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The crossbones, p.6
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       The Crossbones, p.6

           Patrick Carman
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  I had been drawing a map of where Sarah had been, where she was going, and what she was finding. She was making some serious progress, no doubt, but the longest road was ahead of her and it worried me. A day of chilling in Little Rock, Arkansas, might have killed the whole excursion, and she’d been ominously quiet all day. I was giving her some space, not bugging her, letting her off the grid for a few hours.

  This is the map I drew:

  I sat on the porch eating my burger, waving flies off my Doritos.

  All I could think of was Sarah.

  Will she move toward me or away from me come morning?

  Maybe I shouldn’t be so excited, but I am — Sarah is on the road again, and she’s headed straight for Austin, Texas. She got an early start and should arrive at the Driskill Hotel by 5:00 in the evening. After that she’ll need to keep going until she reaches San Antonio, where another one of Mrs. Fincher’s siblings lives. Mrs. Fincher comes from a big family: three sisters, two brothers. They scattered like buckshot out of Skeleton Creek years ago, which, so far, has been really convenient for Sarah.

  This is really working — we’re doing it. Or more accurately, Sarah is doing it. I’m like a far-removed copilot and it’s killing me more every day. What I want more than anything in the world is to be out there with her, or even out there going in a different direction — anything that will get me out of this town and into something exciting.

  I’m starting to sound more like Sarah every day, and that’s fine by me. The people, the music, the long, boring days in the fly shop — I guess it’s all starting to drive me mad with road trip envy.

  We’ve done our research on the Driskill, and Sarah warned me that getting a documentary about it was kind of unlikely since she’s going to be getting into San Antonio late and right back on the road Saturday morning for the long haul to Phoenix. After that, it was another long drive to San Jose for the final location — the Winchester House — and then she’d have to make it back to LA for the start of film school on Monday at 10:00 a.m. An all-nighter would be required somewhere in there or she’d never make it.

  My dad surprised me with what I’m sure he thought was stunningly good news, but it was more of a mixed bag than he realized.

  “Someone went back to Boise and spilled the beans about that day we had last week. You know, lunker day,” my dad began. He was eating steel-cut oats, a new habit to offset the greasy summer barbecue fare we’d been enjoying. “Group of four emailed this morning. They bit on the multiday.”

  “When?” I asked.

  “Tuesday and Wednesday — the fish better be biting.”

  My dad had put together this insane two-day fishing package with streamside camping along a seventeen-mile stretch of river. Under normal circumstances I’d sooner die then have him pick Fitz to man the second boat and serve the fried chicken, but this time, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted less.

  “Your mom will be in Seattle at that concert, so I can hardly leave you home. You got the gig. We’ll leave Fitz in the shop and he’ll tie a million flies while we’re gone.”

  My heart sank. Not only was I going to have to take back my invitation to Fitz and give back all the imperfect flies he’d tied for me, I was going to be on the river at a critical time. What if Sarah needed me and I was totally out of range for two days? She was scheduled to be at film camp by then — but still, knowing Sarah, if there was a fifth location, she’d call in sick for a day or two and off she’d go.

  I knew my dad better than to question his decision. If I offered up Fitz, he’d dig in his heels and use his stern voice: Oh, you’re going. Don’t even try to get out of it.

  Then he dropped another bombshell.

  “Talked to Sarah’s dad last night. How come you didn’t mention Sarah was driving across America all by herself?”

  I had to think on my feet, because for some unknown, stupid reason I had never prepared for this particular moment.

  “That’s just the kind of thing she does, Dad. I talk to her when she gets bored, but it’s her deal. Speaking of which — I do have a license, you know. How come I never get to drive across the country?”

  Put some humor in there, that’s the ticket.

  My mom actually laughed out loud at that one, like I’d lost my mind. My dad reeled off all the reasons why I wasn’t driving anywhere far away soon, and how I should appreciate the driving I did get to do: She’s a year older than you, her parents are idiots, she’s got family strewn all over the dang country, be happy you get to drive the truck to the river.

