In the end, Jasper and Celeste literally barricaded an empty stretch of highway with their car and forced us to stop.
It was weird, seeing the figures looming in the distance, and realizing over the stretch of road between us that this little bubble Neal and I have been in the last week was going to end.
“This looks pretty bad now there are witnesses,” Neal observed, easing the car to a halt.
“Yeah,” I admitted, dully. I was too tired by that point to give a shit.
He slowed down and came to a stop but didn’t get out of the car. Jasper came and had to open the driver’s side door.
“Hi,” he said.
“He’s gone,” Neal said without looking around.
“Come on,” Jasper said. “We’re going to a safe house. You need to get out of this car.”
Jasper gestured for me over Neal’s shoulder.
Neal hoisted himself out of the car and they hugged for a long time. Celeste wordlessly slipped by them, and got the car running.
We went to a safe house up in the mountains. It was a tiny cabin. It had three rooms, a rain barrel and a generator and that was pretty much it. There was an old fashioned wood stove inside. Jasper and Neal got out of the car first. Jasper made Neal go get in the shower while he got the fire started. I tried to help but he wouldn’t let me.
“You just sit down until Neal’s out of the shower,” Jasper said. “You’re next.”
Neal wasn’t long, and neither was I, but by the time I got out, Jasper had gotten the fire going so the cabin was starting to heat up, and had rummaged around in the bed room drawers to find some clean — if somewhat musty — clothes. The sweats were huge on me but that was absolutely fine.
The cabin was actually starting to feel warm by the time Celeste arrived. She’d brought groceries — and of course, Julian’s body. The moment I heard the rabbit come to a halt outside, I could feel the presence Julian’s body begin to weigh on me again.
When she came in, Neal was sitting woodenly in the threadbare armchair, hands loosely grasping a hot totty that he wasn’t drinking. I was curled up on the sofa, staring at the fire through the grate in the stove.
She set the grocery bags on the counter and Jasper, began unpacking them immediately, potentially relieved to have something to do.
“Little bit of everything, huh?” he asked, pulling out a rutabaga, a parsnip, and a package of nighttime pads.
“Don’t send a psychic to the grocery store,” Celeste replied. “I just got what the future wanted. You can figure out what you want done with it.”
I didn’t think anything of that exchange until later.
After the groceries were put away, it became inescapable that we had to deal with Julian.
“We can’t take him out of the car,” Neal said. “His body will start to deteriorate.”
Jasper and Celeste exchanged a glance, and then finally Celeste stepped forward.
“That’s how it’s supposed to go,” she said, reassuringly firm and business-like as she always is. “The spell is for protecting living flesh, not preserving the dead.” And when Neal looked mutinous, she added, “That’s not all he was. Protecting that flesh honors no one.”
“You stay here,” Jasper said, but Neal didn’t like that either. He started to interrupt, but Celeste spoke over him.
“You brought him this far,” she said. “We’ll bring him the rest of the way.”
So Neal and I sat by the fire while Celeste and Jasper brought him inside. Celeste used magic. She rubbed her hands together briskly as if trying to heat her hands with friction and Julian’s still body floated by us through the living room. They’d covered him with a sheet, but I saw the silhouette of his nose underneath it, could see his curls hanging towards the floor boards and had to look away.
They stayed in the back room for a long time. They brought in a bucket of water and some rags. I think they were washing him. Neal sat staring into the fire, light catching in his eyes and on his cheeks.
When they emerged, wiping their hands and cheeks, the room filled with the unavoidable quiet and expectation.
“Do you want to see him?” Celeste asked.
“No,” Neal said.
I didn’t either. I wasn’t ready to see him laid out dead for real.
“I don’t know your traditions,” Celeste said. “But whenever you’re ready, you need to go see him.”
Neal didn’t respond, but she was definitely correct. There was a long, agonizing silence.
“What happened?” Neal said.
“Neal…” Jasper began.
“In the last week,” Neal insisted. “What’s everyone saying? We haven’t been paying attention to anything.”
No one spoke for a moment, and Neal added, “I’m gonna find out soon, either way. Just distract me.”
Jasper sighed and took the lead, bless him.
