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Skeleton creek, p.7
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       Skeleton Creek, p.7

           Patrick Carman
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  It rang four times and I almost hung up. Sarah’s mom answered. She sounded like I woke her.

  “Hello?”

  Already it felt like a mistake. But I had to keep going.

  “Hi, Mrs. Fincher. It’s me, Ryan.”

  “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”

  “I woke up worried about Sarah. I don’t know why. Could you do me a favor and make sure she’s okay?”

  “Hang on.”

  There was a long pause in which I thought I would crawl out of my own skin. My parents could come down any second. Sarah could be gone. Henry could walk in….

  After about ten years, Sarah’s mom came back on the line.

  “She’s asleep.”

  “Oh, that’s great. Okay, I’m fine now — sorry to bother you. Really sorry.”

  “Ryan, you can’t be calling here. You know that.”

  “Please don’t tell my parents — I was just worried — I haven’t talked to her in a while.”

  “How are you holding up?”

  “Great! I’m just great, Mrs. Fincher. The leg feels much better. Thanks for asking.”

  “Good night, Ryan.”

  “Night.”

  I don’t think she’s going to tell them. Or maybe that’s just my hope talking.

  I went back to my room as quietly as I could, which took a long time. When I got back in bed, I felt a wave of relief.

  Now, reading this over, I’m not sure. I think I did the right thing.

  All the other troubles in my life don’t matter as long as I know Sarah is safe.

  The truth about Skeleton Creek is not worth dying for.

  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 7:21 A.M.

  I don’t remember falling asleep. I woke to find this journal sitting at the foot of my bed with the pen tucked inside. Did I do that? I don’t think I did. Someone came in here and read it.

  There’s no other explanation.

  I know this because I don’t put the pen in like that and because I would never set it on the edge of my bed. It was Dad or Mom. Either way, I’m doomed. It’s so much harder to be careful when I’m too tired to keep my eyes open.

  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 7:35 A.M.

  I just checked my email, and Sarah’s sent me another video.

  SARAHFINCHER.COM PASSWORD:

  PETERQUINT

  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 7:38 A.M.

  She’s driving me crazy! Someone needs to get her under control. I can’t believe she actually went to the dredge — and that she’s planning on going back.

  Doesn’t she understand why I called last night?

  Doesn’t she realize she could get hurt? Or worse?

  And I can’t believe she’s going to make me wait to see what she found out yesterday. That’s such a Sarah thing to do — make me feel even more stuck than I felt before. It makes me furious when she holds out on me. She knows that. What I want to do is get my crutches and walk to her house. I’d tell her face-to-face to stop feeding me information with a spoon. What am I, a two-year-old? And while I was at it, I’d tell her to stop being so reckless. It’s the same thing all over again, only this time it will be her that gets hurt.

  (Is it me, or am I starting to sound a lot like my dad?)

  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 7:53 A.M.

  Sometimes I feel like Sarah is a lit match and I’m a stick of dynamite. Whatever it is that’s drawing us together will eventually lead to an explosion.

  No, wait — that’s not it — it’s different. It’s more like Sarah and I are polar opposites being pulled toward the same dangerous middle. Why can’t we be drawn together by something safe — like raising a cow for the state fair?

  Why does everything have to be so dangerous?

  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 8:15 A.M.

  Because a cow is a dull animal and raising one would be a dull undertaking.

  Dangerous is more exciting.

  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 8:35 A.M.

  The truth is I’m just mad because I can’t stand it that she’s having all the adventure and I’m stuck at home with this stupid cast and my meddling parents. She’s my best friend and it’s hard to be apart and to worry about her. And plus I miss her and I guess I’m lonely.

  I’m going online to figure out what an alchemist is.

  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 8:55 A.M.

  I’ve got a lot of studying to do. Alchemy is … deep and wide. Precious metals like gold and silver play an important part. Very interesting.

  Today I have to drive all the way into the city with my mom to see the doctor. He’s on call on Saturday mornings, so it worked out to have Mom drive me when she didn’t have to work. We’re leaving in half an hour, so I’ve only had time to print out a chart I found. I’m sticking it in here. I need to send an email to Sarah, too, so she can see this.

  He’s going to let me get out more — the doctor, I mean. I’m sure of it. Then I’ll feel better. Then I can do more. I could be useful. I could look around town for the alchemist or the secret society. I could even go to the dredge if I wanted to.

  I’ve felt this way before. I know what’s going on here.

  Sarah’s dragging me back in again.

  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 9:15 A.M.

  This is what I just wrote to her.

  And then I showed her the symbols

  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 10:50 A.M.

  We have a minivan, which my dad hates and will not drive. I personally like minivans. If you ask me, they get a bad rap. I like that both rows of seats come out and, with the doors shut, a whole sofa fits in there. I can see where that would be handy. And when we go on a long drive, there’s room to roam. I don’t have to sit in one place all the time. I’m restless, so I appreciate the options.

