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The crossbones, p.7
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       The Crossbones, p.7

           Patrick Carman
 
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  Me: I hate this.

  Sarah: Price you pay for staying home.

  Me: Not fair.

  Sarah: Neither is digging up a grave alone at midnight.

  Me: Ouch.

  Sarah: I’m peeling off from the group. Hang tight.

  Four minutes went by before she was back.

  Sarah: That was close. Almost got caught.

  Me: What? Did you get it???

  Sarah: I got it.

  And that was it. She had the last clue the Apostle had left behind in her hot little hands, and it was only 2:42.

  Ahead of schedule.

  Longest day of my life. There is nothing more frustrating than having a reel of 8mm film sitting in the backseat of a car that you can’t watch until you get to an outlet, plug in the dang projector, and point it to a wall. SO annoying. Sarah had the gall to drive back to LA first and check into her dorm room. She was arriving at the UCLA campus just after 8:00 p.m. Her roommate was a local girl who wasn’t scheduled in until Monday morning, when the weeklong camp would begin, so the room was all hers.

  During the next hour she called me twice, once to let me know she’d done all the pleasantries and landed in her room safely, the second time after watching the last Apostle video. In typical maddening Sarah fashion, she wouldn’t tell me what it revealed, only that she’d figured out where the last location was by watching the Apostle. I badgered her for information, but she wasn’t having any of it.

  “Give me a few hours and you’ll have your chance” was all she’d say.

  I knew better than to push Sarah. If I texted her too many times for answers she’d make me wait until morning. She was a filmmaker and this was her big finale. For Sarah, spilling the beans on the phone would be like me reading the last page of a book while I was still in the middle of the story. I got that, but it didn’t make me any less crazy.

  I spent the next three hours staring at the Skull Puzzle and the map, wondering where this was all leading and how Sarah would get to the last location. One thing was for sure: It would have to wait a week, because there was no way we could spring her from camp now that she was in. We’d been incredibly lucky to get her there without finding our way into serious trouble.

  At 11:30 p.m., a text message showed up on my phone.

  Check your email. I’m a zombie — totally wiped out — me go sleep now.

  I could hardly blame her. Seven days, five thousand miles, and four haunted locations — Sarah had done ten times the work I had, and she deserved some rest before what was sure to be a grueling week of filmmaking.

  I fired up my Sarah-only Gmail account and found her message.

  What was that all about? I had a bad feeling the last location was going to be right here at home in Skeleton Creek, the one place I didn’t want it to be. It would mean I’d be the one digging a grave at midnight or some other kind of unthinkable horror.

  Unfortunately for me, the news was even worse.

  Rainsford.

  Nice password, Sarah. The main character from “The Most Dangerous Game,” a short story we’d both read in the same junior high class a few years ago. We’d both loved the idea: Rainsford lands on an island and finds he’s being hunted like a wild animal. Did Sarah think I was about to be Rainsford in our story? And if so, who was going to do the hunting? The Raven, Winchester’s ghost, or some other creature of the night?

  You’ll have to watch the video to find out. That’s what I had to do.

  sarahfincher.com

  password:

  rainsford

  It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out I’m in big trouble.

  The final location is closer to me than it is to Sarah. Those four words: UNDER, PORT, GROUND, LAND — could only spell out one place: PORTLAND UNDERGROUND. I wrote the words onto the Skull Puzzle and stared at them:

  Even if we could wait a week, which I don’t think we can, Portland is a solid fifteen-hour drive in the wrong direction for Sarah. There is no way to get her there, even after camp ends.

  So really, it wouldn’t matter if we waited a week or a month. Sarah wouldn’t be able to do it.

  This time, the task is going to fall to me.

  I’m going to have to leave Skeleton Creek, make the seven-hour drive to Portland, and find what we’ve been looking for.