“We met your friend Cooper,” he said, coming to sit beside Neal and breaking the strange tension. “After you took off, apparently he called the police. The Scelerats had to get involved directly.”
Neal grimaced. “He called the police?”
“He didn’t know what else to do,” Celeste said and Neal averted his eyes.
“They’re calling it gang warfare,” Jasper said. “As far as I know, no one told law enforcement anything about your role in Merl’s death. I don’t think there are any lasting consequences as far as the cops are concerned.”
“But there’s some other concerns, aren’t there,” Neal said.
“The biggest concern is whether you’re okay,” Jasper replied.
“If that were true, Beverly would be here,” Neal said and Jasper averted his eyes.
“She’s coming tomorrow,” he said. “For the funeral.”
And it was at that point that I got up and started chopping vegetables.I didn’t want to talk about funerals. I started with onions, just like my mom does.
Neal winced and steered the conversation away from a funeral. “How bad is it out there?”
“People are scared,” Jasper said. “There are a lot of rumors going around. New hunters are pretty convinced that you murdered Merl Allen without provocation —”
“Without provocation?” Neal repeated, furious.
“I know,” Jasper soothed him. “It’s fucking bullshit. They’ve got everyone pretty well convinced that Julian was a monster.”
I hacked at the rutabaga.
“So what, murdering him was a public service?” Neal cried. He threw his hot toddy against the wall and the mug cracked in half. The stove sizzled where tea and whiskey hit it. “FUCK them.” And then, with a horrible crack in his voice, “he didn’t even change.” He put his face in his hands and said, “they were killing him, why didn’t he change?”
And there it was, wasn’t it.
Why the FUCK didn’t he just change? He could have saved himself and he didn’t.
“You know why he didn’t,” Jasper said softly and I saw rage pass over Neal’s face.
I hacked the tops off the carrots so hard that I left a divot in the cutting board. I did know why he didn’t change to save himself. Julian would rather have died than killed all those people — he’d rather die to prove he wasn’t a monster than live and prove he was.
I was crying all over my vegetables. I’ll never forgive him.
Neal went to see Julian after that. He was in there alone for a long time, while I started gently browning the onions and the root vegetables. We didn’t have broth, but it doesn’t matter really. I just poured in water. I didn’t know how to control the heat on a woodstove, but luckily soup isn’t needy. That’s why my mom learned to make it, and that’s why she taught me.
It made the cabin smell like home. I curled up on the couch and waited.
When Neal finally emerged he went directly outside, and Jasper and Celeste exchanged a quick look before Jasper hurried to follow him.
Which left me and Celeste alone in the cabin.
“You should have a moment alone with him,” Celeste said, getting up to stir the soup.
She was right of course, but I still felt like a cornered rabbit. I needed to go in there and see him, and say goodbye. I’d never get another chance to be alone with him. I wanted to be a coward and do the wrong thing until it was too late to do the right thing and then regret it for the rest of my life, but I didn’t want to do it in front of Celeste.
So I got up, I went to the back room, and I opened the door.
A bedside lamp was on. Julian was stretched out in bed under a fresh sheet, and once I saw him, I was honestly relieved. I don’t know what I was expecting to see in there, but it was just Julian. He could have been sleeping. It was him and it wasn’t.
So I crawled into bed beside him. I’m not really sure what the thinking was on that to be honest. I was just so tired, and he looked so relaxed. How many hotel rooms have we shared in the last year, you know? How many times have I flopped onto a strange bed next to him to watch tv while he scrolled through the internet looking for cases or wrote meticulous notes or did research. I could feel him suddenly, so close to me, like at any moment he might breathe under the sheet.
I closed my eyes and leaned into that feeling.
I can’t be the only one who does this, right? That thing where you take a mental half step sideways, at just the right moment, and suddenly, as if a door in your mind has opened, you can hear someone’s voice as if they were the room with you. Or maybe you catch the exact quirk of their expression in your minds eye. And you feel like if just stay still enough, and if you don’t over think it, you might stay there with them forever.
