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The crossbones, p.1
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       The Crossbones, p.1

           Patrick Carman
 
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The Crossbones


  Contents

  Title Page

  Monday, June 20, midnight

  Monday, June 20, 12:03 A.M.

  Monday, June 20, 1:15 A.M.

  Monday, June 20, 9:00 A.M.

  Monday, June 20, 9:40 A.M.

  Monday, June 20, 9:45 A.M.

  Monday, June 20, 9:49 A.M.

  Monday, June 20, 10:10 A.M.

  Monday, June 20, 10:18 A.M.

  Monday, June 20, 5:30 P.M.

  Monday, June 20, 5:46 P.M.

  Monday, June 20, 10:15 P.M.

  Monday, June 20, 10:47 P.M.

  Monday, June 20, 11:36 P.M.

  Monday, June 20, 11:48 P.M.

  Tuesday, June 21, 7:00 A.M.

  Tuesday, June 21, noon

  Tuesday, June 21, 1:15 P.M.

  Tuesday, June 21, 2:12 P.M.

  Wednesday, June 22, 1:00 A.M.

  Wednesday, June 22, 4:23 A.M.

  Wednesday, June 22, 8:42 A.M.

  Wednesday, June 22, 11:00 A.M.

  Wednesday, June 22, 3:00 P.M.

  Wednesday, June 22, 4:39 P.M.

  Wednesday, June 22, 5:12 P.M.

  Wednesday, June 22, 8:45 P.M.

  Wednesday, June 22, 9:38 P.M.

  Thursday, June 23, 12:03 A.M.

  Thursday, June 23, 12:13 A.M.

  Thursday, June 23, 12:21 A.M.

  Thursday, June 23, 8:00 A.M.

  Thursday, June 23, 9:24 A.M.

  Thursday, June 23, 2:30 P.M.

  Thursday, June 23, 8:00 P.M.

  Friday, June 24, 8:04 A.M.

  Friday, June 24, 2:00 P.M.

  Friday, June 24, 6:00 P.M.

  Friday, June 24, 11:00 P.M.

  Saturday, June 25, 3:10 P.M.

  Sunday, June 26, 9:11 A.M.

  Sunday, June 26, 3:00 P.M.

  Sunday, June 26, 11:57 P.M.

  Monday, June 27, 12:14 A.M.

  Monday, June 27, 8:20 A.M.

  Monday, June 27, 9:15 A.M.

  Monday, June 27, noon

  Monday, June 27, 3:00 P.M.

  Monday, June 27, 7:00 P.M.

  Monday, June 27, 10:11 P.M.

  Tuesday, June 28, 10:00 A.M.

  Tuesday, June 28, 12:11 P.M.

  Tuesday, June 28, 3:00 P.M.

  Tuesday, June 28, 7:00 P.M.

  Tuesday, June 28, 8:30 P.M.

  Tuesday, June 28, 9:50 P.M.

  Tuesday, June 28, 10:15 P.M.

  Tuesday, June 28, 11:53 P.M.

  Wednesday, June 29, 2:00 A.M.

  Wednesday, June 29, 10:00 A.M.

  Wednesday, June 29, 1:12 P.M.

  Wednesday, June 29, 4:10 P.M.

  Wednesday, June 29, 4:23 P.M.

  Wednesday, June 29, 10:10 P.M.

  Thursday, June 30, I don’t know what time it is and I don’t care

  Monday, July 4, 12:14 P.M.

  Monday, July 4, 4:00 P.M.

  Copyright

  A couple of days ago I walked past a parked car I’d never seen before. The owner had slapped a crooked blue bumper sticker on the trunk.

  Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t really out to get you.

  I have never read a truer statement in my life.

  I am sure someone or something is out to get me. Whatever it is escaped from the abandoned dredge and has leaked out into the rest of the world.

  It’s loose, it’s angry, and it’s looking for me.

  I have a bad habit of allowing thoughts like this to fill my mind in the middle of the night.

  It wants to get me.

