This afternoon we arrived at the alleged new coven’s land.

I could tell because of the owls.

The first swept down out of the trees right across our windshield, just inches from the glass and glided deeper into the woods. Its feathers were a soft lavender color. I pressed my nose to the glass.

“Did you see that?”

“Hard to miss it,” said Neal, who was driving. “Was that an owl?”

Julian just pointed out the windshield at the house.

It was a big, old house, unremarkable except for its age, and it’s location out in the middle of the woods. Oh, and the owls.

There were dozens of them, perched on the roof, and in the trees surrounding it, which would have been enough. But they were all different colors — dusty pink, faded yellow, soft blue. And, on top of that, they all had three faces. They kept swiveling their necks in order to look at us with each of them.

“What are they?” I asked, awe-struck.

“Temple owls,” Julian replied. “They’re drawn to magic.”

Neal was smiling. They were both gazing up at the trees, for once as awe-struck as I was. “No one is going to believe this,” he said.

We parked the car. It wasn’t quite raining, but it had been recently, and the woods smelled rich and earthy.

“Do they know we’re coming?” I asked.

“Hope so,” Neal replied, climbing the stairs. He rapped three times on the door.

The owls all began to hoot and ruffle their feathers.

It took a moment, but when the door opened a thin woman in her thirties answered it. She had a long scar all down one side of her face, and she frowned when she saw us.

“Hello,” she said. She spoke to me specifically. “Do you need help?”

Lol like right now? Or just in general?

“No,” I said. “We’re just here because —” I hesitated and glanced at Neal.

“We’re here about the owls,” he said.

The woman began to close the door and Julian quickly added, “we’re with university of STATE, and we believe this species of owl is completely unique to you this state.”

The woman hesitated.

“We don’t mean any harm,” Julian said, voice all honey. “We were sent here just to understand.”

From deeper in the house, someone called, “Sarah? Who’s at the door?”

Sarah opened the door just a crack further to better reveal us to whoever was inside. It was a short, round woman in her mid fifties.

“My name is Terra,” she said. “I run this facility. Do you need help?” Again, she was speaking only to me.

So, I took a deep breath. “I’m Shiloh,” I said. “We’re here about the owls.”

The woman narrowed her eyes.

“And these two?” she said, indicating the Hawthornes with a glance.

I could tell from her tone that she was asking me to vouch for them.

“They’re…” I glanced at them. How do I express who the Hawthornes are and what they do? “Um, they’re okay.”

The woman narrowed her eyes. “You trust them?”

“Yeah,” I said, without hesitation, which is the absolute truth, despite all the… well, all the stuff.

Terra sniffed. “Fine,” she said. “Then come with me. There are no men allowed in the big house.”

Behind the house was a huge, very involved and complicated garden situation. It was bustling with people, busily clipping and tying and raking and digging and weeding. They all looked up warily as we passed.

“As you can see,” she said. “We’re very busy. It’s no light work keeping this place running for all these people. And we’re not interested in any nonsense. So I recommend asking what you want to ask.”

“What is this place?” Julian asked.

“This is Haven,” Terra said. “It’s exactly what it sounds like. People come here from all walks of life, for any reason. Some have been abused. Others are hooked on some substance. Some are just lost and got nowhere else to go. We take you in, clean you up, and offer you shelter until you’re ready to move on.”

As she said it she was tromping through the mud purposefully, leaving big squelches in the mud. There wasn’t much subtle about Terra.

“Are you here to survey us? Is this a government thing again?”

“No,” Neal said. “Nothing like that.”

“We’ve got nothing to hide,” Terra said. “As you can see, we’re almost self-sufficient out here. What we do spend from the government, we keep records of, you’re welcome to see them.”

“We’re not from the government,” Julian repeated. “We’re really here about the owls.”

Terra huffed. “Well, there’s not much to tell you about them,” she said. “They started turning up maybe ten years ago. Now we’ve got a whole colony of ‘em. They’ve got something a little funny about them, but they’re not harming nobody.”

“No,” Julian said. He was smiling, looking around at the industry. It felt a bit like going to a pumpkin patch, which was fitting, what with Halloween being in what, like 3 days? “I imagine they’re not. This place is amazing.”

