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The crossbones, p.4
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       The Crossbones, p.4

           Patrick Carman
slower 1  faster
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  Under normal circumstances, I would have been jealous of Fitz for getting time on the river while I was going to be sitting bored in the fly shop all afternoon. But if today is anything like yesterday, they’ll be out until late. An empty shop and an internet connection is exactly what I’ve been hoping for. Still, my dad didn’t have to tell Fitz I’d constantly checked my phone yesterday. That was hitting below the belt.

  “Best fishing of the year and you’re stuck in the shop,” Fitz said as he loaded boxes of flies. “Been there, done that!”

  Okay, that hurt. But turnabout was fair play. I could already see how the summer was going to go. My dad would play me and Fitz against each other on every front. How many fish did you catch? How many flies did you tie? Unfortunately for me, while I’m Fitz’s equal on the football field (we are both pathetic losers), he is the better fisherman. I love fishing, but I don’t live it. Fitz is more in the mold of my dad: There’s fishing, and then there’s everything else. They’re both at a whole different level of enthusiasm.

  I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have a brother. You can’t be an only child without wondering. Imagine that — another McCray in the house. It wouldn’t even matter if it was an older brother or a younger brother. There’d still be that competition.

  I helped them pack up the supplies, and my mom stopped by with a cooler full of sandwiches, cans of soda, and homemade chocolate chip cookies.

  “Looks good, Mrs. McCray,” Fitz commented as he peered into the cooler. “You sure make a mean lunch.”

  Give it a rest, I thought.

  “I brought you a sack of the same,” my mom then said, handing me a white paper bag with a lunch in it. “See you for dinner?”

  “Not likely,” Dad answered for me. “If this is anything like last night, it’ll be cold chicken and slaw again. We’ll be out until at least an hour after dark, and I want Ryan here to help us unload.”

  Here again, I think my dad thought this was something of a punishment, when really he had given me free rein of the shop to help Sarah. This was going to be perfect.

  Or at least that’s what I thought. Then he gave me a piece of paper with a list of flies he wanted tied before he got back. If you’ve never seen or tied a fly for fishing, let me tell you, making them is no picnic. You start with a blank hook and a table full of material — feathers, fur, string, glue — seriously, like a million options, all so you can make what essentially amounts to a fancy fishing lure. My dad had just given me a whopper of an order for a whole slew of these things:

  — 2 dozen gold-ribbed hare’s ears, size 10 and 12 mixed

  — 3 dozen orange stimulators, size 14

  — 1 dozen woolly specials, number 8

  — 2 dozen purple parachute adams, size 12

  This was, no doubt, another reminder of how I just wasn’t cutting it in the shop. Fitz was a known fly-tying machine. Eight dozen flies, which represented about two hundred dollars for the shop in sales, was nothing for Fitz.

  “I can bang out a couple dozen before we leave if you want,” Fitz told my dad.

  Now he’d done it — he’d gone too far. I was smoldering with resentment, mostly because I knew he could whip together a dozen perfect flies a lot faster than I could tie six crappy ones.

  “He’s got all day and half the night,” my dad said. “And no cell phone to distract him.”

  Uh-oh. This was bad. Dad held out his hand expectantly. Mom made a beeline for the door, because she knew I’d try to pit my parents against each other. She was gone before I could yell, “Mom, come on, tell him! How am I going to call you when I need a diaper change?”

  I gave my dad my most seething look and removed the battery from my phone, handing him the rest. He turned away, mumbling something about how we were past all that. Fitz gave me a hopeless shrug, like he knew better: No matter how much parents tell you they won’t read your texts, they will. It’s written into the laws of parental physics. They can’t help themselves, even if they did say they wouldn’t do it.

  After they took off, I felt a little better about one thing: My dad clearly hadn’t called Sarah’s dad yet. If he had, he would have mentioned it. No way could he know Sarah was on the road all by herself without saying something to me. Actually, this added up. When the hatch was on at the river, my dad was like a trout zombie: fish, eat, sleep, repeat. His mind was totally gone.

