Callum forced the bulging suitcase into the boot of the car and said, “Did you have to pack so much stuff?” Chloe shrugged and got in the back seat.
“Is he still going on?” Bethan whispered.
“Yeah.” Chloe pulled off her red woolly hat and threw out her dark curls. “I could remind him about all the crap he’s packed. Wetsuits. Surfing gear. That’s what’s taking up all the room.”
The car wobbled as Jake fitted the surf boards onto the roof rack. “Just slam the boot down on it, Cal,” he shouted.
The boot instantly crashed down and Callum got in the driver’s seat. “That should hold,” he said. “As long as no-one wants anything before we get there.” He wasn’t talking to anyone specifically. Bethan and Chloe exchanged smiles.
Bethan said, “Never mind, Cal, there’s a pub not far from where we’re staying.”
“Yeah I know.”
Chloe rolled her eyes. “Trust you to know all about the pubs.” Callum opened the door and called to Jake, “What did you tell me when I booked that place in Cornwall?”
Jake was still sweating over the surf boards. “What?”
“That pub. Haunted or something, you said.”
“No it’s not the pub that’s haunted it’s…”
“I’d better not say.” Jake stood back and observed the security of the surfboards before getting in the passenger seat.
“Ahh I remember now,” Callum said, then he turned to Chloe and Bethan in the back and asked, “Who likes ghost stories?”
Someone banged the side of the car.
An old man wearing a Dai cap stuck his head in through the window. “It’s only me.” Bethan and Chloe exhaled with relief. It was the next door neighbour. He’d been watching them from the window all morning and Chloe already knew what he was about to say. “Are you going from here?” he looked down the street he thought he owned. “Because if you are, I’ll move my car forward.” Before anyone could answer he said, “I’ll just grab my keys.” And then he walked off to his flower fronted house, waving to a dog walker as he went.
“Every time,” Callum put his head on the steering wheel. “Every time.”
Bethan slept through the journey to Cornwall, mostly. Chloe passed the time by staring through the window, thinking. Callum was driving and Jake fiddled with the radio. “I’d give up on that if I were you,” Callum said. Chloe breathed a sigh of relief as the hissing and crackling finally stopped. It was at times like this that she was glad Callum was the outspoken type. Jake fell back in his seat and breathed out, loudly. Then he leaned forward, straining against his seatbelt. Finally he looked back at Bethan, who was still asleep. He pulled his phone from his back pocket, his hair falling forward as he scrolled through the newsfeed on Facebook and said, “Bloody thing keeps freezing.”
“You’ll start losing signal around here.” Callum wasn’t even watching the road. Jake tapped the screen one last time then gave up and threw it by the gear stick.
“It shouldn’t be too much longer.” Callum said as he turned his attention back to the misty road. He flicked on the fog lights, throwing a long beam on the endless stretch of green. The odd sheep looked up as they approached. Chloe sighed with frustration that they were still in the middle of nowhere. She put both arms on Callum’s head rest, pulled herself forward and said, “I need the toilet.”
They rolled the car to a stop on a grassy verge at the side of the road. Chloe pulled on her hat and jumped out of the car. A sudden blast of cold air rippled through her red checked shirt and made her do a little dance as her eyes fought through the rising mist in search of a private spot.
“Just do it, Chlo!” Callum had his elbow out of the window as he looked over the fog lights and behind the car for some sort of break in the flatness of land.
“Ugh.” She wandered off, navigating her way through the puffy grass and unexpected dips. She relieved herself quickly, then ran back to the car and closed the door. Bethan stirred as they pulled off.
Callum looked at the rear-view mirror and asked, “Better?” Chloe nodded.
“Right turn ahead.” The sat nav had suddenly burst into life. “I thought that thing had shut down ages ago,” Jake said. He and Callum frowned at the green background and thick red line stopping at where the bed and breakfast should be. Callum tapped it. Time – 4:30. Estimated time of arrival 5 o’clock. The screen turned white then switched itself back off again. Jake played around with the buttons, but the satnav only flickered.
“Strange,” Callum said. There was no right turn ahead, only the long never-ending mountain road. “It’s usually pretty accurate.”
Jake jolted forward. “I know where we are now.” Callum raised his eyebrow as Jake went on. “If we’re thirty minutes away from the guest house then we’re thirty minutes away from that pub I was telling you about. That’s why the satnav’s dead,” he said. “This road is haunted.”
