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Caught in the Neuse

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Caught in the Neuse

by Christopher D. Carter, © 2016

Text and Illustration Copyright © 2016 Christopher D. Carter

All Rights Reserved

Also by Christopher Carter available at ebook retailers:

Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 1 – 5 (Book 1)

Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound 6 – 12 (Book 2)

Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound Annual 3, 13 – 21 (Book 3)

Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound Annual 1

Uncanny Tales of Crush and Pound Annual 2

Children’s Books

When Kitty Came to Visit

Discover other titles by Christopher D. Carter at

[+ https://www.Shakespir.com/profile/view/SawdustEntertainment+]

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Table of Contents

Foreword

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Epilogue

About the Author

Foreword

*

I was sitting down one day last summer (2016), thinking about the 1970’s and 80’s, the days when I grew up from a child to a teenager, and I was feeling pretty nostalgic about the good times that came along with those bittersweet and confusing days of adolescence. In that age, there were the great drive-in movie theaters still in existence, where anybody’s mom could pile all the kids in the neighborhood into one car and pay one price to get everybody inside for Star Wars, E.T., or Raiders of the Lost Ark for a cheap price on a Saturday night. A bucket of buttered popcorn never tasted so good.

The 70’s and 80’s also introduced the world to affordable home video games and the Atari 2600. Adventure. Asteroids. Space Invaders. I spent many an hour in front of a cathode ray black-and-white television, blasting aliens or fighting dragons that were shaped like ducks, and I thought I would never have so much fun in all my life. “You’re going to mess up your eyes, son,” my dad used to say after I had sat in front of the television for three straight hours trying to get a high score on Asteroids. It’s hard for a kid to care about his vision when aliens are invading the living room.

But what came along with all of those good times and the transformation of a child into a teenager were the more difficult struggles. Boy and girl relationships. Growing mounds of homework that never seemed to go away unless a pencil was picked up and put to work. The dreaded ritual of the long school bus ride through the country to Farmer School, located in, where else, but the tobacco field metropolis of Farmer, North Carolina. And let me tell you, gym class in the hot and humid Carolina summers was no day at the park. Or, maybe it was at the park? Hmm, you get my meanin’.

Anyways, this book was drawn at least in part from some of that nostalgia, and the story ventures into the universe of Crush and Pound as well. I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter 1

***

Millborotownville City, NC. Summer 1984

As he lay in bed, Luke blinked his eyes in the humid dark just before dawn and stared at the ceiling of his tiny bedroom. This, whatever this was, was really all just a bad dream. He would wake up, and his life would be normal again. But had it ever been normal? He listened to the songs of the crickets outside his second story window, and he wished that he could wake up in another time and another place with a normal family. Was his life normal though? He did not answer himself; he just laid there listening to the wind blowing through the enormous willow tree outside of his window. It was relaxing to listen to how the thin leaves slapped one another, and slapped one another, and slapped one another. He asked himself again, was his life normal?

He did not think so, and he closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep.

At 6:30 am, he woke up again in a summer sweat, and he peeled the sheet away from his body to get the air stirring. He didn’t hear the willow leaves clapping outside of his window any longer, and the heat of summer began to set in. The light of the morning peeked through his window, and he rolled over onto his side and looked at the photo in the frame next to his bed. It was a picture of himself and his mom at the park three years earlier in 1981. They were at the swings, and she was standing behind him with her hands on the chains. He remembered the day so well because they had just gone to see “Raiders of the Lost Ark” earlier at the noon showing, and they were rounding their Saturday afternoon off with a trip to the city park. When it came to movies, he could remember whatever happened in them immediately afterward. A strange ability, in his mind, but he supposed that everyone could place events and memories better on happy days.

He twisted over onto his back and closed his eyes. Good memories were what he wanted to remember. Leave the bad ones behind, Luke thought. Off of the photograph and out of his life. Today was a day that he hoped he could forget.

Footsteps clumped on the shag carpet downstairs, and he heard the radio turn on. It was his dad getting up for breakfast. Well, it was his dad and he called him that, but it was not really his dad. Luke Green and Andy Singleton were related by one relationship and one relationship only. That relationship they had shared with his mother, Norma Lynn Green Singleton.

Had been anyway.

He rubbed his eyes, and he hoped he could forget today forever.

Luke heard the footsteps coming up the stairs, and he rolled over onto his side, facing away from the door. A hand turned the squeaky knob, and the door opened.

“Are you just goin’ to lay there all day long? It’s 6:35, and the day is wastin’,” Andy said as he hovered over him, blocking the morning light. The shadow on the wall was broad and covered the wall all the way to the ceiling, and Luke stretched his arms but did not look at his dad’s face.

“I’m up.”

“You don’t look like you’re up,” the grumpy shadow said and moved out toward the hallway. “Grits will be ready soon,” Andy said, and the shadow slid completely out of the room and down the stairs.

“Grits. Blecch!” Luke thought to himself. “Why ruin the taste of good butter and pepper by mixing in that crap?” he wondered as he laid there silently looking at the dimples in the sheetrock, and he wished had a long leather whip at his side like Indiana Jones. Maybe then he could make space around himself, safe space without Andy poking his nose into it. He remembered the scar on Indy’s chin, and he thought a whip could do wonders for unwanted noses probing in places they didn’t belong.

“Are you comin’ or not?!” Andy yelled from downstairs, and Luke sighed. Then he rolled over to the edge of his twin size bed and sat up. There was a dresser with a mirror mounted on top across from his bed, and he looked at himself in the mirror. He hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, and it showed in his eyes. They were puffy and red, and he had thin, red streaks on his face where the seams of his pillowcase had embedded vertical lines on his cheeks. He looked like he felt, and he rubbed his eyes as his feet rested on the cold planks of the wooden floor. “NOW!!” Andy bellowed, and Luke got to his feet and grabbed a shirt from the nightstand. Then he strolled drowsily out of the bedroom, grabbed the hand rails, and carefully stepped down the stairs to the front entryway of the small cookie cutter house. He stopped and looked out the front window at the tall, green grass in the front yard, and he sensed that it was about time for Andy to bring up the fact that the grass was too high and needed cutting. Luke’s eyes rolled, and he turned toward the kitchen and ambled along the short hallway to the small coffee table by the counter. There were three wooden chairs lined with homemade seat cushions around the table, and he pulled out the one he usually sat in and plopped down in it. He put his elbows on the table and rubbed his eyes for a few seconds while Andy brought the small pot of hot grits over with a ceramic tile to place the hot pot on so that it didn’t burn the table. There was already one burn mark Luke had made when he had roasted popcorn in a pot and set it on the table too soon before the metal had cooled down. That mistake had cost him a few days grounding, but his mom had been around then and she had let him sneak outside while Andy wasn’t watching.

“About time,” Andy grunted, and he had a saucer of his own for the grits, but there wasn’t one for Luke. “Get yourself a plate and dig in,” he told Luke and scooped out a lump of the sticky corn based food and plopped it on his plate as if it were a giant white spitball.

“Yeah, that looks appetizing,” Luke thought to himself, not daring to actually say what he was thinking for fear of retribution. Andy wasn’t much for criticism, and Luke knew better than to start the day off like that. Especially not today. “Looks great,” Andy actually said as he got up to get a saucer out of the cabinet. He saw the pot of coffee on the coffeemaker, and he was tempted to get a cup of it to wash down the spitball he was going to be forced to eat, but he knew he better ask first. Coffee was a precious liquid around these parts, and Andy liked to take a thermos full with him to work every day. The thing was, he knew Andy wasn’t going to work today, and he might be able to get a cup for himself, if he asked nicely. “Would it be okay if I had a cup of coffee, Andy?” Luke asked in a quiet voice as he retrieved a clean saucer from the cabinet.

“Why? Didn’t you sleep much?” he asked Luke, and Luke’s shoulders dropped in disbelief. Andy’s back was turned to Luke, and he didn’t see the boy’s frustration, but he must have sensed the delay in the sound of the saucer touching the countertop. Andy’s head turned and his eye cut back toward Luke, but Luke knew he could only see him with his peripheral vision. “Yeah, go ahead. I’m not goin’ to work, and I suppose you didn’t get much sleep after all.”

“How thoughtful,” Luke blurted sarcastically in his mind, but he felt the word, “Thanks,” come out from between his lips. It was amazing how close an imagination could come to getting someone into serious trouble without ever really crossing the line.

“I hear the sarcasm,” Andy answered, but he must not have cared too much because he shifted his head away from Luke and toward the gooey ball of ground up white corn on his plate. Luke poured himself a cup of coffee, and then he brought a saucer and fork back over to the table for the grits. He looked at the white clump in the pot, and he scooped a heap out with a wooden spoon and plopped it on the saucer. Then he cut a slice of butter and set it on top of the mound along with a sprinkling of black pepper. He hoped that would be enough to give it some taste, but he doubted it. Across the table, his dad chewed on a mouthful of the paste, and he did not make eye contact with Luke as he smacked his lips. Luke sipped on his coffee and aimlessly stirred the grits in his saucer, hoping to smear the pat of butter so it would melt faster. It didn’t work, but it passed the time. His belly growled, and he realized that he should eat something, even if it was disgusting to him.

“Did it cost a lot?” Luke felt himself saying, and he wondered how that had slipped out of his mouth. He had no intention of having a conversation with Andy, but his subconscious must have felt differently. Andy looked at him from across the small table, and he shook his head as if to say ‘no’. Then he went back to smacking down the last of his grits and slurping his coffee, never making eye contact with him again for the rest of the morning meal. To Andy, eating was business, and the front doors were wide open this morning. Luke made curves in his grits with his fork, and he found that he was drawing a question mark in the food. The lack of communication was oppressive, but he was used to it by now. Soon, Andy was up from the table, washing his plate and heading out of the kitchen, leaving Luke to himself to draw punctuation marks in his food. It was amazing how his appetite increased with Andy gone, and to cure the silence, he flipped on the radio that sat on the counter next to the bar stool where his mother would sit. The music filled the room and made the atmosphere seem slightly more lively. He wolfed down the tasteless ground corn as he listened to rock and roll, and in between songs, the disc jockey read off the weather.

“Mild weather today, but hurricane season is building strong this year with a prediction of twelve major storms this year, and NOAA has already spotted a storm brewing in the Atlantic off the western coast of Africa. Shouldn’t bother us for a couple of weeks, but stay tuned to Sunny 101 Point 9 for the latest forecast. Next up . . . ,” he continued, and Luke turned off the radio, cleaned up the plate and pot of grits, and ran upstairs to get a shower. It was going to be a long day, and he was going to have to be cleaned up today, even if he would rather have stayed in bed and read a book.

At least he had not had a fight with his dad that morning. He had tried hard to avoid it, and that made him think that maybe his dad had tried just as equally as hard, too. That gave Luke hope, which was something he really needed right now. Hope was a difficult and elusive creature to find in this house, but Luke counted on hope to get him through the rest of the day. After taking his shower and getting dressed in his best clothes, he ambled back down the stairs and stood at the front screen door, staring at the tall grass and wondering why he could not just skip completely over this day and move onto the next. He was a teenager now, and he tried to be reckless and live up to his potential. None of his other friends were worried about where they would be five minutes from now, let alone five years. Why should he be any different? It wasn’t the future that he was concerned with though. It was just that he wanted to skip over today, that’s all. He took in a deep breath and sighed as his dad came up behind him and pushed his way to the door handle like he always did, ignoring the boy in front of him, the one who lived in his house, the one who came along with the mother. His dad led the way out of the house, and Luke closed and locked the door behind them. He was used to being overlooked by his dad, but at least they weren’t arguing. Everything was going a little better than normal between them, and he hoped the circumstances would hold up for the rest of the day. He thought it should, except of course, for missing the details with the coffee pot. Though he did not turn it on that morning, he had forgotten to turn it off.