  This was good. I had effectively diverted their attention away from my overambitious driving friend and onto their concerns about me driving at all. Mission accomplished, for the moment. My dad gave me that suspicious look again, but he also had trout bum written all over his face. There was a lot to plan with an overnighter, and his wheels were turning. Not enough room in that head of his for too many big things, and for the moment, his burgeoning business was taking precedence over worrying about some crazy teenager driving in our general direction.

  My dad felt sorry for Fitz and took him out on the river all day, but not before spilling the beans about next week’s trip. Fitz threatened to take his flies back, but when I handed them over and he took a long look at them, his face soured. He’s a real fly snob.

  “Keep ’em. You’re going to need a lot of gear on that overnighter.”

  My dad had already assigned another four dozen for the day, so this was music to my ears. With Fitz’s imperfects in hand, I could lounge around all day if I wanted to, help the occasional customer, and basically chill until Sarah showed up in Austin at around 3:00 p.m. my time.

  They pulled out of the shop parking lot at noon, and I started doing some serious research on the Driskill Hotel. Since Sarah won’t be doing a documentary on this, I’m recording my findings here, while it’s still light and I’m feeling reasonably safe.

  I’ve previously mentioned the part about the mirrors and how looking into them will reflect this dead lady who will later appear in your nightmares for THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. Sorry, I wanted to scream that, because it’s just so wrong. Anyway, the dead lady in your dreams is only the half of it. The Driskill has had more confirmed paranormal events than just about any other place in the country. Here are a few of the creepier ones:

  — There was a kid who stayed there a long time ago who had this red bouncy ball. She snuck out of her parents’ room and started bouncing it down this tremendously long staircase, then she fell all the way to the bottom and broke her neck. I guess she was all tangled up at the bottom, very gruesome. Now the second-floor ladies’ room, the staircase, and the lobby are haunted by the sound of a bouncing ball and a girl whispering in your ear.

  — The original owner of the hotel loved the place but went totally bankrupt trying to build it. The guy smoked cigars like a madman, and sometimes the smell of smoke just shows up in different parts of the hotel for no reason whatsoever. Cigar smoke. It’s a nonsmoking hotel.

  — The Houston Bride is another confirmed sighting. She’s a lady who killed herself in one of the rooms after her fiancé called off their wedding. She’s been seen trying to enter rooms with bags full of stuff, apparently bought with his money as revenge. The room she stayed in was nailed shut for a while, but she still shows up and knocks on the door, trying to get in. Or at least her ghost does.

  Nothing too scary — I mean, nothing that sounds like you’d end up zombified for staying at the Driskill, but some pretty spooky stuff, nonetheless. Sarah needs to avoid a variety of spirit creatures and the hotel staff, find the hall of mirrors, and find the film reel. I hope she doesn’t knock a mirror off the wall. That’d be bad luck, and we sure don’t need it.

  The reel of film will be behind the top left corner, according to the Skull Puzzle:

  Would the ghost of Old Joe Bush show his face at the Driskill? I don’t think so, not in the light of day, when Sarah would be in there. That just seems highly unlikely.
  Wrong! You have got to be kidding me. The Driskill Hotel has another ghost, and it’s my ghost, the ghost of Old Joe Bush. Sarah got in and made it to the hall of mirrors without a problem. She found the mirror she was looking for and she got the reel of film, which was carefully hidden behind the mirror. Then she turned around and pointed the camera at the mirror on the other side, and things went off the rails.

  You have to see this to believe it. Please, just go look at what Sarah recorded.

  There’s more about the Crossbones — but most important, he’s following her.

  The ghost of Old Joe Bush was there.



  My day of work at the fly shop is over, I’ve put in some time with my mom on the porch, and Sarah is safely tucked away in San Antonio with her aunt. Tomorrow, Sarah will drive the entire day, fifteen hours to Phoenix, and I’ll endure a Saturday at the shop, the only day when it’s actually crawling with customers. The fish are biting, so we’re going to sell a lot of flies and gear and give a lot of advice.

