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The crossbones, p.2
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       The Crossbones, p.2

           Patrick Carman
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  As soon as I got that password from Sarah, I Googled it and found a digital copy of a short story called “A Relation of the Apparition of Mrs. Veal.” Who knew Daniel Defoe, the same guy who wrote Robinson Crusoe (a fave of mine), also wrote a ghost story? “The Apparition of Mrs. Veal” is a short story about a lady who sees a woman wandering around on the day after her death. Not the most chilling thing I’ve ever read, but interesting in that it is said to have been taken from actual events.

  I can relate.

  Watching the entire story of what happened to us in three minutes is like seeing my life flash before my eyes. All those events happened over a period of only a few weeks, but looking back, it feels like a much bigger chunk of my life. I guess some memories are burned in forever while others blow away like leftover ash.

  This version of events makes me feel something I haven’t felt before:

  What happened in the past was only the beginning.

  Sarah and I have a ways to go before we’re done.

  I just spent the day at my summer job — a pretty good gig, all things considered.

  My parents saved half of the money they got from the gold and sunk the rest into a fly shop, where I am gainfully employed at a rate well below minimum wage along with another young guy named Sam Fitzsimons (everyone calls him Fitz). My dad is constantly reminding me that my pay is well below what Fitz makes because it includes room and board. This is a total crock and probably against the law, but I’ll take what I can get.

  Actually, hiring Fitz was my idea. My dad made me try out for the football team back in October and I was cursed to make the C squad. The one good thing that came out of the experience was finding a guy who was just as inept at sports as I was. Fitz and I rode the bench together, took hits from the A squad as practice dummies, and talked about fishing through endless Friday nights of no playing time. When football came to an end a couple of months ago, I started pestering my dad to hire the guy who’d sat next to me for three months of winter games.

  “Can he tie a fly and cast a rod?” was my dad’s only question, which I answered hugely in the affirmative. Fitz was a fishing nut, and my dad wanted cheap, experienced, local labor. My football buddy fit the bill. Fitz was like a lot of sixteen-year-old guys who lived in the mountains: good with a gun, a fishing rod, and a campfire. And cheaper than cheap to employ, because all he really wanted to do was spend all his money in the fly shop, anyway. A real win-win for my dad.

  A little more about Fitz:

  He lives a few miles outside of town in a trailer with his dad — a situation not as uncommon around here as one might imagine. His dad’s a logger, which is more than likely why he’s divorced. (Life lesson: Women don’t dig impoverished woodsmen who shower twice a week.) Fitz rides an old motorbike held together by duct tape and chicken wire and never wears a helmet. We’re a little shy on cops around here, and even if we had any, I doubt they’d care about teenagers joyriding in the back of pickup trucks or racing around without helmets on. It’s kind of par for the course in Skeleton Creek, if you get my drift.

  Fitz’s motorcycle burns oil, which means you can often smell him coming before he shows up. Even though I tell him I don’t mind the smell, he won’t let me ride it. One of these days I’m going to lift his keys and do cookies in the gravel behind the fly shop, because, actually, it’s a sweet bike. It hauls.

  When Fitz talks, it’s almost always about fishing and hunting, which is a little weird. The only bummer about having him around is he’s a very good fisherman and an even better fly tier. Plus, he’s a people person, unlike me. (Generally speaking, I prefer not to talk with anyone I don’t know unless I’m forced into it.) I have a hunch my dad is going to use him a lot to take tourists fishing and leave me in the shop. If that happens, I will have to kill Fitz, because I cannot stand the idea of fishing stories in which I am not a participant.

  I’m going downstairs for dinner. Then it’s time to write down how me and Sarah accidentally summoned a ghost and a secret society back into our lives.

  I got roped into a few hours on the stream with Fitz and my dad after dinner, but I’m finally back. Fitz landed a monster out of the big hole at mile 7, but it was pretty slow otherwise, and I got skunked. My mind was on other things.