**********

Luke sat in the passenger’s seat of the truck, and he watched the light poles pass silently by one at a time. The morning was overcast, and the road ahead seemed to be covered in a hazy shade. There was no music in the background, only the bumping rhythm of the tires smashing the perpendicular lines in the street. He looked over at his dad, and Andy stared out of the windshield at the road ahead, never taking his eyes off where he was going. Focused. That was his dad in a nutshell, and he wondered what it was that his mom had seen in him. Did he ever pay attention to their needs? Luke had grown up in the household and had never known any other set of parents, but his dad had always seemed distant. Andy was the shift supervisor for a semiconductor manufacturer in Raleigh, and if he was not at work, then he was in his small office at home, going through the fabrication recipes, employee work schedules, and timelines of current projects. He was always at work. Always. It didn’t feel like he ever had anything to do with Luke or his mom, but she always defended him by saying, “Son, he took us in and put a roof over our heads and provided for us.” Luke never argued with his mom about it because he couldn’t even remember what had happened when he was a year old, but it seemed to him that his dad thought of them as property and not as family, and Luke resented it. He could feel his cheeks burning red at the notion, and he stuck his finger in his shirt collar and stretched it to let the air from the wing vent in around his neck. A bead of sweat ran down his forehead, and he turned his head to look out the window again. The light poles passed by, and the beat of the street relaxed him as he wiped the sweat from his face.

After a few more minutes and a few more turns on the highway, they pulled into the deserted parking lot of the small brick building. Andy parked in the space at the front door, and the reflection of the truck in the glass of the front entrance mirrored their movement. Luke could see his dad’s face in the window, and the tinted glass gave him a darkened expression, almost a frown stretching down to his neck. His dad turned off the truck and took the keys out of the ignition without opening his door to get out. That was unlike Andy, as he always seemed sure of his next move. He sat there in the truck for a moment in silence, and he stared at his own reflection in the window. Luke could not tell what was going on in his dad’s mind, but he wasn’t about to ask either. He just sat there with his dad in the truck as the heat of the day began to creep in through every crevice of the vehicle, and neither one spoke a word to the other. Andy turned his head and set his eyes on Luke’s profile for only a second, as if he were going to say something profound, and then the moment passed in stillness. Luke froze and looked straight ahead, like a deer caught in a spotlight, and he held his breath. Instead of saying something to his son, Andy opened the truck door and got out. He didn’t tell Luke to get out though. He didn’t have to because the temperature was creeping up in the truck, and Luke was starting to sweat again. Andy went on into the building without turning to look back, and the door closed behind him. The tinted glass of the building’s front window shook, and Luke saw his own reflection sitting in the truck, all alone and sad. He got out of the truck and followed his dad inside.

He pushed the front door in and stepped from concrete to carpet, and as his eyes adjusted to the dimmer lighting, he looked around at the interior of the building. There were tall leafy plants in giant golden vases on either sides of long benches along the decorated walls. There were also massive framed paintings of unfamiliar business men and women, and these were scattered along the hallways and corridors. He turned and followed his dad down the front corridor toward a door in a distant corner, and his dad opened the door labeled “Office” and went inside. Luke took his time getting there, reading the names of the men and women in the framed paintings and admiring the unusual designs of the wallpaper. When he got to the door, a gentleman in a black suit and red tie came out and offered his hand to him.

“Hello, Mr. Singleton. My name is Derrick Harrington. Your father said that you were waiting out here in the hallway,” the man said in a calm voice. Luke shook his hand and studied his face. He was middle aged with brown hair and hints of silver to distinguish him apart from others in their twenties or early thirties. He was hunched forward slightly, and his face was decorated with many lines, perhaps from worry. It would be expected in his line of work.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Harrington. He is my dad, but my name is Luke Green. Not Singleton,” he corrected. Mr. Harrington nodded with an apologetic smile and patted him on the shoulder.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Green. I didn’t realize,” he said and motioned for Luke to follow him down the hall. “Would you like a soda while your father is discussing matters? We have Coke and Pepsi both, if you like.” Luke nodded and walked with Mr. Harrington down the hallway with several large open rooms on either side. At the end of the hallway, there was a set of double doors going out the back of the building, and on the left, there was a vending area. Mr. Harrington dug into the deep pockets of his dress pants and jingled some change around until he found what he was looking for, and then he pulled out a couple of quarters and deposited them into the machine. The sign said thirty-five cents on the machine, and Luke dug into his own pockets where he had at least that much change with him.

“I have some change,” Luke started, but Mr. Harrington threw his hand up and waved the notion away.

“Don’t worry, son. I have you covered. What would you like?”

“Coke, I guess. Thanks.”

“Sure thing,” Mr. Harrington said and pushed the big red button. When the drink can rolled out of the bottom of the dispenser, Mr. Harrington snatched it out and handed it to Luke. “Here you go, Mr. Green.”

“Luke. Just call me Luke. And thanks again.”

“Don’t mention it. It isn’t much, but I hope that we can make your time here as pleasant as possible. What school do you go to? County or city?” Mr. Harrington popped another quarter from his pocket and the dime from the change deposit into the machine, and he pressed the Barg’s Root Beer button.

“Oh, I live on the edge of town, but I go to a county school. Chatham West Middle School,” Luke said. The root beer can tumbled to the bottom of the machine, and Mr. Harrington grabbed the cold can out and held it up in a toast.

“Go Squirrels!” Mr. Harrington replied and waited for Luke to return the toast. Luke bumped his Coke can against the root beer can, and they both took a swig to the Chatham West Squirrels.

“Go Nuts!” Luke said and swallowed the cold drink down.

“Yeah, man. I went there, too, when I was a kid. Those were the days,” Mr. Harrington said and sat down at a nearby table. “Have a seat, Luke,” he said, and Luke sat down across from him and took another sip of his Coke. Mr. Harrington leaned back in the padded wooden chair, and he put his arm on the table, nursing the cold can of root beer. “I knew your mother in school. She was a good lady.”

“You did?” Luke said.

“Yes, I did. She was a grade older than me, but I was in a couple of classes with her. You know, Yearbook class and Art class. Those classes tend to get kids of all ages in them. She was quite the painter, even in school.”

“Really?” Luke said. His mother had worked as an accountant, but he had no idea that she painted.

“Oh yeah. She painted this picture one time for the school paper. It was a picture of a squirrel on a stump, eating an acorn,” Mr. Harrington said, and he took another swig of his drink.

“Sounds kind of simple to me,” Luke said. He was not trying to put down his mother’s work, but how impressive is a picture of a squirrel.

“Yes, it does. But I’ll tell you something, Luke. I remember that painting as if I had seen it yesterday.” He sat back further in his chair and looked away at nothing in particular. “I can’t remember many things from middle school, but I do remember that painting. It was really good, and something that sticks with you in your memory that long, man, it had to be more than just good. It had to be great.” Mr. Harrington was quiet for a few seconds as he stared at nothing in particular, and then he looked as if he realized that Luke was sitting there with him again. “Sorry. I was just remembering. Anyways, Luke, I wonder if you have ever tried your hand at painting.” Luke shook his head. “Well, if you ever have a chance some time, try it. You might be surprised at how things turn out for you.”

“Sure,” Luke said and saw Mr. Harrington give him a smile. “I’ll try it some time. If my mom was good at it, maybe some of that talent dripped into my DNA.” Then there was an awkward silence, and Luke took another sip of Coke. “I wish I could talk to her again. One last time.” Those were words that he never could have confided with his father, but here he was saying them to a stranger. Mr. Harrington nodded and took a sip of root beer.

“I lost my mom when I was twenty. She saw me through school and most of college, and I’m thankful for that, but fifty is too young to go. You just never know how long you have until you’re called from this earth. I miss her still, but I have learned to keep going and to keep living. It’s what she would want me to do, and if there is one person in this world that I would never want to let down, it’s my mom. So I keep on keeping on.” Mr. Harrington gulped the last sip of his root beer and crushed the can with one hand. Then he tossed it into the trash can across the room with a nice arc and a clang, but no net to swish.

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” It was an odd question, out of the ordinary for a stranger, but Luke wasn’t bothered by it. In fact, though he didn’t think much of his occupation, he thought he liked Mr. Harrington.

“Heck if I know. I like playing Atari, but I doubt that would make a career. I don’t know. How did you get into your job?”

“My dad did it, so I thought, why not?” he said and shrugged his shoulders beneath the suit coat.

“Oh. Well, I doubt I’ll end up being a plant supervisor. It seems to take up too much time,” Luke said. “And life is too short to do things you don’t like, right?”

“Right,” Mr. Harrington said, and he nodded his head at the machine. “Want another one?”

“I better not. Dad will kill me if I drink too much caffeine,” Luke said, and Mr. Harrington looked down at his watch.

“I have a meeting to attend in a few minutes. You take care of yourself, and I’ll see you tonight,” Mr. Harrington said and got up from the table. Luke stayed in his seat and waved goodbye to him as he left. Then he was alone, in the vending room of a funeral home, and his mother was somewhere in one of the rooms. He shook his head with a shiver, and he got up and walked out the back door to get some air. He was only outside for a few minutes when a hearse drove out from beneath the shelter and steered out of the parking lot toward the hospital. Luke thought about it, and it made him sad to know that his mother was just one of the many people this year who would be passed through this building and onto an eternal rest. He watched the long black station wagon drive off into the distance, and he wondered who was next on the list. For that matter, when would his own time come?

It was too sad of a subject to think about, and he turned to go back inside when he saw his dad’s face staring at him through the tinted glass. Andy pushed the door open and let his son inside, and for the first time that Luke could remember, his dad looked pale and weak.

“I’ve taken care of the final details. The viewing will be tonight, and the graveside service will be tomorrow afternoon at the First Baptist Church, just down the road from the airport,” Andy said matter-of-factly.

“Wasn’t that your mother’s church? My mom never liked going there. She said it was like visiting a freezer,” Luke told his dad, and he did not care whether his dad liked the comment or not. Andy’s face went from pale white to beet red to seconds, and he grabbed Luke just tight enough around his bicep with his big strong hands to give his son a message.

“That’s where the empty plot that my family owns is, you understand. I would have to buy one at her church, and we don’t have the money,” Andy explained in his typical one-way conversation fashion. Luke listened to his father, but he found it hard to contain his emotions very well at that time.

“She told me that she would like to be buried at her church, and you know it. She would have done the same for you if things had been reversed,” Luke replied and tried to jerk his arm away from his dad’s grip, but with no success.

“Norma isn’t here to make those decisions, and I have to do what’s best for the two of us now,” Andy told him and let the distance remain between them.

“It seems like you only want what’s best for you, not her. Or me,” Luke argued, and he could feel the tears start to well up in his eyes. Something was happening inside, and he could not control his emotions, and his father knew it.

“We’ll talk about this when the time comes. Now, you have a lawn to mow, and I have a work schedule to plan out,” Andy started, and Luke’s eyes burned holes through him.

“Are you freakin’ kidding me?! A work schedule?! Can’t you at least take a few minutes off from work to say goodbye to my mom?”

