Gertie and Bridget hit the road

Photo by Hugo Ramos on Unsplash

“What did you do?” Vivien screamed from the driver’s seat as the tornado bore down on them.
“I don’t know!” Gertie stared at the phosphorescent statue sitting in the open box on her lap and back to the tornado. “It just started glowing!”
“Well, find a way to make it stop glowing!” Ernest shouted. “Before we get blown off the road!”

***
Three Days Earlier

“Whoa!” came a shout from Bridget’s room.
“What?” Gertie yelled back, curled up on her bed and listening to one of her favorite CDs. If there was one thing she loved about the summer, it was being back home listening to all of her music, sleeping in her own bed, and keeping cool in the central air conditioning.
“Look!” Bridget barged into Gertie’s room and shoved the laptop under her nose.
Gertie took it from her and began reading the email on the screen.
“That guy who bought that weird rock statue? He still wants it!” Bridget said.
Gertie frowned. “I thought we weren’t allowed to mail it.”
The sisters had bought a box of assorted magical paraphernalia at a yard sale and were selling anything they didn’t want to keep. The statue was one of the more unusual items, and when it had been purchased in an online auction they set up, they brought it to the postal service to mail to the winner. Unfortunately, the workers had run it through a magical scanner and deemed it too powerful to ship. So Gertie and Bridget had apologized to the Mr. Farwell of Delliflor who had outbid everyone else for the statue, and re-posted the entry to be bought by someone within easy driving distance of the city.
Or so they had thought.
Gertie whistled as she read the email. “That’s a lot of money.”
“Part of it is so we can rent a car and drive out to meet him,” Bridget said. “He’s also covering any expenses we have.”
“He really wants the statue.” Gertie looked over to the cardboard box holding the stuff from the yard sale.
The statue itself seemed unremarkable. It was nothing more than a gold perch for a potato-sized, polished, black and green rock. It was definitely magical, as Bridget’s enchanted eye could attest, but they couldn’t for the life of them figure out what it did.
“And he wants it in the next week,” Bridget finished, collapsing back into Gertie’s desk chair.
“What do you think?” Gertie asked.
Bridget shrugged. “I mean, it’s not like we have anything else to do before school starts up.”
“Do you think Mom and Dad will say it’s okay?”
“There’s only one way to find out.”

***

“So we’re leaving tomorrow,” Bridget announced to Vivien, a wide grin on her face. The sisters took the train down to Flories Boarding School to have lunch with their best friend Vivien Shew once a week or so, though they would have to put that on hold now with their upcoming road trip.
Vivien smiled, but it didn’t seem to reach her eyes.
Gertie tilted her head to the side in concern. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” Vivien insisted.
“Viv, don’t try to hide it,” Gertie said.
Vivien slumped. “I didn’t get into the class,” she admitted, her accent making it hard to understand when she spoke so softly.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Gertie reached her hand across the cafeteria table to put it on her forearm. “Did they tell you why?”
“Class sizes.” Vivien frowned. “Apparently, Intro to Necromancy is a very popular class at Wespire University, and fitting in a high school student isn’t their priority.”
“That sucks,” Bridget said.
“Hey!” A grin spread across Gertie’s face. “That means you don’t have any plans until the school year starts!”
“Thanks for reminding me,” Vivien said, clearly not getting Gertie’s point.
“No! Come with us!” Gertie said. Bridget nodded in agreement. “This is so much better! You have a car.”
Vivien smiled at that. “Yes, I do.”
“If you come with us, and you let us take it, then we don’t have to rent one.”
Vivien drummed her fingers against her chin in a big show of pretending to think it over. “That sounds wonderful,” she finally said.
“What does?” Faye Nessing stopped at their table. She was another Flories Boarding School student who was staying on campus over the summer.
Behind her stood an ostrich whose small head was over two feet above Faye’s. Her older brother, Charlie, had been allowed to stay out of juvenile hall and finish his last year of high school, but in exchange, the courts had decided he should remain in the shape he had accidentally turned himself into while illegally trying to transfigure someone else. So, until his eighteenth birthday, he was an ostrich, and, as such, unable to use his magical abilities.
“A road trip,” Bridget explained. “We’re selling a magical artifact and it can’t be shipped.”
“Wow,” Faye said, sitting down without being invited.
Charlie squawked.
“Quiet,” Faye told him. Using charms found on her various pieces of jewelry, she was able to understand the language of many different types of animals. After Charlie had transformed himself, she had added ostriches to that list. “Can we come?”
Charlie reached his head down and tapped her on the shoulder with his beak.
“Hey! I’m not being rude, I’m just asking!” she protested.
Bridget smiled. Gertie looked at Vivien, wondering if she cared about the smell of ostrich in her minivan, or more importantly, if she wanted to spend any amount of time with the guy who tried to turn her into a bird.
Vivien stared at the table, not sure what to do. Through Faye, Charlie had apologized earlier in the summer for his actions. They would never be friends, but there wasn’t any lingering hostility.
Vivien closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and forced a smile.
“The more the merrier,” she said.

