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The crossbones, p.3
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       The Crossbones, p.3

           Patrick Carman
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  Sarah is officially on the road. I couldn’t talk her out of it, and tonight she arrives in Chicago. She’ll have to visit the cemetery after dark, which poses certain problems. She has an aunt and uncle who live about an hour outside of the city and they’re expecting her for dinner. She’ll need to sneak out of the house after everyone is asleep, drive two hours to the cemetery, dig up whatever is hidden there, and get back before dawn.

  That means the grave digging will almost certainly happen after midnight, which is basically beyond my ability to imagine. Alone in an abandoned cemetery at night, doing unspeakable things — it doesn’t get any scarier than that, and my best friend will be doing it alone.

  That is, if she doesn’t get caught sneaking out of her uncle’s house.

  It’s two or three in the afternoon wherever Sarah is, and she just texted me at work.

  Stopped for a late lunch, 2 hours to go. Waffle House!

  Living in the West, I have never experienced a Waffle House. It’s Sarah’s favorite fast-food restaurant because it serves breakfast all day and it’s dirt cheap. She says the grits are to die for and the waffles are a crispy slice of heaven. Plus, the characters that hang out at the Waffle House tend to be chatty, older gentlemen with time on their hands. She doesn’t outright talk to many of them, because she doesn’t have to. They’re generally on a first-name basis with the waitresses, and the conversations run thick.

  This is how Sarah describes it:

  “There’s something right about hearing old memories from an old voice, the smell of waffles in the air while I sip my coffee. It’s magic.”

  Actually, I think it’s Sarah that’s magic. Most people wouldn’t see anything special about a place like that; they’d miss what really matters. But Sarah sees the loneliness and the longing and the two-dollar-and-fifty-cent comfort. She knows what to look for.

  I used my lunch break to text back and forth with Sarah, something my dad strictly prohibits in the shop. He has a frightening aversion to text messaging in general.

  “It’s a phone,” he has said more than once while I tap out a note on the tiny keyboard. “It’s for making calls, not for writing novels.”

  I wouldn’t say the world is passing my dad by, but he’s easily two steps behind at all times. He has no patience for the things he sees no use for, so rather than endure his wrath, I take my break walking down Main Street while I hold a conversation with Sarah.

  Sarah: Rest stops are gross.

  Me: Please don’t tell me more.

  Sarah: I’m an hour from my uncle’s house!

  Me: Nervous about tonight?

  Sarah: Got my grave digger in the trunk. A brand-new shovel. At least I have a weapon if I need it.

  Me: Might do better with a hammer. The undead don’t go down without a fight.

  Sarah: Is this conversation supposed to make me feel better?

  Me: Just take it slow and be careful. Nothing crazy. If you show up and it doesn’t feel right, get the heck out of there fast.

  Walking and texting at the same time has a way of putting me in the crosshairs of someone I could have avoided if I’d been paying attention. When I looked up from that last text, which took quite a while to tap out, I was face-to-face with Gladys Morgan, the town librarian. If you are familiar with Gladys, then you know how scary this woman can be. She’s tall and big-boned, which matches her towering personality. A smile almost never appears on her wrinkled face.

  “That’s the dumbest invention in the history of dumb ideas,” she informed me. “Be careful you don’t walk into the street. You’re likely to get run over by a tourist doing the same thing behind the wheel of a car.”

  “Thanks, Miss Morgan. I’ll keep that in mind.”

  “Don’t patronize me, Mr. McCray. It will come back to haunt you.”

  Sitting on the bench outside the library, writing all this down, I realize that a Waffle House in Minnesota would be a great place to drop Gladys Morgan and forget to pick her up. Let her bug someone else for a change.

  Some guy just called the shop on his way into town with three buddies after hearing the evening hatch was on. They want guides for the big river an hour to the east. Four customers means two rafts and two guides, and my dad just chose me over Fitz.

  This presents a serious moral dilemma for me. If I back out, then Fitz gets the gig and I’m stuck in the shop all night. Under normal circumstances, this would be a catastrophe. I like Fitz, but there’s no doubt we’re in a summer-long competition for guiding gigs. It’s fifty bucks a pop plus tips and it’s time on the water. I’ve been fly-fishing my whole life, and the water has a certain pull that can’t be explained. Saying no to an evening hatch with big trout sipping the surface is very nearly beyond my comprehension. Especially given the fact that putting Fitz on a boat when I was asked first sends a certain message to my dad. This could become an unwelcome pattern pretty fast. I could be sitting in the shop all summer long watching the clock tick while Fitz is out earning a lot more money and having the time of his life.

  Still, it was no contest. There was no way I could let Sarah show up at a cemetery without having me on the phone to keep her calm.

  So I told my dad I had a stomachache, a headache, and I’d just thrown up in the bathroom.

  “It’s just nerves. You’ll be fine,” was his answer.

  Fitz was visibly bummed out. He wanted this gig as bad, or worse than I did, so I told my dad I’d be happy to let Fitz have the first go of the summer and take the next run. Unfortunately for me, my dad would not budge. I could see it in his eyes. He was taking his own kid out on this one whether I liked it or not, and that was final.