“I did say goodbye, but you’ll find out for yourself someday when you’re a man. Work hits you every day, no matter the circumstances,” Andy explained. Luke looked at his dad as if he didn’t like what he saw, and he had had enough. He was so angry that he ripped the collar of his dress shirt, and he ran out of the building and into the parking lot. And he kept running. He heard Andy calling him, but he didn’t look back. When he got to the end of the parking lot, he turned left and kept going down the street. A couple of blocks down the road, he broke into a sweat, and he stopped to button down his shirt to get the air moving. Then he started down the road again, crossed an intersection called “Five Points”, where the streets went out in five directions from the intersection instead of four, and he took another left on Park Street which led into an older rundown neighborhood. He stopped at the peak of the hill for a minute and looked down the street before going any further. This was familiar territory for him. His bus came through this way on the route to school every day, and the street went down into a valley and then up a long hill on the other side. In between, there were rows of small one or two bedroom homes lining the street on both sides, and the front yards were so narrow that he could probably spit from the front door to the yellow line in the middle of the street. He was in a bad mood for sure that day and wanted to get to the next neighborhood along the way, but he had to think about it long and hard before he ventured through that section of the road by himself, on foot no less. He studied the front doors of the homes on either side, and they were all open with just the screen doors protecting the insides from bugs. Then he drew his gaze to the house on the left at the bottom of the hill, in the valley by the stream, and he watched closely for any activity. He was zeroed in on the screen door, and he counted to five slowly. Nobody went in or out of that house. Luke turned around and checked out five points one last time for his dad, but apparently his old man hadn’t followed him. That was good. He turned back around and looked at the bottom of the hill and then at the top of the hill where he needed to be. About a hundred yards past the top of the next hill was where his buddy Matchstick Allman lived, just past the street’s namesake, City Park. If Luke was lucky, he could run down the hill and use the momentum to carry himself at least half way up the next hill, leaving him to hike the last half of the slope. He could do it, and with no sign of the residents at the bottom of the hill, it would be a breeze. He rubbed his hands together, bent down low to the ground, and he took off in a sprint down the hill. He ran hard, and maybe that was a bad thing because he knew that if he sprinted too quickly, he would run out of breath and have to stop. That would be a very bad thing for him to do. He could not afford to stop anywhere along this stretch of the road, because this block of houses was where most of the violent crimes in the entire county occurred. At the bottom of the hill on the left, well, that was the home of the Berry family. No one at school played with anyone in the Berry family unless they wanted to stay in trouble with the law and model orange jumpsuits in prison like their old man, Richard Berry. Otherwise known as the Millborotownville City Strangler.

Luke was the first person on the bus route every morning, and about ten minutes after he got on the bus, Jimmy, the driver, would turn down Park Street from Five Points to pick up the Berrys. Jimmy even hated stopping outside of their house, but he didn’t have a choice. There were four kids in that family, and their names read like a cheap dime store coloring book: Candy, Red, Billy, and Dick. The last one in the list was the oldest, and he was sort of named after his father, except his parents didn’t have the sense to actually name him Richard and then nickname him Dick. Nope, his official birth certificate read “Dick Norton Berry.” Dick was a mean kid, rotten to the core as the Berrys go, and we had a lot of nicknames for him that we used behind his back because it was too dangerous to use them to his face. The younger kids called him “DNA”, but the rest of the boys his age called him Dick N. Berry, which the teachers scolded us for when they overheard it. We didn’t care about the scolding. When there was a bully to contend with every day, it was just too good to pass up using his real name to insult him with.

The bus had to stop and pick them up during the school year, but this was summer break and Luke was alone. He was going to run past their house and up the next hill without stopping. As he came down the long grade, he stayed off the sidewalk and on the right hand side of the road, and halfway down the long hill, he sidestepped a metal trash can lid and jumped a stray cat living in a nearby sewer drain. As he went up in the air, he realized the leather dress shoes he had on were loose and sliding back and forth on his feet, and he knew that if he kept this pace up, he was going to have blisters on the tops of his toes and on the sides of his feet. When he landed on the ground, one of his loose shoes went flying down the hill ahead of him, and he felt his bare foot and sock hit the hot black pavement. Worse than that, the imbalance between having one shoe on and one shoe off tilted his body to one side, and he stumbled onto the street with the palms of his hands catching the brunt of his fall. He sat there for a second on his butt and leaned back with his palms on the street, but he jumped onto his feet quick when the hot pavement burned the bare skin of his palms. He felt like a piece of bacon in a frying pan, and he hopped on one foot over to his runaway shoe and picked it up off the ground. He started to undo the shoe strings when he heard the creak of a screen door, followed up by the slam of wood on a doorframe.

“Looky who we have here. It’s Luke the Puke, hoppin’ on one foot down the street,” a boy called out from somewhere ahead. Luke didn’t look up; he knew that voice like he knew his own. It was Dick Norton Berry. “What’s the matter, Puke? Did ya lose your wittle shoe?”

Luke ignored his taunts and kept working on his shoe until he got it on his foot, and he could see Dick getting closer to him out of the corner of his eye. He had it tied on so that it wouldn’t slip, but he realized that his other shoe was still loose and needed tightening up. Dick kept moving closer, and Luke knew that he would not have the time to tighten the other shoelaces without risking getting caught. Dick was still on his side of the street, but he would soon make his way across to meet Luke and block him from going any further up Park Street. Luke was nervous and already sweating from the heat, and he decided to keep on running no matter what Dick did or said. He opted for a slower pace and started jogging down the hill again, and Dick ran across the street to his side where he stood directly in Luke’s path.

“What’s a matter with the poor baby, huh?” Dick mocked him, and Luke kept moving ahead without saying a word. When he got within a few feet of Dick, he sidestepped onto the sidewalk to his right, and the timing of his circumstances were not on his side that day. His left shoe, the one that he hadn’t retied, went flying into the bushes of one of the homes on the right side of the street. Luke kept walking with just one shoe on, and he went for the bush where his shoe had flown. At the same time, Dick sprinted for the bush and got there first. Luke stopped in his tracks as Dick drew out the brown leather shoe and held it above his head triumphantly. “You want it, come get it,” he taunted Luke and waved it back and forth over his head.

“Give it back, Dick,” Luke said and emphasized the name.

“What are you gonna do if I don’t, sissy?” Dick said as more of a challenge than a question. “Tell my dad. Like he would care. He’d probably pull the string out and choke you with it.”

Now let it be said, thousands of violent crimes are committed each year by people who just happen to also be parents. That doesn’t make the child a criminal, and it certainly doesn’t make the child more likely to repeat their parent’s mistakes. But Dick had a nasty chip on his shoulder at least three feet tall and abscessed, and he chose to take out his problems and frustrations on people around him, usually the ones he thought were weaker than himself.

“Come on, Dick. I don’t have a beef with you. I just want my shoe back, and I’ll be out of your hair,” Luke explained in a much calmer voice.

“Yeah, well, I got a beef with you. A whole steak, and I’m keepin’ this shoe as a down payment.” Luke had avoided doing it, but he looked Dick in the eye, and the two stood silent for a good ten seconds before the screen door of Dick’s house opened and slammed shut. Luke was curious and broke eye contact to see who else had come out of the house, thinking maybe it was the other two brothers coming to pile in on him. It wasn’t though. It was his younger sister, Candy, and she looked as rough and dirty as her older brother as she stood out on the porch with her hands on her hips.

“Dick! What are you doin’ with Luke?” she asked, and Dick’s eyes rolled back as he turned his head.

“What’s it to ya, huh?” Candy’s eyes squinted, and she frowned at her brother’s back.

“Let him be. I heard his momma done died two days ago. If that’s his shoe, then give it back to him,” she ordered, and this caught Luke absolutely by surprise. He had known them for many years, and the four of them stuck together all of the time, like glue. If he didn’t know better, he had seen his first chink in the Berry patch. Dick’s eyebrows furrowed, and a big smile opened on his face, showing the yellow teeth in his head.

“Ah, poor thing. Mommy done died and went and left the baby all by hisself,” Dick started in that demeaning baby talk way, and something happened then that had never happened to Luke before. He lost all sense of himself and lunged at Dick with both fists, but before he could get ahold of him, he saw something black hit the left side of his face. That didn’t slow him down any, but he wasn’t used to fist fighting and it confused him for a second. In that second, Luke saw blood on the heel of the shoe in Dick’s hand, and then he watched Dick throw the shoe onto the roof of the nearest house. Dick laughed at him and sneered. At that moment, Luke was so ticked off at him that he threw his right fist into Dick’s yellow teeth, and he saw one of the teeth keep going in the air until it bounced on the black pavement of the hot street. Dick was stunned, and he wiped the blood from his mouth and held his hand in front of his face to look at the thick red liquid. It wasn’t the first time the Strangler’s son had seen his own blood, but it was the first time that another boy his age had been the one to make him bleed. Luke watched him close, and for a second, he thought he saw Dick’s lip quiver just a little, as if he were upset. If the butterflies hadn’t been flying in his stomach before, they were sure to be swirling now. Dick’s surprise turned to rage, and if it hadn’t been for Candy grabbing his arm and holding him back at that very instant, it was highly likely that Luke would have gotten the beating of his life that day. As it was, Candy had scooped up Dick’s loose tooth from the street and stuffed it into his hand, and she dragged him back toward their house across the street.

“Come on, Dick. There ain’t no more time for fightin’ today. You got to hold that tooth in place tonight and hope the gums grow back over it. Else you gone lose it,” she told him, and her calm kind words helped to ease his temper. But it didn’t quench it. Before they went through the screen door of their shack, he yelled out at Luke for all the neighbors to hear.

“You better watch yourself, momma’s boy. This ain’t over,” he shouted.

“Till your momma sings?” Luke finished his sentence before he thought about the consequences. Dick shoved the screen door out again and started to come down the rotten wooden steps before his sister grabbed his arm again and pinched.

“You get in here and hold your tooth. What he said ain’t half so bad as what you done said about his momma,” Candy shouted at him this time, and Dick turned his head to look at her and then promptly shoved her to the ground. She landed on her backside, and Luke started to go over and give her a hand getting up, but she motioned for him to keep going up the road. He met her eyes, and he thought that he saw her start to smile just a little as she stood and wiped the back of her jeans off. She went to the screen door and went inside, and as he crossed the bridge over the creek and hobbled up the hill with only one shoe on, he turned around and saw her looking at him through the screen. Then she disappeared into the grayness of the dimly lit home.

Chapter 2

***

Luke went through the open garage door by the Jaguar and knocked on the glass pane of the kitchen door, and Mrs. Allman appeared on the other side of the glass. She had her apron on and must have been working in the kitchen, and she opened the door to let him in.

“Honey, what happened to you?” she said as she combed back his hair with her hand and exposed the scrape and bruise on the left side of his forehead and cheek. “You have your best clothes on, and you look like you’ve been working in a sweat shop. And why do you only have one shoe on, for goodness sakes?” Mrs. Allman pulled him inside gently by the arm and shut the kitchen door behind him. “It’s hotter than Hades out there. What made you want to get out in the sun and ruin your dress clothes like that?” She sat him down at the table and cleaned the scrape on his face with a wet washrag, and the cold air from the air conditioner was blowing on his back. After all the drudgery he had put himself through that day, that cold air was similar to a little slice of what heaven must be like.

“I was with my dad,” he started and didn’t get any further before the washcloth stopped cleaning.

“Don’t tell me your dad hit you?” she asked in a concerned tone.

“What? No, no, he didn’t hit me. I went with him to the . . . the . . . to take care of the service,” he stumbled to avoid saying anything that might remind him again. “We had an argument, and I started walking, and maybe running a little bit, down Park Street. By the Berry house, and that’s how I got this bruise and lost my shoe,” Luke said and lowered his shoulders as he relaxed. Mrs. Allman then went to the sink, filled a glass of cold water, and brought it to him. Their well water was the best in the city, and he thought he tasted a little more of heaven as he swallowed the last gulp.

“My, you were thirsty,” she said and took the glass from him to fill it up again. “Well, you shouldn’t be fighting with the Berrys, and certainly not in your best clothes.”

“It wasn’t a choice,” Luke started, and Mrs. Allman put her hand under his chin and gently lifted his head.

“There’s always a choice. The Berry kids were brought into this world under poor circumstances, and if you can walk away, then you should,” she told him and then looked carefully at the wound on his face. “That is some bruise you have there. Let me get a bandage for the cut, and then you can go to Martin’s room. I’ll call your dad while you play Atari.” She reached up into the corner cabinet and brought out a tin box with bandages inside, and she got one out and gently put it over the wound. “Go on, now,” she said and waited for him to leave the room before she called his father. Martin, better known as Matchstick, met him at the door to his bedroom, and he started laughing the minute he saw the bruise on his face.

“What’s so funny?” Luke said with a fake grin. He wasn’t really in the mood for getting picked on by his best friend.

“You! The way you’re dressed, and that mark on your forehead. You look like you went to the school dance and went break dancing on your face,” he said and laughed even harder.

