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Skeleton creek, p.6
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       Skeleton Creek, p.6

           Patrick Carman
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  I’m in the door. My watch says 2:03 but I’m leaving the door open so I can hear it if they come in. Henry will be loud — he’ll be talking. I’ll be able to get out.

  My parents’ closet smells like my mom, not like my dad. I’m having some trouble breathing. I just can’t seem to calm down. I remember when she slapped my hand and how it stung. The blood is rushing through my leg and I can feel every part that’s broken. It feels like my mom took a broomstick and started beating me with it.

  Whack! Whack! Whack!

  I’ve got this journal open on the top of the dresser. The lightbulb doesn’t make it very bright in here. It’s sort of a yellow light. Oh, man, I can’t breathe very well. Do I have asthma? I might have asthma, the more I think about it. I’ve kicked up some dust in here. My leg is killing me. It doesn’t like being stood up for too long all at once.

  I know it’s crazy for me to be writing as I do this. But I have to.

  I might not get another chance to do this. And I can’t rely on my memory. I have to get everything down.

  The drawer is open. There’s lots of stuff in here. My grandfather’s belt buckle — he’s dead now. It’s got rhinestones in it. A stack of documents — legal stuff, I think. A cigar box with a little latch on it. Some rings and pens and old watches.

  I’ve opened the cigar box. It’s got a row of ten or twelve matching cuff links pushed into a sheet of cardboard. My dad never wears cuff links. There’s a campaign button, a stack of expired credit cards and licenses. There’s nothing ominous here. There’s no sign of a secret society.

  2:12. I have to get out of here.

  Why cuff links? I bet they’re from their wedding day — maybe it’s all the cuff links from all the men in the wedding party. They all look alike, as if they were worn once and never again.

  2:13.

  I tried to pick up one of the cuff links, and the whole piece of cardboard lifted up out of the cigar box. When I flipped it over, I found a piece of paper taped to the back. I unfolded it and found something there. I can’t breathe. I really have to get out of here.

  2:15.

  They’re going to be back any second now. I can feel it. I’ve shuffled back down the hall to my room, dragging my leg behind me. My computer is scanning the piece of paper while I write. Come on — finish!

  2:18.

  The scan is done. Time to return the original.

  2:20.

  They’re home! Henry just yelled up the stairs.

  “I’m making lunch, champ! I hope you’re ready for a surprise!”

  I’m standing in front of my dad’s dresser with the little yellow light on. I can’t move. He’ll come up here any second, I know he will. Then what will I do? I should run. I should get out of here. I’ve closed the drawer but I can’t move.

  What am I going to do?

  He’s coming.

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 2:41 P.M.

  I’ve calmed down now. I’m not shaking so much anymore. I can breathe again. My dad went straight to the hallway bathroom on his way to my room. I heard him yell.

  “Just going to use the head and I’ll stop in and see you. Fishing was good! Better than last year.”

  I made it out of his room, into the hallway outside the bathroom door. I tucked this journal in the top of my cast and sucked in my breath. The door opened with a whoosh of air.

  “Look at you! Up and walking around. You must really want to play some cards.”

  He looked happy to see me. I felt guilty about that. What was I doing?

  “Count me in,” I told him. “I’m tired of lying down.”

  “Looks like you just ran a marathon. How about lunch in bed, then we’ll help you to the porch? Deal?”

  “Deal.”

  And so Dad delivered me back to my room, and then Henry brought in a grilled-cheese-and-bacon sandwich with tomato soup. It would be easy to hide all sorts of gross things in creamy red soup or melted orange cheese. But it was late and I was starving. He wouldn’t dare trick a kid with a cast. Would he?

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 2:47 P.M.

  Dad and Henry will be up to get me any minute.

  I printed out the scan of what I found. I’m sticking it on this page.

  It scares me.

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 7:30 P.M.

  There’s no two ways about it: Navigating stairs is complicated with a full-leg cast and crutches. Our stairwell is narrow and there are family pictures hanging like clumps of grapes all the way down both sides. I think I would have been fine if I hadn’t insisted I could do it alone. Henry and Dad were watching from the bottom of the stairs when I pitched forward somewhere near the middle and lost my balance. Dad met me with outstretched arms, and my face smashed into his gray T-shirt. He smelled like a fisherman.

  My hands fanned over about a dozen family pictures in frames on the way down but by some miracle of gravity none of them fell to their deaths. They wobbled back and forth and knocked into one another, but they held. It looked like a big gust of wind had rushed through.

  In my defense, the cast is really heavy and … let’s see … what’s the word I’m searching for? … Unbending. A cast like Big Bertha makes a person want to bend like never before. I’m dying to bend my leg. It’s like a ferocious itch I can’t scratch. (Which reminds me: This thing itches like mad, so add that to my list of complaints.)

  When I finally made it to the front porch, the floorboards creaked under the weight of my cast. I settled down on a gold, tattered couch with my leg propped up on a wooden stool and breathed in the crisp fall air.

