I woke up Thursday morning because my mother was shouting at Neal. And by woke up, I do in fact mean lurched up in bed with the terror of a thousand traumas.
I must have said something along the lines of “what trhe fukd is goin on?” because Julian, who was evidently hiding in my room, said, “we’re not entirely certain, but it seems like she’s learned about the sludge.”
At which point I launched myself out of bed to intervene.
She was standing between the couch and the coffee table shouting and pointing a lot, and Neal was laying on the couch with a blanket up to his chin and his feet sticking out the bottom, staring up at her, looking dazed.
Like, objectively hilarious in retrospect, but you have to remember — Neal was literally on death’s door a week ago, and he’s still lookin a little green around edges.
So I frantically try to intervene, and my poor mother, my poor dear mother, whirls on me and shouts, “why didn’t you just tell me what was going on?”
So I said, “because I knew you wouldn’t believe me!”
And she said, “you could have showed me the gigantic flying hyena from another dimension! I might have believed that!”
Which is totally fair enough, but I said, “because you would have tried to keep me safe, and I couldn’t let you do that!”
“Of course I would have tried to keep you safe! That’s my job!”
“I know,” I said, taking a deep breath. “I know that. But I needed to find her, and I couldn’t do that and stay safe, too.”
“Your backpack,” my mother said. “That morning when your backpack was all torn up.” And then she started crying.
I wasn’t sure what to do at that point, because to be honest, I sort of forgot that backpack thing happened. But yeah, looking back from my mother’s perspective, the morning we woke up to find all my school things shredded and tossed around the living room, and I insisted I didn’t remember doing it must have been a total turning point in her memories of everything that happened last year.
Neal got up, pulled on a t-shirt, and leaned to say softly, “We’re gonna give you some space, okay? Do you want us to grab you breakfast?”
I shook my head, barely noticing him, thinking mostly about my poor mom with her face in her hands trying to collect herself.
“You want us to stay?”
And idk why that was the thing that did it, but damn. I glanced up to find Neal watching me earnestly, and Julian looking on anxiously from the hall. Like not to be dramatic but I love them so much.
I smiled. “No, we’re okay,” I promised and he squeezed by me, mussing my hair.
By the time it was just me and my mom alone in the quiet house, she’d collected herself some. She managed to look up at me and smiled.
“I swear, I have spent so many hours of my life imagining how I would handle it if you came home, and this —” she gestured at herself, “— was not the plan.”
I don’t want to give you guys all the details about how the rest of our conversation went. For starters, my mom now has this blog and will know if I tell everyone the intimate details about our difficult conversation. But also, I just have a lot of feelings about it and I don’t want to talk about them in detail, but here’s the highlights:
I haven’t talked a ton about my extended family on this blog. Like you know it’s always just been like… me and my mom. Well, what I maybe haven’t explicitly said, is that my mom got pregnant with me young, has an awful relationship with her parents and essentially ran away from home. Sort of a Gilmore Girls situation, but without the generational wealth.
And like, that didn’t really factor into my decision making this last year, because I’ve never really thought of my mom as anything other than my mom, and haven’t really thought of her as being like… you know, a person with her own story. So I never like sat down to consider the layers of guilt and distress I was putting her through by doing to her exactly what she did to her parents and running away.
I asked her about Doctor Oliver, and she told me the story of how he was really kind when I first left, and how he actually moved here because he lost his wife and daughter in a car accident, so they had this loss in common and how he’s been super supportive because — it turns out my mom actually wants to be a doctor, not a nurse, and has been nursing all these years because she’s been you know, raising me, so when it was time to decide how long she wanted to be in school, she chose the fewer years option. But now she’s considering going back to school.
She told me that it is very strange to see people she doesn’t know at all know me so well and be so sensitive to me, and while neither of us directly said how weird and horrible it is that it’s not just us against the world anymore, it did sort of clear the air.
She asked if there was any chance at all that I would decide to stop cryptid hunting and come back home. Maybe go off to school or something.
“We’d figure out your diploma,” she said. “I think if you explained what you’ve been through the last couple years, any school would understand.”