“Yeah, ha, ha. At least we know what happened to my face. What’s your excuse?” Luke shot back at him, but all of the tension from earlier had lifted. “What are you playing, Asteroids?” he asked and followed Matchstick into his bedroom. The room was a typical teenage boy’s room with Star Wars posters, a pinup of Farrah Fawcett on the wall at the foot of his bed, a picture of Larry Bird on one side of the room, and a picture of Magic Johnson on the other, which said Matchstick couldn’t make up his mind which team he pulled for and was caught hopelessly in the middle of championships. Matchstick was a fan of both players, but he claimed that you couldn’t put them too close to each other or there would never be peace in the room. The bed was made, and everything was neat and in place, except for the floor in front of the big color television set where he kept his Atari 2600 and a stack of games in the form of plastic cartridges scattered within arm’s reach. They sat down two feet away from the front of the giant screen, and Matchstick hit the Select button to get a two player screen going. They couldn’t both play at once, but the game would alternate between players as it went along.

“I’ve been playing all morning,” Matchstick said. He was still in his pajamas, and he had bedhead.

“No, really? I would never have guessed,” Luke said to him sarcastically.

“I’m going to kick your ass, Poindexter,” he said and handed Luke the other controller. “But it looks like somebody already did me the favor.”

“I crossed Dick N. Berry on the way here.”

“Man, what do you want go doing that for? It’s summer time. Time for lovin’ not fightin’.”

“What?! You’re sitting here in the dark playing video games instead of going to the pool, and you’re lecturing me about the ladies?!” Luke said as the game started and the pixels of block shaped rocks moved up and down the screen.

“It’s not completely dark in here with the TV on. Besides, one lady is enough for a guy,” Matchstick said as he started shooting the asteroids with the triangle-shaped ship in the middle of the screen.

“Speaking of ladies, have you ever talked to Candy?” Luke asked, and Matchstick kept pushing the orange button on the joystick with his thumb as if his life depended on it.

“Candy? Snickers, you mean. Yeah, I talk to Snickers every chance I get.”

“No, not candy. Candy, the girl.” Matchstick stopped playing for a second and looked over at his friend.

“Candy Berry? Is that who you’re talking about?”

“Do you know another Candy?” An asteroid destroyed Matchstick’s space ship, and it was Luke’s turn. “Thanks for dying, sucker.”

“You screwed my game up, cheater,” he said and set his controller down. “Dude, don’t mess with the Berrys. That’s all I got to say. They’re all rotten to the core. Your face should tell you that,” Matchstick said and then turned his eyes back on the screen. “Watch out for the alien ship!”

“I got it, I got it,” Luke said and flew his space ship away from the middle of the screen with the thrusters. He was too slow at pointing his ship back at the aliens, and a missile made of square pixels went straight through his own ship.

“Yeah, you got it, all right,” Matchstick said and picked up his controller and started playing again.

“I didn’t say I liked Candy. I just asked you whether you had ever talked to her, that’s all,” Luke explained, and Matchstick’s eyes were glued to the screen.

“Nope, never talked to her. She is kind of pretty though, if you can get past the three brothers she’s stuck with. She sat near me once on the bus, but those three sweaty beavers were sitting around her.”

“Beavers?! Ha! Did you just call them beavers?!”

“Yeah, big sweaty ones!”

Luke cackled, and suddenly he was feeling the best he had felt in a few days. At least since his mother had died. He played games with his friend for another hour before Mrs. Allman came to the door. She cleared her throat so that he knew she was there, and she called his name.

“Luke? I called your father and let him know you were okay,” she told him, and Luke looked at her and listened. “He said you left the coffee pot on and the house smells like burnt coffee.”

“At least it doesn’t smell like sweaty beaver!” Matchstick said out loud, and his mom’s eyebrows shot up.

“Martin Allman! You watch your language,” she demanded, and Matchstick nodded but kept laughing.

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry,” Luke said, and Mrs. Allman tilted her head.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for, Luke. Your father said it was okay that you were here, and I told him about your clothes and that you had tripped and hurt yourself. He was concerned,” she said, and Luke could tell that she was just adding that part in to make him feel better. “He said you could stay here the rest of the day if you wanted, and that he is going to drop off some clothes for you at 5:00 pm. He wants you cleaned up and ready for the viewing at 7:00 pm. I offered to take you and Martin, and he also seemed fine with that as well,” she explained to Luke, and he suddenly felt some relief for the concern and help that Mrs. Allman was offering. “But . . . you have to go home with him tonight. He is going to need you, Luke.”

“He said that?” Luke asked. It was the first time that he had ever heard those words. He didn’t believe that his dad needed anyone, that his old man could live simply by spreadsheets and drawings.

“Not exactly, but I’m pretty sure I heard it in his tone. Besides, he said that you owe him a lawn mowing, and he expects you to do that tomorrow morning while he’s away.”

“Great,” Luke said, and he turned away from her and pretended to watch Asteroids on the television screen. Mrs. Allman took that to mean that he had heard enough for the moment, and she was merciful and started back down the hall.

“Good. I’ll order a pizza for you two for lunch. You’ll need your strength for mowing the yard tomorrow,” she concluded as she disappeared around the corner.

“Your turn,” Matchstick told him when his ship exploded, and Luke played games with his friend for the rest of the morning in a bit of a haze. To him, it seemed that his world was crumbling apart around him, and his dad didn’t really care to let the work or the chores go for long enough to bury his mother.

**********

Five o’clock came and went as Luke and Martin were in a very serious nuclear war in a long round of Missile Command. He had noticed the clock when it had hit 4:59, but he didn’t have the initiative to go look for his dad in the driveway. Instead, he kept playing the game until Mrs. Allman brought a couple of hangers with a freshly ironed suit, dress shirt, and clip-on tie into the room.

“Here’s your clothes,” she said as she laid them out neatly on Martin’s bed. Luke ducked his head around her and looked for his father, but she was alone. “If you’re looking for your dad, he said he had some errands to run before the viewing tonight.”

“Did he bring my other shoes?” he asked, and she looked surprised when she realized that there weren’t any.

“No, I guess not, but I did tell him you needed a pair,” she admitted to him and put her hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry. Martin has several pairs that might fit you,” she encouraged him and then left the room. Sitting on the floor, Luke leaned back against the mattress and silently watched the mass destruction on the television screen. “You two can play until 6:00, and then you have to eat and get dressed, okay?” she said and walked out of the room. Luke got up and examined the clothes his dad had brought, and he found that the shirt and jacket were a little tight for him.

“Figures,” he said under his breath, and Matchstick ignored him and kept playing games. He went down the hall to the bathroom and washed up at the sink with a washrag, and he changed into the dress clothes. He couldn’t button the top button of the shirt because his neck was too large, and that made the clip-on necktie obsolete. He knew his dad would find that unacceptable, and he stuffed the tie into his jacket pocket for later. Luke then walked into the living room and sat down on the sofa by himself in front of the big picture window. He waited there alone until dinner time, staring out the window and wondering what life was going to be like for him without his mom. He looked at his bare feet, and he knew things were going to be tough.

**********

At the funeral home that night, Luke walked in behind the Allmans, and he followed them to the registry situated next to the room with his mother’s name tacked in white letters on a black felt board. The Allmans each signed the book, and when it was his turn, he walked away and went through the door to the room where his mother lay in an open casket. From a distance, he caught a glance of her frail hands folded on her chest, and he could go no farther. His dad stood there at the foot of the casket with his hands behind his back, and he nodded at Luke when he saw him walk through the door. When his father saw the red mark on his face where Dick Berry had struck him with a shoe, he turned his head to the side and opened his mouth just a little as if he were going to say something short and profound to his son. The moment passed, and his dad chose to stay quiet on the matter. Luke knew that if he got any closer to his dad, the urge to lecture him would start up again, and he just was not in the mood for more of that. He wanted to be near his mother though, but he was afraid that he might cry, and he found that Matchstick’s shoes were carrying him through to the adjacent room where he sat by himself with his back to the casket while the Allmans paid their last respects. To his left, he noticed a wreath of flowers on a stand with a passage of scripture written in swirling and fancy letters. It was the twenty-third Psalm, and as he read the passage, he felt sadness creep into his soul. At the same time, he felt that though his mother was gone, that did not mean that he was alone.

Chapter 3

***

Two weeks later, Luke found himself in the backseat of the Allman’s family car. Every summer for the last three years, his mother Norma had encouraged him to get out of the house and away from home for a couple of weeks. This summer was no different, and Luke was relieved for the chance to get away from his dad for a time. Since the funeral, the atmosphere at home had become oppressive, almost smothering, and he was ready to burst out of the four walls like a bottle rocket. It was difficult for him to explain; he felt as if he were slowly being suffocated by his dad’s workaholic ways, and he couldn’t say exactly what the root cause of the sentiment was. He could only say that he felt stifled when he was inside of the house.

“Look at this! I cleared another level!” Matchstick laughed and showed Luke the score on the handheld Space Invaders game. “Your turn.” Luke took the game from him and started the next level. The red backlights showed through the alien cutouts of ships beneath the glass of the screen, moving from side to side and creating the illusion of real space craft dropping bombs at him from above.

“This is a pretty cool game, man. Where did you get it?” Luke asked him.

“King’s department store. They were closing out the old stuff, and the guy in electronics said they were making way for more wrist watch games. You should see the calculators on the wrist watches. Can you believe it?!” Luke shook his head ‘no’ as he tried to pay attention to the small black and red screen. The aliens were moving so fast and low from side to side that he missed the bomb that dropped on his ship.

“Crap.”

“Yeah, you can play again if you want. I’ve played that thing for hours every day this past week, and my eyes are starting to hurt. Besides, I get car sick back here when I’m staring at games or books,” Matchstick confided.

“Really? Do you stick your head out the window?”

“Like my dog? No, I don’t think so, Potsy!”

“It’s Fonz to you.”

“A-A-A-A-A-A!!”

Mrs. Allman turned her head from the front seat on the passenger’s side to make sure everything was okay in the back, and she smiled when she saw her son playing air drums on the seat. It was a sign that Matchstick was having a good time.

“Say, I heard Bryan Snoot say that Willie Yarbrough was going to be at camp this year. He’s never been before,” Matchstick said as he played drums. Luke kept playing Space Invaders, but he did glance up for a second to frown.

“That’s great. I hope he’s not in the same dorm as us,” Luke said as his thumbs on the controller moved the ship back and forth on the small screen.

“Yeah, same here. He’s kind of a jerk.”

“Anybody else I should know about? Don’t tell me the Berrys are going.”

“Nah,” he laughed. “You don’t have to worry about that ever happening. Their mom’s too busy rolling cigarettes on the front porch and visiting prison to send her delinquents to camp. You can at least avoid getting another black eye this week. It looks like your face healed up, but you’re still ugly as sin.”

“Thanks loads!” Luke told him.

“You’re welcome,” Matchstick said and hit the imaginary high hat with his transparent drumstick. “Hey, I heard there’ll be plenty of chicks there for us to pick from.” At the utterance of these words, Mrs. Allman turned around and gave her son the evil eye. She wasn’t used to hearing him talk about girls yet, and she wasn’t fond of the word ‘chick’. To her ears, that was a derogatory comment, and she didn’t want everyone to think that she was raising a hellion. “Ladies is what I meant to say,” he amended and when she finally turned away from them, Luke silently laughed at him.

“Any in particular I should know about?”

“No, just ch-,” and he caught himself before the word came all the way out. “Just ladies. I hear Kristen Mayweather is going to be there.” Luke looked at the road ahead as if he was a deer caught in headlights, and Mr. Allman eyes looked at him through the rearview mirror as if he were listening in to the conversation. Luke looked away and glanced at the screen of the tiny video game.

“That’s nice,” he told Matchstick and acted as if his best friend hadn’t mentioned the name of the prettiest girl in school.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought you’d say,” Matchstick said, as if to rub it in. When it came to boys and puberty, they could hassle each other all day long about girls without any resentment. It was just part of the game of growing up.