  I wish I could tell Fitz what’s going on. I mean, what’s really going on. But that’s not where we are right now. Like with most of my friends. I have plenty of people I could hang out with, or play video games with, or talk about homework with. But friends I can tell everything? Just Sarah, and even her, not really. Which is probably why I spend so much time with these notebooks. It’s easier than getting other people involved.

  I need to go back and retrace how I ended up in the situation I’m in, because really, I don’t know exactly how it happened. It’s been three weeks since I told Sarah about the Skull Puzzle. She calls it the Skull. Either way, it’s full of surprises.

  “The Skull says this and the Skull says that,” she’ll tell me. Or “I think this is what the Skull is trying to tell us.”

  Just like every other time before, she’s got a way of taking the lead.

  As I write this, Sarah is driving from Chicago.

  Because of the Skull.

  I know, crazy.

  Here’s how it happened, as best I can string it all together.

  About a week after I sent Sarah the Skull Puzzle, she emailed me an idea that I hadn’t thought of. I’d been looking at those images for months, feeling stumped by the weird collection of symbols and numbers. But Sarah’s dad was a hunter and mine wasn’t. Turns out that was the trigger that blew my whole life apart.

  By the time I got this email from Sarah, I’d had the Skull for a long time. At some point along the way I scanned it and took it apart, separating each item into its own file.

  Here’s the rifle again:

  I do not like guns of any kind, and this one is no exception. I searched the name William Wirt Winchester, and before the night was over, I knew what I’d gotten my hands on. Sarah and I both knew. The emails flew back and forth as we made progress. It was like we’d been lost in the woods and had suddenly found the right trail.

  It’s getting late, but I don’t care. I have to get this all down.

  Just in case something happens.

  It didn’t take us long to figure out that what I’d found was a key to a series of places where paranormal activity had been recorded. Someone had created a haunted treasure map … but where did it lead and what was it for? In my darkest thoughts, I could only imagine one place a map like that would take me, and that was six feet underground, with a tombstone over my head.

  This was a map of the dead, made by a guy who’d lost his mind.


  There, I said it.

  Henry, who betrayed my family, my town, and me. Henry, who disappeared like a ghost. Henry, the traitor. Henry, the threat.

  This was Henry’s doing. The Skull Puzzle came out of his twisted mind and landed in his pocket. But when did he make it — before or after he was taken over by the ghost of Old Joe Bush?

  Looking at everything through a ghostly lens sharpened our search dramatically. During that same night, Sarah and I figured out one of the other clues on the Skull: the strange house with an H and three M’s on it.

  Before we applied the haunted filter, these images could have meant a million different things. The building could have been a House of Pancakes for all we knew. Or, more likely, House of the Dead or House on Haunted Hill. All we had was an H, a building, and a mirror reflecting the letter M over and over again. Sarah and I started thinking of it as the House of Mirrors, which gave us the direction we were looking for.

  She sent a link that had some guy giving a guided tour of a hotel called the Driskill. Five minutes in, I knew Sarah was right. First off, the Driskill is totally haunted, probably the most haunted hotel in America. There are dozens of ghost stories about this place, and one of them has to do
with mirrors. There are these giant ones in this one room, all of them made by some rich dude in Mexico for Carlota, his lady friend. And HIS name? Maximilian — that’s Max with an M, just like in the mirror on the drawing.

  Now the spooky part: This tour guide was telling a story about what happens if you go up there to the Maximilian Room all by yourself and look straight into one of the mirrors. What it does is reflect to an identical mirror on the opposite wall. Then it reflects back again, so you basically look into a never-ending series of smaller and smaller mirrored images of yourself. And into that endless collection of you and only you walks Carlota! She just appears, out of nowhere, stares at you, and then you’re dead. Okay, the dead part I made up, but you might die when you run screaming for your life, trip, and fall down the stairs.