But what she didn’t say was that any explanation I did to any future university would have to be heavily edited, and to be honest, I’m not really interested in having to lie about everything I know for the rest of my life. I know this world is dangerous, and I know that next time I’m getting my shit wrecked by like a three headed blood sucking meerkat or something, I’ll probably regret this, but right now this is what I want. It might be a bit of a strong statement to say I chose this life — I sort of fell into it. I’m actually sort of still falling into it like that one scene in Alice in Wonderland where she’s falling down the rabbit hole hitting stuff on her way down. But as much as I can choose, I’m choosing this.
It’s like 3:30 right now. My mom is napping, and the boys are touching base with Celeste. I think things at the hospital are going well — all signs suggest the infected patients are heading towards recovery so that’s great news.
I feel so much better. I mean I knew that not being in touch with my mom was rough, but it wasn’t until the relief set in that I realized how much it was weighing on me. Now I’m just sorta waiting around for my mom to wake up.
I know what I should be doing. I can’t do it. Like, my mom is one thing, but I can’t face Tilly.
I wish I could tell you that I put on my big girl panties and tracked Tilly and Georgia down myself, but that’s not what happened.
Oh no. I was in full self-pity mode, ghosting around my house, when someone knocked and I froze like a rabbit.
This time I called Neal before going to the door, because that is a mistake I only planned on making once.
He picked up on the first ring.
“Are you at my door?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said, and then after a long moment of quiet, “you should go answer it.”
I said nothing.
“You’ll regret it if you don’t at least explain,” he said, and when I still didn’t answer he added, “do you regret leaving?”
“No,” I said at once.
“Do you understand why you had to go?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you regret anything?”
I scuffed my socks on the carpet. “Only that I didn’t call.”
“Her dad attempted to ritual sacrifice you,” Neal said. “Like a goat.”
I laughed, I couldn’t help it.
“She might not understand,” Julian said, because of course they were on speaker. “But we were there, and we know you did the best you could at the time.”
Whoever was at my door knocked again.
“Okay,” I said, and hung up. I set my jaw, stood up straight, and answered the door.
It was Warren Miller.
I don’t know who I was expecting — maybe Georgia? — but I was not expecting Warren Miller.
God that boy’s a specimen.
“Hey,” he said.
I shivered in the cold. It was cold and his hair was wet. “… hey.”
“Tilly said you were in town,” he said.
There was a long awkward quiet before I remembered manners. “Do you want to come in or —”
“No, actually,” he said. “I want you to come out.”
“Come on, Tilly and Georgia had to drive to Seattle to pick up some of Feather Dog’s magic fruit. It’ll just be us.”
Lmfao, I would never have imagined a world in which spending time with Warren Miller was my least intimidating option, but here we are.
“I wanna show you what we’ve been working on,” he said, which brought me up short.
“Come on,” he said. “We’ve only got a little light left.” And when I was still hesitating: “Come on!”
So I grabbed my leather jacket (armor lol), left my mom a note, and got into the gremlin with him. I had a moment of weird vertigo getting into the passenger seat of his car, because there was a small part of me that remembered how much this would have meant to me once upon a time.
“So,” he said after a couple blocks. “Where you been?”
“It’s not a trick question,” he added. “I genuinely want to know.”
“Little bit of everywhere,” I told him, which is the truth.
He smirked at me. “Mysterious.”
I shrugged and he smiled broader.
It took me a while to figure out where he was taking me, but when we turned off the main road and up towards the logging roads something primal kicked in my gut, and I realized we were going into the woods.
These fucking woods ahahaha.
“Hey War, I um —”
“Trust me,” he said.
Where’d he bring me? The old Black Coven cabin. Remember the place where the cult locked Madelyn in their cellar for like a week? Hahahahahahahaa this fucking town, no wonder I left.
“Seriously,” I began, “I don’t —”
“I promise,” Warren said, parking. “You’re going to love this.”
The late afternoon sun filtered down between the pines. The little plot of garden looked like it was mostly unused, and at first I didn’t notice anything different. Instead I watched as Warren got out of the car, cupped his hands around his mouth and whistled loudly into the woods.
My instinct was to stop him — even now I’m not big into drawing attention to myself in these particular woods — but then, with a whoosh of air, something dropped off the roof towards us, landed with a heavy thump on the forest floor and just about bowled me over with the force of it’s enthusiasm.