“Sonya Morning might be there, too,” Luke said, and he saw Mr. Allman’s eyes flick up in the rearview mirror again. Mr. Allman was quiet and solitary, a smart man with a PhD in Theoretical Physics, whatever that was, and Luke didn’t think that Mr. Allman’s listening in was eavesdropping for the sake of oppressing his son’s every move. He thought that Matchstick’s father took pride in his son, and if he had to guess, the old man admired Martin for his new experiences. In essence, he was proud of his son, a concept that Luke was not familiar with in his own home.

“Phht! I don’t like her that much,” Matchstick said defensively, but Luke knew better. It was an act of self-preservation. The teenage boy protecting his childhood from his impending adulthood.

“I could tell by the way you carried her books from class to class last year,” he heckled him, and the car jerked suddenly to the right as Mr. Allman had kept his eyes off the road for too long and had to bring the car back onto the right side of the road.

“Wentworth! Keep your eyes on the road, please,” Mrs. Allman told her husband, and he nodded, ‘Yes, dear,’ to her in that quiet educated sort of way that he had about him.

“I only carried her books one day, scrotum,” Matchstick said under his breath and pounded him in the arm with his fist. It hurt like crazy because Matchstick had the knuckle of his middle finger poking out, but Luke acted like it didn’t hurt at all.

“But that one day was the last day of school, and that’s what matters,” Luke pressed him, and the fist came back around to his leg this time.

“Martin! Stop hitting your friend unless you want him to hit you back,” Mrs. Allman snapped. “You have my permission to defend yourself, Luke,” she said, and Luke shrugged his shoulders.

“Thanks, Mrs. A!” he said and hit the power switch on the side of the Space Invaders game.

“Damn it! I was just getting ready to roll the score over to zero again, man!” That was a mistake. Matchstick let the four letter word slip before he could stop it, and his father readjusted the rearview mirror on him. Mr. Allman didn’t say anything; he just gave the look, and Matchstick immediately apologized.

“Sorry.”

Like all kids that age, he knew he could push the limits with his mom, and in this case, go past the limits, but when his father gave the look, he knew he had to straighten up. Mr. Allman might be a Theoretical Physicist, but he wasn’t a theoretical father, and when punishment came, it wasn’t with a ten second spanking. Over and done. No, it was with a two hour lecture on everything from the Bible to the reminiscences of growing up with Grandpa Allman on the farm during the nifty fifties that usually started with, ‘Back in my day . . . .’ Fortunately for both of them, Mr. Allman accepted Martin’s apology and readjusted the mirror, giving his wife a sly look, and Luke could see from the back of her head that her ears raised a little, indicating that she was probably smiling quietly with parental satisfaction.

“It must be nice having a dad that cares enough to give a lecture,” Luke thought to himself. His own father was gone most of the time. Even when he was around, he was quiet and grumpy, and he preferred his son outside doing something productive like staying out of his sight. Luke thought that was the main reason he was going to camp this year even though his mom had passed away just days before. It was just too convenient to have his son out of the house so he could take care of his precious job. His mind was wandering and putting him into a really bad mood for no reason, and Luke rubbed his eyes in frustration and looked over at Matchstick. He couldn’t wait to run up his score again, and he had already turned the game back on and cleared half the screen of alien space ships.

“I’m going to swim the river this summer,” Luke announced to Matchstick.

“Yeah, right. I can’t swim the Neuse, and I’m better at the front crawl than you are.” The Neuse River ran in a frenzy alongside the edge of the campground, and it was a hundred yards across with a strong current that could drag a kid downstream a mile before they could get across to the other side if they weren’t careful.

“Backstroke,” Luke told him. “I’m going across with the backstroke. I’ve been practicing some, and I think I can do it this time.”

“You can try with the butterfly, or do your best with the breast,” Matchstick sang, “but you can’t get across the Neuse. No one at camp has ever done it.”

“It doesn’t matter about which stroke you use, dummy. It’s whether you get scared and quit that matters,” Luke explained. “I’m not getting scared. I’ll keep going until I get to the other side.” Matchstick put the game down and held his hand out to Luke.

“Nice knowin’ ya.”

Luke ignored the comment. He was used to people underestimating him, and he wasn’t going to let anyone’s belief or disbelief in his own abilities stop him from trying. The camp counselors always advised against getting out into the river, but there was no fence on the grounds to keep the kids from getting in and swimming around in the current. On a good day, Luke could stand out on the shore and count any number of kayaks free floating down the current past the camp as if they were flying down a wet, one way highway, always streaming from left to right, never from right to left. The challenge was to swim all the way across the width of the river without drowning, and most of the kids at the camp had enough common sense to know that trying it was rolling dice with death. Luke was not one of the typical kids though. He was a daredevil at heart, and he loved the thrill of trying to do something that no one else had ever been able to do. He had tried to cross the river several times in the past with no success, and he was determined to try it again this summer because it could be his last chance to go to this particular camp by the Neuse River. Camp Roanoke had teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for the last two years, and if it hadn’t been for the generous donations of several of the new high tech companies that had come to the Raleigh area, it would have been shut down and sold to developers. As it was, housing developments had begun to spring up around the camp on either side, and it was likely that Camp Roanoke would become the footprint of yet another concrete and asphalt expansion that his own father liked to refer to as ‘progress’. To Luke, that was a funny word for the destruction of greenery, but there was nothing that he could do about it. With that in mind, he was determined to swim across the river this time, no matter the consequences.

“We’re here,” Mrs. Allman said from the front seat, and Luke looked out the passenger’s side window as the car made a right turn from the asphalt of the main paved road to the red dirt and rocky earth of the trail which led into the barren wilderness. He saw the familiar faded red and yellow paint on the wooden sign at the entrance to the camp, and his insides began to stir with excitement at what lay ahead of him the next couple of weeks. They drove down the long driveway with the sound of gravels crunching beneath the tires, and the woods crept in and around the car on either side, smothering the vehicle and scraping the windows in several tight locations. There were large potholes on both sides of the trail, and the car’s shocks bounced in and out of dry mud holes as it went.

“They’ve let it deteriorate,” Mr. Allman said unexpectedly with disappointment in his voice, and he gripped the steering wheel tight with both bands as they crawled through the woods.

“Oh, honey, I’ll bet the mosquitos are bad this year,” Mrs. Allman replied and turned around to look at her son. “Martin, did you pack your bug spray?”

“Got it, mom. I put a bottle in my backpack, right next to my snacks where I wouldn’t forget it.” His mom’s mouth went wide open.

“How many times have I told you, you should never put chemicals near food,” she scolded.

“Keeps the bugs away from my food,” Matchstick shrugged his shoulders and said with a smile. Luke saw Mr. Allman’s smile at his son’s cleverness in the rearview mirror, but he had been married long enough to know that he should look straight ahead and keep wisely out of his wife’s frustration with their son.

“Don’t be a smart ass, Martin. No one likes a smart ass,” she told him and shook her head back and forth. Mr. Allman’s eyebrows shot up with surprise, and his knuckles turned white as they tightened around the steering wheel. To his credit, his head never turned to give or take away from his wife’s scolding of their son. Luke thought his own dad could learn a few things about patience and cautiousness from Mr. Allman, among other things.

“Except, of course, the smart ass’ mom,” Matchstick replied, and Luke busted up laughing and spied Mr. Allman turning his head just enough so that he could cut his eyes and get a peripheral glimpse of his wife’s shocked expression.

“Martin! Watch your language!” she said hypocritically and then grabbed the dashboard quickly so that she wouldn’t hit her head as they drove into a particularly deep and bumpy mud hole.

“Yes, ma’am!” Matchstick said with a salute, and then he put his video game away in his backpack with the bug spray. “We’re here,” Matchstick shouted as the car came over the last hill and the open acreage of the campground spread out before them. There were already campers running around the dormitories with an array of squirt guns, yo-yos, and soccer balls. A group of young girls were singing together in unison while they each took turns hopping in the center of a jump rope, and another group of boys were huddled around the horseshoe stakes with plastic horseshoes in their hands. Then he spotted a different group of girls coming out from behind a dormitory, laughing and giggling. He looked from girl to girl and his eyes landed on Kristen Mayweather in the herd of girls who had slowly migrated around the monkey bars, and Luke’s heart began to race. He didn’t know it, but his face had flushed as he stared out the window of the car, and he didn’t notice it when Mrs. Allman asked him a question. When he didn’t answer, she turned around in the seat and studied him carefully staring out the window, oblivious to the world, and she followed the direction of his eyes to find what had captured his attention. She saw the group of girls, and she saw Kristen’s distinctive pony tail beneath the monkey bars.

“Oh,” she said to herself, and then she quietly waited for her husband to park the car. When they had edged diagonally into a spot and parked, she got out and opened the back passenger door where Luke was sitting. “Are you ready?” she asked with a big smile, and this time her words cracked his concentration. Luke heard her and undid his seat belt.

“Oh, uh, yeah,” he said and picked up his backpack from the floor board of the car. He got out with his eyes still on Kristen, and Mrs. Allman closed the door behind him. Luke headed for the rear of the car where Mr. Allman was already opening the trunk. His other carrying bag was situated inside with the rest of Matchstick’s possessions, and they carried their stuff to the junior high boy’s dormitory with the Allmans following behind. When they reached the screen door to the dorm, there was a freckly-faced high school aged boy with spiked red hair and a big grin waiting for them with a clipboard and pencil in hand. There was also a fat metal whistle hanging by a white shoelace around his neck, and he had the typical smug look of a newly trained counselor.

“Hi, I’m Jimmy Smith,” he said as he introduced himself to Mrs. Allman before looking down at the newest camp members. “Names?” he asked and looked intently at the list on his clipboard.

“Luke Green.”

“Martin Allll-Mannnn.”

Jimmy checked off the name and cut his eyes over to Matchstick as if he were recording his face for later. “Got ya’,” he said and pointed inside. “Take your pick of the bunks that are left. If I can give you some advice, the last ones taken are the ones next to the restroom,” he hinted, but Luke and Matchstick were experienced and knew that those bunks were the worst for odors and noise of all varieties in the middle of the night.

“Thank you, Jimmy,” Mrs. Allman said very politely, and Jimmy grinned as if he had just relayed the most important piece of information since the discovery of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

“No trouble. Just doing my job,” he replied. They entered the dorm and found an empty set of stacked beds.

“I’ll take the top bunk,” Matchstick declared and threw his bag of clothes onto a top bunk along the outside wall, about middle ways down the room. Luke took the one beneath him, and they started unpacking right there on the spot.

“Boys,” Mrs. Allman said as she stood at the front door with Jimmy. As most teenagers discover, they were getting too old for hugs, and they both waved goodbye from where they were. Mrs. Allman stood there for a moment, lingering as if she expected a little more, and then said, “Goodbye, boys. I will see you in two weeks.”

“Yeah, momma,” Matchstick said as he jumped up on top of the bunk bed, waved once to his mom, and got out the Space Invaders game. Mrs. Allman waved back to her son and Luke, and she disappeared from the front door.

“Hey, man,” Luke said as he tried to get Matchstick’s attention. The sounds of aliens stepping from side to side were coming out of the handheld game, and he knew there was no use in trying to break his concentration. He was going to be polite and try anyway. “Don’t you want to go outside?” Luke asked his old friend.

“Nah, I’m good right here playing my game. You can go if you want,” Matchstick told him and kept playing his game.

“All right,” Luke replied and unpacked his stuff on the bottom bunk bed beneath Matchstick so that everyone could see he had laid claim to it. When he was finished, he found himself getting kind of bored, and he looked out the window at the bright sunny day outside. It called to him, and since he was at camp, he knew he was supposed to be outside. “I’ll see you later,” he said to his buddy and went to the front door where Jimmy was posted. When he got there, Jimmy turned around and grinned at him. Then he pointed at the gang of girls that included Kristen.

