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Skeleton creek, p.5
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       Skeleton Creek, p.5

           Patrick Carman
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  I didn’t put my name at the end. I just attached the photo and sent it.

  I think I know why Daryl Bonner and Joe Bush are together in my dream. It’s because in real life they look sort of similar. The photo is grainy, but the bone structure, the nose, the forehead — they’re similar. Too similar.

  What does that even mean?

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 8:00 A.M.

  Mom has been here with my breakfast and gone. It was a miracle she didn’t check my computer, because I totally forgot to erase my tracks. It feels like every day I’m a whisper away from losing everything, including my best friend. I totally believe my parents when they say they’ll sell the house and move us to the city if they catch me talking to Sarah. If they knew how much we were emailing — all the stuff we were doing — they’d pack the car and have me out of here tonight.

  Like Dad said, I have to be careful. I can’t be careless when it comes to communicating with Sarah. There’s too much at stake.

  I’ve got something weird I want to try — just to see what will happen. It’s not the most careful thing in the world, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

  Here’s my plan:

  I’ll call the ranger station. It’s early, so Ranger Bonner probably won’t be on the trail yet. When he picks up I’ll ask for Joe Bush and see what he says. I wonder what he’ll do? What if he has caller ID? Do ranger stations have stuff like that?

  I’m risking it. If I get caught, I’ll say it was a prank. I’ll play up the fact that I’m crazy.

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 8:10 A.M.

  I called Daryl Bonner.

  Here’s what happened:

  Him: “Skeleton Creek Ranger Station.”

  Me: “Can I speak to Joe Bush?”

  Him: “Who is this? Why are you asking for Joe Bush?”

  I didn’t reply.

  Him: “Did Sarah Fincher put you up to this?”

  I didn’t reply.

  Him: “Answer me! Why are you asking about Joe Bush?”

  I hung up.

  And now I wonder:

  Why was he so freaked out?

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 9:15 A.M.

  I have just endured an eventful hour and five minutes. About two minutes after I hung up, the phone rang. I tried to intercept the call myself, but I picked up at the same moment my dad did. He’s a notoriously quick grabber of the phone. He hates hearing it ring and ring. I thought he’d already be halfway out the door for work, but I guess he stayed late this morning.

  Just my luck.

  Dad: “Hello.”

  Bonner: “This is Daryl Bonner at the ranger station. Did you just call this number?”

  Dad: “I did not. My son might have.”

  Bonner: “Is this the home of the boy who had the accident at the dredge?”

  Dad: “Might be.”

  Bonner: “I think he might be getting bored. He just called here with — I don’t know — I guess you’d call it a prank call. He asked for Joe Bush, whoever that is. And the girl involved in that accident — Sarah Fincher — she seems interested in the dredge as well. It might be a good time to keep an especially close eye on them both. The dredge isn’t safe — at least that’s what the state supervisor told me. No one should be going out there.”

  Dad: “I’ll have a talk with my son.”

  Bonner: “Thank you.”

  I hung up right after they did, then listened to my dad coming up the stairs and wondered if my actions qualified as more than careless. I had the feeling they did. Sarah’s interview ran through my head, then my call. I felt stupid for having done it. There were dots that could be connected. Sarah, Bonner, me. There was a flurry of activity. Maybe it was enough to get the house on the market.

  I already had a fondness for Henry, but when the doorbell rang and my dad went back downstairs I liked Henry ten times more. Our fall visitor had arrived, and I was spared my dad’s wrath. His anger usually boiled over pretty fast. If I could stay out of his crosshairs while he calmed down, the consequences were always less severe. Until he showed up in my room with Henry in tow, I even had a glimmer of hope that my dad had forgotten all about the phone call.

  “That’s one heckuva cast!”

  Those were the first words out of Henry’s mouth when he came into my room with my dad. They were both smiling and I breathed a sigh of relief.

  Henry went on, “Any chance I could have it when you’re done? That thing could be a real hit at the card table.”