  There was a time when I thought I turned terrible things over in my mind because I read and wrote too many scary stories. (Note to self: Start writing about unicorns and bunnies.) The logic was pretty straightforward: I read about zombies, therefore I dreamt about walking dead people with arms that fell off. I wrote stories about ghostly beings, so naturally I assumed something creepy was standing outside my window with a chain saw.

  It’s a good thing I’m older now. I’m wiser. I’ve got a better sense of humor. I can handle whatever comes my way.

  But this is real, and I can prove it.

  You’ll see. I’ll make you see.

  I just thought of a sick story about a giant red bunny and a one-eyed unicorn. Hang on.

  Okay, I’m back. And bummed out. Sometimes the idea for a story is so much better than the story itself. Such is the case with a one-eyed unicorn going toe-to-toe against a seven-foot rabbit-man. Then again, dark humor is like black medicine for my fears. It keeps me from screaming in the lonely hours of the night.

  Moving on …

  I feel I should recap what got me into this mess in the first place. It’s good short story practice, if nothing else.

  First, the seven-word version:

  Haunted by ghost, found gold, saved town.

  And the slightly expanded, far more useful version:

  My best friend, Sarah, and I discovered the presence of a ghost out in the woods. The ghost was called Old Joe Bush, and it was real. The woods were home to an abandoned dredge, which was haunted by the ghost and protected by a secret society called the Crossbones. My dad was a Crossbones member, though I question to this day how much he really knew. A certain someone I will not name (his name is forbidden in Skeleton Creek) went to great lengths to keep people away from the dredge. He went so far as to embody the ghost of Old Joe Bush, and I’m convinced he went crazy in the effort. After a whole lot of investigating and one major injury, Sarah and I discovered the reason why the dredge was being protected: Its floorboards were filled with forty million dollars’ worth of gold. Sarah and I were credited with finding this long-lost stash and were forgiven our transgressions, like lying in the first degree, sneaking around behind our parents’ backs, acting like reckless teenagers, nearly getting killed. The ghost of Old Joe Bush is gone now. It took the imposter and the Crossbones with it.

  I don’t know why I’m writing all this down after one in the morning. For all I know the ghost of Old Joe Bush is standing in my driveway, thinking about his options: Rip the front door off its rusty hinges? Or quietly walk through the walls and hover over my bed?

  I am going to close my eyes.

  I can do this. I can go to sleep. I can turn my mind toward something other than the ghost of Old Joe Bush.

  I am thinking happy bunny thoughts.

  I always feel better in the morning, like the light of day has trapped my fears under a pile of dirt. At least they’re buried until nightfall.

  It’s officially summer, I have a little bit of cash, and I love eggs and hash browns. These facts have driven me out of my bedroom and into a booth at the café on Main Street. I’ve emptied my pockets onto the scuffed green table and taken stock of my pathetic financial condition: twelve dollars, fifty-five cents. And I don’t get another infusion of moola until Friday.

  How can I have a giant pile of money in the bank and be so broke at the same time?

  Good question.

  The town got most of the gold me and Sarah found, which was fair, I suppose. The unfair part? What gold I did get to keep was placed in a trust. I can’t touch it until I turn eighteen, which feels like a million years from now.

  What this means is technically my social status has gone down since I saved the town from ruin. Everyone else in Skeleton Creek is either driving a new pickup truck, renovating a house, or hauling a big-screen TV through the front door. A fair number are doing all three at the same time.

  The spending spree is courtesy of Mayor Blake, who’s never lifted a finger to do much of anything besides open a Pepsi can. He gave every family, including my own, one hundred thousand dollars. He called it a “stimulus package” and encouraged everyone to blow it as fast as they could. One thing about
Mayor Blake — he’s good at firing off his mouth and getting everyone excited. Whether it’s turning the dredge into a haunted attraction or building a new visitors’ center, the guy can really yack it up. People around here are perplexed by so much chatter; it confuses them into doing stupid things (like spending a hundred grand in no time flat).

  Even after they gave me and Sarah a bigger wad of dough than anyone else got, there was still more than ten million left. A lot of new folks are running for mayor so they can decide how to spend it, and the population has ballooned from seven hundred to seven hundred and fourteen, a reversal of decades in the other direction.