  I have a bad feeling about the ghost of Old Joe Bush on this one. The first time I saw him, I’d just gotten done climbing a long set of stairs up into the rafters of the dredge. This time, if he shows up again, I’ll be under the earth in an ancient tunnel.

  It feels like I’m about to walk into my own grave and never return.

  I know what I need to do, but I SO do not want to do it. I left home early this morning and came back down to the café to think. Today is going to be busy at the shop, getting everything ready for the two-day river run. It’s a trip I’ve decided I can’t make, even though the thought of letting Fitz have my slot is nearly killing me.

  What choice do I have? The stars have aligned, and even though I’m bound to get into some serious trouble over this, I have no choice. My dad will be gone all day Tuesday and Wednesday. Later today he’ll drive my mom to the Boise airport so she can fly to Seattle. So what does that mean? It means I could be all alone Tuesday and most of Wednesday. No one will be back at the house until eight or nine Wednesday night. This is probably my only chance.

  I can’t believe I’m even having this conversation with myself. Am I honestly willing to fake an injury, get in my mom’s minivan, and drive to Portland? If I do this and they catch me, I might never drive again. They’ll take away my laptop and my phone. My relationship with Sarah will dry up if we can’t stay connected, and my summer will turn isolated and lonely. Fitz will outfish and out–fly-tie me all summer. It will be depressing.

  And all this so I can complete an insane journey.

  It’s an awful lot to risk, but I’ve decided it’s worth it.

  Now more than ever it’s painfully obvious that Sarah is worldlier than I am. She’s in LA at film school, for crying out loud. She just drove across the entire country! And she’s right. This is going to be good for me. Scary, but good for me. I need to get out of this place, do something wild. I need to be the one who faces his fears for once.

  I’ve printed out a copy of that last sheet of paper the Apostle held up, and I know what it is. It’s how to get into the Portland Underground at night. It’s how to find what I’m looking for once I’m down there.

  Here comes Fitz on his old motorcycle.

  Time to put phase one of my plan into action.

  It’s good to make your friends happy once in a while, even if it means you’ll be staring a ghost in the face for doing it. I limped out of the café and onto the sidewalk as Fitz pulled over. Blue smoke from the tailpipe drifted into my face and I about gagged. The combination of aromas from the café and his oil-spewing motorcycle was not the rosiest mix.

  “Did you hook your toe or what?” Fitz asked me. I swear, Fitz cannot imagine anything in life not being somehow related to fishing.

  “Fell down the stairs at home, reinjured it,” I lied. I’d already tried this lie out on my mom and dad, and they’d both fell for it hook, line, and sinker. (Oh, no. I’m becoming Fitz. Note to self: No more fishing metaphors.)

  “That’s a bummer. Rowing for two days is gonna kill.”

  “Don’t I know it — which is why I’m not going. Looks like you got the gig.”

  “No way! You serious?”

  Fitz was beaming. There is nothing a trout bum loves more than leaving the world entirely behind and basically living on the river for days, not hours in a row. He was happier than I’d ever seen him before, which actually felt pretty good.

  The good feeling went away pretty quick when I fake-hobbled back into the café and slumped down in my booth.

  Was I really doing this?

  How in the world did I even end up in this situation? Voluntarily giving up the best fishing trip of the year, lyin
g to my parents, taking risks like I’d never taken before — it all added up to a serious case of the crazies.

  Sarah and I were right back where we always ended up.

  On the edge of disaster.

  My mom is on a plane to Seattle. Her piece-of-junk minivan is parked in the gravel on the side of the house. The tires are pretty bald, which makes me nervous. Will that thing even make it to Portland and back?

  Maybe I should take the bus.

  Fitz just took off to clear the trip with his dad, which means he’s going to be gone for a while. They cut trees until dark just like we fish until dark, and my dad’s leaving bright and early. Fitz knows the general area where his dad is cutting, but not exactly. He could be gone for a few hours, during which time I’ll have to gimp around the shop and wince in pain as much as possible while I help my dad pack for the float trip.

