Guess what I’ve been working on? That’s right — the next part of Serpents!
We scoured the hiking trail, searching for that one particular hole in the ground, in which was one peculiar compass. Xena and I probably looked quite weird: walking along with our heads bowed as we scanned the trail, bumping into tree branches along the way.
Finally, we reached the spot where Claire disappeared. There was the hole, and there was the necklace.
Xena brushed the pine needles aside with her foot, then bent down and extracted the compass. With the only physical remnant of Claire Fairfax clutched in her hand, Xena gazed into the distance. A tear snaked down her cheek.
I knew exactly how she felt. Our best friend had vanished from the face of the earth, and only two people knew that she had ever existed. In the coming days, I knew that I would be depressed. And no one but Xena would even know why I was grieving.
Xena sighed and tightened her grip on the compass. “Come on, Stephanie. We should go,” she said heavily.
I was about to follow her when something . . . well, disturbing caught my eye. Our names. Etched in the dirt. They hadn’t been there a second ago. “Xena –” I grabbed her arm as more words appeared in the forest floor:
Steph, Xe. Listen. I need you.
“C-Claire?” I croaked. Surely it couldn’t be her. My mind must have been playing tricks on me. Besides, even if it was her — which would be completely impossible — she wouldn’t be able to hear me. Right?
The next words to appear were these: It’s me. Find me. I’m in danger.
“What? How?” Xena gasped in confusion. “Where are you? Claire!”
No time to explain. The compass will guide you. It points to your heart’s desire. Think of me. Be quick.
We stood in stunned silence, waiting for more information. There was none.
I regarded the compass with new interest. It points to your heart’s desire, huh? I thought. And then: Claire, if that was you, I promise we’ll find you.
Then, for the second time that day, Xena and I ran home as quickly as we could.
We paused at the top of the steps leading to my porch. Xena lifted up the compass. We held our breath as we waited for the spinning arrow to settle. Would this compass — the one that didn’t point north — help us find Claire?
The arrow wobbled once more, than came to a complete stop. It pointed into the woods.
“Looks like we’re going camping,” Xena remarked, pocketing the necklace. “We don’t know how far away Claire is. A one-day rescue mission might not be enough.” She gave me a grim smile. “There’s camping equipment at my place. C’mon.”
We hurried across the porch to the front door. I needed to gather some clothes before we could set off for Xena’s house. Before we could slip inside, a voice called, “Stephanie? Is that you?”
We froze. My mom.
“Y-yeah?” I stuttered, looking around for my mother.
She was sitting on a chair positioned amidst some flowers, enjoying the sun. She’d changed from her pajamas into more sensible clothes.
“Hi, Mrs. Atkins,” Xena greeted, faking cheerfulness. “We were just wondering — could Steph go camping with me today? You could enjoy the afternoon without an annoying child bothering you every few minutes.” (She got an elbow in the ribs for that.) Xena begged, “Please? It’s just such a lovely day, and –“
“I would say yes,” my mom interrupted, “but I was thinking about taking Stephanie to the doctor. This whole ordeal about your imaginary friend ‘Claire’ has gotten me worried.” Mom slipped off her chair and grabbed my hand.
Xena and I glanced at each other in desperation.
“Mrs. Atkins, it’s not Steph’s fault,” my friend blurted. “I dared her to say it. I’m sorry.” She clutched her hands to her heart dramatically.
Mom studied Xena, eyes narrowed. “Hmm. While I’m disappointed that you would do something like that, Xena,” she lectured in a firm tone, ” I forgive you. And I suppose my daughter can go camping with you. In fact, my friend from college invited me to go shopping tomorrow. I was going to have to decline, but with Stephanie gone . . .” She trailed off as she muttered to herself. “Well! This is fantastic, isn’t it? Why don’t you girls run along to Xena’s house?” She kissed my cheek happily.
I grinned at Xena. Operation Save Claire was a go.