In Which We Drive Hypnosis Highway
Gram walked out of her room, yawning and stretching. When she saw me standing by the door, jacket on, she stopped. “Time for you to go, huh?”
“Afraid so,” I said.
Gram wrapped me in a tight hug. “I’ll miss you,” she said.
“I’ll miss you too,” I said, squeezing her back.
“I’ll cover for you,” she promised. “Heck, for all the police know, you’re still at reform school. You’ll get out fine.”
“Thank you.” I let go of her. “Gram, I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am. My heart thudded, raced, weighed down by remorse. “You only wanted to help me, and I treated you like dirt. There’s no way I can make up for how I acted, and I’m sorry.”
She pulled me back into the hug. “You know I love you, don’t you?”
“I think so.”
“I do, Hailee. Of course I do. You don’t have to be afraid that because Diana didn’t want you, I don’t either. You’re family, no matter what.”
My heart stopped its racing, mostly because it felt like it’d been kicked. It’s a hard feeling to describe, hearing someone take your deepest fear -- something you’d never admitted to them or even yourself -- and reassure you there’s nothing to be scared of. There’s no feeling quite like it, and few things that can bring tears to your eyes as quick. “Family,” I murmured.
“Family,” she repeated. “Never forget it. You have the Ravenheart spirit, Hailee.”
Ravenheart. I had never considered my mother’s family name mine, not until that moment. I saw then that a name wasn’t only about blood. A name was is part of who you are, and if Gram believed I had earned the name Ravenheart, then I was honored by it. “Thank you, Gram. I love you too.”
She finally released me from her embrace. “Call me,” she insisted. “Write to me, something. Let me know you’re alive.”
“Seriously, call me. I swear, Hailee Jackson, if you don’t, I’ll come looking for you myself, and I won’t stop looking until I’ve turned the entire state upside down.”
“Gram!” I laughed. “I will! Trust me! And anyway, you don’t have to worry. I’ll stay alive.” I was a sight better at assuring her than I was at assuring myself. I swallowed hard. “Goodbye, Gram.”
“Goodbye, Hailee.” Bravely, she held the tears back from her voice. “Good luck. Godspeed. Be brave.”
Be brave. I nodded. “I’ll try. Bene.” Bene, Latin for “be well.”
I hate long goodbyes. I didn’t look back as I left the house, walked through the yard, onto the road and past the watchman oak. I arrived back at Vicar’s Lot at exactly nine, knowing I would have to make another farewell.
Fred acted very awkward around me, avoided me if he could. Ah, well. He’d come around later, I was sure. “Ready to go?” Vic asked me.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
It was all arranged: Thalia would drive me, Vic, and Jason, and we would seek out the city’s wolfpack. Levi and Fred would go separately, and they would gather intel on the hunters and try to find us some new contacts. We would try to meet up in a day or two and see what each separate group had found out.
Holly once again startled me by yelling hello as she ran up behind me. I gave her a withering look. “Will you stop that?”
“Sorry not sorry,” she replied. “Everything’s arranged. My story is airtight, so far. ‘Course it’ll only last so long, but I’ll cross that proverbial bridge when it comes to me.”
“When I come to it.”
“This time, I think it’ll come to me. But I digress. Aunt June thinks I’m getting a ride to the bus station in Branson, and taking that into Alabama. Instead, I’m going the other way.”
I didn’t want to caution Holly against running away when I myself had done the same multiple times. It seemed a bit hypocritical, but was the old, parental “Do as I say not as I do” really hypocrisy? I had put myself in danger that way, and I didn’t want her to risk it. But, at the same time, who was I to tell her what she could risk and what she couldn’t? If she wanted to join the cause, I couldn’t stop her, and anyway, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t grateful.
“I’m riding with them,” she announced, thumbing toward the old truck.
My stomach lurched again. As I got used to the idea of her accompaniment, I’d assumed Holly would be under my watch. “Uh, what?”
“I know as much about the hunters as any of you, Hailee. Dare I say, maybe more. I have the files, and who knows? Some of them probably have stuff on Nashville. I can help them. However, you may have noticed I’m human. I can’t be much help to you dealing with your big-time Alphas.”
She made an excellent point, one I couldn’t very well argue with. “That is true,” I agreed, reluctantly.
“Oh, don’t worry, Hailee,” Levi said, slightly chiding. “We’ll take good care of your friend.”
“Yeah,” Fred agreed, “she’ll be fine. Hey, Holly.”
I looked, confusedly, between the two of them. “You know each other?”
“Totally,” she answered. “I used to visit him at the diner sometimes, especially in eighth grade. He taught me how to play chess.” You think you know a guy....
“Well,” I said, “just be careful.”
“Oh, for goodness sakes, Hailee, I’ll be fine!” Holly exclaimed.
