I started getting antsy within 100 miles of Black Lake. By the time we hit Seattle I was about ready to squirm out of my damn skin.
“We can leave you here,” Neal said, eying me in the rearview. “Just you and the Four Seasons.”
But that won’t help. In fact, waiting, knowing the Hawthornes are at my home, with my mom and my friends, might be worse than just being there myself.
I regretted that decision though, by the time we hit the woods. My familiar woods, watching me with the same cool ambivalence as it always has. I felt cold, skin prickling.
“Celeste agreed to meet us at the hospital,” Julian said. “She’s been pulling strings to make sure things work. But we thought maybe you’d want to see your mom before we go to her hospital.”
“She might be at work,” I said.
“We already asked Celeste,” Neal said. “She’s at home.”
Which like… the fact that they coordinated these details makes me want to die (again lol). Can’t the fact that I’m dying a thousand tiny deaths just be invisible? Everyone please stop caring about me immediately, can’t I just suffer by myself, unobserved by anyone?
“Okay,” I said. “Yeah, lets go see her.”
“Alternatively,” Neal said, “you can just hide in the car. No one ever need know you were here. Our little secret.”
But we were hitting our exit and I could see the ghost of Madelyn and I, 16, coasting down this same highway, blasting music, singing at the top of our lungs, just one lane over and three years back.
I had to see them.
Literally not one thing had changed about the apartment complex. My mom’s car was parked in the same place it always was. It still had the crystals hanging from the rear view, and the bumper was still lopsided from when we ran over a curb rushing me to school in 7th grade.
There were the stairs where I read Madelyn’s letter.
Julian twisted to look at me.
“Do you want us to come in?”
“No,” I said, and Neal said, “We’ll be right behind you,” because I was totally lying. I didn’t want to face her by myself hahahaha.
It was raining, obviously, but not hard. Just enough to occasionally ripple the puddles.
The motion sensor light Tilly and I confused that first time we kissed came on. The faded Scooby Doo sticker was still on the wall, partially under the shingles. There were still Christmas lights around the door frame. I wrapped my leather jacket closer around my shoulders and just stood there hahahahaha.
It was 5 pm. My mom was probably waking up right now, getting ready to head to work. I was picturing it all so clearly, her, all by herself, going through her days. After 18 years of revolving her life around me, this was is what I gave her back?
I was all the way in my feelings and I hadn’t even knocked yet.
“Shiloh,” Julian said softly. “She’s going to forgive you.”
“I know,” I said, not knocking on the door.
“Shi —” Neal began and I knocked, loud and clear.
Literally felt so sick waiting for that door to open. Felt like there was cat happily running it’s claws down my stomach lining as I heard muffled movement inside the apartment.
And then the door opened — and there was Dr New Guy, tucking in his shirt, smiling his Very White Smile, calling over his shoulder, “…got it, don’t —” and then he saw who was standing on the porch, and he froze.
Some back story: Dr New Guy started working at the hospital maybe 5 months before Madelyn went missing and was the subject of much excitement not just at the hospital, but all over town. How often does an attractive, unmarried doctor in his late 30s move into a town like Black Lake?
Madelyn had immediately decided that he was my mom’s future husband, my future new dad, which my mom had found hysterical and made a point to keep us up to date on all the hospital gossip. But it was supposed to be JOKE. And now here he is, standing in MY apartment.
“Oh,” he said. “Okay, I’ll go get her.”
But before he could do anything, my mom came around the corner, still putting her hair up in a ponytail, already in her scrubs, piece of toast in her mouth.
“Who’s —” she was asking, but then she saw me on the porch.
The toast landed on the rug. She gave up on her hair. She said, “Shiloh?” but it came out a strangled wheeze.
And what did I say? How did I express months of guilt and heartsickness?
“Hey, mom,” with a queasy little wave and smile.
“Shiloh?” she said again, like she couldn’t believe it, already in motion and I stepped over the threshold to jump into her arms. She held on for a long time, so tight, like she was afraid I was gonna evaporate if she didn’t make sure I was real. Then she held me at arms length:
“Where the hell have you been?”
And then she looked over my shoulder to see who I was with, and her face went dark with rage.
“YOU,” she began, and I literally starfished to keep her from going for the Hawthornes eyes.