“Hey, man, check ‘em out. Those chicks are ready for hatchin’.”

Luke wasn’t sure exactly what Jimmy meant by ‘hatching’, but he was pretty sure it was something that was banned at camp.

“Yep, they’re cute,” Luke said and played along, and he left Jimmy standing there alone with his eyes hanging out and went over to talk to Kristen. He walked toward her, and the closer he got to her, the more he felt his feet taking him in a different direction. He felt the butterflies in his stomach, and he was as nervous as he had ever been in his life. Suddenly, he found himself walking in a different direction across the soccer field instead of toward the monkey bars where Kristen was, and he wondered what was going on with himself. He wasn’t usually that nervous to talk to her, but he had had a tough summer so far, and he wasn’t sure what he would even say to her.

‘Hey, Kristen. My mom died, and I didn’t see you at the funeral. Where were you?’ hardly seemed like the kind of thing a guy said to his girl. Though, with as nervous as he felt, he wasn’t sure what would come out of his mouth, if anything. He felt deep inside that he wanted to talk to her about all kinds of things, but he couldn’t bring himself to start the conversation. Luke hoped that she would see him walking across the field by himself and that she would drop everything to follow him. He peeked around behind him as he strode through the short cut grass, and he saw her still talking to the other girls. Her back was turned to him, and it didn’t look like she had even noticed him at all. A couple of the other girls around her made eye contact with him in that instant, but neither of them made any effort to tell Kristen that he was at the campground. They only smiled back at him and kept talking and laughing amongst themselves.

Why hadn’t she noticed him? To Luke, girls were a mystery, hard to figure out, and he was shy around them by nature. It made him think that he should have just gone right up to her and started talking, but he couldn’t do that. He hoped she would be the one to initiate conversation when she noticed him, and then everything would fall right in line. Before he knew it, he was coming to the end of the soccer field, and from this distance, he knew that if she were to turn around and see him then, she would never know that it was him. He stopped at the netted goal at the end of the field, and he caught sight of the water in the river through the dark thickets of the woods that lay in between the soccer field and the shoreline. All thoughts of Kristen evaporated as he watched the sunlight glisten on the ripples of the current, and he thought he heard a voice calling him from the riverside. He had gone this far, and he started absentmindedly marching through the thick underbrush toward the moving water where he remembered the narrow foot path had been located the previous summer. The gray ropelike vines and green prickly briars were so dense that he could not walk more than a step without struggling with the thick vegetation. The vines crisscrossed at an angle from tree to tree, and he had to duck low under them to avoid touching the edges. If he had to, he would move the vines out of his way, but before he touched them, he made sure that the leaves were not bunched in threes. The last thing he needed was to break out in poison on the first day of summer camp. The briar thickets were a different obstacle altogether. They had sharp thorns that stuck to his clothes, and when he tried to pull them out, the thorns pierced his skin. Soon he had tiny blood droplets all along his arms, and the mosquitoes began to swarm. Seeing that he was getting nowhere, Luke backed out of the thicket the way he had come in, and he stood at the edge of the soccer field and looked for another way through the woods. He walked all along the end of the field searching, but he could find no good, easy way through the thick barrier of undergrowth. If he had had a machete, he wouldn’t be having this problem, he thought to himself, but a wise decision by the camp counselors had banned knives of any kind from the premises of the camp long ago.

“Luke?” a familiar voice called to him from behind. He stopped in his tracks, frozen, daring not to turn. He swallowed a thick knot in his throat which he hadn’t realized was there until the voice called out to him, and he drummed his fingers of both hands nervously on the sides of his legs as the ball of nervous energy got lodged in his throat just above his windpipe. For a second, he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t muster a complete thought. Then he swallowed again, and the lump pushed down past his airway, and he breathed in a deep breath of summer air. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed since he had heard his name called out, but he was afraid to turn around. He took a chuck of skin on his leg between his fingers, and he pinched as hard as he could stand it until the pain caused him to wince. With his frozen state of fear cracked in two and quickly followed up with another fresh breath of air, he slowly craned his head with his feet following obediently, and he turned and saw Kristen walking down the soccer field toward him. His fear grew and his heart lightened at the same time as she drew nearer.

“Hi,” Luke said timidly, and his voice croaked a little with the effort. He was slightly embarrassed and put one hand over his mouth as he cleared his throat at her approach. She kept walking until she had gotten within about four feet of him, close enough to talk but just out of arms reach. Luke was unaccustomed to talking with girls very much, and he was also not very good at reading their body language. She was trying hard not to make too much eye contact, but she was there to talk to him and he found it a confusing combination.

“Hi,” she replied and looked out into the forest. “What the heck were you trying to do in the bushes?” she asked, and there was that strange little hint of judgment in her voice.

“Oh, uh, I was trying to get through the woods to the river, but the trail seems to have been grown over since the last time we were here.”

“Yeah, that happens when they don’t want you to go to the river,” she replied sarcastically. “You heard that they made a new rule about it because kids kept getting into trouble trying to swim in the current,” she said, shaking her head as she emphasized the word ‘kids’, as if the word were from a foreign language that she did not quite understand. Kristen had quickly grown into a full-fledged teenager over the past year, and it seemed to Luke that she did not associate herself with children any longer. Luke wished that he could say the same, but the best thing about his childhood was his relationship with his mother, and he could not imagine separating himself from those memories. Ever.

“Well, it doesn’t matter anyway. I’ll find a way to get to the river before the week is out,” Luke said to her confidently. He took a timid clandestine sideways step in her direction, and she took an obvious step backwards and crossed her arms.

“Look, it’s good to see you here, but I started talking to someone else,” Kristen said and turned her head to the clouds to see if they had any thoughts on the subject. Luke cocked his eyes to the sky, too, and he didn’t see anything of interest up high. When his eyes drifted back down to the ground, Kristen’s eyes were focused straight into his own, and there was a cunning twinkle in them.

“Who?”

“Don’t worry about it, but I thought that I would tell you so that you would know,” she said and turned on one heel and started walking across the soccer field. As an afterthought, she turned around and added, “See ya,” with a smile and a wave. He imagined her doing a hundred yard dash to get away from him and from the horrible thought of breaking up, but in reality, she skipped down the field to the group of girlfriends huddled at the goal at the far end of the field. Apparently, breaking up with him didn’t mean anything at all to her. Luke kicked the grass at his feet and picked a long loose green blade up. Then he shoved it into his mouth between his cheek and gums.

“That hurt,” he considered to himself, and he thought about saying something else to her, yelling it out for her girlfriends to hear. He only thought about it though; he didn’t actually do it. He thought instead about being a kid, being with his mom, and he turned his back to the field and stared out through the trees. He stood there staring at the whole woods in front of him but on nothing in particular, and he recalled some advice his mother had given him when he was younger.

“Son, you are too little to understand the many reasons I love your father,” Norma had said gently.

“He’s not my father. He said so,” Luke had said bitterly with wet eyes. She nestled him closely in a warm hug.

“Luke, he didn’t say it to hurt you or to use it against you in any way. He told you so that you would know why there were so many differences in your appearances. I know he loves you as much as I do,” she comforted him. “The biggest strength that your father has shown you, and that I hope you yourself can learn to show, is in knowing how to let go of your hurts. To move on, to forgive and to keep living when life gets you down.”

Luke thought about that advice for many weeks, and though he understood the words, he didn’t know what she really meant. Until her death. Until this sudden breakup with Kristen. Those were examples of hurts that were deep. He wasn’t going to cry out after Kristen and give her the satisfaction of proving that she could hurt him. He was going to think about what he had intended to do when he had shown up for camp. Forget the rules of the campground, forget the briars and thorns. He was going to cross the Neuse River. Luke chomped down on the blade of grass, and he focused on the sparkling water on the far side of the tress. Thinking and studying, he walked up and down the edge of the field, looking for the easiest way through the brush. He scanned his surroundings, and to his disappointment, there wasn’t an easy way across anywhere. He would have to either find somewhere else besides the end of the soccer field to enter. Either that or make a path here for himself. When he turned back around to look out at the soccer field, some of the other campers along with a counselor or two had migrated onto the field and were kicking the ball to each other in a circle. He knew that if he tried to make a way through the brush then, with a counselor watching, the counselor would surely stop him and probably punish him in front of everyone for breaking the rules. He didn’t want that embarrassment just then, and so Luke picked up a nearby stick and flung it into the woods in anger. Then he stalked up the field to where the others were passing the soccer ball from one to another. He recognized some of the boys he had met before from other schools: Shelby Snowden, Ken Crowder, and the dreaded Willie Yarbrough. Willie and Luke had a history with each other, and it wasn’t a good one. Like Dick Berry, Willie was a bully, and a rather mean one at that, and Luke knew to keep some distance from him at all costs. He did not know the two counselors however; they were all new this year. When he got within fifteen feet of the crowd, Shelby kicked the ball out of the circle to him, and out of reflex, Luke dove headfirst at the ball to save it. He connected with the ball using the high part of his forehead, and the ball bounced skillfully into the center of the players.

“Nice one,” a female counselor said to him as she caught the ball under the toes of her shoe.

“Way to use your head, Greenie,” Shelby joked, and he waved him over to the circle. Luke lumbered around the outside, and Shelby and Ken high-fived him. Luke returned the gestures and put a fake smile on his face, but he tried his best not to make eye contact with Willie. There was no use letting those guys know his girlfriend had just dumped him, and there was also no use in letting Willie provoke him into a fight. He didn’t like Willie, and ignoring him was the best strategy he could come up with for avoiding another fist fight.

“Ben Schwitter,” the counselor said as he introduced himself, and he suddenly thrust out his hand to shake. Surprised by the gesture, Luke took his hand and shook it. Ben was a short guy who stood about five-foot-two, covered in freckles, and he pointed at the other counselor who had the ball under her foot and said, “That’s Angela Miller.” Luke nodded to her, and starting from her feet, his eyes went up her long legs and stopped at her chest. When he realized that he had lingered there for a second too long and that she might think he was gawking, he smiled and looked at her hazel eyes and reddish-blond hair. She returned a knowing smile, as if she had deduced that he was checking her out, and Luke’s face turned bright red.

“Nice to meet you, Angela. Were you named after an angel?” Luke asked awkwardly and regretted the words as soon as they had left his lips. It was a sad attempt at conversation, but she was a couple of years older than him, and he was intimidated.

“Uh, no, but that’s a very literal take on my name. Angela was a popular name when I was born,” she said. “Whose team should he be on?” she asked Ben and turned her attention back to him.

“Good question. If you feel like playing, Luke, we were just getting ready to break up into teams,” Ben said, and Luke nodded that he wanted to play. “Great. You can be on Ken’s team with Horace Ledbetter, Ronnie Little, and Jan Williams.”

“Why not Shelby’s team?” Luke asked as the groups split up. It wasn’t Shelby that he was concerned with here; he thought that if he was on the same team as Willie, he wouldn’t have to cross paths with him at all.

“The way you saved that ball with your head, it looks to me like you have some experience, and I want keep it as even as possible,” Ben said. “Let me introduce you to everyone else while I’m at it. There’s Shelby and Willie, whom you know. And there’s Yolanda Mason, Tiffany Truman, and Billy Smith,” he said as he pointed each person out. Luke greeted each with a nod, and then the two groups separated. Luke thought that it seemed fair to separate Shelby and himself since it seemed they were the most experienced, and he jogged over to where his new teammates were huddled around centerfield. They all stood together as if they were unsure of exactly what kind of workout Ben had in mind. The field was huge, and with only five people on each team, everyone was going to be exhausted from running long distances in the hot summer sun. Luke looked at the opposing five, and he wondered how this was going to turn out. Ben signaled for everyone to spread out but not past the center of the field, and he named Shelby as the goalie for his team. Angela put a silver whistle to her mouth and blew it once to call attention to herself.