“I meant all of you. All of you, be careful.” I looked pointedly at Fred, his words “I need you” echoing in my mind. He smiled at me, eyes darting around. Then, he climbed into the passenger side. Holly took the backseat, and then they drove off.
When their headlights rounded the corner, Thalia got into her car. I sat up front, and Vic and Jason opted for the back. I took one last, nostalgic look at the old place with the inexplicable name. This, this haunted-looking house where I’d grown up, was home. I’ll come back, I promised silently. I promised it to the creaking front porch, the perpetually dirty windows, the installments that always seemed to be breaking. Everything that made Vicar’s Lot a house from Hell to most buyers, but childishly endeared it to me.
I watched the last true home I had fade into the night and the dust behind our car. Goodbye, Vicar’s Lot.
Like that, we were off. I preferred driving this way, late at night, to the morning or midday. The roads were perfectly empty, so we just zoomed along, watching shadows of trees fly past. It was peaceful outside, a perfect late-autumn night. After a while, though, nighttime obscured any interesting view outside, if there was any to begin with. Out of boredom, we found whatever way we could to pass the dragging time.
Hour one, 9-10: we talked logistics until our ears turned blue. Where were we going to stay (“We should try to find my friends, Brent and Nick. My old band buddies.” “Okay, Jason, do you have any idea where they live?” “Sure.” “We should definitely wait until tomorrow.”). How much money did we have (I contributed my piece, which was about $100 of savings, and then immediately lost the ability to keep up with the math. I gathered that it was sufficient to get us through several weeks, though). How were we going to find Adam Dark (“I know where some of the big lycan meeting places are. We’ll try our luck there.”).
Hour two, 10-11: We flipped through the radio, trying to find anything that wasn’t playing Christmas music already, which according to Jason was ridiculous because Thanksgiving was still a week away, and finally found a good rock station. Until the selection devolved into a fast-hitting sequence of ridiculous holiday ads, we sang loudly and ridiculously. Jason was shy at first, but finally, in the middle of a song, he let go, and it was stunning. “You’re a singer, aren’t you?” I asked. It made absolute sense: he hit every note, baritone to alto, beautifully.
“I was,” he answered shyly. “That was my role in the band, before I left. They found a new singer, I think, named Frank.”
“The band’s still going?”
“Yep,” he said. “They’re still going, even doing local stuff. After the Fall, we’re called. They’re called, I mean.” And with that, he started singing again.
Hour three, 11-12: we got really, really bored with the music. Tiny, all-lights-off, butt-end-of-nowhere towns with strange names (not unlike Three Brothers) whooshed past, and Jason and I made a game/joke about how strange the names could get. In one that I’ve forgot the name of, we stopped and bought cheap sodas for the road, and then we were off again.
For the record, I think I won the game. I spotted towns with names so bizarre, they probably couldn’t exist anyone except the Arkansas boondocks.
Hour four, 12-1: Thalia, who we realized was very off-key without accompanying music, started belting out solider songs. “Cadences,” she called them. “When we went out to run,” she said, “this was how we stayed together. We sang. Call-and-response, like kids playing.”
Vic was cringing, covering her ears in an exaggerated manner. “Please stop.”
Jason just laughed uncontrollably, more at Vic’s reaction than at her. I laughed with him, and Thalia just kept singing (shouting), grinning across both ears. “Mission top-secret, destination unknown!”
Call-and-response, eh? Well, if that’s what she wanted, that’s what she’d get. “Mission top-secret, destination unknown!” I shouted back. Vic covered her ears again, which of course only made me want to do it more.
“He don’t know if he’s comin’ home!”
“He don’t know if he’s comin’ home!”
Jason was laughing until he cried. “You guys suck!” he yelled at us. “You guys actually suck!”
Hour five, 1-2: I don’t know what happened from one to two. I fell asleep. I do remember someone shaking me awake at about half past, whispering “Look, look!” We were crossing the Mississippi, and beyond it was Memphis, in all its tall, lit-up glory. Well, maybe not all of it; it was past midnight, and the biggest of the buildings were switching their lights off. But, as we snaked through the city, there were plenty of places still lit up in gold and white and magenta and green. Memphis fascinated me, for what little I saw. It was even brighter and more interesting than Little Rock, and I suspected Nashville would seem even bigger. It was all a bit much for a country kid like me!
Hour six, 2-3: See hour five. Zzzzzzz.
Hour seven, 3-4: When I woke up again, Vic was telling ghost stories, something about an unmarked hotel room and a ghost woman with red eyes. Jason looked spooked, Thalia looked mildly interested, and I guess I must have looked bored because Vic said, “Am I boring you, Hailee?”
I shrugged. “Why should it?”
“I dunno. That’s just how ghost stories work. People are afraid of the supernatural, and the weird.”
“Not me,” I said. “Logically, not any of us. We are the supernatural and the weird.”
“That’s very true.”