  Having a really long cast on my leg has given me a whole new reason to appreciate the spaciousness of this vehicle. Henry and my dad took the middle seats out and I’m sitting all the way in the back. Plenty of room to rest my leg, and I can write in peace back here. The suspension on this van is really pretty good. A writer can tell.

  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 1:15 P.M.

  Okay, I’m alone in the examining room, or whatever they call it.

  Since I didn’t want to risk anyone seeing the journal, I’m writing this in a regular notebook. I’ll paste these pages (and the page from the van) into the journal later.

  This was definitely a good idea. Because when I took the notebook out to write about the minivan — not exactly the most controversial of subjects — Mom kept looking in the rearview mirror. I could tell she wanted to know what I was writing. Maybe she was extra curious because she was the one who sneaked in and looked at my journal before. Maybe she was thinking she’d have to take a look at this new one soon.

  It’s the pits not being able to trust your own parents.

  Finally, while I was writing about the van’s suspension, she came right out and asked, “What’re you writing there, Ryan?”

  “Just stories,” I said. “Maybe I’ll show them to you one day.”

  “So you keep telling me.”

  I pretended to joke with her. “Then you haven’t read them?” I said lightly.

  Her tone was just as jokey. “Nope. Too busy feeding Henry and sorting mail.”

  “So I can trust you?”

  Then she got all serious.

  “It’s like faith,” she said. “You just have to believe. I can’t prove it to you.”

  This was, I think, a good answer.

  “Do you think dad has read my stories?” I ventured.

  She met my eye briefly in the rearview mirror, then looked back to the road. “If he has, he’s the biggest hypocrite in three counties. You know how he respects privacy. Worth its weight in gold, right?”

  “Right.”

  We drove a little bit more in silence. I wondered what she was thinking, because the next thing she asked was, “Have you emailed Sarah?”

  I lied and told her I hadn’t.

  “Trust goes both ways, you know
,” she said.

  I told her I knew.

  Being friends with Sarah makes me a liar. There’s no way around it.

  Why does everything have to be so complicated?

  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 5:20 P.M.

  Driving home now.

  Mom is watching. But I’m too far back for her to be able to read anything.

  Everything went fine at the hospital. The doctor cut the hard cast off my leg and replaced it with one that straps on even tighter than plaster. He made me promise to keep it on unless I’m in the shower (and even there I have to sit down on a chair). I asked the doctor if I could keep the cast and he said I could. I’m very excited to get home and surprise Henry with it.

  The doctor wants me to start walking around more, which is both good and bad since I’ll probably be going to the dredge tonight. Good because I’ll have a little more mobility with the lighter leg brace, bad because I’m more likely to reinjure myself if I have a reason to run away.

  It’s been a quiet drive home and I’ve been thinking about everything. So much has piled up in the past couple of days, I haven’t taken the time to try and piece it all together. I’m afraid of going back, especially at night. I don’t want to see Old Joe Bush come out of the black pond. What if he grabs me this time? Ever since I told Sarah I’d go with her, I’ve been thinking that he’ll get me and drag me down into the water with him. What a nightmare.

  I feel certain everything is connected, like Sarah said. The dredge, my dad, the Crossbones, the alchemist, the ghost of Old Joe Bush, even Ranger Bonner. I’m starting to work on a theory I’ll tell Sarah tonight.

  The worst thing I have to face is that the dredge really is haunted, and that I probably have to go back there. I wonder if I’ll drag my leg, and Old Joe Bush will think I’m making fun of him. He won’t like that.

  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 7:10 P.M.

  There are too many people around. I can’t risk checking the computer. I barely made it off the porch!

  Okay — I’ll admit it. I’m hiding in the bathroom, so I can at least have time to write a few things down.

  I am DYING to get to my room and hear from Sarah. I can only hope my mom and dad don’t go up there, check my email, and see that Sarah has sent me a video to watch. That would be a catastrophe.

  But they’re pretty busy right now, so I think I’m okay.

  I hope I’m okay.

  Henry and Dad caught two monster steelhead today and decided to have a fish feed on the front porch. I hate fish feeds. About a million neighbors have come over with potato salad, coleslaw, baked beans, and potato chips. I’ve been sitting on the gold couch for over an hour suffering question after question about my accident. Nobody wants to come right out and ask what I was doing at the dredge, but I can tell they want to know. I can tell they have theories.

  Nobody mentions Sarah’s name. All these neighbors who’ve seen us grow up together.

  Not a single one.

  I know I can’t stay in here forever, but it’s the only place people will leave me alone. It’s cooling down outside, but a fish feed is a big deal in a town as dull as Skeleton Creek. No one’s likely to leave until their teeth start chattering.

  There’s an oppressive feeling of secrecy in the air, and it’s intensified by the size of the crowd.

  When I was five, Dad took me fishing on the creek. He hooked a nice trout and handed me the rod. We dragged it in together, his big hand over mine on the reel. Then he took the fish off the hook and bashed its head against a rock until it was dead. I cried all the way home.

  I always throw all my fish back. After I catch them, I mean — I throw them back.