He was almost unrecognizable. Last I saw him, he was still living mostly inside the Circum Street House, and starved for magic — now he’s big and filled out, his feathers and fur all glossy, his eyes bright.
“Easy, big guy,” Warren said, trying to shove between us, because Feather Dog’s nose was eagerly snuffling against my neck and I was pretty much flattened against the car by his enthusiasm.
I didn’t mind. Actually, I sort of loved it. I wrapped my arms around his big tawny neck and held on while he wiggled out all his excitement.
“Celeste brought a whole bunch of these creatures called blight rats,” Warren explained, when Feather Dog finally got over his need to drool all over me and bounded away, leaping up onto his hind legs and reaching up with his forelegs to show off his feathers playfully. “They’re like… magic raccoons that eat magic.”
“Yeah no,” I said. “I know. I helped trap the bunch Celeste brought up here.”
“Oh,” Warren said. “Seriously? That long ago?”
“Damn, I knew she was a secret keeper, but that’s cold,” he said, but he was good natured about it. “Anyways, ever since we’ve gotten those things here, Feather Dogs been able to get a little bit more magic in his diet. Plus not so much crazy shit happens around town, so. It’s been a win-win as far as infestations go.”
It was only then that I realized that the old coven house had been recently painted.
“Is Feather Dog… living out here?” I asked.
“Come in,” Warren said. “I’ll show you what we’ve been doing!”
So I followed him up the porch — which had been sanded, and the old woodreplaced — through the door and into the house.
It was completely different than it was last time I was in there. Before, when the cult was using it for their twisted, fake-witch practice, it was clean and stark and organized. Now, it was practically unrecognizable.
All the furniture was still there, but it had been scrubbed, and then reupholstered with colorful new fabric. Everything had fresh coats of paint, there were rugs on all the floors. There was a little refrigerator and a proper sink in the kitchen. There were electric lights.
I must have looked appropriately awed because Warren Miller was grinning at me.
“Did you guys do all this?”
“With some help,” he said. “The Flynn witches have been super helpful and supportive. I think they’re loaded or something.”
I laughed, because of course the Flynn witches are loaded, they have the Scelerats.
“As of last month, we even have internet,” he boasted. “The Flynns had to call in some help to get it all working, but the guy who came out, uhh, Bass something…”
I laughed. “Bass was here?”
“Yeah, you know him?” Warren asked and I just laughed disbelievingly and stammered a bunch of partial question openers.
“What — how — why —”
“We’re all living out here,” Warren said, and this was what he was so excited to tell me. “The cult all went to jail, and this place was empty for a few months. Eventually the Flynn witches reached out to let us know that the land still technically had the potential to support a coven, and apparently magic is getting more and more powerful or whatever, so…”
He glanced at me, a little awkwardly. “I mean I guess you know that. But they basically said that it’s gonna start getting more and more magical out here, and the land needed tending, and since the Black Coven isn’t here to do it anymore… if we wanted to…”
I turned to stare at him.
He held up his hands. “No, hey,” he said. “I mean we’re not doing magic or anything. Right now we’re just trying to make this place livable. Eventually we’re thinking about picking up the old Black Coven rituals — especially the girls — but for now it’s just about, you know, making this a place we actually like to be. The Flynn’s basically said witchcraft is a lifelong commitment and I dunno man, this is a really small town, and we don’t even know if we’d ever be actually able to do any magic, you know?”
But I looked around at the house again, full of light and color. There were plants growing in the window. There was even a TV. Yeah, small town, sure. But I could think of worse fates than a little cabin in the woods with all my friends.
“What do you think?” Warren asked and I was still searching for the right words to say when the back doors opened again and for a split second I felt a whirl of absolute panic, thinking it was Tilly and Georgia. But it wasn’t.
“Hey, I was thinking of getting up on the roof and checking out that — oh.” It was KEITH HANDALL, looking just as floppy and fashionably raggedy as he always had. “Hey, I didn’t know we had company!” He offered me his hand. “Hi, I’m —” But then he recognized me. “Holy shit, Shiloh?”
And he gave me this big, super unexpected hug.
“Hi,” he said. “I thought you were gone for good! Welcome to our little home, has Warren given you the tour?”