“Team 1, that’s your team Shelby, will play defense of this half court for the first twenty minutes. Team 2, that’s your team Ken, will play offense for the first twenty minutes within this half court. Whenever a goal is scored, time will be stopped, and the defense will get the ball back at centerfield and play will continue. If the ball goes out of bounds, the offending team will lose possession of the ball. At the end of twenty minutes, Team 1 and Team 2 will switch offense and defense, and the respective teams will play for twenty minutes in their new positions. The boundaries are the usual lines with the center line being the outer boundary. The ball has to keep moving at all times, and so the goalie may not hold the ball for more than five seconds while the ball is still in play. The rules for touching the ball are the same; only the goalie may touch the ball with their hands. The team with the highest score at the end of forty minutes will be the winner. Any questions?”

“What do we get if we win? A date with you,” Ken hollered back at her, and she put her hands on her hips and gave him a serious frown.

“No, you couldn’t handle it,” she told him, and there was laughter all around from the girls. Ken laughed with them. “Are there any relevant questions?”

“What happens if neither team scores?” Luke asked. Angela smiled and pointed at Luke.

“Good question. In the event of a tie, there will be a showdown between the two goalies. One goalie on offense; one goalie on defense. One kick each at the goal, and then the goalies will switch places. The first goalie to score wins the game for their team. There will be eight teams total, and we are going to play a tournament over the next two weeks, which means three rounds of games in all to get to an overall champion. The winner of today’s game will get a chance to play another team five days from now, and then the final game will be ten days from today, leaving the victors with special privileges for the final few days at Camp Roanoke. Any more questions?” Multiple hands went straight into the air, and there were murmurings from both teams. Angela pointed to Yolonda.

“What are the special privileges?” she asked Angela.

“We’ll tell you at the end of the tournament,” Angela answered.

“What? You mean you don’t know,” Shelby commented.

“Oh, we know, but they’re special privileges, and it’s a secret,” she answered again, still giving them nothing. Then she blew her whistle and gave the ball to Shelby to start the game. She took out a watch that was in her pocket, and she clicked it to start the time. “Time’s wasting!” Angela shouted, and Shelby quickly flung the ball as far as he could throw it toward centerfield. It bounced twice before Jan from Team 2 stopped it with her shoulder and then paused while holding the ball under her foot while everyone stared at her. Luke looked around the field at the competition, and when he glanced at Willie, Willie sliced his hand across his throat at Luke and then pointed his index finger directly at him. It bothered him on some level, but Luke quickly looked elsewhere and pretended that he hadn’t seen the threat from across the field.

“Time’s wasting, Team 2!” Ben yelled at Jan. “Holding the ball means you’re losing a chance to score for your team!” With that little bit of encouragement, Jan kicked the ball toward the middle of the field where Luke was positioned, and Luke scuffled with Tiffany Truman for possession of the ball. When he had snatched it from her, Luke kicked it straight ahead at Shelby who caught it before it could even get close to the goal. Shelby tossed it to Willie who dribbled the ball out to the far corner of centerfield and waited for someone to take it from him. Willie was a big guy for his age, and he had large feet to protect the ball with. It took Ken and Luke together to get the ball away from him, and when they finally got the ball, Willie came up behind Ken and stuck a foot out at his ankle. Ken didn’t notice the leather boat with shoelaces under his own feet, and he tripped and fell face first to the ground, losing the ball to Willie. Ben and Angela were refereeing on the sidelines at a distance and missed the intentional tripping, but Ken got to his feet and took off after the ball before Willie could get too far ahead. It surprised Luke when Ken clotheslined Willie with one arm, and it shocked him even more when he heard both whistles being blown as Willie lay on the ground trying to catch his breath. The clock was stopped as Ben and Angela ran over to check on him.

“Unsportsmanlike conduct! You can’t do attack people on the field, Ken!” Ben shouted as he helped Willie up off of the ground. He was okay, and when the referees weren’t looking, he gave a devious sneer at Ken.

“Are you kiddin’ me?! He tripped me on purpose with his gigantosaurous feet, and you didn’t call anything then!” Ken snapped, and he got up into Ben’s face.

“We saw you on the ground, but we thought you were just clumsy,” Ben said back to him in a calmer voice.

“Clumsy?! I’ll show you clumsy,” Ken said and balled his fists at his side, ready to push the issue further.

“Look, Ken. Calm your temper and go sit out the rest of the game,” Angela interrupted, and she stood resolutely between Ken and Ben with her hands on her hips. “This is just supposed to be a game, not an actual battle.” Ken held up a finger at her as if he was going to tell her what she could do with her game, and Luke ran over beside Angela and held his hands up in peace.

“It’s okay, Ken. Don’t worry about it. Just give it a few minutes, okay. We’ll keep going, and in the end, it’s just a game,” Luke reasoned with him.

“It’ll be four-on-five if I sit out the rest of the game. Willie should get thrown out, too,” Ken said to Angela while Ben checked out Willie’s condition. Willie’s sneer faded as soon as Ben started checking his neck for bruising. There wasn’t any, but there was a lot of fake wincing by Willie during the examination.

“I think you did enough damage to Willie. He’ll be lucky if he can make it through the rest of the game with the injury to his neck,” Angela said and motioned for Ken to follow her off the field. Willie laughed and pointed at Ken when the Angela and Ben weren’t looking, and Ken didn’t want to go to the sidelines, but Luke reassured him the team would be fine, even with the penalty. By this time, there was a crowd of onlookers gathering on the sidelines, including Luke’s former girlfriend Kristen Mayweather, and Ken stood off by himself where he could at least cheer his teammates on.

“Much better,” Ben said. “Ready to continue,” Ben asked Willie, and Willie rubbed his throat with his hand.

“Sure,” Willie whispered, and Ben blew the whistle for the clock to start and the game to resume. Willie walked by Luke and nudged him with his shoulder. “Like my acting,” he whispered to Luke and then winked at him with a grin.

“Man, that was unfair, and he’s from your school,” Luke commented as they watched the game going on without them from a distance.

“Who cares what school he’s from? I take care of myself first,” Willie told him.

“That’s a selfish way to be,” Luke countered.

“It’s a selfish world, Green. Get used to it,” Willie said and ran off in the direction of the ball. Luke went after him, and the game went on and on in the hot sun. Ken’s team, which had become Luke’s team by default, played the rest of the twenty-minute half on offense, trying repeatedly to score against Shelby and having no success. There were a few close calls where the ball ricocheted off Shelby’s hands and then bounced off the outside metal of the goal, but none where the ball went inside the goal. It was just too challenging with a four-on-five matchup, and at the end of twenty minutes, Angela Miller blew her whistle for a brief intermission.

“The score is zero to zero. You can all rest for ten minutes,” Ben told them as the two teams clustered off the sidelines, and he kept an eye on Ken to make sure he didn’t go directly over to Willie to start up on him again. There had been enough time for the anger to have eased, and Ken behaved himself and stayed with his team. In the huddle, Ken pulled them all together and began to talk.

“I’ve been watching them the whole first half, and I’ve picked up a few interesting things about their weaknesses,” Ken started.

“Yeah. Like what?” Horace asked. No one had heard a peep out of him during the first half, and it was almost strange to hear him talk all of a sudden.

“Billy always dribbles and kicks the ball with his right foot,” Ken said.

“So how does that help us win?” Jan asked.

“It won’t help us win because we never scored. What it will help us do is defend against them scoring,” Ken replied. “If Billy drives up to the goal with the ball, then you know which foot will launch the ball. If you’re facing him, then drive him to your left corner of the field where he’ll have a hard time aiming at the net.”

“Anything else?” Ronnie asked sarcastically.

“Yeah. Don’t let them score,” Ken said in a no-nonsense tone.

“That helps,” Ronnie told him. “Anyone else notice anything?”

“Besides the fact that Willie is a good actor, yeah. When Shelby head fakes, he throws or kicks the opposite direction from the way his head goes. If his head goes right, the ball goes left. If his head goes left, the ball goes right. Every time,” Luke explained, and Jan looked at the ground in thought.

“You know, that does seem right,” she said, and she punched Luke in the arm. “Way to go,” she said with a big grin.

“You didn’t say anything like that when I gave you a tip,” Ken said with a little bit of jealousy mixed in his voice. Jan then punched him in the arm, and he swayed to the side to roll with the punch.

“Better?” she asked, and he rubbed his arm with a half-smile as if he were not sure whether he should be happy he got what he asked for.

“I guess,” Ken said, and the whistle blew before they could discuss any further details.

“Time’s up. Take your positions on the field,” Ben said and nudged both teams back onto the field, holding one arm out and making sure to stop Ken from going out there. “Not you. Next game, if Team 2 wins.”

“Four on five for the rest of the game? Are you kidding? I didn’t even do anything to deserve getting sent off the field the first time,” Ken argued. Ben’s reaction was quite interesting to Luke. He nodded and smiled, and then he let Ken down gently in only the way a camp counselor could.

“Relax. It’ll be okay, kid, I promise. It’s just a game.” Everyone was scattering to their assumed positions on the field, but Luke gathered his group together at the last second for a real quick meeting on strategy.

“Guys, we can hold out if we take advantage on defense with the lack of rules. All we have to do is have a goalie and create a semicircle protecting the goalie with the three remaining players,” he explained. “It’s the best chance we have to block scoring.”

“Yeah, but won’t they double team us,” Horace reasoned, and Ronnie and Jan agreed.

“Sure, but if they’re any good at sports, they’ll figure that out regardless. If we reduce the spacing between ourselves, that can help us when they double team,” Luke said.

“Then they’ll stand on the outside of the semicircle and kick over our heads,” Jan said, and Angela blew her whistle to get their attention.

“It’s a risk, but what can we do?” Luke said, and no one had an answer until Horace nudged Luke towards the net.

“You’re the strategist so you’re the goalie,” he told Luke, and the others seemed to be okay with the decision. He shrugged his shoulders and went to stand in front of the soccer goal. Angela threw the ball out for the offense to start, and the last half of the game was on. Shelby started off with the ball, dribbling around the outside with his feet, and he passed it to Yolanda. Yolanda drove in between Ronnie and Jan and blasted the ball straight at Luke’s head. Luke didn’t have time to react with his hands, and the ball struck his forehead at an awkward angle and then ricocheted just above the goal and out of bounds.

“Way to use your head again, Green!” Ken yelled from the sidelines. Luke caught sight of Kristen, who was standing by then with a gathering crowd around the boundary lines to watch the game. She made eye contact with him for only a second before breaking away and talking to her friends. His feelings were still hurting from the fresh wounds of the broken relationship, but Luke heard the kick of a ball, and the sound drew his attention back to the game. This time, Shelby drove in through Ronnie and Jan, and he moved in even closer to Luke before kicking the ball along the ground to the goal. He couldn’t reach it in time so Luke dove with both of his arms outstretched to catch the ball, and at first, he thought he was going to be too late, but somehow, the ball ended up in the palms of his hands before it could go into the territory of the goal. He rolled over onto his feet and flung the ball out toward the centerfield line where no one on the other team was positioned to catch the ball. He hoped this would serve to help run a few seconds off the clock before Team 1 could try again. Shelby’s team was having a lot of early success in breaking down their understaffed defense, and every single second counted. Willie caught up to the ball as it bounced and slowly rolled to the far corner of the playfield, and when he started bouncing the ball ahead of him with small kicks, it seemed to Luke that he ran with a purpose, as if he had decided to bring the ball in himself this time. Willie charged ahead past his own teammates, and Horace spread his feet out and hunched down, waiting for him to come at him. At the last second before they could collide, Willie lowered his shoulder and plowed into Horace’s face at full speed, knocking Horace backward to the grass. Luke saw the blood and spit fly from Horace’s lips and nose, and he wasn’t surprised to hear both whistles blow on the contact.

“Foul!!” Ben snapped as he ran out onto the field.

“Unsportsmanlike conduct!!” Angela screamed at Willie, but Willie just kept moving ahead with the ball toward the goal as if he hadn’t heard a word they said. He kicked the ball at the goal, and despite the timeout called by the two referees, Luke dove and caught the ball before it could cross the line. Willie kept running at Luke like a steam engine, and then at the last second, he leaped over him and came to a stop. Luke rolled over on the ground with the ball and just got out of the way when Angela came barreling past him to get to Willie.

