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Skeleton creek, p.2
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       Skeleton Creek, p.2

           Patrick Carman
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  It feels like midnight: it’s only 8:30.

  How did this happen to me?

  Stop, Ryan. Go back.

  Remember.

  Even if you know how it’s going to feel.

  Even if you don’t have any of the answers.

  There were small announcements in four of the newspapers that alluded to something called the Crossbones. They were cryptic ads in nature, containing a series of symbols and brief text that seemed to have no meaning. One such message read as follows: The floor and 7th, four past the nine on door number two. Crossbones. Who in their right mind could decipher such nonsense? Certainly not us.

  All of the advertisements came between the years of 1959 and 1963 and all appeared in The Skeleton Creek Irregular. Then, in 1964, they ceased altogether, as if they had never existed at all. But the same symbols could still be found in various places. One of the symbols — two bones tangled in barbed wire — could be seen above the door to the local bar, on a signpost at the edge of town, and again carved into a very old tree along a pathway into the woods. It made us wonder if the members of the Crossbones were still meeting. Who had been part of the society? What was its function? Were there still active members — and, if so, who were they?

  Our trail dead-ended with the advertisements.

  We searched relentlessly online for clues to our town’s past. New York Gold and Silver was bankrupted over environmental lawsuits, and it seemed to vanish into thin air after 1985. But this didn’t keep us from sneaking down the dark path into the woods to examine what was left behind.

  Do I wish we’d never gone down that path?

  Yes.

  No.

  I don’t know.

  It’s too complicated.

  Or is it? None of this would have happened if we’d stayed away from the dredge.

  The dredge is a crucial part of the town’s dreary past. It sits alone and unvisited in the deepest part of the dark woods. The dredge, we discovered, was a terrible machine. Its purpose was to find gold, and its method was grotesque. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the dredge sat in a muddy lake of its own making. It dug deep into the earth and hauled gargantuan buckets of stone and debris into itself. Nothing escaped its relentless appetite. Everything went inside the dredge. Trees and boulders and dirt clods the size of my head were sifted and shaken with a near-deafening racket, and then it was all spit out behind in piles of rubble ten feet high. A tail of ruin — miles and miles in length — all so tiny bits of gold could be sifted out.

  The trench that was left behind as the dredge marched forward formed the twenty-two-mile streambed that zigzags wildly along the edge of town and up into the low part of the mountain. The gutted earth filled with water, and the banks were strewn with whitewashed limbs that looked like broken bones.

  The new waterway torn from earth and stone was called Skeleton Creek by a man in a suit from New York. Maybe it had been a joke, maybe not. Either way the name stuck. Soon after, the town took the name as well. It would seem that New York Gold and Silver held enough sway over Linkford to change the town name to whatever it wanted.

  The greatest discovery — or the worst, depending on how you look at it — that Sarah and I made involved the untimely death of a workman on the dredge. There was only one mention of the incident in the newspaper, and nothing anywhere else. Old Joe Bush is what they called him, so I can only conclude that he was not a young man. Old Joe Bush had let his pant leg get caught in the gears, and the machinery of the dredge had pulled him through, crushing his leg bone into gravel. Then the dredge spit him out into the grimy water. His leg was demolished, and under the deafening sound in the dark night, no one heard him scream.

  Old Joe Bush never emerged from the black pond below.

  MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 10:00 P.M.

  Okay. I think everyone is asleep now.

  It’s as safe as it’s going to get.

  Late last night, on my arrival home from the hospital, I was reunited with my computer. This may seem like a strange thing to write, but the already walloping power of a computer is magnified even more for people like me in a small, isolated town. It is the link to something not boring, not dull, not dreary. It has always been especially true in my case because Sarah is constantly making videos, posting them, and asking me to take notice.

  One simple click — that’s all it can take for your life to change.

  Sometimes for the better.

  Sometimes for the much worse.

  But we don’t think about that.

  No, we just click.

  There is a certain video she made fifteen days ago, a day before the accident. This video is like a road sign that says YOU’VE GONE TOO FAR. TURN BACK. I am afraid to look at it again, because I know that after I watch it, I’m going to have even more of a bewildering sense that my life has been broken into two parts — everything that came before this video, and everything that would come after.

  As much as I don’t want to, I’m going to stop writing now. There is a safety in writing late into the night, but I can’t put off watching it again. I have to see it once more, now that things have changed for the worse.

  It might help me.

  It might not.

  But I have to do it.

  I have to.

  I’m afraid.

  It’s so simple. Just go to Sarah’s name online. Sarahfincher.com. Enter the password houseofusher. Then click return.

  One click.

  Do it, Ryan.

  Do it.

  SARAHFINCHER.COM

  PASSWORD:

  HOUSEOFUSHER

  MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 11:00 P.M.

  Sarah went to the dredge without me that night. What was my excuse? Homework. She knew it was a lie, and I knew it was a lie, and instead of being mad, Sarah went ahead without me like she always did when I balked at an opportunity for adventure. Did I get any homework done? No. I just waited for her to get back, for her to send word she was okay.

