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The crossbones, p.8
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       The Crossbones, p.8

           Patrick Carman
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  She encouraged me in the best way she knew how: by telling me she wouldn’t be surprised if I turned for home without ever going underground.

  I reminded her that, technically, even if I could get in, it would be breaking and entering. The Portland Underground is city property. They give tours down there and stuff, so it’s not like it’s totally abandoned.

  I couldn’t do it. After staying in the car until almost 11:00 p.m., I walked the three blocks to Chinatown and realized, um, yeah, not a great place to hang around at night. Lots of shady-looking characters and all-night bars. And it gets worse. The place where the Apostle showed a secret entrance? There’s a building sitting on top of it. It must not have been there fifty years ago, but this makes it official: I’m not getting in there unless I take one of the tours.

  If something big is hidden underground, I won’t be able to remove it without getting caught.

  More bad news. It’s piling up, which makes me feel more than ever that I made a big mistake coming here. After I moved the car to a truck stop on I-5 and ate pancakes for dinner at the all-night diner, I decided I better add more oil to the clunker. My hands got all gross and I went for the glove box, hoping to find an extra rag or old napkins in there. What I found instead took my breath away. I sat in the driver’s seat numb, unable to move.

  There was a cell phone in there and it was on. I’d never seen it before, and there was only one reason why it would be in my mom’s glove box: GPS.

  My parents had put it there so they’d know if I drove out of town. I knew how these things worked. All a person had to do was go online and put in the cell phone number. It would show where I was within about twenty feet.

  What a sinking feeling.

  They knew what I was doing.

  My mom, she knew where I was. She’d always known.

  Maybe that’s why she kept asking me: Where are you? What are your plans?

  How many times had I lied to her while she sat staring at a hotel computer screen, knowing good and well I was not minding the fly shop in Skeleton Creek?

  What a disaster.

  On the off chance that she hadn’t actually checked the thing yet, I turned it off. If it didn’t work, they couldn’t prove I’d gone anywhere.

  Lies upon lies upon lies. It never stops with just one.

  One is always just the beginning. Count on it.

  The first Underground tour starts in an hour, and I’m parked a block away. At this point, if I’m extremely lucky, I’ll get back to Skeleton Creek before dark. One flat tire and I’m hosed. My dad is picking my mom up at the airport at 8:00 p.m., then it’s ninety minutes to the house.

  9:30 p.m. is the latest I can go.

  Wait until they find out I drove all the way to Portland and back. What a fun conversation that’s going to be.

  Signing off until I finish the task at hand.

  Underground tunnels full of black tar, here I come.

  Horrible, horrible, horrible! It was bad down there. HE WAS THERE.

  I don’t have time to write, gotta drive or I’ll never make it back in time!!

  I’m freaking out.

  The unthinkable has happened, but at least I can take comfort in my journal, since I’m not driving.

  Blow out. Fourteen hours on four bald tires — I should have known better.

  This is going to set me back another hour while I’m stuck in Pendleton, Oregon. By some miracle I blew the front right tire next to an off-ramp and rolled right off the freeway into a gas station. The attendant told me I was a moron for driving a hundred yards on a flat. It’s amazing what adults will say to a teenager. If it weren’t for the fact that I was in such a rush and the tire had begun shredding off the rim, I’d have burned rubber right out of that place for the insult. Not that my mom’s minivan can burn rubber, but I dreamt it could as I stared at this good-for-nothing mechanic. There were also six-foot flames shooting out of the tailpipe in my dream, which torched his stupid mustache off.

  Ninety-two bucks and an hour — that’s what it’s going to take, which will leave me with barely enough gas money to get home.

  Sarah knows everything. I told her already. She called in sick today and stayed in her room just so she could be there for me. What a friend — I mean, really. I hadn’t done that for her even once on her long trek across the country. She said now she knows how I feel when she goes out and does crazy things. It’s not as fun as she thought it would be. In fact, it was way worse than doing things herself — at least that’s what she said. It was the first time we’d walked in each other’s shoes, and I think we both had a lot more sympathy for the other from that point on.

  I recorded bits and pieces of my harrowing trip underground on my phone. Each one was like thirty seconds or something, small enough to email. I sent them to Sarah while I was running to the car. It was the last thing I did before tearing out of Portland and hitting the highway for home. I didn’t even know what was on those small files — it could’ve been nothing, but she posted them already. I think it’s just in her nature to cut things up, make them better, and put them on her site. She felt bad for me, I could tell. And she was scared. I think doing the work made her feel better.

  I wish I hadn’t sat on this curb and watched.



  When you’re underground, it doesn’t matter if it’s day or night outside. It’s cold down there, shadows bounce on thin light, and you can’t stop thinking about how you’re going to get out when the trouble starts.

  I did a good job of losing the group when I realized where I was on the Apostle’s map. No one seemed to care about the disheveled teenager who’d gone missing. The route the Apostle sent me on led quickly to a roped-off area screaming with no admittance signs. In that section the walls came in close and the light was almost nonexistent. I fished my flashlight out of my backpack and kept at it, twisting and turning as the ceiling got lower and lower. By the time I reached what appeared to be the last turn, I couldn’t hear the tour guide’s voice anymore and I was slouched over like an old man.