The room was so agonizingly quiet. But then again —
He was right there. The depth of his quiet, a stillness so profound, and so trustworthy you could miss that there was a creature down there at the bottom of that quiet, something that could tear the whole world down if he let it.
I thought that he must have felt some satisfaction at the end, knowing he’d finally defeated that creature, that it had no more power over him. From his perspective he had passed the final test.
In my mind’s eye I could see the exact way he looked down when he smiled and I felt a horrible sear of pain at the injustice of it all.
I was angry. How dare I come back while he had to stay gone?
How dare he be dead and meanwhile I’ve got a little parasite growing inside me whether I like it or not?
I wanted to scream and rage and burn things at the helplessness of it, our absolute powerlessness over life and death.
And I swear the thought only lasted a moment. Just the briefest moment. I thought if I could just grab the little squirming worm of life from the place I didn’t want it, and put it in the place I did — that would seem fair. That would be just.
I could feel Julian there in the room with me, so clear. The soft sadness of him — the deep calm and distant danger. I thought if I could just offer him a little of the chaos knotted at the center of me —
And then, from deep inside me, a strange kick of pain. It shocked me out of my spiraling thoughts and I sat up. So abruptly that I almost missed it when Julian, behind me, sighed.
Julian twitched, distinctly, and my mind whirled — did that happen? Was this bloat? Did rigor mortis make corpses jerk?
I braced myself, and slowly, slowly twisted to look — just in time for Julian’s eyes to blink open.
He opened his mouth and a horrible, rattling breath came out. I scrambled away from him on my hands and butt like a crab, tumbled off the bed and landed on the threadbare rug.
I thought the worst. I thought they’d done something to him worse than death, something to torture us and was frantically trying to figure out what to do before Neal had to deal with it, when Julian’s body croaked, “Shiloh?”
And then he blinked, and looked around, and added, “where am I?” He raised a hand to his head and then groaned. “God I feel awful. What happened?”
I just stared at him, chest heaving.
“Julian?” I whispered.
“Where’s Neal?” he said, and when he noticed my face he added, “are you okay?”
“Is that you?”
He smiled a little. “Yeah?” He furrowed his brow. “Everything okay Shiloh? Fuck, I feel… hungover? Did we black out last night?”
He sat up and I literally flinched back from him, terrified, and his brow furrowed. “Are you okay? Did something happen?” And then with a frown: “Am I naked?”
It was Julian. I don’t know how I knew but I knew.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” I asked.
He screwed up his face, thinking back. “I was with the Allens,” he said. He pressed a hand to his head. “They wanted me to change. Fuck.” He looked up at me, and his tone changed. “Where’s Neal?”
My heart was beating so fast I thought I was gonna pass out.
“I’ll um…” I cleared my throat. “I’ll go get him.”
“Okay,” Julian said, wrapping the sheet around him and starting to get up.
“No!” I said. “No, it’s okay, uh… you just stay here, I’ll go get him.”
When I came out of the back room Neal and Jasper were just coming back inside. They were pink-cheeked with cold, and their eyes were red and swollen. They looked steam-rolled by grief. They looked flattened by it.
I opened my mouth, closed it, cackled hysterically, and then gasped in pain as they all turned around to look at me.
“Shiloh?” Celeste asked.
But what the fuck was I supposed to say? Surprise, Julian’s back and I need to lie down but I don’t want to talk about it! I guppied wordlessly at them until Neal’s expression changed. He stood up.
“Shi?” He started to walk towards me. “Are you okay? Did something happen?” And when I just blinked at him because YES, he said, more urgently, “What’s wrong?”
And I LAUGHED, somewhat hysterically, because what is wrong???? What is WRONG???? I laughed until I realized actually I was a little bit sobbing.
Neal reached for me, clearly frightened. “Hey,” he said. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
And then Julian called “Shiloh?” from the back room — and Neal, Jasper and Celeste all froze.
Neal glanced over my shoulder and then back down at my face, brow furrowed, mouth open like he was about to begin speaking. He was not looking at me like I was his — idk what I am, his pupil? His adopted technically adult child? He was looking at me like I had all the answers to the universe. I could practically see his heart racing.
“What happened?” he asked, voice strangled.