  Sitting in the café, sipping a cold cup of coffee, my thoughts have turned to Sarah. We used to start every summer with plans about what kind of trouble we were going to get into.

  But that’s going to be a little challenging this time around, because now Sarah’s gone.

  I guess her parents looked at the money as a ticket out of Skeleton Creek, because their house was up for sale the same day the checks left the mayor’s office. I don’t know — I guess I can hardly blame them. It’s still a dead-end town, and me and Sarah didn’t exactly give them a lot of reasons to hang around. Almost getting killed with your best friend does send up a little bit of a red flag. It wouldn’t surprise me if my parents and her parents had a secret meeting.

  My dad: One of us is going to have to move out of town before our kids get themselves killed.

  Sarah’s dad: I’ve got family in Boston. I could find work there.

  My dad: I’d like to open a fly shop, make a go of it.

  Sarah’s dad: I’ll talk to my wife.

  I bet that’s exactly how it went down, followed by a FOR SALE sign pounded into the mud in front of her house.

  With Sarah gone, things changed. We emailed and talked to each other online, but the messages thinned to a few lines here and there.

  Three months after she left, I got a note that felt like the beginning of the end.

  It was just the kind of email I didn’t need. Not only had Sarah escaped Skeleton Creek without me, but to make matters worse, she felt sorry for me. Get out or get dead? Wow, talk about a two-by-four in the face. That one hurt.

  Still, I really miss her. She filled a lot of space, and that space has turned empty.

  This is probably why the summer feels so aimless. Our plans were never really our plans. They were her plans.

  I have no idea what to do with myself with the summer laid out before me. I have this nagging feeling that only one thing could ever bring us close to each other again.

  Our friendship has always had its foundation in the thrill of danger and secrets. Even when we were little kids, it was always about sneaking around behind everyone’s back. Skeleton Creek was full of rubes, and it was our job to pull one over on them.

  It feels like those days are over.

  Unless something happens.

  Unless the thing that drove us apart is, in the end, the one thing powerful enough to bring me and Sarah back together.

  Unless the ghost of Old Joe Bush returns.

  I know that sounds crazy.

  The ghost is gone. Everyone says the ghost is gone.

  But if he is, why can I still feel his presence?

  If he’s disappeared, how do I know he’s still here?

  I swear, the waitress just tried to look over my shoulder.

  I’m so tired of feeling watched.

  One second.

  The dredge still sits out there in the woods, same as it ever was, and I never go out there. Tourists seem to like it, which is what prompted Mayor Blake to push the idea of a haunted attraction. Sort of like a haunted house. I think this is a terrible idea, and I’ve said as much. But who’s going to listen to a sixteen-year-old, even if he did save the town?

  A fresh cup of coffee and I still have a little time before I have to open the fly shop. That should be enough time to address the most important thing I took from the dredge that night. It wasn’t the hordes of gold we found hidden in the floorboards, secretly stashed by Joe Bush long before he was pulled into the gears and drowned in the water below. No, it was something much smaller and infinitely more dangerous.

  The last thing Sarah recorded in the dredge was a shot of the floor. If you look at that video, you’ll see the same thing everyone else saw: an envelope. It’s one of the great mysteries of the dredge, and one of the reasons people still think it’s haunted. Because you know what? No one can find that envelope. It’s as if it never existed.

  People ask me about it from time to time. I just shrug and shake my head.

  I don’t feel like lying anymore.

  But I also don’t feel like saying, “The envelope? Yeah, I have it. I kept it. Hey, someone’s gotta keep a lid on this nightmare.”

  So, yeah, I took the envelope. In all the confusion that night, I slipped it into my pocket and didn’t tell anyone, not even Sarah. Then I hid it in the back of one of my desk drawers and tried to forget. I thought maybe — just maybe — if I didn’t acknowledge its existence, it wouldn’t have any power. It would sit back there and rot like an old apple core.

