you got, Neal?”
Neal made a face at her.
The paintings that had been on the wall across from our painting had all been moved. Instead, it was a wall of busts, and I swear, as we approached they all seemed to turn just a little to watch. Just a little. Just enough to make my hair prickle.
“You sure you want to do this?” Julian asked. Neal looked a little bit green, and not just because of all his half-healed bruises. But he just grinned and shook out his hair.
So we drew a circle. We drew it in salt with the elements on each point of the pentacle and that last point angled directly at the painting.
“If something goes wrong,” Neal said, and then he laughed. “I’m not really sure what we’d do about it, so just… don’t let it go wrong, k?”
Which wasn’t enormously comforting.
“I’ve got Mercy and Zin on speed dial,” Julian said and Neal laughed, then stepped into the circle.
And then, as usual with these things, we just stood there while nothing detectable happened.
“There’s definitely something in there,” Neal said. “It just doesn’t want to cooperate.”
“Yeah, I told you, it’s a stubborn piece of shit,” Cara said.
“Cara can we refrain from insulting the ghost that I’m literally trying to invite into my body please,” Neal said to her.
To which Cara made a lascivious suggestion, and Neal winked at her, and for a few minutes it was all ghost sex jokes that I won’t make you all suffer through, before Julian finally said,
“Should we try a hum?”
I obviously didn’t know what that meant, so Julian had to explain.
“Remember the hum you feel when a spell begins to engage?”
HA. Hard to forget that sound.
“Well, sometimes humming — like, literally, we all standing in a circle and hum, can sort of… help the atmosphere,” Julian said. “It’s gonna feel a little bit silly, but for some reason, faking the conditions of magic can help guide energy.”
So, we started to hum. And yeah, it felt silly as shit. I kept falling out to laugh at us. But after a while, I really could feel something in the air change. My hair stood on end, my body started to tingle. You sort of expect hauntings to feel like something you’ve never felt before, but it’s not really like that. It’s almost indistinguishable from just… being afraid. That icy terror that narrows your vision and quickens your heart-rate, but with something misty at the edge, out of vision, just a whisper of something unknowable.
What I’m trying to communicate is that being haunted feels like spicy fear.
Once the hum was going, Neal leaned forward and smudged away the salt at the tip of that fifth point.
It only took a few minutes after that.
At first he went totally rigid. Then he went limp. I was ready to jump in there right then, but Julian stopped me.
“He’s okay,” he said. “He’s done this before.”
“Okay,” Neal said, and his voice sounded strange and strangled. “What do you want?”
Then his eyes rolled back and all we could see were whites.
We stopped humming.
“What’s happening?” I whispered.
“He’s channeling whatever is haunting the painting,” Julian said. “We should be able to communicate with it now.”
“Yeah, but like… do we want to?” Cara said skeptically.
“This is your doing,” Julian replied. “So you can be grateful or be quiet.”
Neal just got clumsily to his feet. He was moving weirdly, not like himself at all. He pushed past us, shuffled down the gallery, and came to a swaying stop at top of the stairs to the basement.
Cara groaned. “I hate basements.”
Julian shot her a look. “Keep an eye on the candles then,” he said and reached out to catch Neal just in time to keep him from toppling down the stairs.
We didn’t know there was a little painter’s studio downstairs until we got down there, but evidently, the painting did. Neal rummaged around in the paints for a few minutes, apparently found what the painting was looking for, and started squirting colors onto the lid of a Tupperware. He grabbed some brushes and some oils and started back upstairs.
We followed close behind so that he didn’t fall.
Neal-who-wasn’t-Neal peered into the painting, dabbed a little paintbrush into some the paint and started mixing. It took a solid twenty minutes just to get all the colors ready, and then, after all of that, he leaned forward, and deftly, with just a few strokes, he painted on the figures face. I mean it literally took like 3 minutes. Neal stood away from the painting, and let out a long, appreciative sigh. Then he collapsed.
“What the fuck,” he said from the floor. “Did it work? How did I end up down here?”
Cara just laughed disbelievingly. “That son of a bitch,” she said. “All that just to finish a painting?”