  The shop was quiet and I had ninety-six flies to tie, which was a colossal enterprise for a guy Fitz likes to call “fumble fingers.” He’s totally right. He can tie about a dozen flies an hour, especially the easy ones, which is all my dad gave me (another not-so-subtle message about my lack of skill in this department). The list I got was like fly-tying 101 for beginners, but I’d be lucky to get in eight an hour, which meant if I didn’t stop to use the bathroom or eat a cookie, I’d still be at it when they returned after dark.

  So I started tying flies while several unanswerable questions ran through my head.

  — What the heck does 311 mean?

  — How angry is Sarah going to be when she finds out I’ve gone dark again?

  — How in the world am I ever going to tie ninety-six flies without falling asleep?

  Four hours, one sandwich, and thirty-seven flies. Not bad! I feel I’m slightly ahead of schedule and I have an idea about the number 311. I can’t call Sarah from the shop phone because I know my dad will check the call list when he gets back in. We don’t even have a home phone anymore, just cell phones in our pockets, so that’s a bust. This leaves me at a bit of an impasse when it comes to reaching Sarah, who is surely almost to Memphis by now.

  I’m closing the shop and walking down the street.

  I think Gladys Morgan might be able to help me with the numbers. She’s been around here forever and a day, since the time when the Apostle walked up and down the sidewalks all day trying to convert people. If anyone around here would know what the Apostle had been up to, it would be old Gladys.

  I’ve just spent more than an hour not tying flies, which puts me way behind schedule, but it was totally worth it.

  I figured out what 311 means. Or, more accurately, Gladys Morgan figured it out for me. This is huge — it means we have all four locations. It means there’s a chance we might actually be able to solve whatever this crazy thing is.

  The number 311, shot violently out of the Winchester like a bullet on the battlefield. It could have meant so many things. For all I knew, it was somehow attached to the Winchester.

  Old wrinkly Gladys steered me straight on that in a hurry once I got to the dusty library and started peppering her with questions. I had to handle it carefully, because like my dad, she had been part of the Crossbones. Who knew what she’d do if she found out I was digging up Crossbones history?

  “So, Miss Morgan, have you ever thought of the number three-one-one in a spooky sort of way?” I asked her.

  “You’re a mixed-up child,” she began. “Shouldn’t you be minding the shop?”

  “It’s a slow day. I just needed a break.”

  “And you come down here to bother me? What are you up to?”

  “I’m not up to anything. I’m just bored is all.”

  “I highly doubt that.”

  She sat there stewing for a good twenty seconds before saying another word, and even then, it wasn’t an answer.

  “Numbers can be deceiving.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

  No reply, so I switched tactics.

  “Did you know the Apostle back in the day? The preacher up the road said the Apostle knew something about what the numbers meant.”

  A huge lie — and about a preacher, no less. I felt my toes getting warm, like I’d sunk one level closer to a lake of fire.

  Gladys was as old as the dredge. If anyone knew about the Apostle it would be her.

  “Sure, I knew the Apostle. A highly annoying little man, if you ask me. He was always yelling at everyone he met.”

I don’t understand.”

  And then she looked at me real funny, like she was trying to see inside my head.

  “He preached fire and brimstone, which is always more believable when it’s screamed in your face, or so he thought. He used to say those numbers now and again, like he was taunting someone. A very odd duck, the Apostle. I’m glad he’s gone.”

  I made her back up and tell me more. Had he said anything else about the numbers?

  “This can’t lead to anything good.”

  “It led to forty million in gold last time.”

  Not a bad answer, if I do say so myself. Gladys let out a deep breath and shook her head.

  “He didn’t just say the numbers, he said something more. He’d be preaching along like he always did with that Bible in his hand and suddenly he’d stop and yell ‘three-one-one door goes SLAM and you’re dead!’ And he’d slam his hand on the Bible real hard. No one liked him.”