  Then the password appeared in my inbox. I was glad to know Sarah was safe, but I didn’t know what to make of the creepy video she’d sent me.

  I watched it about ten times that night. I sat at my desk wondering if it was something she’d concocted to scare the wits out of me. That would have been expected, since I’d refused to go with her into the woods. She was always doing that — hoaxing me into feeling guilty.

  The next morning, I walked down to her house with the intent of congratulating her on giving me a good scare. I wanted to know how she’d gotten the effect of the scary face in the window. But the conversation didn’t go as I’d expected.

  “You think I made it up?”

  She said it like she couldn’t believe I’d even think such a thing. Like she hadn’t done it to me a million times before.

  I thought it was still part of the act.

  “Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “It’s some of your best work. You really scared me with those gear sounds and — what was that — a man at the window? You must have had help from someone. Who helped you?”

  She shook her head. I can remember it so clearly.

  “All I did was walk into the woods with my camera. No one helped me do anything.”

  “You’re serious?”

  There had been a long pause, followed by a familiar look of determination.

  “If you don’t believe me, let’s go back tonight and you can see for yourself.”

  If this were a video, not a journal, I’d have to stop. I’d have to rewind. I’d have to play that line again.

  “If you don’t believe me, let’s go back tonight and you can see for yourself.”

  And again.

  “If you don’t believe me, let’s go back tonight and you can see for yourself.”

  I didn’t know what it would lead to. How could I have?

  She didn’t even ask. It wasn’t, “Do you want to go back tonight and see for yourself?”

  No, she was smarter than that.

  She didn’t give me
a chance to say no.

  “If you don’t believe me, let’s go back tonight and you can see for yourself.”

  We watched the video twice more on her laptop, and both times a chill ran up my spine. It seemed real, and usually when I called Sarah’s bluff, she admitted it. Besides, I asked myself, how could she have created something so elaborate and so real? Even for someone of Sarah’s editing skill, it seemed impossible.

  I believed her.

  “Tonight at midnight,” she said. “Meet me at the trailhead and we’ll go together.”

  “You’re sure about this?”

  “Are you kidding? This town is mind-numbingly dull. We’re going to die of boredom if we’re not careful. Finally, something interesting is happening. Imagine what a great story this will make! All this stuff we’re digging up, and now this weird — I don’t know what to call it — this phantom at the dredge. It’s not a question of whether we want to go back or not. We have to go back.”

  This was Sarah at her most persuasive. She said it with such urgency — no doubt because it involved her filming, the main thing that took the edge off her boredom.

  I have a theory about this. I think what I do is safer than what Sarah does. I can write about whatever I want — monsters, ghosts, arms falling off, people buried alive — and it doesn’t matter what I write because it all comes from the safety of my own imagination. But filming requires that there be something to film, and that has a way of leading into real danger.

  It certainly did for us.

  I really need to sleep now.

  TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 1:25 A.M.

  … But I can’t sleep.

  It’s not the disturbing sound of rusted gears set in motion (though I keep hearing them) or the moving shadows in the upper room of the dredge (I have decided that I hate shadows). What scares me the most is listening to Sarah. I can hear the fear in Sarah’s voice. Up until I saw that video I’d never heard her sound like that before.

  She just doesn’t get scared. When she purchased her first video camera, Sarah interviewed a drifter walking through town. This was a terrible idea. The man was not well-dressed, to say the very least. All of his possessions were tied to his back in black plastic garbage bags and he carried a sign that read Los Angeles, if you please.

  Sarah talks to strangers all the time without thinking twice about it. She peers into parked cars, eavesdrops in the café, and occasionally tries to sneak into the bar (for lively conversation, not drinks).

  When we were eleven, Sarah convinced me we could climb up a steep ravine to the very top. She was right — we made it — but we couldn’t get back down without the help of a park ranger, her father, my father, and half the volunteer fire department (three lumberjacks and a retired police officer). This event preceded my earliest memory of stern fatherly advice: Find some other friends.Try out for football if you want, but stop spending so much time with Sarah. only get you into trouble.

  There was the hitchhiking incident, in which Sarah convinced me we needed to visit the metropolis a hundred miles away so that we could “observe city dwellers in their native environment.” When night approached and we couldn’t find a ride back home, we were forced to call my dad. A second warning was offered on the long ride home. You two had better stop acting like idiots.It’s only a matter of time before one of you gets hurt.

  There was very little else said.

  And then, only a month ago, we were caught trying to break into the library on a Thursday night. It was supposed to be closed and we had hoped to find more old newspapers, but we found Gladys Morgan instead. She was sitting in the dark with a shotgun pointed at the door, reading The Sound and the Fury (one of the dullest books ever written). We were very lucky she recognized us. Otherwise she would have filled us so full of buckshot we’d never set foot in a restaurant again without someone mistaking us for Swiss cheese (her words, not mine). She also told us we were dumber than two bags full of rocks. Then she called our parents.

