Gertie and Bridget make another wrong turn

Photo by Filip Zrnzevińá on Unsplash

Time was working differently in the Old Woods.
The group of highschoolers had been driving for hours and hours. Cell service and GPS were out. The car should have run out of gas. The passengers should have been hungry. The clock on the dashboard should have moved forward.
Vivien knew one thing, though. They had been in the Old Woods for days. Just because they didn’t feel like it didn’t make it less true. She had missed the best chance she had to learn necromancy because her car’s auto-driver had taken a wrong turn when all of its passengers had been asleep.
Granted, the passengers should not have all been asleep. The driver should have stayed up. Ernest should have been awake and done something to stop this.
It was too late. She wouldn’t get to the interview in time. She wouldn’t even be able to call the professor and tell her why she wouldn’t make it in time. She would be forever thought of as a flake who didn’t really care about necromancy.
Fine. She just had to get her friends out of the woods.
“We should stop for a break soon,” Gertie said.
“Why?” Vivien said, angry at her focus being interrupted. “None of us are hungry. The car doesn’t need more gas.”
“My legs are sore,” Gertie said quietly. “I bet yours are too. You’ve been driving for hours.”
Vivien suddenly became aware of pain in her fingers, elbows and knees. “Okay.” She pulled the minivan to a stop in the middle of the path they had been following. It wasn’t like she had to worry about other cars.
Everyone piled out of the car, gathering in the glow of the headlights. Charlie, a fellow student who had unfortunately turned himself into an ostrich, was let out of the back of the minivan and gave a large squawk.
“Yeah, I feel it too,” his younger sister Faye said, giving a little shiver. “There’s magic everywhere in here,” she translated for everyone else.
Her older brother Peter and their friend Ernest nodded, having been born with magic and therefore the ability to sense it. Most times they didn’t notice, like when they passed through the wards on the school that kept ghosts out, or when they used the auto-driver. But here, in the Woods, it was a wild power that sank into their skin and turned their stomachs, giving them the constant feeling that something was out there, watching them.
To put it to rest, Ernest grabbed his ukulele out of the minivan and started strumming a few chords experimentally.
“There once was a maiden with flowers in her hair,” he sang.
“Flowers in her hair,” Gertie and Faye repeated, smiling at the familiar camp song.
“A darkness took over from not we know where,” Ernest sang, strumming along.
“From not we know where.” Peter joined in and nudged Bridget, who came in at the end of the line, not as confident in her singing.
“A captain came forward and shouted with might.” Ernest strummed dramatically until everyone shouted the chorused line.
“Pick up your sword dear lady and fight!”
There were many verses of the lady fighting monsters and conquering an evil king, but they were interrupted as the ground started moving beneath them.
“Woah.” Ernest jumped to the side as baseball-sized holes opened up in the ground where his feet had been.
What looked like little balls of fur rolled out of the holes. They seemed to move of their own accord, without eyes or arms or faces.
Until a mouth opened up in one of them and sang the first note in the song Ernest had been singing. Another and another joined in, until there was a racket of the various notes mismatching, trying to sing with Ernest.
Ernest plucked a few notes, and the faceless creatures began bouncing in what seemed like joy, hopping up and down in front of him and repeating the notes over and over, making a much neater chord.
“What are they?” Peter asked his sister who was knowledgeable in most animals, magical or not.
“No idea,” Faye said. “But they seem to like music.”
“Everyone likes Ernest’s music,” Vivien said.
Ernest kneeled to get closer as he strummed and a few of the balls of fur jumped on his knees and arms.
One started bouncing against the strings of his ukulele, trying to get the strings to make the same noise they made when Ernest played. Others hopped onto his knees to join in, making a cacophony of different sounds on the ukulele.
One of the puff balls chose to hop up Ernest’s knee, arm, and then shoulder, sitting just below his ear. The position allowed the little ball to open its mouth wide, and latch onto the headstock.
“Hey!” Ernest shouted, lifting the ukulele away from his body. The rest of the puff balls complained, but the one trying to eat it held fast, barely ruffled as Ernest shook the ukulele back and forth.
“Get off!” Ernest reached over and grabbed the thing to yank it off. Its fur was thick and full of dirt, and his hand was filthy by the time he set the creature back down on the ground.