  I was lost in a labyrinth of underground tunnels, alone in the dark.

  Or so I thought.

  Now that I’m sitting on the hot June pavement, staring at my phone and watching the video footage I captured, I realized something: I wasn’t just having a mental breakdown.

  The ghost of Old Joe Bush really was there. My paranoid brain didn’t make that up.

  He was sitting on a wooden crate, staring off to the side, moving in that otherworldly way he has — fast, then slow, then fast again. His voice was sand and dirt, as if it hadn’t had a drop of water in a decade. And if I’m not mistaken, this thing had definitely turned benevolent. In other words, this ghost wanted to help me. It wanted to protect me. Who am I to care if it’s Henry or some possessed version of Henry or not Henry at all? The point is, if I tell my dad or the cops or whoever, there’s a chance me and Sarah might end up all alone out here.

  And according to the ghost of Old Joe Bush, we’re in real danger. Because this other guy, the Raven, doesn’t mess around.

  Apparently, we’ve upset him and he’s out for blood. The fact that I found what I came for in the Portland Underground is a real problem.

  I know this in part because of what I was told down there, but even more because of what I found down there, which I refuse to write in this journal until I get safely back to Skeleton Creek.

  I’m not even sure what it is.

  All I know is I gotta get home and fast or I’ll be grounded for the rest of my life.

  Who am I kidding? When my dad finds out what I did, my life as I know it will be over.

  One flat tire and a whole lot of oil later, I’m finally home. Unfortunately, I’m not the only person who’s here. I’ve pulled off to the curb on Main Street and I can see my dad’s pickup sitting in the driveway.

  Is there a worse feeling than staring at your dad’s truck, knowing he
’s inside, knowing you’re in trouble? If there is, I haven’t felt it.

  It might be a while before I get back to my journal, and it’s a fair bet they’ll take my phone and my laptop the second I walk in the door. One last text to Sarah, then it’s time to face the music.

  I’m home safe. Hope to bust this thing wide open within the hour but I may not have a phone. Hold tight!

  See you on the other side.

  I’m alone again, and this time, it’s a good thing. A lot has happened in the past twenty-four hours, all of which I just got done telling to Sarah. So that’s the first thing — they gave me my phone back. It’s funny how finding something incredible — like gold or treasure — will cover a multitude of lies and deceptions.

  When I got home, my parents freaked out, but not in the way that I expected them to. They didn’t yell at me or start taking my things — they did the opposite. My mom hugged me, hard, for a long time. She kept saying how sorry she was that she’d left me home alone. My dad touched me on the shoulder, and when I looked at him there were tears in his eyes. I wouldn’t have imagined they’d be that worried, but the truth was, they still hadn’t recovered from almost losing me on the dredge. What kind of crazy son did they have? How much longer would I even be alive? I’d made it clear I was a reckless kid, untrustworthy, heading for the rocks.

  It was the first time in my life that I felt something deeper than guilt. I felt remorse. Remorse for making my parents feel as if they might lose me at any moment. They’d done a good job raising me, but I had to imagine that I was making them feel like they were the lamest parents on earth. What kind of parents raise a son who can’t stop putting his life at risk?

  The lovefest lasted about a minute, then the hammer came down and I was reminded that, yes, my parents did know how to discipline me. Not only was I going to have this new and crummy feeling of remorse for a while, I was also getting grounded and working at the fly shop with no pay until every hour I’d left the shop closed had been made up times ten (my dad’s logic being that we’d lost a lot of sales while I was out joyriding). There were two places I could go: home and the fly shop. By some miracle of good luck, they let me keep my phone and my laptop, and for this I was incredibly thankful. Not being able to tell Sarah what was going on for days on end would have been impossibly hard.

  After the hugs and the consequences, I came clean about Portland. I wouldn’t call it squeaky clean, but I told them a lot. I did not, however, mention the road trip Sarah had been on and the many stops she’d made. I shortened my story by a long shot and stuck to only the facts I absolutely needed to share, which were these:

  — I found an encoded message in the dredge, but I didn’t tell anyone about it. (Technically, this is true.)

  — The message has been lost, so I can’t show it to anyone. Sorry about that. (This one is a stretch, unless you count “under my mattress” as lost. But I couldn’t show the Skull Puzzle to just anyone. I had to keep it safe.)

  — Part two of the message was hidden in Portland, which is why I had to go there. It felt important. (Again, technically true.)

  — I found what I went looking for, and it led right back where I started: Skeleton Creek.

  — The Crossbones is older and more mysterious than anyone imagined. They stole things and hid them. I think I may have found one of these things. (I did not go into any detail about the Crossbones. There was more to find, and I didn’t want anyone trying to stop me.)

  My dad was curious about a lot of what I’d said, but mostly, he was interested in one thing.

  “What do you mean you found something?”

  I could tell what he was thinking: The last time my son discovered a hidden stash of whatever, it ended up being worth forty million dollars. Maybe he was thinking about expanding the fly shop, I don’t know, but his tone had changed. Ryan McCray, the guy who saved the town from ruin, had found something else. This could be good.

