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Skeleton creek, p.3
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       Skeleton Creek, p.3

           Patrick Carman
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  “How long have I been asleep?”

  “According to your chart you were nonresponsive when they found you at 12:45 a.m. So you’ve been asleep — or, more accurately, you’ve been in an unconscious state — for about fifty-five hours.”

  “So you’re saying I’ve been in a coma?”

  “If you want to be dramatic, then, yes, you’ve been in a coma. You took a pretty good fall. It’s amazing you’re alive and well enough to tell about it.”

  “Why can’t I move my leg?”

  “Because we’ve surrounded it with a Big Bertha — a really big plaster cast. I’m afraid it will be awhile before you can walk on it again.”

  I began to fall asleep in the hospital bed. My mom shook my shoulders and yelled at me and the smell of old bicycle tires went away. I tried harder to stay awake after that because my head hurt and having my mom shout in my face made it hurt even more.

  Eventually they took most of the tubes out of my body (including the one that let me stay in bed to use the bathroom). I took some rides in a wheelchair, and my parents started to talk to me. Talking with them was nice at first, because they were truly happy I was okay. But then I asked about Sarah and they both took deep breaths and got serious on me.

  “We don’t want you seeing her anymore,” Dad said.

  “But she’s my best friend,” I protested.

  Mom took one look at me and I could tell what she was thinking: What kind of best friend nearly kills you?

  “Then you’ll have to find a new friend,” Dad said. “We’re serious this time, Ryan. If you can’t stay away from each other, we’ll move. I’ll transfer to the city and we’ll sell the house.

  We don’t want to, but we will.”

  “What are you saying?”

  “We’re saying you can’t see Sarah anymore,” said my mother. “You’re not to contact her — no email, no phone calls — and she won’t be coming around when we go home. Her parents agree with us. It’s the best thing for a while.”

  “The best thing for who?”

  “You were out in the woods in the middle of the night, breaking into private property,” said my dad. He was talking more than usual and for once I wished he’d shut up. “You nearly fell to your death! I think it’s fair to say that keeping her away from you is best for everyone, including you.”

  “It wasn’t her fault this time. It was me — it was my idea.”

  “All the more reason to keep you two apart.” My dad was on a roll. “Both your brains go batty when you’re together. There’s talk in Skeleton Creek of burning that dredge to the ground. The police spent a whole day down there locking it up tight so no one else tries to get in. That thing is a death trap.”

  After that, my parents went quiet. Neither of them are talkative folks — no one who lives in Skeleton Creek talks very much. They’d laid down the law about Sarah, and that was that. I had to stay there in the hospital for another ten days. I couldn’t get online and my parents wouldn’t let me use the phone.

  What would they do if they knew Sarah was contacting me? They’d sell the house, that’s what they’d do.

  But there’s something in that dredge. She’s recorded it twice now. I can’t tell my parents, but who doesn’t tell their parents about something like this?

  I don’t know what I’m going to do.

  TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 11:00 A.M.

  Mom just checked up on me. The computer was safely off.

  She has no idea.

  Or maybe she does.

  I wonder if my mom is sneakier than she looks.

  The day after I woke up in the hospital, the police came to my room and asked me a lot of questions. They wanted to know if I was trying to steal anything, who else was involved, why I’d done it, did I remember any details about what happened. I didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know or couldn’t figure out on their own. I went to the dredge, I fell, I got a serious concussion and shattered my leg. What else was I going to say? That I was looking for a phantom and might have found one? I had a strong feeling if I said anything like that they’d move me out of the hospital and into the psych ward.

  As it turns out, my mental health was the very reason why they kept me for so many days. I could have gone home a week earlier, but there was a psychiatrist who kept stopping by. My dad was back at work but my mom was still hanging around. She left the room whenever the psychiatrist came in. She (the psychiatrist) was pretty, in a button-down sort of way. She had red hair and glasses and a notepad. She asked me if I’d been taking any drugs or drinking. She asked what I did with my free time and about Sarah. She wondered if she could read some of my stories, and I politely declined. I didn’t want her digging around in my stuff. I was pretty sure it wouldn’t look good if she found my paranoid rantings about Skeleton Creek.

  When they finally let me go home, I had the distinct feeling I’d barely passed some sort of emotional exam they’d run me through. It felt a little like standardized testing at school, like I’d sort of passed but not really, and anyway, I’d never know for sure how I did because they wouldn’t tell me. It was an empty feeling.

  Okay, I know I’m avoiding something. I’m writing quickly, but I’m also dodging what I really should be writing about. Now I’m back to the present — can I avoid it any longer? If I get it down on paper, it will make it real. But maybe if I write it down, I’ll fear it less. This strategy often works for me when I’m scared. Writing the things I’m scared of — especially if I turn them into a story – makes them feel as if they’ve been relegated to the page and I can allow myself to worry less about them in real life.

  So here goes.

  There was a presence upstairs with me in the dredge before it walked in front of Sarah’s camera lens. I was examining the rusted gears, trying to imagine how they could possibly spring to life. The rust came off on my fingers. (Days later, Mom would ask me about the orange mark on my pants where I’d wiped the rust off, and I wouldn’t have an answer for her. I guess I have one now.)