The balls of fur continued to bounce, chorusing Ernest’s melody back at him. Until there was a scratching sound out in the darkness.
The little creatures gasped and dove back into the ground, eating the dirt to form their tunnels. Before long, they had all disappeared.
“What was that?” Gertie asked, staring back the way they came. They couldn’t see anything beyond the illumination created by the headlights, but they all heard the noise of something being dragged across the dirt.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” Vivien said, eyeing the darkness.
They ran to the minivan and drove, soon losing any track of time again. Vivien wasn’t getting tired in the driver’s seat so she had no chance of recreating Ernest’s mistake and falling asleep, but she also didn’t know how many days had passed. Maybe the professor had found out she was missing, and decided to reconsider? Or had it been so many days that she had already missed the beginning of the college semester and it was too late to even register?
The car was driving through a part of the forest that felt wide and open, but the skyscraper-tall trees had winding branches that extended over them, creating a canopy that blocked out the light and didn’t release them from the Old Woods.
Still, it was nice not to be bouncing in their seats from occasional roots and brush that had grown over the path.
“What’s that?” Bridget asked, pointing in the distance. Something was on the road and coming towards them, but in the near darkness it was hard to tell what. Vivien slowed the car to a stop, not wanting to hit whatever it was.
Then it got close enough that the minivan’s headlights passed over it, and Vivien’s foot slammed on the gas pedal.
It was a scorpion the size of a golden retriever, its stinger waving towards them.
“Life ahead,” the car’s dashboard said, refusing to move the car forward.
Vivien swore. The car’s magical autodriver had shut off when they entered the Old Woods while Ernest had been asleep at the wheel, but apparently just enough of it was active to know something alive was in front of them and prevent them from rolling over it. And that was just enough to get them killed.
The car rocked as the scorpion tried to stab it with its stinger.
“It’s going to hit the gas tank!” Gertie shouted. “We’ve got to do something.”
The scorpion shifted, and stabbed again.
There was a hissing sound as the front left tire let out all its air.
“No!” Vivien said.
“It’s okay,” Bridget said, trying to be calm. “We’ll just change the tire.”
The scorpion used its legs to try to climb on top of the car with a noise that sounded like nails on a chalkboard.
“Yeah, who wants to get out to change it?” Gertie asked. “Volunteers?”
The scorpion moved to the side of the vehicle and began stabbing at the left door. The car shook, but held solid for the moment.
“Peter, I’m coming to sit with you guys,” Faye said as the stabbing continued on her side of the car. She crawled to the back seat and squeezed between Peter and Gertie.
“Ernest, if we open a window do you think you could use your music to charm it?” Bridget suggested against the rhythmic thumping of the huge scorpion’s stinger against the car.
“I mean, I don’t know! I’ve never charmed a bug before,” Ernest said, running his hands anxiously through his hair.
“Scorpions aren’t bugs,” Faye corrected, then paused. “Wait, maybe they are?”
“I mean, I always thought because of the exoskeleton-”
“Well, how many legs does it have?”
“It doesn’t matter if they’re bugs, we need to fix this!” Gertie shouted as the scorpion hit the left window and a crack appeared.
At that moment, the ground began to rumble.
The scorpion felt it and broke away from its attack on the car. It ran back down the path the way it came, but not fast enough.
A turtle with a shell as big as the minivan they were in emerged from the darkness. Its neck was long and wrinkled, its tail a long dangerous whip. And it was charging straight for the scorpion.
At the last moment before the turtle reached it, the scorpion turned, baring its stinger.
And the turtle stepped on its two front legs and flipped. It landed on its shell, on top of the scorpion. A loud crunch echoed through the air.
It stayed on its back for a while, rocking back and forth a bit by swinging its legs.
“Should we help it?” Faye whispered, knowing more about reptiles than arachnids.
Then the turtle’s extra long tail swung out and pushed off the ground, giving the turtle just enough leverage to flip back onto its front.
And then, to its audience’s surprise, it bent over the carcass of the scorpion and began to eat.
“Vivien? The spare tire?” Bridget whispered.
“Oh, right.” Vivien hesitantly opened the door of her minivan as the giant turtle ate. It paid her no mind.