I just shook my head.
“Neal?” Julian called and he must have gotten to his feet very clumsily because I could distinctly hear him stumbling around. Which makes sense. He’d been dead for 6 days after all.
“Shiloh, if this is —” Neal began, but then stopped. “What happened?”
I didn’t answer, and I didn’t have to because at that moment Julian emerged from the back room, looking awful, but very distinctly alive.
Neal stared, squinted, blinked, stared harder. He took a slow, drifting step towards him.
“Hey,” Julian said, smiling uncertainly. And when the whole room continued to stare at him like he’d just risen from the dead, he observed, “Very strange energy in this room right now.”
Neal took the two steps across the room and crashed into him, so hard Julian just about folded like a lawn chair.
“Ohhhkay,” Julian said, thumping his back awkwardly. “Hi, Neal. I love you too?” And when Neal only managed a dry, strangled sound that was either laughter or sobbing in response, Julian looked over Neal’s shoulder at Jasper. “Is he okay? Did I miss something?” To which Jasper could only cross the room and throw his arms around both of them — much to Julian’s bewilderment.
I just stood there, hugging myself, trying to get my hands to stop shaking. My insides felt like they’d gone to horrible, violent, bloody war. I was really looking maximum pathetic I suspect — a detail I likely would have forgotten by now except that Celeste was staring at me, like she’d suddenly seen everything, like the whole encoded future she’d seen in the grocery store was finally decypherable — and I was on the cypher.
But she didn’t say anything to me, not yet. There were plenty of other things that needed saying first. They had to explain to Julian what had happened, for starters, and once they’d done that, poor Julian had to explain, in an insistent rush that he didn’t remember anything, that the biggest thing we need to worry about now is how to handle Billy Ace, and that apart from feeling like he’d drank a gallon of 4loko he was “really, no I promise, I’m okay.”
Then he had to call Beverly.
It was decided, there in the room, that she would be the only one we called. Just Bev, for now. Julian really picked up his phone and started scrolling to find her number and Neal almost noticed too late to intervene. He literally had to grab the thing out of Julian’s hand.
“Jude, I’m sorry, and there’s a deeply terrible part of me that sort of wants to let you do that,” he said, dialing from his own phone. “But that joke is too cruel even for me.”
I think getting Beverly on the phone was when it finally sunk in for Julian that he’d been dead.
Beverly, who had held it together so well on the phone with me just the day previous, went absolutely to pieces over this news, and Julian wasn’t quite equipped to reassure her that he’s okay — which is fair enough, no one is equipped for this situation, no one has ever had to deal with it.
Not even me.
I went instantaneously — dead, and then before anyone could get too attached to the idea, I was alive again.
Julian had come back six days into our grieving process and we were all doing a really bad job of the thing — I mean we put his carcass in the back of our car and drove across the country with it for fuck’s sake, we were not modeling grief in a healthy or constructive way.
Neal, Julian and Jasper took the phone into the back room, to talk, and maybe at one point that would have given me a twinge of — I mean not jealousy because it’s not exactly a possessive feeling. Maybe it’s just like… fomo, you know? Like there’s for sure a part of me that wants to be part of their weird codependent little fivesome. Or at least, there usually is — at that point I was just relieved to have them all out of the room so I could go get in the shower again.
I stayed in there a very long time. Much longer than I should have for an off-the-grid cabin. When I got out I was profoundly relieved to remember that Celeste was psychic and had foreseen the need for pads.
When I got out of the bathroom and went back out into the main room, Celeste had served herself a bowl of my soup.
“This is very good,” she said, not looking at me.
I didn’t answer.
She said — and I’m pretty sure I’m not even paraphrasing this tbh, it’s scalded into my brain: “I’m not a particularly gifted psychic. The future is slippery. I rarely understand what I’ve seen until I’ve lived it. Mundane things are easy — the ingredients for a future soup, for example, are simple. Straight forward.” She paused. “Profound things are more complicated. Too many layers to understand. Birth and death, for example, are remarkably similar from a psychic’s perspective.”
I still didn’t answer.
She said, finally, and with an edge in her voice I couldn’t read: “I know what you did.”