  Just as I wiped my fingers, I turned toward the darkened path of boards that led away from the gears where Old Joe Bush had worked. There was a long, wide belt that ran into the black.

  And sitting on the belt was a hand.

  It was attached to an arm,

  the arm to a body,

  and the body was moving toward me.

  There was a faint light all around the body as it moved closer to me.

  I can see it now.

  I am seeing it.

  It was a silhouette. All in black, so I couldn’t make out a face. But the body was large. Whoever — whatever — this was, it was big and slow. It stepped forward, steadying itself on the wide belt as it came, and it dragged its other leg behind.

  I remember now how I realized three things all at once. The first was that I couldn’t speak. I don’t know if it was some force of darkness that constricted my throat or if it was simply pure terror, but either way, the best I could do was keep breathing. (Even that, I now recall, came with great effort.) The second thing — and this one was worse than the first — was that I found myself trapped. I was backed up against the wooden rail behind the gears, which was a corner section of the dredge that looked out over the bottom level. This thing that was after me had me cornered. The last realization I had — worse than the first two put together — was that all my terrible nightmares had finally come true. In the back of my mind, there had always been this one important fact: None of the monsters I’d imagined over the years had ever really come to get me. But now I saw that it was true — there really was a monster, and it really was going to scare me to death.

  When it was close enough to touch me, I saw the shadow of its lips move. It spoke to me from beneath the wide brim of a workman’s hat.

  “Number forty-two is mine. Stay away from this place. I’m watching you.”

  And then, all at once, my own voice returned. I screamed, I backed up, and the old wooden rail fell away. I remember
now looking up as I fell and seeing that whatever had stood over me was gone. It had vanished. Or had it been there at all?

  Sarah’s video of the leg walking past, dragging the other behind it, makes me surer than ever that what I saw that night was real. I can’t tell anyone but Sarah or they’ll put me in the loony bin. I felt like people were watching me before the accident, but now it’s much worse. My parents are watching me. I’m certain they’ll have everyone else in town watching me. Friday, Henry will arrive and he’ll be watching. Gladys with her shotgun is watching me. The raven is watching at my window.

  And the thing at the dredge — it has to be watching.

  Waiting.

  Or maybe it’s coming to get me.

  TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, NEARLY P.M.

  My leg feels worse tonight. I think it’s the stress. There’s a deep pain working its way up my back. Besides going to the bathroom, I haven’t gotten out of bed all day. But I’ve calmed down. Writing everything out helped. It seems more like a story now. It feels better.

  I’m finding that dull, lingering pain is ten times worse when it’s accompanied by dull, lingering boredom. If not for my laptop I’m pretty sure my parents would have already found me dead from a hopeless case of endless monotony.

  I can imagine it:

  “Our little Ryan has died of boredom. We should have looked in on him more. Poor thing.”

  So the laptop rests nicely on Big Bertha. My mom says the psychiatrist gave her some software that secretly tracks my browser history, emails, IMs, everything. It’s nice that my mom told me this, because the software isn’t very hard to disable. Adults in general take a lot of comfort in these tools, but a fifteen-year-old who can’t get around parental controls on a computer is probably also having trouble tying his shoes. It’s just not that hard.

  Still, timing is important. I can’t be searching for weird stuff or sending emails to Sarah without having at least a few minutes to cover my tracks. It takes time to erase what I’ve done, and it’s too late if I’ve just sent an email and I hear my mom walking up the stairs.

  Not that I’ve sent Sarah any emails. I still don’t know what to say.

  It’s hard. Maybe too hard.

  To kill the boredom, I’ve been searching online for information about the dredge. Sarah and I have looked before and found almost nothing of interest. We searched for archived stories, blogs by people living in town, information about the Crossbones, The Skeleton Creek Irregular, and a lot more. In every case we discovered what felt like tiny shards or fragments of information, just enough to keep us going but nothing really earth-shattering.

  I tried all those angles again today with the same meager results. After three hours of dead ends, I looked back through my notes and my eyes lit on the name of the company that had owned the dredge — New York Gold and Silver. I’d searched that term before, but not very aggressively. I went looking for them again, this time with more tenacity.

  New York Gold and Silver has been out of business for over twenty years, but one thing about bankruptcy I’ve found is that all your records are open for viewing. I found a public file of the company records in a subsection of the City of New York legal archives, and within those files I discovered a file marked NYGS AM Mins. 80–85. I knew NYGS stood for New York Gold and Silver. When I double-clicked on the file, I saw that AM Mins stood for Annual Meeting Minutes and that 80–85 meant 1980–1985.

  To categorize this document as boring would be way too kind. This was 127 pages of pure, undistilled drudgery. I skimmed the first 30 pages of PE ratios, cost-benefit analyses, plant closures, equity-to-debt ratios, sub-prime holdings, and a lot of other painfully tedious details of a once-prosperous company. It wasn’t until I was half asleep on page 31 that I realized I could search for terms I was interested in rather than read every single word.