  “They’ll have to cut it off. I could only give you the pieces.”

  “I’ve got duct tape. It’ll be perfect.”

  Henry had his fishing hat on, rimmed with flies, and his rainbow suspenders.

  “Your dad tells me he needs to run across town and see the ranger. Mind if I keep you company while he’s gone?”

  “I’d like that.”

  My dad asked for his picture of Old Joe Bush, and I gave it to him. He looked at me as if to say, We’re not quite through here yet, I’ll be back, and then he left me and Henry alone in my room. I so wish I’d never made that phone call. It feels like I’ve opened a can of worms and they’re squirming out all over the place.

  Henry chimed in when the sound of our front door closing reached my room.

  “Can you get down those stairs?” he asked.

  “I think I can. But I always feel better in the afternoon. I think I’ll wait a little bit.”

  “Fair enough. How bored are you?”

  “Very.”

  “I suspected.”

  “How long are you staying?”

  “Seventeen days of bliss! Two poker nights, fishing on the river, and your mom’s home cooking. You don’t appreciate it now, but Cynthia is the queen of comfort food. Old bachelors love comfort food, especially when we’re from the city. She’s making that baked noodle dish with the crunchy cheese on top tonight. I’ve been thinking about it for three days.”

  “You should get married,” I joked.

  “And give up Yankee games, dirty laundry, and my twelve girlfriends? I don’t think I’m ready for that kind of sacrifice.”

  “You don’t have twelve girlfriends.”

  “Do so.”

  “Liar.”

  “Well, I’ve had twelve girlfriends. It’s the same thing.”

  “I bet all twelve are now married with kids and have long since forgotten the Yankee-loving slob they dated ten years ago.”

  “You shouldn’t talk like that with a cast on your leg. You won’t be able to run away when I dump a bucket of cold water on your head.”

  “You’re all talk.”

  “I’m making your lunch.”

  Henry smiled and I knew I was in big trouble. I hated not knowing what disgusting thing he might add to a Hot Pocket or swirl into peanut butter before spreading it around. He probably wouldn’t do anything, but I’d never know for sure, and it would drive me crazy.

  We talked about the accident and about how I couldn’t see Sarah anymore. The news about Sarah bothered him and he said he would talk to my parents. He liked Sarah and I appreciated it, but I knew somewhere deep down that it didn’t matter what Henry said. My parents had already made up their minds.

  I had no idea how many more times I’d have Henry to myself. I decided it was time to begin my inquisition, especially since he was in such a friendly mood.

  “Hey,” I said. “How come you never talk about when you used to work for New York Gold and Silver?”

  “It’s not my best chapter.”

  “Why not?”

  Henry took off his hat and laughed nervously. Then his smile went away and I felt terrible for asking him.

  “Since you’re all busted up, I suppose I’ll tell you. I made a lot of mistakes back then because I was young and ambitious. I could lie and say I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I knew.

  Skeleton Creek got into my bones, though. It saved me.”

  “Did you ever meet Joe Bush?”

  Henry looked at me
a little curiously then, but he still answered. “Why sure I did — lots of times. He was a hard worker. You know he died on the dredge?”

  “I do.”

  “That accident was the beginning of the end. I quit not too long after that. There were a lot of lawsuits flying around. They were asking me to do things I couldn’t do.”

  “Like what?”

  “You sure are curious when you’re laid up.”

  “Like what, Henry?”

  “They wanted me to lie about things, and that’s when I knew for sure I’d been doing something wrong all along.”

  “Did you ever hear of Old Joe Bush coming back?”

  “You mean like a ghost?”

  “I guess so.”

  “Let’s just say there are stories floating around — none of them true, mind you — about the ghost of Old Joe Bush. It’s all hogwash.”

  “Can I ask you one more thing?”

  “Sure you can.”

  “Have you ever heard of the Crossbones?”

  “Now there’s an interesting question!”

  “Really?”