  As you can probably imagine, our two sets of parents have long preferred the idea of us staying as far away from each other as possible. It is this long history of trouble that made them respond so forcefully when something really bad finally did happen.

  It’s why, if they have their way, Sarah and I will never see each other again.

  TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 2:00 A.M.

  I have just made the mistake of checking my email. This is a bad idea in the middle of the night. I should know better. But there was nothing when I checked for messages earlier, not even a measly welcome home. All day I’ve been wondering if my parents found something and deleted it. It’s hard to tell how closely they’re monitoring everything.

  But now something’s slipped through. And I’ll admit — I debated whether or not to open it. Because I knew — the moment Sarah and I were in contact, it would start all over again.

  Still, how could I resist? I’d never been able to before.

  “Learn from your mistakes,” part of me was saying.

  “They weren’t mistakes,” another part of me was saying.

  And, of course, curiosity won. Or maybe it was friendship that won.

  I opened her email.

  I loved that — just drop whatever it is you’re doing. Such a Sarah thing to say. Like I hadn’t spent the past two weeks glued to a hospital mattress, wondering when the pain was going to go away.

  There was a password attached to the bottom of the email. theraven.

  I have to say, I don’t appreciate her passwords. It’s like she’s trying to make things even scarier than they already are. Things are creepy enough without bringing Edgar Allan Poe back from the dead. She knew I’d find her message in the middle of the night while my parents were asleep and every shadow looked like something out to get me.

  Once upon a midnight dreary, while I

  pondered weak and weary,

  Over many a quaint and curious volume

  of forgotten lore,

  While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly

  there came a tapping,

  As of some one gently rapping, rapping

  at my chamber door.

  Does she even know about this poem or is she just pulling these passwords out of thin air?

  Something happened fifteen nights ago that has changed everything. I’m sure what Sarah wants me to watch has something to do with that night. It’s why I’m writing this down, because my lingering fear has turned to constant alarm these past weeks. I have a dreadful feeling someone is watching me all the time, that someone or something will open the creaking door to my room in the cold night and do away with me. I want there to be some kind of record.

  If I wondered whether or not I should open the email, now there’s no question in my mind.

  Once you’re in, you’re in.

  Once you’re caught, you’re caught.

  I have to watch what she sent. I have to watch it right now.

  SARAHFINCHER.COM

  PASSWORD:

  THERAVEN

  TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 9:00 A.M.

  Last night I sort of freaked out. After I watched the video I think I had the second moment of real terror in my life.

  The first was having it happen to me.

  The second was seeing it. What was Sarah thinking, sending this to me?

  I’ve been scared before — actually, let’s be honest, I’m scared most of the time. There’s a blind man who sits outside the Rainbow Bar and when I walk by he follows my every move with a clouded white eye — that scares me. At home I hear creaking stairs at night when it should be quiet, and I call out but no one answers. That scares me. The thing living under my bed, Gladys and her shotgun, the woods at night. It all scares me, and it’s all like clothes in a dryer that just keep rolling around in my head from one day to the next.

  But watching that video last night was different. I couldn’t even write. I turned on as many lights as I could reach. I turned on the radio and listened to the church channel until a m
an started talking about spiritual warfare, which sharpened my fear even more.

  The reason the video terrified me was because it made me remember that night. Since it happened, I’ve had only a fragmented memory, little bits and pieces. But now I remember something more about that night. I remember what I saw that made me fall. It was there in the camera lens at the end.

  It was watching me.

  It’s always watching me.

  TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 10:15 A.M.

  I remember waking up in the hospital. What it was like.

  One moment I was falling. Then I saw Sarah’s face hovering in the dim light but couldn’t hear what she was trying to say. It felt like the bones in my leg had exploded.

  Then I was out. When I opened my eyes I actually expected to see the ceiling of my room and smell my dad’s coffee brewing downstairs. My head lolled to one side and there sat my parents, glassy-eyed from sleeplessness.

  I remember asking, “What’s going on?” and my mom jumping up and saying, “Ryan! Go get the nurse, Paul — go on!”

  My dad smiled at me, opened the door, and ran from the room. I heard the muffled sound of him yelling for a nurse outside the door. Mom leaned over the bed rail and held my hand.

  “Where are we?” I asked.

  “You had an accident, but you’re awake now — you’re awake and you’re going to be just fine.”

  “How long have I been asleep?”

  “The nurse — she’ll bring the doctor, he’ll want to talk to you. Just stay awake. No more sleeping until your dad comes back with the nurse. Okay?”

  She squeezed my hand pretty hard, as if it might help keep me from drifting off.

  At that point, I didn’t have any memory of what had happened to me. There were little bits and pieces, but nothing concrete.

  When the doctor came in, I asked if I could use the bathroom and he told me that if I wanted to I could just go ahead and pee. Certain embarrassing arrangements had been made when I was admitted.

 
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