She stepped out and went to the trunk of the minivan and opened the back door. Charlie
helped pull out the nest of blankets and pillows and suitcases he had created until she found the trapdoor that housed her spare tire and jack.
Peter and Gertie joined her to help replace the tire and all the while, there was the sound of the turtle slowly munching on the scorpion.
“It can run, but it can’t eat any faster?” Peter grumbled.
The tire was replaced and everyone got strapped back into the car.
“Here goes nothing,” Vivien said, and started the car.
The turtle didn’t react.
“Let’s hope we’re not heading into an area with more of those scorpions,” Faye said.
“That’s all we can do, it’s the only path,” Vivien reminded her.
Then, over the growl of the car, they heard a strange hiss coming from between the trees. As they listened, it started getting louder, as if something was coming towards them.
It got the turtle’s attention. The large reptile turned its head, looking back down the road. Then, as if it was shrugging, it turned back to its meal.
“Vivien, drive,” Bridget whispered.
She complied, maneuvering around the feasting turtle and resuming their trek.
It was much longer before they stopped again. They drove over a bridge that spanned a rushing river, through a part of the forest that contained giant species of flowers, and even down into a cave and back out as the road directed them.
But they never saw an end to the forest. At this point they weren’t sure if they ever would.
And the entire time, if they stopped to listen, they were aware of the hiss of something following them.
“Look!” Gertie said, pointing out the window. Running in parallel to the road were tracks, glimmering in the headlights. “What do you think they lead to?”
“I’m not sure,” Vivien said. “But they follow the road too. Maybe we’re close to getting out?”
They had their answer not long after, when there was a break in the trees and a red trolley car was revealed.
“Wow,” Ernest said as Vivien slowed and stopped the car. He opened his passenger side door and stood staring at the trolley. “I’ve never seen one outside the movies.”
Gertie hopped out after him and headed straight for the trolley.
“Gertie,” Bridget hurried to catch her arm. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to look inside,” her sister replied matter-of-factly.
“What if there’s something dangerous in there?”
Gertie rolled her eyes. “What if there’s a map or something that will get us out of here?” Her voice turned pleading. “We might have been out here for weeks. I just want to go home.”
Their argument stopped when the thing that had been following them raised itself out of the darkness.
It was a snake. The largest any of them had ever seen. Its body was the size of a tree in diameter, with white and black scales the size of the car’s wheels covering it from head to tail. Its eyes seemed to glimmer in the darkness as it lifted its head into the air.
Bridget gulped at the thought of its giant body coiling around them, crushing them to bits. Faye wondered blindly why she had never thought to make  a snake translation charm. Peter blanched at the sight of fangs ready to bite.
“Finally!” it said.
It took a moment, but finally Gertie gaped at the fact that a snake was talking.
“I’ve been trying to catch up, but your little egg is so fast.”
None of them had any idea what to reply to that.
The snake tilted its head. “Do you not understand? Let me try…” Its forked tongue flicked out. “Hola. No tengan miedo. No me los voy a comer, puesto que tienen mal sabor.”
“We can understand,” Bridget finally said.
“Oh.” The snake’s tongue flicked out again. “Alright.”
“You were trying to catch up to us?” Ernest repeated what the snake had said earlier.
“Yes.” The snake nodded its giant head. “You seem very lost. You keep going in loops.”
“In loops?” Vivien repeated. “No. We’ve been on the same road-”
“Yes, the loopy road.” The snake didn’t seem to find this as worrisome as the humans did. “But it’s alright. I’ll lead you to one of the exits. You’ll just have to drive in my path.”
The snake looked behind it, and sure enough its large body left a divot in the dirt that could suffice as a path.
“Which exit do you want to go to?” the snake asked.
“Is there one near Flories Boarding School?” Vivien asked hopefully.
The snake opened its mouth like it was trying to smile. Its fangs made it much too scary, but the sentiment was clear. “There is. I miss Julia. She used to visit, you know.”
“Really?” Gertie asked, fascinated to hear more about Julia Flories, the founder of their school. Vivien, Ernest and Bridget, meanwhile, headed back into the minivan, dragging Gertie behind them.