  Our porch is a lot like an outdoor living room. When a piece of furniture is replaced inside the house, the old item finds a home on the porch. After a while — a year, maybe two — the same item moves ten more feet and becomes an item in one of Mom’s many yard sales. It’s a natural progression, a slow but steady march off the property.

  I searched the skies for flying Dr Pepper cans or other signs of Sarah, but there was nothing. Henry asked if I wanted to play three-handed cribbage. Not a great game if you ask me. I’m not sure who came up with it, but probably it was three people sitting in a room with one cribbage board and the person sitting out wanted to join in. I played anyway. It was nice to think about something other than haunted dredges and secret societies.

  “How much longer?” Henry asked after a little while. He was holding his cards with one hand and tugging slowly on one rainbow suspender with the other.

  “Before what?”

  “Before you can walk around without something on your leg?”

  “How long, Dad?”

  “Seven weeks.”

  Henry couldn’t believe it. “Seven weeks! You’ll have to ship the cast to me. I’ll leave a box.”

  “You’re nuts,” I told him.

  “I bet it itches like termites.”

  “It does.”

  “You could jam a coat hanger down in there.”

  Henry is a great card player. He has this maddening way of distracting everyone with all sorts of mindless small talk. He’d never admit it, but I’m sure this is part of his strategy. It’s hard to concentrate when someone’s talking about having an empty cast shipped to New York. I started thinking about what the box would look like. I wondered what his twelve girlfriends would say when they saw the cast propped up against the wall in his apartment. I started feeling almost positive there were bugs crawling around inside my cast. I begged my dad to go get me a coat hanger. And all the while I made stupid plays all over the cribbage board.

  Eventually I got my coat hanger straightened out and jammed it all the way down to my kneecap. That was an improvement. We basically sat there playing cards for about an hour, talking about nothing in particular — mostly, Henry was trying to throw us off, and was doing a hit-or-miss job. Eventually Mom came home, and after calling hellos, we heard her pounding away on the pipes in the kitchen.

  “You should go help her,” Henry said.

  Henry has a lot of sympathy for m
y mom. He knows my dad isn’t very good about taking on home projects. My dad is plenty capable, but he lacks motivation for certain kinds of tasks.

  “You go help her,” Dad said.

  “What’s she doing in there?” Henry asked.

  “Trying to unclog the garbage disposal,” my dad said. “She’s under the sink, hitting the pipe with a rolling pin. Believe it or not, it usually works.”

  “Sounds a little like the old dredge when it was really cranking.”

  My mom started yelling at the sink, which prompted my dad to set his cards down, sigh deeply, and walk indifferently to her rescue.

  There was something about that noise — the sound of banging on metal — that made me think again of the night I’d fallen and smashed my leg. There had been a clanging sound, barely audible, as if someone was hitting metal on metal.

  I decided to ask Henry about his comment.

  “What sound do you mean?”

  Henry leaned back in his chair until it was only on two legs.

  “The dredge was incredibly loud. Tons of rocks were scooped from the ground and dumped inside. The conveyor belts were rimmed with thick planks of wood that kept everything from falling out. It was like a long water slide — you’ve seen those? — but instead of water shooting through, it was boulders. It echoed like mad, which seemed to quadruple the rumbling. Such a horrible sound. A crew of four was required to run the dredge, and they were separated by quite a distance. One was stationed at the gears in front where they watched everything come in. That person greased the machines and pulled the stop-chain if things got jammed up. Another was at the far end, watching the tailings dump out. There was a man at the control booth and one more we called a roamer — a guy who fixed things on the fly from a running list of problems.”

  “But the sound — the banging — what sound was that?”

  “The workers couldn’t hear one another. They couldn’t yell that loud. So they used signals. They banged metal wrenches or hammers against the iron girders of the dredge to tell each other things. It was like Morse code, simple but effective in those days.”

  When Dad returned, the conversation veered quickly away from the dredge. I didn’t want him to hear us talking about it, and maybe Henry didn’t, either. Instead, we all played cards and talked about the Yankees and the Mariners. After a while, Mom brought the casserole with the crispy cheese top and the last of the late summer bees started swarming around the porch.

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 9:00 P.M.

  I’ve spent a lot of time away from my bedroom today, which makes me feel anxious. I feel like the FBI has scoured my mattress and squeaky box spring, taken pictures, dusted for fingerprints — all the while with two-way radios wired to the kitchen so Mom could tell them if I was on my way and they could jump out the second-story window. I know this sounds stupid, but it’s how I feel all the same.

  The room appears untouched. Before I left I took Sarah’s advice and found a better hiding place for this journal. I slid it inside my ninth-grade annual from last year and put the annual between a whole bunch of other books. I also taped it shut. It doesn’t look to me like they found it. The seal hasn’t been broken.

  They’ll leave me alone for a while — Henry’s got all their attention — so it’s a good time to email Sarah and tell her about what I found in my dad’s dresser.

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 9:20 P.M.

  Too late, she already emailed me. It was a short, bad email. The worst kind.

  So I emailed her back.

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 9:40 P.M.