Which is how I spent the next like… 45 minutes of the evening. They took me around the property, down the well, to the barn which they’d more or less repurposed into a home for Feather Dog. They showed me all the bedrooms — and there were a BUNCH, way more than I expected there to be. Turns out all six of them — because Sophie and Iphigenia have stayed here, too — are living here, with plenty of space.
It’s all there, everything they did all year. Their whole life, piled all on top of each other in this beautiful cottage full of magic. I could see Tilly and Georgia everywhere — the art on the walls, the record collection on display in the living room. They’d built something together, and they’d done it without me.
“There’s another room,” Warren said, somewhat slyly. “You’re welcome to join us if you ever want to.”
I managed an awkward, breathy laugh. “Yeah, well,” I said. “I think Tilly and Georgia would probably have something to say about that.”
Warren shrugged. “I dunno,” he said. “I bet they’d be cool with it.”
And I didn’t know what to say, because there’s an insurmountable crevice between where I’m at, and a beautiful witchy cottagecore existence with Tilly and Georgia.
Warren rescued me having to say anything by adding, “Speaking of the girls, it’s getting late. They’ll probably be back soon. You want to stay? We can cook something. We’re out of drinks, but Keith can ask his uncle —”
“No,” I said. “No, I wanna go home. I don’t want to surprise them.”
“Sure,” he said, totally easy going, and he drove me home.
My mom was awake, and was visibly relieved when I came back in.
“Where’ve you been?” she asked. She was cooking, the one meal she’s really good at: root soup. Essentially, just a whole bunch of root vegetables boiled together with herbs, but it’s my total comfort meal.
“Warren brought me out to their house,” I said and she smiled.
“Oh I know, can you believe what they’re doing with the place?” she said. “I’ve been out there a few times, I had no idea any of them were interested in that forest lifestyle!”
I hesitated, sliding onto one of the stools across from her. “You’ve been out there?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “I’ve been in touch with Tilly and Georgia quite a bit this year.”
She didn’t say because we’d all lost you but I knew that’s what she meant. I really tried not to cry, and failed. So I really tried to hide it, and failed at that too.
My mom smiled sadly at me. “Oh, Shiloh,” she sighed and came around the counter to hug me. She pet my hair and said all the soft things, and I cried and cried, and when I was all cried out, she held my face away from her and planted a big kiss on my forehead.
“You need to go talk to them,” she said.
But how am I supposed to do that!!!! I can’t do that!!!!
“What do I say?”
“You tell them the truth,” she said. “You couldn’t stay.”
Which is truly the question, isn’t it: could I have stayed? What would the government have done with me if I’d stayed? What would I have done? Would I be living in a cottage in the woods with all my friends right now if I weren’t learning how to hunt and handle these creatures?
I don’t know the answer. Too many uncertainties.
“Can I borrow your keys?” I asked.
She put them on the counter for me and said, “soup will be waiting when you get back.”
Driving in the woods at night is not my ideal reality. Especially not with sunglasses on hahaha. Especially not these woods, especially not to this land. Everything was too familiar. I could feel the great expanse of the lake on my right as I drove and forced myself not to think about Madelyn out there.
The cottage was all lit up with warm yellow light when I got there. I could see them through the window. Tilly was at the stove, and Georgia was organizing a vase full of what appeared to be Feather Dog’s enormous feathers on the table. Both of them turned when they saw my headlights.
I took a deep breath, and before my courage faltered, got out of the car and walked right to the door. I didn’t even have the chance to knock before the door swung open and there was Georgia.
“You bitch,” she said, marched over the threshold and flung her arms around my neck. “I really thought you weren’t gonna come see us for a minute there.”
I laughed into her hair and held on tight.
“I’m sorry,” I said and she pushed away from me.
“You’re god damned right you’re sorry,” she said. “A POSTCARD? That’s all we get for an entire YEAR?”
I looked down. She was wearing pale green fuzzy slippers with faces on them.
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry. I should have said more.”
“Yeah you should have! Why didn’t you?” she demanded, absolutely zero filter or preamble and I couldn’t help but smile weakly.
“You’re a coward,” she said. “Come in. Wait til you see what we did to this place.”
At which point I glanced at Warren who gave us double thumbs up and backed out of the room without a word.
“Warren sorta showed me around earlier,” I admitted.