“Mom,” I said. “It’s not their fault.”
She stared at me, blinking. Then she said, “Everyone who’s last name is not Tamblyn, get out of my house.”
“Norah,” Dr. New Guy began, and she smiled.
“I’m okay. Tell them I’m calling out, will you?”
“Actually,” I squeaked. “Um. Just tell them she’ll be late, okay?”
My mom blinked at my absolute audacity, so I said, “we’re here with a cure,” and her expression changed in a way I didn’t know how to interpret. “I can explain everything,” I promised.
“Shiloh?” Julian asked over my shoulder. They hadn’t budged, despite my mothers pretty clear instructions.
“Should we just go to the hospital now?” I asked.
Neal nodded almost imperceptibly.
I turned back to my mom. “I can explain everything, but not right now,” I said. “How much has Celeste told you?”
She hesitated, glancing at Dr. New Guy.
“You know about magic?” she asked, which was how I found out that Celeste was true to her word about keeping me out of her magical discussion.
I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. Do I know about magic?
“We have to start getting these people the cure,” I said, and my poor mom nodded slowly, took my hand and squeezed.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”
But when I went towards the rabbit, she added, loudly, and maybe a little shrilly, “no, you get in my car!”
Which — listen — she’s my mom, and her word is law hahahahaha.
The ride was awkward. Dr New Guy (who’s name is actually Oliver) was actually driving, which meant they carpooled, which meant they were idk like… doing life together or whatever. Like, my mom’s dated here and there, but never anything serious, and never anyone she’d bring home, and now I’m gone for a few months and she immediately has a boyfriend, which to be clear, I’m not mad about, it’s just like… has she been waiting for me to leave to start her life again? Is a boyfriend something she’s always wanted and not had for my sake?
That’s what I was frantically thinking in that car, I can only imagine what my poor mother was thinking. Because once we were in the — very nice, new-smelling — car, and there was soft music playing, everything got super quiet and weird. There was literally not one single thing to talk about that wasn’t fraught.
“So,” I said. “How did you two meet?”
Super stupid question. I knew the answer.
“At the hospital,” Oliver said gamely, when my mom didn’t answer. “I finally got up the nerve to ask her out a few months ago —”
“Are you here to stay?” my mom asked, sort of breathlessly, and oh god the guilt, like a terrible goblin, stirring up it’s terrible soup in my stomach.
“No,” I said. “I can’t stay.”
And then there was this silence for about two hundred years. My mom was staring out the window, but she reached for Dr. Oliver’s hand and I felt it squeeze my poor horrible heart.
“I’m glad to know you’re okay,” my mother said in this strained voice, which was, obviously, the most devastating thing she could have said.
“I should have called you,” I said.
“Why didn’t you?” she asked, and then before I could answer: “no, it’s okay, don’t answer that. I’m sorry, I promised myself I wouldn’t hold anything against you when you came home, and I’m —” long pause to collect herself “— I’m just glad you’re here now, I’m so glad you’re here.”
And I just sat in the back of the car, watching some stranger hold her hand and support her through this difficult moment in her life, by which I mean me. I’m the difficult moment in her life.
The Hawthornes were watching me cautiously when I got out of the car, eying me for any signs that I might be like, regressing or something lmfao. Neal clapped my dumb bucket hat on my head so the cameras wouldn’t see me. Julian very subtly put a hand on my back when we circled up to discuss what our plan of attack was, and I wanted to run as fast as I could in any direction.
Not because I don’t appreciate their support and concern. For people who’s company has very nearly been the literal death of me on multiple occasions, I feel completely, completely safe with them. It’s just that since when do I need someone else’s support to deal with my mom? We were a circle of two, a complete circuit, the two of us against the world. And now we couldn’t even be in the same car for five minutes without someone to hold our hand or check on us?
Literally, what have I done?
“The plan is very simple,” Neal said. “Celeste is going to come out and get the supplies she needs from us. Then she’ll need you two to give her access to patients. It could take a few hours.”
“You know I could lose my license for doing this, right?” Dr. Oliver said.
“Yep,” Neal replied, cheerfully, and at that exact moment Celeste came gliding across the parking lot.
“You lived,” she said, coolly.