  The connecting image on the Skull Puzzle is this one:

  This seemed pretty straightforward. There’s an image of a person behind the two. It’s soft, but it’s there. Carlota! The rest also makes sense in the context of five mirrors on one wall. The two and the arrows mean there are two mirrors on either side, so that would make it one of the two middle mirrors. “Behind the L.T.C.” has to mean “Behind the Left Top Corner.”

  Wow. We were getting pretty good at this puzzle stuff. The answers we were finding had to fill in the dotted lines in the Skull.

  Four words, four haunted places — and we’d found two of them.

  Sorry. Had to stop there because I heard Dad in the hall.

  I wish I could tell him about all this. But I know I can’t.

  He wouldn’t understand. He’d tell me to stop. Both him and Mom — they never understood what Sarah and I were up to. (Or maybe Dad knew all too well — but I don’t want to think about that.) They were glad when Sarah left. They thought it meant I would stop doing things like this — staying up all night, digging into places I should leave alone.

  Mom and Dad, if you’re the first people who find this — if something’s happened — know that there’s no way you could have stopped me. It’s not your fault. I just have to do this. It doesn’t even feel like a choice. The mystery found me. And the only way to get rid of it is to solve it.

  Okay, back to the Skull Puzzle. The next day I knocked off the third of the four locations: The horned tombstone was mine. This was the one image we should have figured out sooner, because what says haunted more than a tombstone? But there are an awful lot of cemeteries out there full of a lot of zombies and ghosts, so how were we to know which one this particular tombstone referred to?

  There was an L etched on the stone, but that could mean a lot of things. It was my mom, believe it or not, who helped me solve this one.

  I took the scan I had and carefully cut out the L, no headstone. I also isolated the repeating horn that stuck out of the right side. After printing them both on one piece of paper, I went and sat on the porch with the notebook I write my stories in.

  Mom was sipping an iced tea with lemonade, otherwise known as an Arnold Palmer, the heat of summer dropping her to the old couch like a sack of potatoes. I opened my journal and set the piece of paper on the scuffed coffee table. Bingo. I’d opened up the world of my notebooks to my mom, a rare occurrence. She wasted no time asking me what I was working on.

  “A ghost story,” I said. This was the most common of answers, which is to say it gave my mom no information. She picked up the piece of paper and gave it a long once-over.

  “A haunted farm?” she asked. “Please don’t cut people up with the blades.”

  “The what?” I asked.

  “The plow blades. Don’t put them in the hands of a monster and cut people up. You’re above that. I didn’t raise a blood-spilling novelist.”

  I asked her to tell me what she was talking about, and a few seconds later I was good and educated about how a farmer plows a field. The repeating horns on the tombstone weren’t horns at all — they were the blades of a plowshare, the kind that get pulled by a horse. Old-school, for sure, but a direction I hadn’t tried.

  It didn’t take me long to find myself once again emailing Sarah.

  The really horrible part about the horned tombstone was the part of the Skull that referred to where the clue would be hidden. Sarah pointed that out in her next email, which showed up about an hour after I sent mine.

  She was talking about this:

  Not a fun message, even in broad daylight. Whatever this pointed to would need to be dug up in a cemetery. Totally verboten in Ryan’s playbook, but it would need to be done.

  Are there laws about stuff like this? I mean, could Sarah go to jail for digging up a cemetery? More important, could Sarah die from digging up a cemetery? I think that’s possible. I was just glad she was far enough away from the rest of the places to make it impossible to track them all down.

  At least that’s what I thought until she told me the incredibly stupid plan she’d come up with.

  This time, she called me, middle of the night, phone vibrating my brain awake from under my pillow.

  “I called you six times,” she started. “You are one heavy sleeper.”

  “Sorry. What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing’s wrong. I just couldn’t wait to tell you the good news.”

  “It’s summer and it’s four thirty in the morning,” I reminded her.

  “Not in Boston. Here it’s seven thirty and I just ate oatmeal with my parents.”

  “And I care about this why?”

  “Because they said yes. I guess turning seventeen opened a few doors for me.”