“Ooooo,” Callum shook the steering wheel and Chloe smiled in spite of herself.
“I’m serious!” Jake’s eyes darted around. “A hitchhiker and his girlfriend got killed up here. The girlfriend first then a year later the boyfriend died.”
“A year?” Chloe said.
“Yeah.” And then, thinking Bethan was still asleep, he told them, “It was 1982 and a young couple used to go out drinking every Saturday night in The Fisherman’s Lodge, now known as The Hitchhiker’s Rest. They were inseparable, sat together in the corner of the pub blissfully unaware of the world around them until it was chucking out time. Everyone would stagger out onto the street in all different directions. The girlfriend would cling onto her boyfriend, laughing, as they made their way up to this very road.” Jake looked all around him. “Having spent all their money on drink and the jukebox, they had no choice but to hitchhike. After a while, the girl would stand on the side of the road, alone, and her boyfriend would drop back, knowing cars would always stop for a woman. They did it loads of times until…”
“It was Christmas,” he said. “And they’d probably had more to drink than usual. Maybe the boyfriend stepped back too far and fell or perhaps they were just too complacent with the road. Loads of rumours went around but everyone knew how much he loved her, so I don’t know why they blamed him more than the driver.”
Chloe shifted in her seat.
“Hit and run,” Callum said. “The driver handed himself in the next morning.”
Chloe felt goose bumps prickle all over her body.
“The boyfriend was never right after that,” Jake said, “he used to come up here wandering-”
“A land rover had him in the end,” Callum added. Jake turned to Chloe and said, “She looked like you, the girlfriend.”
“She did. Long dark hair. Woolly hat. There’s a picture of her on The Hitchhiker’s website, the whole story is on there. She was wearing a red lumber jacket the night she died. It was his. They say he wore it when he was up here searching the road for something she’d thrown when she went over the bonnet.” Chloe pulled a face. And after a brief pause, he added, “They found one of her shoes a mile away.”
She quickly changed the subject with, “Why is that pub called The Hitchhiker’s Rest?”
“Because his spirit is still stuck here, wandering. They say he won’t rest until he finds what he’s looking for.”
“What is he looking for?”
“A whistle, of all things. He gave her a whistle. When they were hitchhiking, she’d blow on it when a car was coming. He told her she was never alone as long as she had that whistle.”
“Tell her about the pub,” Callum prompted.
“Well. Years later new owners took over The Fisherman’s Lodge. And when they heard about the hitchhiker, they thought it would lift the curse by renaming it The Hitchhiker’s Rest. It never worked, mind you. People still see him.”
“Thanks for that.” Everyone startled to see Bethan awake.
“Sorry,” Jake said, “I…”
There was a clunk and the car cut out. Callum held the wheel and steered it as best he could to a slow stop in the middle of the road. There were no lights on the dashboard and the car refused to start. After several attempts, Callum jumped out and inspected the underneath with the flashlight on his phone. “I don’t even know what it is I’m looking for.” Jake also got out of the car and lifted the bonnet. Callum tried starting the car again. “She’s gone,” he said and a discussion between the four followed, which resulted in them having to push the car off the road.
They rolled it onto the grass next to the fir trees and looked at each other for answers. Bethan folded her arms and with a flick of her auburn hair said, “I can’t walk in these shoes.” Jake threw his hands in the air.
“It’s just over there.” He pointed into the mist. “We’ve been travelling for over four hours. The satnav said it was thirty minutes away and that was ages ago.”
An argument broke out between the two while Chloe took Callum by the arm and led him up to the road. “You two go and we’ll stay here.” His eyes widened. “Callum,” she said, “we’ll be fine. It’s still light and I think Jake might be right. We can’t be that far away. At some point this mountain will drop down into the village.”
“Which makes it all the more frustrating.”
Chloe glanced at the road where Jake and Bethan were holding each other, his chin resting on the top of her head.
“It is what it is,” she said.
The girls sat in the front and were warned not to get out of the car under any circumstances. Jake walked off and Callum quickly checked the surfboards on the roof rack before catching up with his friend. Chloe’s eyes followed them until they were swallowed up by the mist.
After a while Bethan asked, “Are things alright between the two of you?”
“And your Mother?”
“Oh, she still hates him. Empty vessels make the most noise, that’s what she’s always saying.” She stared straight ahead and after a brief pause, she turned to Bethan and said, “She thinks I can do better.”
Bethan looked away.