  “So I’ve heard.”

  Gladys shot me an accusing look and I knew I’d gotten dangerously close to her Crossbones radar. Before she could start asking me questions, I hightailed it for the shop.

  When I got back, I found two out-of-towners standing outside looking for free fishing tips. I steered them in the right direction as fast as I could, then jumped on the shop computer and typed the Apostle’s phrase into Google.

  311 door goes SLAM and you’re dead!

  It felt all wrong typing it in there, like I’d said some sort of incantation and the ghost of Old Joe Bush was about to wander in, summoned from the dead.

  But Google felt differently about those words. It returned a link that made me whisper the word bingo the second I saw it.

  Haunted High Schools

  About ten seconds later, I gave up on the idea of not using the shop phone to call Sarah.

  311 was a classroom number at a high school built in the 1800s. The room was said to be haunted. The door locked on its own. Unexplained sounds came from inside when no one else could get in. This was all very interesting, and, even better, now I knew where the Apostle had hidden what we needed to find. And it wasn’t inside the school, it was outside, where Sarah could get to it without being seen (I hoped).

  Remove the Key in Lamp marked 3. Go to 4 and open the door….

  I knew what this meant, and it was good! There must be lights outside, ones that had been there a long time. Sarah wouldn’t have to wait until morning; in fact, that would be exactly what she wouldn’t want to do. She’d need to sneak onto the grounds when it was dark, find the lamp marked 3 (whatever that meant), get the key, and proceed to the number 4, where she’d open the door. This clue would be a lot better if it made sense, but Sarah is sharp on her feet after midnight, so there’s a chance she’ll figure it out. And this time, I’ll be right there with her.

  The one really bad thing about room 311? It’s in Springfield, Missouri, which is in the opposite direction of the way Sarah has been driving all day.

  She picked up her phone and started in on me before I could tell her what I’d found.

  “Where have you been? Do you have any idea how many times I’ve tried to call? Not a good time to leave me hanging, Ryan. Not a good time!”

  I apologized about fifty times and told her what had happened with my dad. My dad was onto us, or at least getting suspicious, and we needed to be careful. Once I got her settled down, she was just happy to hear my voice, which made me happy. It was like we were the only two people in the world, secretly going about our business. It was a good feeling, but it also made me miss her more than ever.

  What I really wanted to do? Jump in my mom’s minivan and drive in Sarah’s direction until we collided. I’d have driven thirty hours straight to find her if I thought I could get away with it.

  I heard noise in the background and asked Sarah where she was, bracing myself for the bad news.

  How far could she have gotten? How much time had we lost?

  “Steak ‘n Shake,” she said. “The funny thing about this place? I don’t think they make steaks. Pretty good grilled cheese, though.”

  All these weird restaurants! Where are the McDonald’s and the Burger Kings?

  “Tonight I’m hitting the Cracker Barrel for all-night breakfast. That place makes a mean omelet.”

  “What Steak ‘n Shake are you at? I mean, what city?”

  “Memphis. I’m ahead of schedule by half an hour.”

  I heard her slurping on a milk shake and wanted to guess what flavor it was, but time was of the essence. (I’d have guessed chocolate.)

  “Look, Sarah, I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” I told her. I went on to give her the same good and bad news I’ve already written down once before, and she sort of freaked out on me.

  “Central High School in where?”

  “Springfield, Missouri.”

  “Hang on.”

  I heard her set the phone down on the counter and riffle through some papers, probably maps of the region. A few seconds later, she was back.

  “That’s three hundred miles in the opposite direction, but at least it’s not in Montana. Things could be a lot worse.”

  Some weird part of me wanted to remind her that the best fly-fishing in the world was in Montana, and I’d have been happy to bolt out there and catch a few fish while actually making myself useful to our little endeavor, but I let it slide. We figured out it would take five hours for her to drive from Memphis to Springfield, by which time it would be late at night. She was supposed to be in Little Rock before dark, but that wasn’t going to happen.