  And that’s when I found something on page 81 and something else on page 111 that made me nervous. I printed them out, and I’m going to tape them in here.

  In the spring of 1985, New York Gold and Silver was served with environmental lawsuits from Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho. I guess they were too busy fending off enemies to take action on their agreement to demolish #42. By June of 1985, the company was dissolved in a sea of debt and legal disputes. Things like the dredge in Skeleton Creek were forgotten as lawyers moved on to higher-profile cases. There was no money to be made suing a dead company.

  It’s almost nine o’clock now. Mom and Dad will be in to say good night and check up on me. They’ll want to check my computer.

  I know what I have to do.

  I pasted the text from the meeting notes under my name and printed out the email (which is what’s included above).

  I hope Sarah finds my email before her parents do.

  One thing I hate about writing in the digital age is that everything disappears eventually. It’s like writing letters that evaporate into thin air as they’re read. Which is why I keep copies. Paper feels permanent.

  Time to clean up the mess before my parents come up the stairs.

  WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, EARLY A.M.

  Mom gave me more painkillers last night — the kind where they warn you not to operate heavy equipment after taking them because you get really drowsy. I fell asleep reading the end of To a God Unknown. Steinbeck could be creepy when he wanted to be, like when Joseph Wayne lives all alone at the black rock and listens to the sounds of the deep night until it drives him crazy. I need to start reading different books. Maybe I’ll try a romance novel or a memoir about someone who enjoyed a really happy life.

  The big news:

  Sarah just sent me an email, which I have read, printed, and deleted.

  I’d never ask Sarah to stop making movies, so she really shouldn’t expect me to stop writing. She knows I can’t stop. But she makes a good point. If my parents are sneaking around in here after I’m asleep, looking for my journals, I need to make sure they don’t find them. I’ve been putting this one between my mattress and the headboard so I can pull it out and write in it whenever I want to. I think I’d catch them if they tried to take it while I slept. Wouldn’t I?

  Oh, man, this reminds me of The Tell-Tale Heart. Only six pages, but every one of them seriously spine-chilling. I can imagine my dad quietly entering my room in the dark. He’s moving so slowly it takes him an hour to get to my bed — just like the madman in that story. I hear something and sit up, but it’s pitch-black and I’m afraid to turn on the light, so I don’t see him standing there. I sit upright for a long time and I know someone is in the room even though I can’t see them. I’m terrified. And then bang! — he takes my journal and escapes.

  Perfect. Now I have one more thing to worry about tonight.

  Investigating is often how Sarah gets herself and me into trouble, so I’m worried that she used the word. And her email has that blind confidence she gets sometimes, like she’s wearing glasses that only let her see two feet in front of her own face, nothing to the sides or the back or way out front — just those precious two feet telling her to charge ahead.

  I wonder what she’s sending me. It’s unbearable having to wait.

  THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, EARLY MORNING

  Last night, after dinner, my parents moved me out to the porch so I could get some fresh air. It’s getting chilly in the early evening already, but I like that about living in the mountains. The clean air is even crisper when it’s chilled. I was exhausted when I finally got back to my room. I fell right to sleep (no doubt the fresh air helped). I got the video and the link from Sarah.

  SARAHFINCHER.COM

  PASSWORD:

  PITANDPENDULUM

  THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 16, MORNING

  So Sarah thinks my ghost — or whatever it was — was there the first night she went to the dredge. And the dragging leg — that would point to Old Joe Bush, wouldn’t it?

  It’s good that Sarah doesn’t think I’m insane.

  But that might be because she’s ins
ane, too.

  Either way, she’s good company.

  I’m supposed to be the paranoid one. But what is she doing? Driving by my house to make sure I’m okay. Checking the doorway ten times a second to make sure nobody catches her. Asking me not to write anything down.

  What’s going on?

  That might be the worst thing about being trapped in here: I have no idea what’s going on outside this room.

  I wish I could remember more. I don’t think I have amnesia … or do I? I remember my name, my age, my address, and my phone number. When my mom comes in my room wearing the chili-pepper apron I gave her when I was in the eighth grade, I recognize her.

  I remember, at the age of ten, holding a cold marshmallow milkshake in one hand while riding my ten-speed down a hill. A dog started chasing me and I squeezed the front brake. After I flipped over the handlebars and landed on my back, I sat up and saw that the dog had lost interest in trying to kill me. He was licking my milkshake off the hot pavement.

  You see there? I remember every detail. I remember even more than that.

  I remember when I limped home with skinned knees and elbows. My shirt was all dirty. Mom wasn’t home, so it was a rare moment in which Dad was my lone hope of sympathy. Mom would have babied me, but I recall feeling as if I’d better not be crying when I reached the porch. I knew he wouldn’t like it if I was all upset.

  When he saw me, Dad sat me on his lap and touched my stinging knees with a cold dishrag from the kitchen sink.

  “Mom’s not going to like finding blood all over her good rag,” I pointed out.

  “Don’t worry about your mother. I’ll cover for you.”

 
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