  My only other option was to fall down outside and break my arm or stick a fly hook in my forehead, and I wasn’t even sure those options would tie me down in the shop for the evening. Nope, I’ll be loading a boat off the water at dark on a river with no cell service at 9:00, and I won’t be back in a place where I can contact Sarah until at least 10:30.

  Which is 12:30 a.m., Sarah’s time.

  I tried texting Sarah, but she wouldn’t text back. Then I called, but she didn’t pick up. I couldn’t do anything but leave her a voice message.

  I got roped into a river run — tried to get out of it but couldn’t — please forgive me. I’ll text you the second I get back. BE CAREFUL!

  Sarah was going to have to do this alone, just like when this whole nightmare started.

  I hope she doesn’t drive over here and hit me with her shovel.

  Best night of fishing EVER. Normally, I’d be ecstatic about catching two dozen lunkers in one trip, but tonight, it was agonizing. The better the fishing got, the longer I knew we’d stay on the river. Even after I pulled the raft to the shore at dark, Dad let them fish for another forty minutes. I kept checking my phone — no service! — practically pulling my hair out with frustration. I’m finally getting a chance to put the night’s events on paper, but I’m so tired from work I can hardly keep my eyes open. Rowing for five hours takes a lot out of a guy, but I have to write this down while it’s fresh in my head.

  First things first: My dad is onto us. I messed that up big-time.

  “If you’re trying to reach Sarah, you can forget it,” he said after the third time he caught me checking for cell service.

  When he caught me a fourth time, he said, “This is the last time you bring that thing. Do your job.”

  But the fifth time was the kicker. He didn’t have to say anything, because the look on his face told me everything I needed to know. It was the same look he gave me when I was getting into real trouble with Sarah last year. It’s a very specific look — not impatience or frustration, but something far worse: distrust. He’s only ever looked at me that way when it involved Sarah. He knew we were back in serious contact, and he suspected we were doing something that might get us killed.

  Later, when we were alone at the shop and were putting away the rafts and the gear, he came up next to me in the dark and gave me a re
al earful.

  “I’m not going to be happy if you and Sarah are up to your old tricks again. Don’t do anything stupid.”

  I covered as best I could, but I knew he was only one phone call away from talking to Sarah’s dad and discovering she was on her way to California. He’d smell trouble at that point, no doubt, but there was nothing I could do to stop him.

  Thankfully, Dad was even more tired than I was when we finally arrived back at the house at 10:45. We found a note from Mom, and two plates of fried chicken and coleslaw in the fridge. I took mine upstairs to my room so I could finally be alone.

  I looked at my phone like it might reach out and try to strangle me with guilt, which is basically what happened.

  Seven text messages, three calls, one voice mail. All of them missed, all of them from Sarah.

  First, the awful string of text messages:

  9:47 p.m.

  I’m here! Drop me a text, let me know you’re alone. I want you on the phone so you can hear me screaming.

  9:52 p.m.

  Where are U????????? No WAY you’re still on the river.

  9:58 p.m.

  Seriously, Ryan. This isn’t funny. Call me. It’s crazy dark out here.

  10:10 a.m.

  Tried calling twice. I’m at the end of a dirt road. Headlights on tombstones. I don’t think I can do this.

  10:14 a.m.

  I can do this.

  10:21 a.m.

  I’m going in, YOU BIG CHICKEN!!!!

  10:24 a.m.

  About to get really dirty. Can’t type with muddy fingers. If my phone rings now, I will jump out of my shoes. Don’t call.

  I have never felt as helpless, lame, and guilty as I did reading those messages, unless you count the voice mail from Sarah:

  “Why does this feel familiar? Because you did the same thing at the dredge last year! Do you have any idea how scary it is standing alone in an abandoned cemetery at midnight with a shovel in your hand? No, I guess you don’t, since you BAILED ON ME!

  “Doesn’t matter — I got what we came for. I should be back at my uncle’s place by 2:30 a.m., grab a few hours of sleep, then I’ll convert this thing. I’m not even going to tell you what it is. That’s the price you pay for fishing while I’m digging up a grave site. Sweet dreams. At least I’m alive!

  “Oh, and yes, that was the creepiest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

  Wow. Could I feel any worse? I don’t think so. It’s a little over the top throwing in that “digging up a grave site” comment, because that’s not what she had to do. Did she? I’m pretty sure she only had to dig a hole at a cemetery. That’s nowhere near as scary as unearthing an actual grave. I’m almost sure I would have been fine digging a hole. I would have pretended it was my backyard.

  The combination of a hyperactive guilt complex and not knowing what she’d dug up was killing me. What if it was an arm bone or a skull or more gold?

  It could be anything.

  But I didn’t have the guts to call her, knowing that she’d be driving, and tired driver + middle of the night + answering cell phone = trouble. It’s bad enough I’ve let her down, so it’s best I don’t contribute to having her swerve off the road on her way back to Chicago.

  I texted her once, but that was it.