  It was 10:40 at night, but I went ahead and set things in motion, anyway.

  “We’re going to need to talk with Gladys Morgan,” I said.

  “What in the world do you want with her?” my mom asked.

  “She’s got the keys to the library, and I need to get in there.”

  My dad was already pulling out his cell phone, looking at me like What else do you need, son? Can I get you a Coke? It was bizarre, but it gave me the freedom to really go for it.

  “I’m going to need a crowbar and the biggest hammer you can find. An ax might be helpful.”

  “Honey, get the boy an ax,” my dad said, and then he was at the tiny Skeleton Creek phone book (it was a pamphlet, really), dialing Gladys Morgan’s home phone.

  It was kind of hilarious when she answered. My dad had to pull the phone away from his ear, and even I could hear her yell, “Who in the blankety blank blank is calling me in the middle of the night?!”

  There’s something darn funny about an old librarian with a potty mouth. Even my dad was smiling.

  We walked down Main Street carrying the tools we were going to need: I had the ax, my mom had the crowbar, and my dad had a sledgehammer. We must have looked like a gang in search of a midnight rumble. I imagined we were walking in slow motion, like in a movie trailer, which was just dumb enough to make me smile.

  If Gladys Morgan was concerned when we’d called, she was downright out of her mind with worry when we showed up carrying tools of destruction.

  “You’re not coming in here with an ax and a giant hammer! Forget it!”

  The time had come, there on the steps, to spill some of the beans.

  “Gladys,” I said, “your library has something very important in it. It’s been there a long time, since before you showed up, and I think you’ll be pleased if you let me rip the floor apart.”

  Gladys barred the door with her body and looked at my dad like his son had lost his marbles. We couldn’t get her away from the door until my dad called the mayor, a known night owl, and told him what was going on. Mayor Blake is maybe the most opportunistic person I’ve ever met, and the idea that something else of serious value might be hidden in Gladys’s library was all he needed to hear. The building was owned by the city, he had his own keys, and he was there in under five minutes.

  Gladys waited on the front steps, too distraught to look, while my mom comforted her as the ax came down. My dad is about as good as anyone I know at ripping things apart, and he made quick work of the old floorboards. Once we had a hole in the middle of the small room, the mayor went to work with the crowbar, prying up board after board. When the opening was four feet in diameter, we were all down on our knees peering inside.

  There was a giant trunk down there, too big for one guy to lift out, but the adrenaline was pumping and so the mayor and the fly-shop proprietor of Skeleton Creek heaved it up into the library in no time.

  When they opened it up, there was a severe case of disappointment written on both their faces. My dad looked at me as if I’d just bankrupted the family. The mayor was ashen. Not only had he destroyed a perfectly good floor, he’d almost certainly incurred the wrath of the cantankerous town librarian, a very bad move.

  It was Gladys who saved me.

  I pulled an envelope out of my pocket, the same size and shape and color as the one I’d found on the dredge. Only this one had been hidden in the Portland Underground for who knew how long. I took out the card inside and showed it to my librarian.

  X marked the spot on the floor of the town library, with the words:

  Jefferson Library, 287 volumes.

  Gladys Morgan looked at the card, then the trunk of books, then the card.

  If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn she almost fainted and fell into the gaping hole we’d just created in her floor.

  She pulled one of the books out — perfect condition — then another and another. She ran her weathered fingers over the spines.

  The mayor, sensing all was not lost, ventured a question.

  “Are you going
to punch me, Gladys Morgan?”

  She didn’t answer. In fact, I don’t recall how long she remained quiet, but eventually she broke her silence and smiled like I had never seen her smile before. It was the smile of a person who loved books and had found a rare and priceless treasure of words.

  The Crossbones had tried to burn Jefferson’s house to the ground. They’d tried to drive him into bankruptcy more than once. Those things didn’t do him in, but there was one thing they knew he loved more than anything in the world: books. The Jefferson Library became the nation’s library eventually, the very beginning of the Library of Congress. But to this day — almost two hundred years later — 287 books from that library had remained missing. The most precious books of the 6,487-volume collection had never been found.

  Until now.

  Me and Sarah had found the rarest collection of books in the country — the missing books from the Thomas Jefferson Library — hidden beneath our own crummy little library all this time.

  You have never seen a prouder librarian in all your life.

  Could there be a more perfect day to reveal our discovery to the rest of the world? I don’t think so. Independence Day, our mayor called a press conference on the steps of our town library. Gladys stood on one side, I stood on the other, and the TV cameras rolled. Not only was Skeleton Creek home to a haunted dredge filled with gold, it was also the resting place of the nation’s most-sought-after collection of missing books. What was it worth? Priceless, he gushed.

  The books would be returned to the Library of Congress and the hole in the floor of our quaint little room of books on Main Street would never be filled. The ax that flew and crowbar that pried would remain right where they’d been used. It would, in time, become a location as important as the home of the Liberty Bell or the Oregon Trail. A tourist attraction every family should see at least once in their lifetime.

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