“Come on,” Chloe said. “Let’s get some food from the boot.”
Doritos, Dairy Milks and two small bottles of water were thrown to Bethan over the back seats. “That’s one bag empty,” Chloe said, when she finally managed to close the boot after three failed attempts. She sat in the driver’s seat and opened the water. “It’s because he dropped out of Uni,” she said.
Chloe opened the Doritos and propped the bag on the handbrake as she explained. “He still has to pay off his student loan. We can’t get a mortgage until he does that. And he can’t pay off his student loan until he gets a better job.” She dug her hand into the crisps and sighed. “We’ll be renting forever.” Her thoughts turned to the time Callum left university. He only had eight months to go. Deep down, she didn’t think she had ever forgiven him either.
They ate in silence. The shuffling fir trees reflected through the windscreen making a pattern of their faces as a flurry of bronze leaves chased each other down the road. Suddenly Bethan turned to her friend and said, “I hope it’s not true, about that hitchhiker.” Chloe sighed and checked the time on her phone. The home screen illuminated her face and made them both aware of the falling darkness. She tried again for a signal then leaned back in her seat in defeat. “They’re taking too long,” Bethan said, her freckled face pale with concern.
“The longer they’re gone, the nearer they’re getting.”
Another hour passed. Empty wrappers and bottles filled the dashboard where the view of the road was slowly fading into the darkness. “How much longer?” Bethan asked. Chloe was beyond answering. She checked her phone again and her look of unease sparked off her friend.
“This is ridiculous. We should have gone with them!”
Chloe stared open-mouthed. “Are you serious? It was you, you who didn’t want to walk.”
“How was I to know we’d be stuck here all this time?”
“We’re in the middle of nowhere, Beth! It’s likely they’re in the middle of nowhere still. We took that chance.”
Bethan’s face flared red. They held each other’s stare until Chloe broke away and closed her eyes.
Silence was all they had left.
The car rocked as the wind picked up. The surfboards rattled on the roof rack and a low moan strained through each of the doors. Their minds were a knotted ball of thoughts and every crow squawking or blown leaf on the windscreen unraveled them more and more. It was pitch black, but the moon occasionally offered a glimpse of fir tree or road when the tumbling clouds blew apart.
Every now and then Chloe thought she could see something. Her eyes struggled to re-adjust to the dark, and she closed them because they kept playing tricks.
Something bounced off the windscreen. Chloe’s eyes snapped open.
“What was that?” Bethan shouted.
“It must be the trees!” Chloe’s eyes were everywhere, and her pulse raced.
“I hope it was the trees!” They listened for more. A long piece of strapping slapped the windscreen then blew out like a streamer. It crashed down again with a thud. The metal clasps were like a dead weight. They knew they had to fix it.
“After three,” Chloe said. “1-2-” they both jumped out of the car. The wind took their hair in all different directions as they battled to get the strapping over the surfboards. “I can’t hold it much longer,” Chloe said. Bethan put her hand on her friend’s and together they pushed the strapping back into the lock with an almighty click. Bethan ran to the passenger side. “The door won’t open!” she screamed.
A billow of leaves blinded Chloe momentarily as she tried the driver’s door. It instantly opened and the leaves blew in as she reached over the passenger seat to let her friend in. Chloe leaned back in her seat, her chest heaving. Then she looked in the rear-view mirror and saw the hitchhiker sat in the back. She threw her door open and screamed. Bethan did the same, screaming because her friend was screaming.
“The hitchhiker! The hitchhiker!” And the more Chloe said it, the more Bethan screamed, until all she could do was shake her friend and tell her, “Stop! Stop saying it!”
Then they were framed with a soft light that had appeared behind them. A light that slowly, turned into two strong beams. They shielded their eyes against the sudden brightness which soon dipped, and became an orange tow truck. The girls ran towards it. Jake was in the back and Callum jumped out from the passenger side before the vehicle even had a chance to stop. “I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!” he kept saying. Chloe fell against him. A wave of relief washed over her as she felt the warmth of his body. The driver wrapped a blanket around the two of them and Chloe closed her eyes. She spoke, but her voice was muffled. Callum took her head in his hands and wiped her tears away as they stood in the spotlight of the tow truck.
“I saw him,” Chloe said. “The hitchhiker, I mean.” And just as she said it, the tow truck driver picked up something from the back seat and asked, “Is this yours?” They both shook their heads as the man opened his hand and revealed a small silver whistle glinting in the light.