Terra beamed. “We like it,” she said. “Keeps us honest. Good hard work, a reason to feel tired at the end of the day. But if you’re here for the owls, we have to tell you — we won’t stand for any harm coming to them, not on our land. And we aren’t open to any teams coming here. We’ve got enough to deal with without strange science folk coming in and disturbing our peace.”

She paused to scowl at them, openly combative, as if waiting for them to argue about the value of scientific study etc.

There was a long, awkward moment of quiet, in which Neal and Julian made increasingly insistent expressions at each other behind Terra’s back.

“Those all your questions?” she finally said. “I don’t know much more about those birds, but I’ve got a lot of work to do, so —”

The Hawthornes were gesticulating frantically by that point, and finally, Neal just asked her: “Do you do magic?”

Terra turned to fix him with a steely look.

“You’re some of those, are you?” she said. “I’d like you to leave.”

“But —” Julian began, but she held up a hand to stop him.

“You’re no longer welcome on this property,” Terra said more insistently. “You think the women who come to this house haven’t dealt with enough? You want to come here and call us witches, too? This place is safe because we keep people like you out of it. Now leave.”

“You don’t understand,” Julian said earnestly. “We know magic is real!”

But that’s just what a paranormal investigator with a YouTube channel would say, isn’t it, and Terra had made up her mind about us and was ushering us back the way we’d come.

Which was when I did something — you guessed it! — very stupid.

“I need to stay,” I blurted out and Terra hesitated. “I’m a runaway and I have no where else to go. Please let me stay.”

Terra gave me a steely look.

“No really,” I said and got out my phone. Reception was a little spotty, so it took a second, but eventually I was able to pull up a nice little missing person report with my scowling little face on it.

Terra sighed, watching me exasperatedly.

“Please?” I said and she groaned.

“I can’t say no,” she said. “You can stay. But these two —” she pointed at the Hawthornes. “The have to go. Right now.”

“Okay,” I said. “Give me a second to say goodbye?”

Terra didn’t like it, but she gave me a moment and I followed the boys to the car.

“Shiloh, what the fuck,” Neal said.

“You guys weren’t going to get anything out of her,” I said. “You think I’ll be in any danger here? It’s a state funded women’s-shelter. I’ll just stay a night or two, you can come get me, I’ll tell you what’s up.”

I could tell from Neal’s expression that he hated everything about this, but after a tired glance exchanged with Julian, they relented.

“Fine, but take an extra phone, just in case.”

And guess what, that was a great call because there’s totally a tech restriction for newcomers!

Julian gave me a big hug, promised they’d be right down the road if I needed anything, and to be careful, and just like that, I was alone in the woods with a bunch of strangers.

Hahahahaha does ya girl wish she’d thought this through before insisting she could do it? Yeah she does! As per usual!

Terra watched the Hawthornes drive away before turning towards me.

“You’ve done it now, huh,” she said, grinning.

I didn’t know what to say.

“Come on,” she said. “You’re one of us now.”

And she brought me inside.

Signing in turned out to be a bit of a Thing. I used my fake name, just in case the FBI ever turns up looking for me here, and signed a bunch of papers basically agreeing to follow all their rules, contribute to the group, and leave if they asked me to. Then they took my phone — the dummy phone, obviously, I’m writing on my actual phone now — and sent me upstairs to for a bath.

“You stay in there for as long as you need to wash the road off you,” Terra told me and one of the other women, a wiry, frizzy-haired woman, said, “and enjoy that hot water while you can,” and several of the other women laughed.

So that’s pretty ominous. But the bathroom upstairs is big, sort of old fashioned, with white tile and a big claw-foot tub.

Super excellent bath.

I’m upstairs in a teeny little closet room now. It’s got enough space for a bed, a dresser and a window and that’s it. They’ve pretty much given me the afternoon to “rest,” and said they’d come get me at dinner time. We’ll see how that goes.

I mean of the impulsive dumb decisions I’ve made on this road trip of nightmares, this one isn’t THAT bad. What’s the worst that’s gonna happen? They feed me a vegetable? I sleep in a proper bed with clean sheets, not in the back of a car or a gross motel room?

Lmao, how horrible

(See everything’s fine, I’m totally not having separation anxiety like a kindergartener at summer camp)

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