The old truck rumbled down I-68 through the northern half of West Virginia. The sun had set an hour before and the horizon held a fading nimbus. Claire had just finished eating a mediocre sandwich she’d bought at a gas station during a refill while Dawn was sucking down a fizzy drink through a straw. The bread was tasteless and the ham squashed between the slices was chewy, but she’d been hungry enough to eat roadkill.
“Want me to drive? I’m awake now.”
Claire shook her head. “No. Wouldn’t be able to sleep.”
“Thinking about the lawsuit?”
“Thinking about my lawyer.”
A deranged laugh slipped out. “You can only have regrets if you have options. The only thing we have going for us is that he has a personal vendetta against the Blocks.”
“I’m not sure if that’s a good thing,” said Dawn, hunching her shoulders.
“You’re not helping.”
Dawn meekly shrunk into the corner of the passenger seat. “Sorry.”
“It’s not just Lamar I’m thinking about,” said Claire. “I found Adolphus’ diary in the library. It contradicts the story we’ve been told about his death.”
“That’s crazy,” said Dawn, sitting up.
“That’s what I thought. He didn’t die when the records say he did.”
A passing semi blinded her briefly. A light rain had started, forcing her to turn on the windshield wipers. The highway glistened with wetness.
“What does that mean?”
“Wish I knew. Could just be that they got it wrong. Might not be anything nefarious, but it’s weird at the very least.”
“Gonna ask Canterbury about it?”
Claire paused. “No. Not yet anyway.”
The highway led them to Charleston where she took HWY-119 southwest of the city and then a smaller road directly south into the Kanawha State Forest. The rain continued to fall, coming down heavy at times, until she found a campground. The gate was closed, but it was easy to follow other tracks around it. A sign at the entrance warned not to travel into the hills due to non-specific supernatural threats, though the date was a month old and someone had drawn penises in the empty spots between the words.
“I didn’t bring camping gear,” said Dawn when she pulled to a stop next to a concrete bathroom. The rain had stopped and a cloud of gnats covered the lights outside.
“We’re not camping. We’re hiking. Appalachian ghost owls don’t deliver, so we’re going to have to find their hunting grounds.”
“I thought we’d be searching during the day,” said Dawn, frowning.
“Finding downy in the middle of the forest would be like a needle in a haystack. If we can hear them hunting then we know where to look. Come on. If we’re lucky enough, we could be back on the road tomorrow morning.”
“I guess it’s good I got a cat nap,” said Dawn.
Claire pulled a backpack out of the rusty white storage box next to the cab and slipped into it over her jean jacket.
“Augh, the grass is all wet,” said Dawn as she stepped off the gravel.
“What did you think this was?” laughed Claire. “Here, I’ll teach you a little spell that will keep them dry. When you don’t have money, camping and hiking are cheap adventures you can find anywhere. With the right enchantments, they can almost be luxurious.”
“I’m not sure about that.”
After teaching her friend a couple of spells to make the travel easier, they headed into the hills. The enchantment she’d placed on their eyes made seeing without light easier, though it didn’t keep Dawn from complaining every time a tree branch dumped rain water on her when she knocked it.
Claire had been tired during the end of the drive, but hiking through the forest at night gave her energy. The smell of petrichor was intoxicating and she found herself rushing ahead, forgetting to slow for Dawn who was clearly not a hiker.
“We’ve been wandering around for hours,” said Dawn when they stopped for a drink. “The only thing I can hear is my shoes squishing in the mud.”
“If the enchantment’s worn off, you’ll have to renew it.”
Dawn sighed and rubbed her arms. “No, it’s not that. It doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere. How long are we going to be out here?”
“As long as it takes. I can take you back to the truck if you want. You can sleep in the cab, or I can set up a tent,” said Claire.
“No. I’ll stay. I said I’d help. It’s the least I can do considering all the shit you’re going through right now. Ignore my whining. I’m just used to being buried in my covers and snuggling with my body pillow at this time of the night.” She snorted. “I used to think you being top dog at the Hall was glamorous, especially the way the professors always compliment you in class, but now I see how much work you put in. I don’t know how you do it.”
“Dawn,” said Claire, exasperated. “You’ve been seeing me work this hard for years. Ever since we’ve known each other.”
Her friend rolled her eyes. “I know, I know.”
“Trust me. I’d rather be snuggled up in bed at this time of the night too. It’s not like I like killing myself all the time, but I’ve got nothing. No family connections, no money, no friends beyond a few people at the Hall.” Saying it out loud put a weight on her chest. Claire stared at the rain dripping from the trees. “They say pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but all I’ve been doing is tripping myself and landing face first in the mud.”
The laughter that broke from Dawn’s lips had her worried. It was a little deranged and unexpected. Her friend clutched her stomach and after it passed, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Oh Claire. You know what that saying actually means? Not what idiots these days think?”
“No,” said Claire.
“It’s impossible. You can’t grab the strap on your boot and pull yourself higher because of physics. Maybe you could do it with a spell, but certainly not with hard work. It was meant to be sarcasm, but somewhere along the way people started believing it.” Dawn paused and squinted. “Claire? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that you’ve been working hard for nothing all these years.”
“No. I mean yes. I mean, maybe you’re right. Maybe I have been doing things all wrong. Trying to defy physics. Squeeze a little bit more out of the day. One more rep. One more pour. One more—”
A limb cracked from somewhere nearby. Claire turned her head sharply in the direction of the noise. Dawn had startled too, so she knew it hadn’t been her imagination. Thick foliage blocked her view, though at least the rain had stopped which made it easier to hear. Claire strained forward, wondering if she was hearing heavy breathing.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
The question was answered with a low growl that Claire felt in the base of her gut.