“I tend to,” Neal replied and they had a moment of extended eye contact. In case you don’t remember, last time Neal and Celeste saw each other they were fighting because if he’d just told her he was a dog saint they might never have broken up.
It might have been awkward, except:
“Holy shit,” Sophie said. “Shiloh?”
I hadn’t even noticed they were there with Celeste’s entrance, but there were Sophie and Iphigenia. They were just the same as I remembered them, in their black dresses, Iphigenia’s long, straight black hair, and Sophie’s old-fashioned pin curls.
I forced myself to smile. “Oh hey,” I said. “How’s it going?”
What am I supposed to say. Like, fuck dude.
“Sorry Shiloh,” Celeste said. “I need them if we’re going to get this done. They’re under strict instructions not to tell anyone anything that happens here.”
And while I was falling from a great height, they moved right along. Neal gave them the materials they needed.
“Sylvia briefed you?” he asked.
“We know everything we can until we get in there,” Celeste replied, not looking at him. “But it’s going to take some doing. Flynn magic is not as adept at healing as Hedgewood magic. This may get difficult. Everyone ready?”
My mom was looking at me. “You’ll be here when we get back?”
To which I said, “I’m coming in with you.”
And Julian replied, “We’re not going in. They know us in there — especially you.”
I looked at my mom, who was staring at me, wide-eyed.
“We’ll stay,” I promised. “We’ll be here when you’re off in the morning.” And when she didn’t move, I added, “I’ll be here! Go save lives!”
And then, in a whirlwind, they were all gone and I got back in the rabbit and we were driving again.
I didn’t notice how quiet we were in the car until Neal said, “Where should we go, kiddo?”
They were both watching me, searching for any sign that I was going headfirst back into total collapse.
“Home,” I said. And that’s where we went.
That’s where we’ve been all night. It’s now Wednesday morning, and I’m waiting for my mom to get home.
It’s so weird. It’s like skin-crawlingly, mortifyingly weird. Hawthornes in my mom’s living room. My mom’s living room, exactly the same, and yet, just a little different. The postcard I sent last year right when we left, the only contact we’d had since then, was on the fridge. It had gotten just a little beaten up, either in the mail or since.
The lamp I’d covered in glitter when I was tiny was still there. All the same dishes, everything just a little cleaner than it could ever be with me in the house. The small, creeping evidence of Dr. Oliver’s presence.
My room is both exactly the same as I left it, and also, just slightly off. It’s been cleaned in there. I’m assuming it must have been searched while I was gone, and I can feel other people’s presence in there. But it’s all my stuff. All the pictures of Madelyn and I are on my mirror, all my old art still up on the walls, my closet is still full of all my clothes. The blanket I loved as a tiny kid is still folded neatly on my bed.
It’s not even been a year, but none of these things feel like mine anymore. It’s like a museum for someone I loved a long time ago in there. She’s still just the same as she’s always been, and I’m someone else entirely, someone she doesn’t even know.
I need to see Tilly and Georgia, but I can’t face them.
Oh I gotta go, Rook’s calling me and it’s literally like 8 am so it might be an emergency, I’ll keep you posted
Okay SOS the worst thing just happened.
Literally AS I’m on the phone with Rook — not an emergency btw, they’re just on a case so they’re up early— someone knocked on my mom’s door. I figured it was just Neal since he’d gone out to check in with Celeste, so as Rook’s telling me about how the case he, Knock and Daryl are on is turning out to be nothing paranormal, I got out of bed to let them back in. I didn’t even bother get off the phone, I was like laughing at Rook and opening the door at the same time, and standing on the porch —
I straight up hung up on Rook, which now that I write down seems like a total monster move, but actually it was just a panic reflex.
Her eyes widened behind her specs, her mouth fell just barely open. “Shiloh?”
She looked… I mean she looks wonderful. On the one hand, just the same as she always has, on the other just the slightly different. Or idk maybe the version of her that I remember is the soft version, all ready for bed, with her hair wrapped, and big slouchy wool socks on. It’s easy to forget how cool people are when in your memories they’re twerking to Carly Rae Jepson in your kitchen.
It was the longest most horrible silence of my life, and I am not unfamiliar with long horrible silences.
“Hi,” I finally said.