  I’m SO sorry. The hatch was on and my dad wouldn’t call it a night. I was stuck!

  She still hasn’t texted me back or called me.

  Maybe she’s asleep.

  Or maybe she got caught.

  I wish I could be sure.

  If I know Sarah, she’ll be ringing my cell on her time zone, not mine, which means I’ll probably hear from her by 5:00 a.m.

  It’s one call I know better than to miss.

  That was cruel, even after I missed the grave-digging event. Sarah called me at 4:13 a.m. and woke me out of a dead sleep. Note to self: Do not eat fried chicken at 11:00 p.m. and neglect to brush teeth. Totally gross.

  Sarah hadn’t gone to sleep like she said she was going to. That girl is wired after midnight — she can keep going, and going, and going. I’ve come to realize that her favorite time to edit video is the middle of the night, when everyone else is dreaming (or, in my case, having nightmares). After sneaking back into her uncle’s guest room around 3:00 a.m. her time, she went straight to work on a video that contains footage I never would have expected.

  The first half of the video is clearly something she’d been working on for a while. I think she may actually be planning to use this trip as a documentary film project for real, because the first part is the history of the cemetery, complete with ghostly sightings. After that, she includes her own experience digging in the dirt. Watching it, my guilt came rushing back full force.

  But the most interesting part of the video? The reveal of what she found. In some ways, it makes total sense. I should have seen it coming.

  There was a box.

  And inside that box?

  Our first clue that the Crossbones are a lot more dangerous then we’d thought.

  The Apostle is back … and spookier than ever.

  This you gotta see.



  I have to hand it to Sarah — she’s getting really good at making these videos. Back in the days of the dredge, her videos were still straight-up home-movie quality, but this was different. This was the first time I thought, holy cow, Sarah could actually be a Hollywood filmmaker someday. If I didn’t know better, I would have said the documentary footage of the cemetery was real. It sure gave me the chills. But that was nothing compared to seeing the Apostle again. That guy always made my skin crawl. Seeing him again and realizing what his role in the Crossbones was only served to heighten my dread.

  I now know three things I didn’t know before:

  — Sometime in the past, the Apostle’s primary role was to document the history of the Crossbones. For whatever reason, he broke this description into different parts and hid the truth in various locations of his own choosing.

  — The Crossbones is old. It was originally comprised of “super-patriots” who became concerned that America’s experiment in democracy was in danger from the beginning.

  — They had a three-part mission:

  1) preserve freedom

  2) maintain secrecy

  3) destroy all enemies.

  Troubling new information, for sure, and a load of new questions:

  — Was the Apostle a lot more important than I originally gave him credit for?

  — Was there something more to his death than what Sarah and I uncovered?

  — What had the Apostle been doing in Skeleton Creek?

  — What secrets did the Crossbones keep and what enemies did they destroy?

  — And, possibly of greatest importance, what does my dad have to do with all of this? He’s got the birdie tattooed on his arm, just like the Apostle has on his hand. Sarah made sure to point that out in her own clever but twisted way. My dad was in the Crossbones. Is he still?

  Sarah is back on the road, heading for her next haunted tour stop, and I still haven’t had any luck figuring out the last location she has to visit. This, I’m afraid, is a big problem.

  She’ll be in St. Louis by noon, Memphis by 5:00 p.m., and she’s due in Little Rock, Arkansas, before dark. Her mom’s college roommate lives there, and Sarah is hoping to put in some time at the Bill Clinton Library as part of her video project for camp. The faster she moves, the more likely we’re never going to figure out what the number 311 stands for.

  I put on some Pink Floyd and lie in bed, staring at the clues.

  I think about the Crossbones’ three-part mission:

  1) preserve freedom 2) maintain secrecy 3) destroy all enemies.

  Me and Sarah fit a little too comfortably into number three.

  Destroy all enemies.

  The message is crystal clear: We’re a threat to the Crossbones, so they have to get rid of us. It feels like
Sarah’s taken a baseball bat to a hornets’ nest and now she has to keep moving, outrunning the swarm as she heads west.

  The box Sarah dug up was big and heavy. I’m actually surprised she was able to get it out of the ground by herself, now that I understand what was inside: an old-style 8mm film projector and a reel of footage. She’d pointed the projector on a white wall and used her own camera to capture the image to get it onto her computer — not the most high-tech method, but it had worked just fine.

  My guess? The rest of the locations will have more reels of film, but no projector.

  We haven’t heard the last of the Apostle.

  My dad just chose Fitz to guide the river today.

  “No need to worry about me, Mr. McCray,” Fitz said. “I don’t even have a cell phone.”

  Dude, I wanted to say. Remember who recommended you for the job?

  In fairness, once my dad was out of the room, Fitz turned to me and said, “Sorry about that. But you know how it is when you’re stuck in the shop and the fish are biting. It’s rough.”

  This, I remembered, was what Fitz and I had in common. It wasn’t his fault my dad could only take one of us. Had we been able to go out, all three, it would have been fantastic, because we all knew the water better than we knew most things on land.

  “It was pretty awesome,” I admitted, without telling him why I’d been so distracted.

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