“Yes. She tended the forest, back in the day.”
“Tended it?”
The snake looked off into the distance. “It might have been smaller then. But I was too. It seems the same to me.”
“We’ll follow you,” Vivien said with her window rolled down. She turned the car so it was facing the snake.
“Wonderful.”
The snake headed off the path perpendicular to the road. They waited until the entire length of the reptile had cleared before following along behind. The snake was fast, but not faster than the speed limit in Wespire, so it was a pleasant drive. Ernest opened his window as well and cranked one of his classic rock playlists. Something very much like humming along came from the snake.
They weren’t sure how much time had passed. It happened slowly, but the canopy of leaves began to break. The trees started to shrink until they were normal sized.
And then the button for the magical auto-driver lit up, signalling they could turn it on.
“Yes!” Vivien cheered, and the snake stopped and turned to lower its head next to the driver’s side window. Only its eye was visible.
“I believe you should be able to find your way from here,” the snake said. It nodded to a fully paved road. “That should take you to your school.”
“Thank you!” everyone in the car called.
The snake flicked its tongue out. “You can visit whenever you’d like. I’ll keep an eye on this exit for you.”
“I’d love to!” Gertie shouted.
Vivien slammed her hand down on the autodriver button and the car began to drive of its own accord. There were some bumps as the tires rolled onto the road, but for the first time in what felt like days, the car drove smoothly underneath them.
“Oh my goodness!” Faye yelled.
“What?”
She was looking at her phone. “It’s tomorrow morning.”
Everyone checked their own phones to confirm what she said.
Time worked differently in the Old Woods. Much more than they could have imagined.
“I can make it to my meeting?” Vivien asked faintly as the minivan rolled into Flories Boarding School’s parking lot.
“Yeah, but it’s in, like, fifteen minutes,” Gertie said. “Better run. You can get your stuff later.”
Vivien turned off her car and got out to sprint across the parking lot, her brown curls bouncing with each step.
Gertie yawned. “Anyone else starving?”
Not quite desperate enough to brave the school cafeteria, the group walked to the closest open restaurant. The pub didn’t have great reviews, but it had unlimited bread at the table and large bowls of mac and cheese.
“How do you think Shelby’s doing?” Gertie asked, thinking back on their trip as she took a big bite of her burger.
Faye played with the feather in her pocket. “I’m sure she’s doing great.”
“Do you remember the look on the zookeeper’s face when we figured out a parrot could cast a spell?” Peter said, trying to lift the group’s mood.
“Do you remember your face?” Ernest retorted.
Peter laughed and offered a high five.
“We outran a tornado!” Bridget remembered, shaking her head in amazement.
Charlie honked.
Faye rolled her eyes. “So what if it was artificial? It was still impressive.”
An hour of relaxing and reflecting on their trip later, Gertie’s phone pinged with a text. “Viv says she thinks the interview went well!”
Peter stretched. “That’s probably our cue to go, then.”
With full bellies and a paid bill, the group made it back to the minivan before Vivien.
“Actually, she might have gone to her dorm and fallen asleep,” Gertie said, seeing that Vivien hadn’t responded to her congratulatory text.
Gertie unlocked the car and everyone started to unpack. Peter hugged his sister and ostrich brother goodbye and made them promise to come visit him in his apartment. He and Ernest, laden with bags and instruments, headed back to the street to request a rideshare.
Faye loaded up her duffel bag and the various blankets she had brought onto Charlie’s back, and the two headed towards their dorms.
Gertie and Bridget had their backpacks, their suitcases, and their payment for delivering the egg to Dr. Farwell. They looked over the school reluctantly, but they had to head to their parents’ house for the rest of the summer.
“You know,” Gertie said as they fought their way through tourists to find a place to sit on the subway. “I really miss living on campus.”
“We’ll be back soon,” Bridget assured her.
***
Their dad picked them up at the Eastborough train station to drive them back to their house.
“Did you have a good trip?” he asked. Ziggy, the girls’ ghost dog, yipped from his place in the passenger seat, invisible to the girls’ father.
Gertie and Bridget thought over everything that had happened, even getting lost in the Old Woods.
“Yeah,” Gertie said.
Bridget grinned. “It was the best.”


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