  I hate maintaining a lie almost as much as I hate telling it in the first place. Every step I take is a reminder of how I’m flat-out deceiving my parents.

  My dad is going to kill me if I get caught.

  It took Fitz forever to get back, but he’s a go.

  Everything is set.

  Tomorrow morning, my dad will drive the truck two hours up into a no-cell zone, one raft in the bed of the truck and the other pulled behind. He’ll pick up Fitz on the way, so the old motorcycle doesn’t get left in front of the shop half the week. The truth is, I think my dad believes if it’s sitting there while he and Fitz are gone, I’ll be tempted to go joyriding all over town. Actually, under different circumstances, that would probably be true. I’d love to ride that thing, but Fitz is very protective.

  The four guys my dad is guiding will follow in their own car, then they’ll spend an hour doing the song and dance to move a rig twenty miles downstream. Unload the boats, drive both rigs down, leave the truck behind. When the trip is over, they’ll load up the boats and my dad will drive upriver with one of the clients to get their car. I know, complicated, but it’s the only way to run twenty miles of river without a long walk at the end.

  The last thing Fitz said to me before he took off for home was thanks. He really did appreciate that I’d gotten my leg all bent out of shape just in time for what might be the only overnight fishing trip of the entire summer.

  I couldn’t begrudge the guy. I’d have felt the same way, I suppose. But it was a little like watching your friend get injured in the biggest football game of the year so you could take his spot on the team.

  It’s not the kind of thing you should thank someone for.

  My mom called twice to check on me, which made me feel like a ten-year-old. Sarah’s right; I gotta get out of here. I’m sixteen, not ten, and I’m suffocating in Skeleton Creek. Sarah was smart to get out while she still could. Me, I’ll probably be running the fly shop and sitting on the front porch feeding my parents soup through a straw when I’m fifty.

  There’s no denying the facts.

  1) I am lame.

  2) I’m too chicken to leave town and I might not go through with it.

  Luckily for me, right when I was feeling most sorry for myself, Sarah sent me an email. It was maybe the best email I’ve ever gotten in my life.

  She’s right; I can do this.

  I will do this.

  Tomorrow, life changes for me.

  I’m leaving Skeleton Creek.

  I wrote her back.

  I know, I know, I know! I should have left by now. If I’m not careful it’s going to be dark before I get there and that will be a disaster. NO WAY am I going down there alone at night. I’m not even sure I could get in there at night. The map the Apostle showed seems to indicate that I could, but was drawn, what, fifty years ago? I doubt that entrance even exists anymore.

  Last night I had a nightmare of Old Joe Bush following me down a corridor with an ax. I was standing in black tar up to my knees, trying to run away, but he just floated closer and closer. When I got down on my knees and felt the tar filling my lungs, I woke up covered in sweat. I was too afraid to get out of bed, so I just lay there shivering in the dark. A light breeze blew my curtain away from the window, and I saw him.

  He was there. It was no shadow or tree limb.

  The ghost of Old Joe Bush was watching me, his head bigger than ever in the black night. He was staring at me while I climbed out of a tar-filled dream, wondering what I was going to do when morning came.

  I turned away and couldn’t bring myself to look back. I just lay there, texting Sarah over and over: He’s here. He’s here. He’s here.

  But she never answered.

  Somehow, against all my efforts to stay awake, I fell back asleep in the early morning before light and didn’t wake back up until my dad was pounding on the door at eight, yelling for me to get up. Skeleton Creek was an early morning town; it was part of the culture. Waking up at eight was what lazy city folks did.

  “I’m leaving in fifteen — let’s go over the rules once more,” he said, obviously not pleased I’d snoozed so late. He didn’t trust me with the shop while he was gone, but I was all he had.

  I was going to let him down, that was a fact, and it left a hollow feeling in my gut.

  When I showed up on the porch downstairs in my shorts and a wrinkled T-shirt, my dad gave me my marching orders for the millionth time. No driving, bring a lunch so the shop stays open, don’t bug your mother.