***
The Mallon girls climbed into the purple minivan parked outside their parents’ house, only to find it much more crowded than they had thought it was going to be.
“Hey guys, thanks for inviting me,” Ernest Yilnog, sitting in the front passenger seat, said with annoyance in his tone. He had graduated Flories Boarding School the previous year, and was now living with the eldest Nessing brother, Peter. Peter was starting his first year at Wespire University and was also sitting in the back seat next to his sister.
“I might have mentioned to Peter that we were going on a road trip and he and Ernest decided to tag along,” Faye said. Charlie stuck his head between the two of them from his blanket, pillow and suitcase nest in the trunk of the minivan and honked. “I did not invite them! They just...I felt bad that we were going to leave them behind.”
Gertie laughed. “It’s ok, this will be great!” She climbed into the middle row of seats with Bridget. “We have Ernest’s music collection now.”
Ernest stopped bristling and reached for the auxiliary cable to start up a playlist.
Bridget buckled in. “So, we have the first half of the payment from Mr. Farwell. We’ll find motels to stay at, drive-throughs to feed us, and grocery stores that sell seeds by the pound on the way.”
Charlie squawked in thanks.
“Everyone ready?” Vivien asked.
Gertie looked down at her lap. She and Bridget had cut out styrofoam that fit around the statue nicely and put the whole thing in a box to make sure it didn’t get damaged as they drove.
“Let’s go!” was the cheered response.
Vivien hit the magical autodrive button, and the car sprang to life, waiting for instructions.
“Green Grass Inn, 14 Crossing Road, Maple Hills, Arvendry,” Vivien read from Bridget’s phone to the car.
On the right side door and the back, Vivien had painted her car with chalkboard that let her write and draw. As the minivan pulled away from the Mallon house, anyone glancing in its direction would see large, block letters that spelled out “ROAD TRIP!”