Georgia made a face and whirled to look for him, but he’d already disappeared down the hall. “RAT,” she shouted at him.
Music was playing. Tilly was watching, not saying a word.
“Well,” Georgia said. “It’s cute, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s great.”
“Could have been you,” Georgia said, flopping onto their couch. “But noooo. You just had to go running off in the middle of the night.”
She was teasing me. Georgia likes to eat the elephant in the room one bite at a time to get it out of the way. It makes everyone more uncomfortable for a shorter amount of time instead of drawing out the awkwardness. I could have played along, been bashful and ashamed of myself until they decided I’d suffered enough.
Instead, I looked at the ground, took a deep breath, and took off my sunglasses.
“I um,” I said looking at the floor. “I couldn’t stay. Not after everything that happened.”
When she looked up at me, I watched the challenge in her expression fade almost instantly.
“Your eye,” she said.
God it felt like they were looking at me naked in a spotlight.
“Yeah,” I said and tried to smile, but couldn’t quite find one. The year between us was VAST, more than I even expected.
We were all quiet for a long time, and I just stood there, panicking, trying to remember how to have casual conversations, but instead the uncomfortable quiet just spanned on and on.
Finally Tilly said, in her low, smoky voice, “Is it healed? Or…”
“Yeah, no this is just what it’s like now,” I said.
“It’s kinda bad ass,” Georgia offered. “Can you like see in the dark with it or something?”
I laughed I couldn’t help it. “No. Just a normal eye.”
There was another painful quiet, and then Tilly said, “what happened? That night in the woods?”
And I realized, like getting hit in the face with a bag of bricks, that I never even had the opportunity to explain what happened that night I died. And then, suddenly, it was all there again, I was back in the cave, first the cave with Madelyn, but then for a horrible flash, that cave with the snake, and that fucking horrible feeling was whipping through me again, I had a moment of horrible vertigo like I haven’t had in months.
Someone had to steer me into a chair, and things were going sort of blurry like I was underwater, and Tilly’s face swam out of the chaos.
“Are you okay?”
But of course the only thought in my head was where the fuck are the Hawthornes, and I realized then, and I even more realize right now — there was a time when this was how I felt all the time. Not sometimes. Always. This horrible, out of breath, underwater feeling, was my daily experience, and how did I deal with that?
Mostly I leaned hard on Neal and Julian, because they got it.
Tilly and Georgia were both around me, watching me with these expressions full of concern, and I wanted to run again, as fast as I could, in any direction.
Which is maybe horrible. And it’s not them — I know that given time we’d all figure out how to deal with this weird delicate creature I’ve become, and I know I tend to hide from people. And I love these two, so much. SO much. But there’s just so much … stuff between us. For fuck’s sake Georgia’s girlfriend died to save my life. Tilly’s dad tried to kill me.
It took me a long time to get it together, and explain to them what happened that night — where I went and who I met there. They both just stared at me, wide-eyed and quiet. Tilly made a pot of tea, but I couldn’t drink it. I couldn’t even tell them everything — there’s so much that’s happened, a whole year of absolute insanity. I just did my best, and when there was nothing else I could say, I left.
I wish I’d stayed and we’d had like a nice night, where everything was warm and good and sweet, but I didn’t. Actually, I left sort of abruptly, and then felt weird about it in the car, but I just couldn’t anymore. Not with Georgia watching me, thinking about Madelyn and Tilly’s veiled expression when I talked about how her dad agreed to kill me.
When I got home, the rabbit was outside the house. I felt a little kick of terror, thinking something had gone wrong, but when I burst into the apartment, my mom and the Hawthornes were all curled up in blankets in the living room, watching Practical Magic and eating soup. The whole house smelled good and earthy.
“We kidnapped the wrong Tamblyn,” Neal said by way of greeting. “Your mom cooks.”
“No she doesn’t,” I said. “You’re eating the only meal she can make.”
“And he’d eat it every day and be grateful,” my mom said, and Neal snapped and pointed at her in agreement.
“How’d it go?” Julian asked, budging over on the couch to make space for me.
I made some exhausted noise and Julian offered me part of his blanket. Neal got up for a soup refill, and ladled a bowl for me, too.
It was a totally normal evening, but my mom was looking at me like she understood finally and I love a witch movie.