“He was conscious,” Neal said. “That was a whole, complete person in there. He had like… desires.”
Julian hesitated. “I mean, that energy has had over a hundred years to fester,” he said. “He spent a lifetime working one painting, and then didn’t finish it. That’s a lot of energy to pour into one object. I’m sure it was just potent —”
“No,” Neal said. “That was a person. A whole consciousness. He didn’t like the smell of the basement, and was confused by our clothes.”
“That’s impossible,” Julian said.
“Yeah,” Neal agreed. “Tell me about it.”
“Who cares,” Cara said. “I can finally make this damn sale and get out of here.”
So we headed back to the hotel, but the boys were both troubled, I could tell. I’m also troubled. I literally JUST learned that ghosts aren’t conscious humans, and now they’re trying to tell me me that maybe they sometimes are? Like, hunting is complicated enough okay.
We made it back to the hotel just in time for the bar’s last call.
“To leaving the channeling to actual mediums,” Neal said, holding up his glass.
“To 1.2 million dollars,” Cara replied and we all clinked glasses. They talked about nothing important. Cara did a pretty spot-on imitation of Ernest Gailord wearing Neal like a meat puppet and bumping around the gallery. I was sleepy, but I didn’t want to go to bed yet.
“Let’s get breakfast tomorrow,” Neal said, swirling the last of the ice in his drink. “Something nice.”
Cara smiled at him. “Yeah, that sounds good,” she said.
“We made a good team in there,” Julian added.
Cara looked down. “Yeah,” she said. “Maybe I could stick around for a bit, right? Run a few cases, like back in the day.”
At the time I didn’t hear the wry irony in her voice when she said it.
“Really?” I said, the most excited. So embarrassing.
Cara gave me the warmest look, said something like “what is this sweet girl doing with you oafs,” and planted a kiss on my forehead.
She held the elevator door when we reached the boy’s floor on the way up to bed. She kissed Julian’s cheek, then Neal right on the mouth.
“Goodnight,” she said. Neal just smirked and shook his head. Her lipstick looked sort of good on him.
“You coming up with me?” Cara asked me.
Of course I was. Face masks and silky robes with Cara or a cot with the boys? Please.
“Maybe you should stay with us tonight,” Neal said, and I really had no idea why he’d say that at the time. Why on earth would I want to spend the night with them, when I could spend the night upstairs with Cara, drinking champagne and listening to ethereal girl music?
That night Cara poured us each a glass of champagne for no reason, and put on an old movie. I was sleepy before her, obviously, because Cara never sleeps.
“You’ll call me, right?” She said as I was drifting off. “If something is ever really going wrong?”
And my sleepy ass said, “You’re coming with us, right? I won’t have to.”
When I woke up much later Cara was still up. The TV was flashing light across her face and I could see from her running mascara that she was crying.
I must have asked if she was okay because she wiped her eyes and smiled at me.
“Of course,” she promised. “This movie’s just sad. Go back to sleep.”
When I woke up again it was light out and I was alone. The hotel room was completely empty.
I felt a sort of inexplicable rush of panic that was much bigger than the situation warranted. Like I was a little kid lost in a Costco. There was a soft knock on the door.
“Shiloh?” It was Neal. “Can I come in?”
He wasn’t surprised at all that the hotel room was empty.
“Is Cara downstairs?” I asked, thinking for a minute that she must have been saying goodbye, and that’s why he’d come to get me.
Neal’s expression said he understood exactly what I was feeling and I didn’t like that one bit.
“Cara hates goodbyes,” he told me, and I wanted to punch him in the nose for his gentle tone.
“Oh, okay,” I said, forcing casual. “I just thought we were getting breakfast, but then I woke up alone —” I really wish I hadn’t said that woke up alone part, because the moment I said it I remembered that the last time I woke up alone unexpectedly Madelyn was gone forever. Worse, Neal had figured that out before me, I could see all over his stupid sympathetic face.
“Cara never stays for breakfast,” he said. “But I’m starving, come on.”
There was a little leather bag by the door, with a note pinned to it that said Shiloh. I opened it in the car. It was skin care, her phone number, and one of her silk robes.