  I’d rather hold a fish underwater after I catch it and let it pump its gills in my hand until it’s ready to swim off. I talk to the fish I catch. Be careful now. I’m a nice fisherman, but the next guy might take you home and cook you. Tell your buddies.

  It makes me sad the way we kill things without any reason. Why beat the life out of a wild trout when there’s perfectly good canned tuna down at the store?

  Henry is having a poker party tonight. He was thrilled to have my old cast at his disposal and thanked me endlessly. Cards will probably go until about midnight, which means it won’t be safe for me to leave the house for a long time.

  I need to tell Sarah.

  Gladys the librarian showed up at the fish feed with a bag of carrots. She came over a half hour ago and held one out to me.

  “Eat one of these. It’ll help you see trouble coming,” she said.

  All I could sputter out was, “Yes ma’am.”

  I got the chills when she turned to go. I was thinking in terms of the Alchemist Diagram of 79.

  The floor and 7th, four past the nine on door number two = library attic, enter through the alley door marked 213.

  I feel like she’s involved. But how?

  Our park ranger, Daryl Bonner, also showed up. It was strange to see him, because I had to pretend I didn’t know what he looked like. I actually went out of my way to ask my dad who he was. Luckily, he wasn’t wearing a park ranger outfit or anything, so I didn’t sound too out of it. He brought a frozen Gardenburger with him, and my dad dropped it on the grill like a hockey puck. The two of them talked quietly until Henry came over and gave Bonner a hard time.

  “Those are made of dog food,” Henry said. “Did you know that?”

  “I hadn’t heard.”

  All three of them swigged their drinks and stared at the hockey puck on the grill.

  “We just had our fourth player drop out. Care to play cards tonight?”

  “I’d be delighted.”

  “Bring one of those frozen Frisbees. I have an idea I could use one.”

  Being new in town, Daryl has no idea that Henry might be duct-taping the frozen Gardenburger to his forehead before the night is over. I feel a little sorry for him.

  And I also feel really strange that we’re under the same roof.

  I think I’m going to tell my mom I’m tired. Maybe she’ll let me go upstairs and lie down.

  There’s enough noise that it’ll make sense for my door to be closed.

  I just hope they won’t realize it’s also locked.

  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 7:30 P.M.

  My clothes smell like fried fish, which makes me mad at Henry and Dad for going on a killing spree on the river today. You’d think grown men would know better.

  It doesn’t seem like anyone’s been in here. I mean, Dad’s been with Henry and I’ve been with Mom. I should be safe. Plus, they assume there’s no activity because I haven’t been here. But Sarah’s sent me a new password. Finally I’ll get to see what she hinted at this morning.

  I’ve heard that name — Lucy Westenra — but I can’t place it. Who is that? Peter Quint, I knew — but Lucy … I know I’ve heard that name before. I’ll have to look it up later.

  Now, I have a video to watch.

  SARAHFINCHER.COM PASSWORD:

  LUCYWESTENRA

  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 7:55 A.M.

  This is too much.

  Sarah thinks Joe Bush was killed by the alchemist.

  But we don’t know who the alchemist is, or even if there’s only one of them.

  And she thinks Joe Bush’s ghost is guarding something. Well, not exactly guarding. He’s haunting the place where the alchemist keeps his secrets. Waiting to take revenge.

  But what about the dredge? What about that secret handle she seems to have found, which appears to have vanished between then and now, in a place that was supposedly untouched?

  What about what I saw?

  She can’t go back there.

  It’s too dangerous.

  Especially if she’s alone.

  I can’t believe I’m even thinking of going back.

  In my condition.

  But there won’t be any way to stop her, short of calling in our parents.

  And I can’t do that.

  That would be the end of everything.


  I have to get there myself.

  It’s already dark. Pretty soon someone will be wearing my cast at the poker table, holding their cards with oven mitts. I can go down there and watch for an hour and see if I can guess how late they’ll go. Some of the players are pretty old, so hopefully things will break up by midnight. Which will give me over an hour.

  Okay — I just emailed Sarah. This is what I said.

  I hope I can escape the house without getting caught.

  SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 10:00 P.M.

  I just went downstairs without telling anyone so I could see how fast I’d get to the bottom without making any noise or falling on my face. No one saw me, so I did it twice. The second time was slower and more painful than the first, but that was mostly because I’d just come back up and I was winded. The brace is still big and heavy but I can move a little better. I think I can do this. If I take one of the crutches with me I’ll be fine.

  When I arrived on the porch, the poker game was in full swing. The burn barrel had been moved up next to the card table where it blazed with warmth and orange light. Ranger Bonner was wearing a football helmet, and when he nodded in my direction it wobbled up and down over his brow. I felt like everyone was taking turns staring at me, like they were trying to have a good time but my being there made them suspicious. Ranger Bonner and my dad especially. They kept glancing at each other, then at me. It was very unnerving.

  I felt like I was ruining Henry’s card game, so I lied and said I was turning in for the night. No one tried to stop me.

  I give it another hour — two at the most — and my mom will tell everyone to clear out.

 
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