  But none of that matters tonight, because tonight has nightmare written all over it. That video from Sarah was a bone chiller. Seeing the ghost of Old Joe Bush in that mirror, the way he moved, the way he whispered. It had to be real, right? I mean, there’s no other answer. How else could it just show up like that? The only other answer besides TERRIFYING GHOST would be … I don’t even know. Maybe there are secret rooms behind those mirrors where the Crossbones have their meetings and plan the demise of the human race. Who knows?!

  A few things I do know — some good, some bad:

  — I do not want to stay at this hotel. Ever.

  — It’s official: The Apostle was in a major fight with the other leaders of the Crossbones. — The Skull Puzzle that Henry had in his pocket was made by the Apostle. He showed it in that footage. And the puzzle leads to something big the Crossbones don’t want found.

  — My dad is not part of this organization, which is a huge relief. The fact that his secret group, used to protect the dredge, was also called the Crossbones was a tactic used by the Apostle to gain power. It was a warning to Crossbones leaders — either give him what he wanted, or he’d reveal everything. Leaking the very name of the Crossbones to Joe Bush was the beginning of a dangerous game.

  — And that dangerous game, I’m pretty sure, led to Henry taking him down to the river. They must have fought, because that event ended with the Apostle drowning. It also landed the Skull Puzzle in Henry’s pocket. Only now the Apostle’s puzzle has found its way to my pocket, and I’m one step away from figuring out where it leads.

  — And last, the word PORT, which I can now add to UNDER and GROUND. This confuses me a little bit. I still think wherever this thing is hidden is underground, but those three words together could be under port ground or port underground or ground under port. No matter how it slices and dices, these three words lead to a port of some kind, so we’re talking near water.

  I sure hope the Winchester House proves more helpful.

  Sarah is convinced that all roads lead to Thomas Jefferson. The Crossbones hated him and wanted him destroyed. They tried to kill him and drove him into financial disaster. What else could they have done to ruin his life? That part remains a mystery, but I have a feeling we’re going to find out more when Sarah arrives at the Winchester House.

  The last stop on her whirlwind tour will be the strangest, and her timing couldn’t be better. She’ll sleep over in Phoenix at a hotel predetermined by her parents, and finish the drive on Sunday. She’s expected in LA on Sunday night for check-in at the dorm on UCLA’s campus, then the film camp starts Monday morning.

  Our plan for getting Sarah into LA Sunday night is a little on the shaky side, and it involves cutting out of Phoenix very, very early. Here’s how it’s going to work:

  — Sarah will go straight to sleep in Phoenix when she arrives there at around 9:00 p.m. tomorrow night (Saturday).

  — She’s going to get up at 4:00 a.m. and start driving. It’s ten hours to San Jose, so she should be there by around 2:00 p.m.

  — Back on the road by 4:00 p.m. for a slightly late but reasonable UCLA arrival at 9:00 p.m.

  I’m tired, but I’m also afraid of whatever nightmare will be waiting for me once I close my eyes. I’d call Sarah, but she’s asleep for sure. Fitz doesn’t have a phone. My parents are out.

  Another solitary late night in Skeleton Creek.

  I really need to get a life.

  Nothing much to note. Sarah is on the move, heading for Phoenix. We talked this morning and she sounded upbeat but just as confused as I am. She’s excited about film camp, but she’s even more excited about getting to the Winchester House and finding whatever’s hidden at the top of a set of stairs that leads to nowhere.

  I’m with her.

  It’s dreadfully quiet. Sunday mornings are like that in Skeleton Creek. At least I don’t have to listen to Bon Jovi.

  I’d write more, but there’s nothing going on around here worth mentioning, and Sarah is doing pretty much nothing but driving and listening to music. She’s bored, I’m bored. I bet even the ghost of Old Joe Bush is bored. Probably sitting in a tomb somewhere playing cards with some other dead people while we get our act together.