“It scared me,” Jason said.
I laughed. “‘Fraidy cat.”
“Get your feet off my dash.”
Hour eight, 4-5: This was where driver’s ennui and the utter emptiness of the Memphis-Nashville highway led to intense conversation, because what else are you supposed to do when there’s nothing to look at but cross-country truckers and nothing on the radio but easy listening and fire-and-brimstone preachers? “The Hypnosis Highway,” Jason called it. “My parents took us this way when we moved to Three Brothers. We drove mostly the same road, as a matter of fact.”
“And,” I added, “‘The Hypnosis Highway’ is an amazing band name, if you were ever interested in singing again.”
“Do you play anything?”
“Do harmonicas count?”
“You grew up in Tennessee too, didn’t you, Victoria?” Thalia asked.
I shot her a warning glance. “Thalia, I don’t know if that’s....”
“It’s okay, Hailee,” Vic assured me. “She can ask. Yes, I did grow up here. I grew up right outside where we’re headed, in fact, in Murfreesboro.”
“That’s interesting. How’d you end up in Arkansas, may I ask?”
For a second, I thought Vic wasn’t going to respond, until she said, “You may. I ran away at thirteen, after I got bit. Tom -- Hailee’s father -- found me at the end of my rope.”
Thalia was so surprised then, she actually turned around to stare at her. “You were thirteen? How...?”
“Now that,” Vic said firmly, “I am not going to discuss.” She turned to the window, making it undeniable the conversation was over. I noticed her fidgeting with the dog tags she always wore, something Vic did when she was emotional or deep in thought. The tags had belonged to her grandfather in Korea, but beyond that I didn’t know their significance. Tonight, Vic was extra absorbed in whatever was on her mind: she twisted the chain around and around her forefinger, pulled it over her head, pressed the tags into her hand until they were sure to leave marks.
“My apologies, Victoria,” Thalia said. “I didn’t realize.”
The silence that ensued was unbearably awkward for everyone in the car. Even Jason, who had been snoozing for the duration of the conversation, sensed the tension in the air when he stirred. His eyes moved between all three of us, then looked out the window without comment -- probably a wise move.
“Anyway,” I said, changing the subject when I couldn’t stand it anymore, “it’s probably best we got out when we did. Out of Arkansas, I mean.”
“You’re right,” replied Vic, eager for a subject change as I was.
“Was it?” Thalia, I sometimes forgot, had no experience with our townspeople.
“Oh, yeah, definitely. You weren’t around long enough to get a feel for it, but we come from a place that’s white, Republican, and Baptist.”
“Also, old,” Jason added.
“Yes, they’re also old. Lord knows things are hard enough for Holly, who knows what they’d do to a bunch of werewolves.”
“It’d be a black-and-white monster movie if you ask me,” Jason said. “Chase them out of the village with pitchforks and torches and rocks. Or whatever the modern equivalent of that is.”
“I can’t speak for the pitchforks and torches,” Vic replied, “but I’m pretty sure the modern equivalent of rocks is still ‘rocks.’”
Thalia put in her bit. “Torches, too, probably. I know we’ve moved past that for lighting, but fire is still fire, and if we’re talking about burning things....”
“Do people still use pitchforks?”
“How would I know? I’ve never been a farmer."
“Why are we still talking about this?”
“Sleep deprivation,” I decided. “I diagnose us all with sleep deprivation.”
A loud chorus of “Agreed!” answered me. Sleep was an absolute necessity, and the off-brand cola I’d bought probably five hours ago was down to its last drops and doing zip nada nothing for me anymore. Thankfully, that was when we saw the shapes of buildings in the distance. I glanced at the clock. It read fifteen minutes of six in the morning, and in mid-November, that’s still stars-out dark. We all agreed driving straight through the night was best, but man, that’ll take it out of you. The “Nashville City Limits” sign was greeted with much enthusiasm.
It took another half-hour at least to find our way into the city proper, navigating the ridiculous number of bridges and underpasses (coupled with about seven wrong turns and two failed “shortcuts” from our recent Tennessee resident), so it was well past six and getting on toward seven before we finally could all agree we were in the right place. “We can look for Dark tomorrow,” I said decisively.
“You mean today, and shouldn’t we talk to my friends before we go looking for some total stranger?”
“Yes, later today, much later, and sure, we can do that. Right now, though, I think the best thing is to find a cheap motel for overnight and crash for a few hours.”
“Oh, can we?”
Cheap motels aren’t hard to find in a city this size, and at five minutes of seven, we finally parked and exited the vehicle. My muscles were so stiff that my knees buckled when I stepped out. I had to grab the car door to avoid faceplanting in the asphalt. “Man, that feels good.”
“So good,” Vic agreed.
We hauled our bags from the trunk, locked up, and walked into the motel, ready to call it a night at seven in the morning.