  “I’ll cover,” she said. “I don’t think my parents will send the cavalry just yet.”

  We made a plan: Sarah would leave straight away for Springfield and find the hotel nearest to the school. While she drove, I’d figure out what she should do when she got inside. Tomorrow morning she’d get into the school as early as possible, then head for Little Rock a day late.

  “Sorry, Sarah, this isn’t going quite like I thought it would.”

  “Funny, it’s going exactly how I expected. That’s what makes it perfect! Don’t worry — this is going to be great. You’re doing recon, I’m out in the field — we make a perfect team.”

  I understand what she meant, but deep down inside, I still feel like such a loser. I wish I could be the one to drive all night, chasing down urban legends, fueled on hamburgers and milk shakes. Being bored is one thing, but feeling trapped is a whole different level of lameness. Sarah is out there, living large, and what am I doing? Tying a bunch of stupid flies and watching the paint dry.

  We talked about the phrase with the lamp and the numbers and she agreed: She’d have to get over there at night, when no one was around.

  “Tonight, haunted school, Springfield,” Sarah said. I could tell she was up and moving. “I can hardly wait.”

  And then she was gone. I still have fifty-nine flies to tie. Sarah has her parents to fool and a five-hour drive to navigate. With any luck at all, we’ll both succeed by the time my dad gets off the river and gives me my phone back.

  I just got a call from Fitz that under normal circumstances would put me in a pretty good mood. The call could only mean one thing, which was perfectly clear by the frustrated sound of Fitz’s voice.

  “The hatch totally died. Slowest day on the river in weeks. Talk about some unhappy fishermen.”

  “That bad?” I asked him.

  “You have no idea. We could have thrown worms slathered in WD-40 out there and it would have produced the same result: nada.”

  Legend in our neck of the woods is that fish love WD-40 more than life itself. They’d beat each other up trying to hook themselves, but I’d never tried it.

  This was tailor-made for gloating rights. I go out and catch fish after fish, Fitz heads out the very next day and gets skunked. It should have been music to my ears, but my pile of flies was only sixty-one deep. I had thirty-five to go and my fingers were already raw from tying.

  “Better l
uck next time,” was all I could muster.

  “We’ll be back at the shop in about twenty. Want some help finishing those flies?”

  Fitz didn’t have to ask if I’d finished — he’d seen my work before and knew the results all too well. He guessed I’d finished seventy, which made me feel even worse than I already did. At least my night was going to end a little earlier than expected and I could get my phone back.

  It’s cool Fitz is willing to help me out, especially after I showed him up on the river.

  Here’s hoping I can hit seventy before he walks in the door.

  When he got back, I traded Fitz jobs, unloading and cleaning the boats while he whipped off twenty-six flies in record time. My dad was none the wiser. I guess if Fitz and I were truly competitive, he would’ve found a way to let my dad know. But everything remained between us. When Fitz was through, he told me to keep practicing on those flies, and I told him to keep practicing on that fishing. Then he got on his old motorcycle and took off, a stream of blue smoke trailing him in the moonlight. I knew just how he felt — I’d been there. Nothing makes you more tired than rowing a boat all day and listening to people complain about not catching fish. It’s murder.

  Before I could get my phone back from my dad, he looked at my fly-tying handiwork and found some of it wanting. I had to admit — there were twenty-six perfect little guys in the pile, but the rest were gimps. Half of them probably wouldn’t even float.

  “I could spray them with WD-40,” I said lamely, hoping to get him smiling.

  He handed me my phone and smiled.

  “Can’t be good at everything. I think Fitz is bad luck on the water. Worst day of the year.”

  I feel bad about how good it felt to hear my dad say that. It isn’t fair to Fitz, but I sure don’t want to get in the habit of sitting around the shop all summer when I could be out fishing. Fitz could tie, and it was starting to look like I’m “good luck” on the river.

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