  Sunday morning makes me think of the Apostle in a different way. The guy was nuts, for sure, or maybe just acting nuts, but either way, he went to church on Sundays. My parents aren’t the churchgoing sort, but Sunday mornings are sacred in their own way for us. It’s silent, for one, almost like everyone is tiptoeing around. And the porch is a favorite spot. While some people from town walk by with their Bibles in hand giving us sideways glances that say you should be going to church, you heathens! we just sit there drinking our coffee and reading whatever it is we want to read.

  It’s spiritual in its own way. We do set the world aside for a few hours. We talk slower, quieter, nicer. And what is the church, anyway? My dad is fond of saying, “It sure ain’t no building, I can promise you that,” and this strikes me as a small but meaningful pearl of wisdom.

  Me, I think heaven is on the river. It’s where I feel my connection to whoever made all this stuff. It’s where I find peace. Casting is my prayer, for what little it’s worth. There’s nothing more mysterious and beautiful than a wild fish in a mountain stream. It lives a secret life in a world I can never know, but if I can catch it, I can hold it in my hand for a moment. After that, I can bash its head in or let it go. As you might imagine, I let them all go. I don’t want to upset the balance of nature.

  This is what happens in Skeleton Creek when the world outside goes silent and my best friend is driving, driving, driving. I start talking about the meaning of life, which apparently has something to do with fish.

  The Winchester House can’t show up fast enough. A few more hours and she’ll be there. Too bad I’ll be at the shop with Fitz while my dad takes the day off to lounge on the porch taking naps and reading the Sunday Boise paper (it’s a whopper).

  Fitz doesn’t mind if I talk on the phone while I’m working, but I’m nervous about making calls to Sarah while he’s standing there. He’s a pretty aloof sort of guy, very focused when he’s sitting in front of his fly-tying vise or reading up on some arcane casting technique, but still, I wouldn’t want him knowing about what me and Sarah are up to. The fewer people who know, the better.

  So it was kind of alarming when Fitz called me out.

  “How’s Sarah doing?” he asked me.

  At first I thought he was just, you know, making small talk, so I brushed it off with a simple “Pretty good, as far as I know.”

  “Wish I had a cell phone. Dad won’t get me one. Says it’s too expensive.”

  “It is,” I cautioned him. “Half the money I make in this place goes to covering my monthly bill.”

  “Must be nice to keep up with her on the road.”

  At first, this seemed like a normal-enough question. B
ut then I wondered: How did Fitz know about Sarah’s trip? I didn’t say anything, and Fitz looked up from his work on a perfect parachute adams, a hard fly to tie just right.

  “You know your dad still worries about you guys,” he said. “He told me himself.”

  So that was it. My dad was using river time to get Fitz into the loop, probably hoping to use this fly-tying fish-face to infiltrate my wall of silence.

  “Look, Fitz, my dad’s paranoid as all get-out. He blows everything out of proportion. She’s driving to film camp in LA, no big whoop.”

  “I’m thinking maybe you’re the one who’s paranoid. Your dad is just worried about you, is all.”

  Okay, this was starting to annoy me. He couldn’t outfish me, so he was trying to be my dad’s best friend?

  But then he went for the jugular, and it sort of shut me up.

  “You have no idea how good you have it around here,” he said. “I barely see my dad, and when I do, he doesn’t have much to say. He couldn’t care less about football or fishing.”

  It was the first time since I’d met him that I actually felt sorry for Fitz. His dad never came around. In fact, I’d never even met his dad. He logged up in the forest for a living, and let me tell you, cutting down trees pays even worse than owning a fly shop, and it takes even more time.

  All the same, I stayed quiet about Sarah. Texting only, which was big-time inconvenient once she arrived at the Winchester House.

  Me: Can’t talk, at the shop, Fitz is here.

  Sarah: You’re SO missing out. This place is the best. Huge, weird, awesome.

  Sarah: And they don’t care if I use my camera!

  Me: Did you find the stairs to nowhere?

  Sarah: Hold your horses.

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