“Hi.” Her brow furrowed and her jaw set. “I’m just here to tell your mom that I saw the Neal Hawthorne at a gas station, but I’m guessing she already knows.”
Literally WHAT was Neal doing at a gas station? Why couldn’t he just check in with Celeste and then COME STRAIGHT HOME? “Tilly —”
“Sorry,” she said. “She wasn’t picking up her phone, and I didn’t know how long they’d be in town so I thought she should know ASAP. Just in case.”
She wasn’t quite accusing me of anything, but also, the accusation was all over her face, and my brain was in full stall, complete with loud grinding sounds.
“Do you —” I cleared my throat. “Do you want to come in?”
“Just like that?” she said.
“Tilly…” I said, looking at the welcome mat. My phone started ringing — Rook calling me back. “Look, I um…”
She raised her eyebrows like, yes?
I realized I was going to cry, like BIG danger, going to cry in T minus 10… 9… so I opened my mouth to say something, and Tilly interrupted me:
“Is this why Sophie and Iphigenia are being so weird?”
“Yeah, probably,” I admitted.
“Have they known where you were this whole time?”
“No,” I said, relieved I could give her the less bad answer. “Of course not.”
That doesn’t get the less bad answer. Bad answer exclusively. I couldn’t meet her eyes.
“Oh my god,” Tilly said.
“I um… I’m gonna —” she was backing off the steps towards her car, gesturing vaguely and already walking away.
I called after her but she didn’t stop. I didn’t chase her. I just stood there dumb in the doorway, watching her fumble with her keys.
I should have chased her. I should go find her now and explain everything.
The problem is that I don’t really know how to explain. How do I explain this year? Sorry I couldn’t call, the feds were following me… but also I kept a blog. Like, Bass is a literal tech witch, if I’d wanted to figure out how to be in contact with the people, I could have done it. But I didn’t because I didn’t want to talk to anyone I wanted to be alone.
“Shiloh?” Julian asked as I closed the door. “Everything okay? Who was that?”
And I said, “No one,” and slammed my bedroom door hahaha.
My mom got home at like 10 am, which was late for her, and she came by herself.
“Shiloh?” she shouted.
“I’m here!” I called back, groggy, jerking awake on my desk.
She burst into my room, found me there at my desk, and she deflated with relief. “Hi,” she said, smiling. “I’m sorry, you’re asleep. I should get some sleep, too, huh?”
“Is the cure working?” Neal called, from where he had been trying to fall asleep in the living room since he got back like 10 minutes after Tilly left. My mom startled.
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t want to make them get a motel.”
“No,” she replied. “No, that’s completely fine.” But I could tell on her face that it was NOT fine and she wanted them out of her house. “The cure seems to be working, though how exactly is beyond me.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Celeste will handle it.”
“She’s known where you are this year, hasn’t she?” my mother asked.
I hesitated. “Kinda,” I admitted. “I’ve seen her a few times.”
My poor fucking mom. I saw her blink that knowledge away where it could haunt her later. Then she closed my door.
“I promised myself I wasn’t going to force you to talk to me, but I just want to tell you right now, before I can’t do it,” she said. “I’m sorry for how I handled Madelyn’s death last year. I knew you were struggling, and I knew how alone you felt, and I just couldn’t reach you and —” she broke off, voice trembling. “God, I’m sorry, I don’t want to make you feel guilty.” She laughed, wetly, dabbing her cheeks. “This is why I told myself not to talk to you yet —”
“I didn’t call because I didn’t want the FBI to think you know where I am,” I told her and, as I had hoped, that brought her up short.
But there was so much. There was so much I hadn’t told her. There was so much she didn’t know.
“Okay,” I said. “Um, come sit down. I’ll explain everything. And if you don’t believe me… I mean that’s your prerogative I guess, but I swear I’ll tell you the truth.”
And then I had a better — OR WORSE — idea.
I gave her my blog.
She’s reading it right now. I’m terrified because I haven’t read it in ages, and now I’m having like TONS of doubts because jesus I don’t want her to know all about all the details of my weird crush on Neal and my first kiss with Tilly and how I literally JUST slept with Rook, like. I really just gave my mom my fucking diary, but idk. I feel like after this we’re really actually even.
Okay, I’m gonna go to bed. I’ll keep you posted.