***

The first strange thing happened just as they hit the edge of the mountains that made up the western border of their state, Tornstead.
Vivien’s magical driver took a turn in the mountain pass slightly too fast, pitching the passengers to the right. A humming started, making Vivien worry that something might be wrong with the car.
“Whoa, where’d those clouds come from?” Ernest asked, looking at the sky that had quickly faded from bright, summery blue to gray.
By the time they pulled over to let the car do a diagnostic on itself to find the source of the noise, rain was pouring down.
Gertie had a hat in her extensive collection with her that let her stay dry, but everyone else was soaked as they waited next to the car.
Once the car verified nothing was wrong, everyone piled back in. Charlie shook out his feathers in the back, soaking everyone and leaving a musty smell. Ernest’s rock playlist started back up when Vivien turned the car on, and the rain petered out until there wasn’t a cloud in sight.
“Okay, that was one of the weirdest storms I’ve ever seen,” Peter said. “It’s not even humid out.”
“Must be the mountains,” Gertie said.
Night fell while they were eating burgers in the car from a fast food joint they had driven through, and by the time they were done, the rain had started up again.
“It’s such weird weather,” Bridget said, looking out the window at flashing lightning as they settled into their motel room.
Vivien shrugged. “Maybe it’s just what the weather in Arvendry is like.”
The next morning, they packed the car, hung up the air freshener they had purchased at a gas station, and hit the road.
Charlie munched on a bag of seeds, since he was no longer partial to the pancakes and coffee everyone else was eating.
“We’re making good time,” Gertie said, checking the map. “Three more days and we’re there.”
It was an exciting thought, at least until the rush hour traffic caused by toll stations at the Lassichor river cost them an hour.
“Ugh,” Vivien groaned, sitting in the driver’s seat even as the magical driver had control. “Go faster!” she shouted at the toll station.
As the traffic cleared out in front of them, the self-driver listened to her request and zoomed forward, throwing everybody back into their seats, only to screech to a halt as it was faced with the car in front of it.
The box in Gertie’s lap slammed against her stomach, and there was a squealing in harmony with the car’s tires.
The gray skies that had persisted through the morning gave way to tiny pellets of hail.
Gertie looked down at the box, and up at the sky. She had been sure the shrieking sound had come from her lap.
She opened the box and pulled away the top layer of styrofoam. The statue was just sitting there, the same as always.
Eventually, the car got through the toll booth, over the river, and back to traveling at a decent speed. The hail cleared without fanfare, and Gertie relaxed her suspicions about the magical object she carried.
As they continued to drive, the car beeped to let them know it was time to get gas. The rain started up again.
“I’m starting to think it’s the car,” Peter said from the middle row. “Vivien, tell us the truth. Is your car a weather machine?”
“Not that I know of,” Vivien said, directing the magical driver to pull off at the nearest gas station.
They all got out, the winds whipping at their hair. Vivien refilled the car and Gertie left the statue in her seat to keep Viv company while the others used the bathroom and bought more snacks.
Everyone piled back into the car and Faye decided to sit in the front passenger seat while Gertie, with their precious cargo back in her lap, took the middle seat behind her. As they merged back onto the empty freeway, she turned on the radio to her favorite station. Immediately a bass-heavy, synth-melodied song started up, led by a popstar singing the praises of partying all night long.
Bridget gasped, a vision of the future flashing before her ruined eye. A storm, glass shattering, the car getting carried away by spinning winds.
She yelled, “Wait!” But it was too late.
Gertie’s eyes grew wide as she saw the green veins of the rock in the statue start to glow, and an angry gurgling came from within. The winds whipped themselves into a frenzy, and in the sky ahead of them, a tornado started to form. With every noise and whistle from the statue, the tornado tugged and pulled on itself, getting stronger and closer to the ground.
“What did you do?” Vivien asked, staring wide-eyed at Gertie, seeing that the statue was reacting. She clicked off the magical driver and took the wheel herself.
“I don’t know!” Gertie said. “It just started glowing!”
“Well, find a way to make it stop glowing!” Ernest shouted from the back of the car. “Before we get blown off the road!”
Gertie pulled out the statue out of the box and held it up while Vivien made a U-turn and slammed down on the gas pedal.
The car screeched, driving at top speed away from the column of wind.
Gertie stared at the rock. But it wasn’t a rock. Her mouth popped open, in awe of what she could see because of the light emitting from the statue.
“It’s an egg!” Gertie shouted over the noise from the winds and the tires. The silhouette inside moved as the tornado gained speed “There’s something in there doing this!”
The tornado edged closer and closer, as if it was following them. The trees in the woods on other side of the highway bent and strained against the fierce gales. Bridget was momentarily grateful that this area of the road was empty and there were no buildings nearby.
Vivien jerked the wheel to dodge a branch flying through the air and swore.
“Is something making it throw a temper tantrum?” Peter asked.
“It doesn’t matter! Just sing it a lullaby to calm it down!” Faye shouted, and Charlie honked in agreement.
It was that suggestion that made Gertie realize what had been happening. “Ernest, put your music on!” she shouted. “It liked your type of music! It stopped the rain!”
Ernest passed his phone up to Peter and then to Faye, who took the car’s cable and plugged his phone in. The car automatically changed from the pop station to Ernest’s heavy metal playlist. The drums and bass started their dance with the guitar, and the egg stopped glowing angrily.
The tornado dissolved in midair, and Vivien slowed the car down to a stop on the side of the road. Gertie panted, her heart still beating rapidly. Bridget scanned the sky, wary of the storm coming back.
“I never thought we’d almost die because of pop music,” Peter said, a relieved look on his face.
Ernest scoffed. “I almost have. I can barely keep from passing out at the sound. I don’t know how anyone listens to it.”
“You guys are the worst.” Faye glared at them.
“Calm down, everyone,” Bridget said. She leaned forward between the gap in Gertie and Peter’s middle seats to stare at the statue. “So. It’s an egg.”
Gertie nodded.
“We’ve had it for months and we didn’t know that?”
“It just looks like a big, polished rock,” Gertie argued. “I didn’t hear you doubting what it was when we put it up for auction.”
“Why didn’t the guy tell you?” Faye asked. “I mean, if he’s paying so much, and wants it so bad, he must know what it is.”
Bridget pulled out her phone and called the number from her email exchange with Mr. Farwell, putting it on speaker phone on Gertie’s suggestion.
“Storm owl eggs are very rare to see outside of their natural habitat,” Mr. Farwell told them. “I’m a doctor at an animal research and rehabilitation center. I wanted to help it hatch, study it for more information, and, if I’m lucky, breed more so they’re no longer endangered.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Bridget asked.
“I didn’t want to worry you, and I had no idea how old the egg was, or that the chick would be cognisant.” The group could hear the concern in his voice. “You can look up my zoo if you like. It’s the Dordon Foundation Animal Center.”
A quick internet search on Gertie’s phone verified this was a real place, with tours available, that Dr. Farwell was on the staff, and a place on the list of government funded research institutes.
“What if the egg hatches while it’s with us?” Ernest asked.
“It can’t hatch until it has river water from its homelands, which I’m away fetching at the moment,” Dr. Farwell said. “It will stay in its current state until I’m able to help it.”
There was silence, as the group processed that information.
“I hope we still have our agreement? You’ll meet me at my facility in three days’ time?” Dr. Farwell asked hesitantly.
Bridget looked up, silently asking everyone if they were still down for the trip.
She got nods from all in response.
“Yes. We’ll be there.”
“Excellent! Thank you so much!” Dr. Farwell paused. “Just from research, storm owls tend to prefer sounds and music that remind them of the mountains and storms that they thrive in. From what little interaction has been done, I believe the best is, ah, ‘heavy metal’? Maybe ‘punk rock’?”
Bridget sighed quietly. “Thank you. We’ll keep that in mind.”
“You’re very welcome. I’ll see you in three days. Have a good night!”
Bridget repeated the pleasantry and hung up.
The car was silent.
“You know what I just heard?” Ernest asked as he reached for his phone again. “I get to choose the music for the rest of the trip!”
As the drums started up and the rest of the car groaned, Gertie was caught short by a noise.
A tiny, joyful trill coming from the egg.

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