  Is it normal to get in the habit of erasing everything? I get the distinct feeling I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life. I’ll grow up to be a conspiracy theorist. The government will be out to get me. I’ll erase my identity and move to a South American fishing village but they’ll track me down and drag me back and my parents will put me in a group home.

  I hate technology.

  It’s a good thing I’m writing everything on good old-fashioned paper. Someone is going to find this after I’m gone. When you get to this part and I’ve disappeared, go back and watch the video of when I fell. The one with theraven for a password. Listen to those distant sounds of metal on metal. I did. I listened to the sounds over and over again, and now I’ll never forget them even if I try.

  Go on. Go back and listen.

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 10:15 P.M.

  I’m feeling less gloomy and more edgy in the last half hour. Surfing online always has that effect on me. It tends to fry my nerves. I found an image with all the Morse code letters and I read all about how the taps and the gaps in sound are supposed to work.

  I figured out that what I heard on the dredge was like Morse code, but not entirely the same. The longer sound — the one made by the dash — that one doesn’t match up. That’s been replaced instead by a different tone.

  There are two tones on the dredge that represent the dots and the dashes. I imagine the dots being a hammer hitting iron, and the dashes being a wrench hitting the same spot. The two sounds are different in tone instead of length, so it still works.

  This is the message that played on the dredge the night I fell:

  The dots are the hammer, and the bars are the wrench. The message asks a question.

  Are you the alchemist?

  Eerie, right? I’ll admit — I’m freaking out. Because when I was measuring it all out, I didn’t think it would add up to anything. I thought it would be nonsense.

  But no.

  It’s a question.

  Whatever asked the question was expecting an answer it didn’t get. Sarah won’t know the answer tonight any better than she did the night of the accident. Maybe the ghost of Old Joe Bush has a message for someone — the alchemist. It would be useful if I knew what an alchemist was.

  And there’s the piece of paper I found.

  The Alchemist Diagram of 79 for Paul McCray

  Paul McCray. That’s my dad. So there’s no doubt anymore. My dad is somehow entangled in this mess, and so is the Crossbones. Was my dad making the sounds? If so, maybe the ghost of Old Joe Bush is trying to make contact, trying to find something or someone.

  Are you the alchemist?

  What about Daryl Bonner? He looks like Old Joe Bush. He could be the alchemist.

  What would happen if I knew the answer and I gave it to Old Joe Bush on the dredge? What would he tell me? What would he do to me?

  Whatever it was that made the sounds that night saw Sarah and me as intruders in its secret domain. We didn’t understand the question, so we didn’t reply. And because of that, it got angry and came for me.

  I need to make sure Sarah doesn’t go back there again.

  She can’t go back.

  Not ever.

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 10:41 P.M.

  My parents have turned in and Henry is in the guest room downstairs. It’s been a long day of fishing, cards, and comfort food. They’ll all be tired. I can’t just sit here. Sarah could already be at the dredge or about to leave. I have to get out of here. The walk to her house isn’t that far, half a mile. I could do it with my crutches. Maybe. I could tap on her window like the raven and she’d be safe because she wouldn’t go. She’s not the alchemist. She can’t go in there if she’s not the alchemist or she might never come out. I could wake up tomorrow morning and she’d be gone. No one would know where she went.

  FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 11:46 P.M.

  I made it to the bottom of the stairs this time. It was dark, so it was slow going, but I made it without knocking anything over. I bumped the coffee table with my cast and it made a sound, but no one stirred.

  I opened the front door to the porch as quietly as I could. The screen door remained closed in front of me, and this I knew was a more complicated matter. It’s old and squeaky. Another of those home projects my dad never got around to fixing. So I went about opening the screen door very slowly, until there was a gap big enough for me and my lumbering cast to fit through.
r />   It gets really cold at the base of the mountain at night in the fall — we’re at 5,200 feet. I was thinking about how cold it must be — was it 30 or 35 degrees outside? Something like that. 70 during the day and bitter cold at night — that’s fall in Skeleton Creek.

  When I passed through the gap my cast touched the floorboards and they creaked. That’s when I heard the voice.

  “Hey, partner! Must be hot upstairs. Your mom’s got the heat blasting in there.”

  It was Henry with a bottle in one hand, lying on the old couch, covered in an even older blanket.

  “There’s no air like this in New York. Not even one breath full.”

  “I never thought of it that way.”

  “Well, it’s true. When I retire, I’m going to permanently plant my butt on this couch.”

  “Better talk to my mom. She might sell it.”

  “She wouldn’t. Would she?”

  We small-talked a little bit more and then I said I was going back to bed.

  “Let me help you up those stairs.”

  “It’s okay — really — I want to do it alone. If you hear a crash, come running. Otherwise, I’ll be fine.”

  “Suit yourself.”

  I went back inside, past the living room and the dining room and into the kitchen at the back of the house. We have a yellow phone in there that hangs on the wall, and I dialed Sarah’s number. I know — stupid — but I was out of options. It was a terrible risk, but I truly felt she was in trouble. If keeping her safe meant giving her up, then I was ready to pay that price.

 
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