  “It’s especially interesting for an outsider like me. Did you know membership is only allowed if you can prove you were either born here or have a relative that was born here?”

  “No. I didn’t know that.”

  “That’s the truth — or at least I think it is. I’m pretty sure the Crossbones came into existence back when the dredge was still working.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  “There was talk of a secret group forming. You hear things.”

  “What did they do?”

  “If I knew that, I’d be a member. But as I said, I’m from the outside. A New Yorker, no less! No matter how much I love this place or how many times I come back, I’ll never know more than I do right now about the Crossbones. Which isn’t much.”

  I was afraid to ask one last question, but I asked anyway.

  “Is my dad a member?”

  “If I were a betting man, I’d put good money on it. But the truth is, I have no idea. We talk about a lot, but not about those kinds of things.”

  Then he left to unpack his things, and I wrote all of this down.

  I can’t wait to tell Sarah.

  But how?

  It’s riskier with someone else around. I don’t think Henry would tell my parents if he caught me emailing — but I can’t be sure.

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 11:00 A.M.

  When Dad came back, the steam had gone out of his anger and he didn’t say a lot about the call I’d made. He didn’t give me back the picture of Joe Bush and I didn’t ask for it.

  “I know you’re bored,” he said, “but leave that poor man alone. He’s new in town and he’s got work to do like the rest of us. Find something productive to do.”

  Like the rest of us? I don’t know what he’s talking about. My dad is on vacation for the next two weeks while my mom keeps working at the post office like she always does. Henry and my dad will sleep late, make pancakes and strong coffee, then fish and play cards.

  I keep wondering how my dad would feel if someone told him he couldn’t see Henry ever again. I’m pretty sure he’d go down fighting.

  The two of them are downstairs going through their fly boxes, comparing gear, getting ready to go fishing on the river for the afternoon. Skeleton Creek drains into a bigger creek, and that bigger creek drains into the River, where they’ll search out winter-run steelhead (basically a giant trout). The place they’re going to is an hour outside of town if my dad is driving the old pickup. He has to baby it or they’d be there in half the time.

  When Dad and Henry get back they’ll throw together a late lunch and help me down to the porch and we can play cards before Mom gets home.

  What did my dad say to Ranger Bonner? He might not have even seen the ranger. Maybe he only said he was going to see Ranger Bonner and actually went to talk with Sarah’s parents or, worse, a real estate agent. There could be a sign going up in the front yard already.

  I despise all real estate agents.

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 11:40 A.M.

  They left here fifteen minutes ago and I drifted off to sleep. At first I thought there was a phone ringing in my dream, but it kept ringing, and on the fourth ring I reached out my arm and fumbled for the cordless. I expected it to be Mom checking on me. She has a way of knowing when I’m home alone. She tells me to rest, eat, and stay off the Internet.

  I clicked on the receiver and answered groggily, hoping she’d hear the fatigue in my voice and go easy on me with the lecturing. When I answered, there was the faintest sound of — what was it? — leaves moving in the trees? Or was it water moving? It had the distinct but indefinable sound of nature. At least that’s what I thought before whoever it was hung up on me.

  My first thought was that my dad was calling from the stream to make sure I was staying put. But why did he hang up? I looked at the caller ID and didn’t recognize the number. It was a 406 area code. Not local.

  I dialed the number and waited. One ring. Two rings. Three rings. Voice mail.

  “This is Daryl Bonner with the Montana Department of Fish and Wildlife. I’m currently stationed in Skeleton Creek, Oregon, returning to the Wind River Station on November third. Please leave a message.”

  Why is Ranger Bonner calling my house and then hanging up? Was he looking for my dad and got me instead?

  I shouldn’t have called him and asked if Old Joe Bush was there.

  What if he thinks I know something I’m not supposed to?

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 1:20 P.M.

  I’ve spent the last couple of hours scouring the web for anything about Skeleton Creek, the dredge, Old Joe Bush. I’m so frustrated. It’s like I’ve dug up all the bones I’m going to find and they make up only about a tenth of what I’m searching for. The deeper I go, the harder the ground feels. I feel like I’ve hit a layer of solid rock.