  But it didn’t rot. Instead, it bloomed in my imagination, and a month later I couldn’t stand leaving it alone any longer. Like the distant, hollow voice of the undead hidden beneath old floorboards, this ghastly thing would not shut up.

  What’s inside? it asked, scratching the back of my brain with its claws.

  I lay there, night after night, wondering what had been left behind, until finally I couldn’t stand it any longer.

  A distant thunder rolled over the mountain at half past two in the morning as I pulled the drawer all the way out and took out the dreaded envelope. Racing back to my bed, I felt the evil eye of Old Joe Bush watching me cower beneath the covers. Was it the ghost, or was it the man, standing outside my window? I would have sworn something was there, touching the glass at my second-story window, an icy breath fogging the pane.

  I tore the envelope open and held its contents in my hand.

  One card, two sides. The work of a madman if ever there was!

  SIDE ONE, which I came to call THE SKULL

  SIDE TWO, The GUN, The TOMBSTONE, The HOUSE

  As a whole, I came to call this crazy thing I’d found the Skull Puzzle, because that’s what it was: skulls and tombstones and guns. A puzzle of the dead.

  I spent the next few months trying to figure out what the clues on the card meant. Many months, and a giant ZERO to show for my efforts. I searched online endlessly, all hours of the night, until I woke up one morning and realized the contents of the envelope had become my obsession.

  I should have left the envelope at the back of my drawer, as I’d planned to do. Or better yet, I should have left it in the forsaken dredge where it belonged. Maybe the ghost of Old Joe Bush would have emerged from his watery grave and pulled it into the mud where it belonged.

  But no. I had it now.

  There came a night when I decided to put it back. I had the feeling it was cursed, that it would send my mind spinning into oblivion if I kept it. Against all my better judgment, I took to the woods behind Skeleton Creek and made the long walk alone. But when I stood before the dredge in the dead of night, I was so scared I couldn’t bring myself to go inside. I ran back through the woods, tree limbs slapping me in the face, and collapsed on my bed.

  You have to understand: I almost died there. It’s hard to go back to a place where you almost died.

  As I went to my laptop in search of some unattainable comfort, I knew deep in my bones that I would find a message from Sarah. I can’t say why, other than to admit my belief that I am connected to Sarah in an otherworldly way. Say what you will, but I felt true terror at the dredge. The same panic Sarah felt on the night she first saw the ghost of Old Joe Bush. My fear, so closely linked to her own, called out to her.

  I realize email is a digital invention lacking in dramatic reality, but this was one message that produced feelings I w
ill never forget.

  I emailed her back immediately.

  I attached the two images and had to wait only nine minutes for her reply. We spent the rest of that first night instant messaging, emailing web sites and images, whispering into our cell phones. By the time the sun came up, we’d spent five hours in constant communication.

  Like the ghost of Old Joe Bush, we were back.

  If only I’d known then what I know now, I never would have encouraged Sarah to go down this path with me. I never would have taken that envelope in the first place.

  It was what they wanted, and we had it.

  We didn’t even know they were paying any attention.

  The Crossbones were watching us.

  We’ve made some progress, which I will explain after I get off work, but in the meantime, there’s something to watch.

  She’s uploading videos again. Same web address, new passwords. It’s different this time around, and I’m still getting used to it. Sarah never shows her face. I wish I could see her, but I understand why she’s changed her recording methods. Nothing on the internet is safe, and videos get captured and posted all the time. She’s much more comfortable behind the camera, not in front of it, but it’s more than that.

  Sarah is scared, just like I am.

  She doesn’t want the wrong people seeing her. She’s even altered the way she sounds. It’s almost her voice, but not quite. Kind of gives me the creeps, if you want to know the truth.

  Sarah’s first video is up there, a disturbing recap of everything that’s happened so far to us. If I’m gone and you’ve stumbled onto this journal, maybe you need to see what happened at the dredge. Maybe you need an introduction to the Crossbones because, let me tell you, they matter. Even if you already know about these things, her telling is worth a look.

  Don’t watch it with the lights off.

  Always be on guard.

  sarahfincher.com

 
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