  I sat up in bed, because I knew what this yes she was talking about meant.

  “You’re not serious,” I said.

  “Oh, yeah, I’m serious. Haunted road trip.”

  I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I really couldn’t believe it. Sarah and I had talked about it, but this was unbelievable. My parents wouldn’t even let me drive down the hill for a cheeseburger without making sure I had my GPS phone on red alert so they could track my every move. Man, Sarah was lucky.

  Sarah had worked it to the hilt, telling her parents that it would be the best student project ever if she could drive to summer film school in California and make a documentary along the way. She would stop at interesting locations, visit with different family members coast to coast, and create the coolest video diary any film school teacher had ever seen. It was going to be amazing.

  “Turns out I have relatives spread out all over the country,” Sarah told me. “I’m only staying in two hotels. The rest is aunts, uncles, and my parents’ old college roommates. Just drive, eat, film. Oh, and make a few strategic stops along the way.”

  It wasn’t exactly a straight shot, but it was close. Boston to Chicago, then Austin, and finally California: Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery, the Driskill Hotel, the Winchester House.

  “I’ll have to cut some corners here and there to stay on schedule, but I’ve got seven days to get across America by car. They totally bought it!”

  There was only one problem: We didn’t know where the last location was. There were four things to find, and we’d only found three. The meaning of the number 311 continued to elude us, and the longer it took to figure out, the more likely Sarah would have to backtrack or change course.

  “I’ll handle things on the road,” she told me. “You just find that last location before I end up a thousand miles on the other side and can’t make it back in time. Remember, every mile is double if I’m backtracking, and there’s very little room for error. My parents will freak if I don’t show up on time where I’m supposed to.”

  When I hung up the phone, I was one part jealous, one part excited, and five parts scared out of my shorts.

  We were about to unlock a message that would lead to trouble of the worst kind. I was sure about this, and so was Sarah. We both knew it was a bad idea, but we couldn’t help ourselves.

  And do you want to know why we knew it was a bad idea?

  Because the ghost of Old Joe Bush was watching us. He knew what we
were up to.

  We knew this because he sent us a message yesterday. A video. To our personal emails.

  It wasn’t good.

  If you want to see it for yourself, you can find it at Sarah’s site. But be warned — it’s not right. It might keep you up at night.



  You’re hiding something, aren’t you, Ryan McCray? Something of mine, maybe? Something I left behind. Don’t be surprised if HE comes looking for you. I won’t be able to stop him. Even I can’t protect you from that one.

  It will burn, burn, burn and you won’t get it out.

  The ghost of Old Joe Bush is back. Not Henry — some other version of him, and, man, is he not happy.

  He will get you! — I think he is Henry, and the ghost of Old Joe Bush is trying to warn me, not the other way around.

  Burn, burn, burn! I think he means that what’s to come will be seared into my memory, never to fade away. Whatever wild ride I’m in for, I’ll remember it when I’m ninety … as if I have any chance of living that long.

  Riddles upon riddles — that’s what you get when you’re dealing with a lunatic wrapped in a ghost.

  I realize I should tell someone about this. I really do. There’s a madman out there sending me videos and I’m not running to my parents? It’s hard to explain, but I think what’s going on here is very deep. I think I have a connection to Old Joe Bush that makes me do things I wouldn’t otherwise imagine on my own. Me and Joe Bush have a lot in common. Both of us are (or were) known for sneaking around and hiding things. I want my life to be exciting, but I’m stuck in Skeleton Creek. I think Joe felt the same way. Trapped, paranoid, forced to keep secrets he didn’t want to be in charge of. It makes me wonder if I’ll be a ghost someday, haunting some other kid in some other small town. It sounds a little boring, if you want the truth. Days and nights filled with standing around doing almost nothing. Anyway, the point is, I don’t know where this is all leading, but something tells me I should do things the way I’ve always done them: secretly, at least until I know what’s really going on, and who I can really trust.

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