  I need to send a warning to Sarah, but I’m afraid to. What if my dad went to her parents and they’ve taken her computer? I can see them sitting at the kitchen table hitting refresh every fifteen minutes waiting for my email to come through. The death email. The email that sends me packing.

  I can’t risk it.

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 1:25 P.M.

  Obviously Sarah doesn’t feel as concerned as I do, because I just got an email from her. I guess that puts to rest my concern about her parents confiscating her laptop. Unless — and this is entirely possible — they’re baiting me. What if they sent the email? Or, worse, what if my dad is on Sarah’s laptop at her house with her parents sending me emails? It’s an underhanded move, but it could happen.

  I’d like to think Henry would tip me off. But how could he?

  I’m hungry and tired, which sometimes makes me nervous. But seriously — I am so paranoid. It’s ridiculous. Maybe I need group therapy. Me, Sarah, and Old Joe Bush.

  Actually, to be fair, what I got from Sarah wasn’t really an email if you consider there were no words in the message, only a string of letters in the subject line and nothing else.

  So now she’s diverging from Poe into Stevenson. Fair enough. I sometimes think she’s trying to tell me something with these passwords. Like in this case, is she saying that Daryl Bonner is Dr. Jekyll, and the ghost of Joe Bush is Mr. Hyde? Or is Daryl Bonner both?

  Or is my dad both?

  I can’t believe I just wrote that. I might as well be Jekyll and Hyde, I keep going back and forth.

  I have to get out of this house.

  Dad and Henry could come back early. I haven’t covered the tracks of my two hours of searching online. I haven’t deleted Sarah’s email or watched the video. There’s a lot to do while I have the house to myself.

  I’m getting rid of everything first. Then, if I’m still safe, I’ll watch the video.

  SARAHFINCHER.COM

  PASSWORD:

  DRJEKYLLANDMRHYDE

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 1:52 P.M.

  I sho
uld have watched the video first! Why am I even writing this? Because it calms me down. That’s why I’m writing. It calms me down. I think better when I write.

  I can figure this out if I settle down.

  Recap:

  Sarah went to the dredge.

  Ranger Bonner was there. Sarah thinks he was waiting for her. But she could just be overreacting.

  She borrowed his phone. She dialed the last number in his incoming calls list.

  It was my house. And it was after Dad had already gone over to talk to Bonner. Supposedly. And when I called back? He must have had the ringer silenced in case it went off while he was tailing Sarah through the woods. For once I’m glad there are cell towers scattered out there — at least she could get a signal and call me, even if she couldn’t say anything.

  Sarah thinks Dad tipped Bonner off. But how could he know she’d be there?

  Was he in my room last night? Has he read this? He could have snuck in here just like that crazy nut job in The Tell-Tale Heart. I woke up — it felt like someone was in the room, but there was no one. Or at least no one answered in the dark.

  If my dad knows, then why isn’t he confronting me? Why isn’t the house up for sale? Why isn’t my mom freaking out? She’s not, so that means he hasn’t told her.

  How many questions is that — fifty? I can’t answer any of them for sure. I need more information. I need to narrow this down.

  What’s the most important question right now?

  Dad. What’s going on with Dad?

  Twenty minutes tops, maybe fifteen. I can’t risk sneaking around beyond that. They’ll stop fishing when Henry gets hungry. Henry likes to eat. He’ll want to knock off early. I bet they’ll be here by 2:30, maybe even earlier.

  I’m just going to take my journal with me — that’s what I’m going to do. I’ll keep writing. I’ll hobble to my parents’ room, right down the hall. I can make that work. I’ll go in there. I know where my dad’s dresser is. I know he keeps his personal stuff in the top drawer because Mom told me when I was little. She caught me in there and slapped my hand really hard and said I should never search through other people’s things without asking. She said it was the same as stealing, which I never really understood.

 
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