  “I don’t think I’ll have to worry about bugging Mom. I bet she’ll call me ten times today.”

  It was true. She hardly ever left town, and I was going to be home alone. I made the mistake of following my dad as he walked down the steps of our porch to his pickup.

  The limp was gone, forgotten in a sea of black tar the night before.

  “Looks like your leg is feeling better,” Dad said. Was he suspicious or just surprised? I couldn’t tell.

  “It still hurts, but yeah, it’s starting to bounce back.”

  “Too late to change plans or I would, champ. Lay low, get better, we’ll get you out there on the next one.”

  As my dad opened the squeaky door to his old truck, I felt a depth of guilt the size of the Hindenburg. He actually felt bad for me for missing out. He’d called me champ, a rare treat.

  And I was about to deceive him big-time. Here he was leaving me in charge of the fly shop, and I wasn’t even going to be here.

  All I could think of at that moment was that it wouldn’t be worth it. No matter what I found out there, I’d lose my dad’s respect and trust in the process.

  That’s why it’s taking me so long to pull out of the carport.

  I’m sitting in the van, staring out the window. My hands are shaking.

  I’ve been sitting here for almost an hour.

  I’m leaving.

  It’s a seven-hour drive to Portland if I don’t stop, and I just stopped. Sarah had her Steak ‘n Shake, her Waffle House, her Cracker Barrel. Me, I’m at the Kmart loading up on everything I forgot. I packed food for the road, since the smell of fast food in a car makes me want to barf. I was so stressed this morning I forgot to bring a shovel. I loaded my backpack with every kind of tool I could think of: screwdrivers, files, a hammer, a hatchet (for protection against zombies and vampires), but I’d neglected to bring a shovel. I found a folding one for camping that fits in my backpack, grabbed one of the sandwiches I made and a Mountain Dew, and I’m heading back on the road. Should hit Portland by 8:00 p.m.

  My mom is on schedule. She has called my cell phone five times.

  I’ve lied each time. As far as she’s concerned, I’m sitting in a fly shop in Skeleton Creek.

  Bad, bad, bad, bad news! This van hasn’t been more than an hour out of Skeleton Creek in five years, and now I know why. Because it’s a piece of junk! I’m stuck an hour outside of Portland at some gas station adding oil. The attendant gave me four more cans and said, “She’s a leaker, but there’s not much you can do about it unless you want to replace the transmission, which would cost twice as much as this thing
is worth.”

  He told me to stop every hundred miles and pour in another can, and that I should be prepared for the whole thing to go belly-up at any moment.

  Not what I needed.

  I called and texted Sarah, but she’s locked down in class. All I got was this text at 4:00 p.m.:

  Pick up cell = get yelled at. Stay calm! I’m off the grid until break at 8

  Perfect.

  Just stopped to load a can of oil and use the bathroom. Last rest stop before Portland. The burning oil smell of the engine makes me sick. Either that or it’s my nerves.

  It’s going to be dark in an hour.

  At least my mom is at the Bon Jovi concert, where she’ll stop calling me every hour.

  It’s the little things that keep a guy going.

  Driving in traffic is — wow — harder than I thought it would be. I’m amazed I didn’t plow right into the big river that cuts through downtown Portland. At least I got here in one piece and figured out how to parallel park. It helped that there were three spots in a row, but still. I have parked!

  The trick now is getting out of the car, which I do not think I can do.

  Oil is leaking onto the pavement. I can smell it. In my imagination, I can see it hissing as it hits the hot pavement.

  I’ll never forget that smell.

  Sarah called me, or I would have left sooner. No, seriously, I would have. Really, what does it matter? The Portland Underground is closed, anyway. It’s dark outside. When I go in just doesn’t matter. Maybe I’ll wait until midnight, make it as creepy as I can. If I’m going to overcome my deepest fears, I might as well go all the way.

 
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