“What’s wrong?” Willie said as Angela got in his face. She pointed at Horace, who was holding his nose as blood dripped down his arm.

“What, are you blind?!” she almost screamed at him. To his credit, he didn’t flinch at her raised voice. “Get off the field, Willie!” Willie gave a smug grin and strutted away toward the cabins, never looking back.

“So it’s safe to say we’re back to being evenly matched?” Luke asked Angela, and she looked at him angrily though he knew she wasn’t mad at him.

“Boys and their games. Let’s just hope Horace’s nose isn’t broken,” she replied. Ben was already by Horace’s side and was checking out his injury, and a small crowd of the other players from both teams had gathered around him.

“Can you see how many fingers I’m holding up?” Ben asked with three fingers up, and Horace had his head tilted back to help stave off the bleeding. His nose was red with blood and bruising, and it looked a little crooked and swollen.

“Three?” Horace said in a question, but he got the number right.

Ben held up his other hand and turned his fist sideways, holding no fingers up and asked the same question.

“Two?” Horace said unsurely, and Ben walked Horace over to the sidelines and asked another counselor to take Horace to the emergency room. By this time, Willie had wandered off, and Luke saw him go into the dorm where Matchstick was probably still inside playing his video game. He had a bad feeling about it, but Matchstick was old enough to take care of himself, and so Luke stayed with Team 2 on the field. After Horace was taken care of, the game was down to a three-on-four match, still in Team 1’s favor, and Luke, Ronnie, and Jan huddled in close around the goal. Any chance of winning the game was inconceivable; they simply hoped to minimize the final score. They all three played the best they could for the remainder of the twenty-minute period, and to their surprise, they managed to end the period in a tie at zero to zero. Ben and Angela sent both teams to opposite sides of the field, and they told them to select a player for the shootout. Team 1 selected Shelby, while Team 2 selected Luke.

The atmosphere had become so tense that everyone’s nerves were on edge as both teams watched on the sidelines, waiting for the two boys to square off against each other and hoping there would be no further escalation of physical play. The competitive spirit of everyone involved was at a peak, which was something no one had expected since it was only meant to be a tournament to help build teamwork.

“Shelby, you take defense first,” Ben said, and he handed the ball to Luke. “You get the first kick, but you can’t pass the twenty yard line.” The gap between the competitors was wide, and Luke thought he would never be able to get a kick past his friend without the help of dumb luck or a freak accident. He placed the ball on the ground, took several steps backwards, and then ran at the ball with one foot forward and one foot back. Shelby hunkered down and rubbed his hands together and swished the hair out of his eyes, waiting for the kick. Luke’s foot swung out like a pendulum, and he had miscalculated and his foot missed the ball entirely, leaving him to lose balance and land flat on his back with his kicking foot in the air. A roar of laughter erupted on the sidelines, and Luke immediately felt embarrassed as he lay on the cool grass and stared up into the blue sky overhead.

“Hey, Green! You’re supposed to actually kick the ball, knucklehead!” Shelby taunted him, and Luke let out an exhale of frustration while on the ground. Luke looked at Ben questioningly, and the referee was still laughing.

“Does that count?” he asked.

“You haven’t done anything yet, so, no. It doesn’t count.”

Luke rolled over and got to his feet, and this time, he took a few extra steps back to make a longer runway and kept his eye on the ball. Then he sprinted ahead and kicked the ball, aiming his foot toward the goal, and the ball flew through the air in a sideways arc that led right at Shelby. The goalie opened his hands and caught the ball easily without jumping one way or another. Ronnie and Jan both had their eyes covered in disappointment on the sidelines, and Luke’s eyes happened to catch his ex-girlfriend nearby. She didn’t seem to be too interested in one team over another; she seemed to be more involved with her friends’ chatter at this point.

“Nice serve, softie,” Shelby said and tossed the ball to Ben. Then he jogged over to Luke and held out his hand to shake. “Come on, time to switch up.” Luke shook his hand and went over to the goal to trade places with Shelby. He really had not anticipated the game going into a tie, and he felt that even if they lost here in the shootout, his team was lucky to have even gotten this far. When he turned around in front of the goal, he widened his stance and waited for Shelby to kick. Shelby placed the ball on the grass, and he backed up to one side of the ball. Luke waited tensely, and the growing crowd on both sidelines quietened down to a whisper. Shelby took in a deep breath full of air, and he stretched his hands out to the sides for balance. Then he ran at the ball and kicked before Luke could blink an eye. The ball sailed at him in a white blur, and it veered in a different direction than Shelby’s path as it rocketed off to Luke’s left side. Luke barely had time to react, and with no time to think, he pitched himself sideways and stretched his hands out to block the approaching blur of white. The ball landed in his palms and pushed through one of his hands. Luke could not see it, but the ball sailed at the goal post and bounced over the top of the net and out of bounds. He heard cheers from Ronnie and Jan as well as boos from the rest of Team 1, letting him know that the game was extended for at least one more kick. A familiar shoe stepped into his view as he lay on the ground, and Shelby dropped a hand down to help Luke to his feet.

“Good block, Green. You won’t get the next one,” Shelby said. Luke stood up and wiped off the grass from his clothes, and he felt the small tug of a smile spread across his cheeks.

“Who says there will be a next one?”

“Who are you kidding? You’ll either kick it right to me, or you’ll kick it out of bounds, and then I’ll finish it,” Shelby predicted confidently. Luke didn’t argue back; instead, he walked out past the line, and Angela handed him the ball. Luke set it on the ground, and he backed up several paces to get a running start. He knelt down low and paused. He gazed at the goal, consciously blurring his vision and tuning Shelby out. Then he looked down at the ball, and he thought to himself.

“It’s just me and the goal. Just me and the goal.” With his eyes closed, he took a deep breath, counting to five, and he opened them again. All he saw before him was the goal post. The goal and the goal alone. It was so large that he knew he could hit it from here, if he tried. Luke took three steps forward and swung his foot out at the ball and struck it, and the dirty white and black sphere glided a couple of feet above the ground, around the blur of a person standing in between, and into the net. It was that simple. Luke stood there staring at the net as Ken, Ronnie, and Jan yelled at him and ran onto the field. They didn’t hug him because he was too sweaty and dirty, but they slapped him on the back and congratulated him for the win as he stood there as stunned as a deer in headlights. It occurred to him then that, even though they had been outnumbered from the beginning, they had somehow pulled out an impossible victory and won the game. They had defeated Shelby and Willie, and they would be playing again in the next round of the camp tournament.

Surrounded by his friends on the sweet field of victory, he found himself looking for his ex-girlfriend on the sidelines, and though he should have been celebrating the hard-earned victory, he suddenly felt a hint of despair when he didn’t find her watching his unexpected win. Had she seen him win the game? Or had she walked off before it all happened? Luke didn’t know, and he wondered why he still cared. Surrounded by friends on the field of a fresh victory, and yet he felt so alone. Did he still care for Kristen?

The answer was yes. She had hurt him deeply, but he believed he still did.

“That was a strong win, Luke,” Angela said to him from out of nowhere, and Luke hardly knew what to say to her compliment, so he said thank you. Jan and Ronnie walked off the field, but Ken stayed and listened. “I’ll be refereeing the rest of the day, if you want to stick around and watch.”

“Huh?” Luke asked, stunned that she had approached him. He didn’t know what to say. Ken elbowed him in the arm, and Luke looked at him dumbly to see what he wanted.

“Say yes, Luke,” Ken whispered to him, and Angela must have overheard.

“Watching the other teams is a good way to find out their weaknesses,” she explained. “It’s called scouting.” Then he understood. Angela wasn’t inviting him to hang out with her like Ken had thought.

“Nah, that’s okay. I’ve got to get back to the dorm,” he told her, and Ken then spoke up.

“I’ll watch you,” Ken said and then corrected himself. “I mean, I’ll scout with you.” Angela gave Ken a look that said, ‘What? Who are you?’ Then she patted Luke gently on the arm.

“Good game, then,” she said to him and ran over to where Ben was standing with a new group of players.

“Yeah, good one, Green,” Ken said. “You won the game and lost the girl.” Ken couldn’t have known, but Luke would have liked to have told him just how right he was.

“I’m going to check on Matchstick,” he told Ken.

“I’m staying right here and keeping an eye on a counselor,” Ken said and turned his attention to Angela. Ken was smitten, and Luke was not. He had just had his first real teenage breakup, and his heart felt like it had been ripped out of his chest and stomped on the ground.

Chapter 4

*

Luke walked back to the dorm to take a shower and change clothes, and he noticed that the counselor Jimmy Smith was no longer standing outside of their building. He didn’t remember seeing Jimmy on the sidelines of the game, and he was not sure where he would have gone since a counselor had to be present to receive the campers who usually came in late the first day. When he opened the front door and went inside, he overheard some boys talking heatedly, one of them being Matchstick.

“Give it back!” Matchstick yelled at another familiar face. It was Willie Yarbrough, and he had Matchstick’s handheld video game above his head and out of Matchstick’s reach. Two other boys were standing around Willie, and Luke didn’t recognize them, but they looked like trouble. One had a baseball cap on backwards with long greasy hair going down past his shoulders, and he looked like he hadn’t had a shower yet that week. The other one had darker skin and short hair in a crew cut style, and it looked like someone had made extra lines and rows of black kinky hair around his head with a razor. The greaser looked back at Luke, but he didn’t give him a second thought because he was too engaged with what was unfolding between Willie and Matchstick.

“Come on and get it, little man,” Willie taunted Matchstick to his face. He was much larger and much meaner, but it didn’t matter to Matchstick. He jumped to reach the game anyway, and Willie shoved him in the chest with his free hand, knocking him to the floor. The other boys were laughing at Matchstick by then, and Luke didn’t think his friend had much hope of ever getting his game back. At least not without some help, and Luke was covered in sweat and exhausted from soccer. “Wazza matter, wittle baby?? Someone take your pacifier??” Matchstick didn’t say anything, but his eyes stayed locked on the video game in Willie’s hand. Matchstick stayed on the floor, and Willie brought the game down to look at it. He flipped the switch on, and the game started, drawing Willie’s gaze into a narrow focus. The other two boys stopped looking at Matchstick and started watching Willie trying to play, and Luke heard the familiar sound of a spaceship explosion.

“You’re supposed to shoot the enemy ships,” Matchstick told him with contempt. Two more explosions later, and the music played for the end of the game. Willie tossed the handheld plastic device on the floor at Matchstick’s feet with batteries flying across the floor.

“Stupid game. Worse than soccer,” Willie said to Matchstick, and Luke could see how red his friend’s face was turning from across the room. Then Willie stepped over to Matchstick’s bag of clothes and started to open it when Matchstick jumped up and shoved Willie with both hands in the gut. Willie let out a lungful of air and started pounding Matchstick in the body with his fists. Luke started over to them. He thought that Willie would have become disinterested in the whole idea of fighting his best friend and moved on by then, and he didn’t want to rob Matchstick of a chance to defend himself against them. Luke had learned that that was an important step in handling bullies, but Matchstick was outnumbered and way outsized. He had seen enough.

“Hey, Willie! Game’s over,” Luke said, and the other two guys looked at him, but Willie didn’t pay any attention. He was too busy pounding on Matchstick, who was giving it back just as intensely by knocking away at Willie’s midsection with his fists, all while Willie was hitting Matchstick in the back of the head. Luke ran over and made sure that the crew cut and the greaser didn’t team up three-on-one on his friend, and when he had watched enough fists fly, he tried to break the two fighters up. “Come on, Willie. Let him go,” Luke said and inserted himself between Willie and Matchstick. Matchstick couldn’t see who was pulling them apart, and he didn’t realize it was his best friend. Before he was aware of what he was doing, he had punched Luke in the ribs before looking up to see his face. Willie backed away from them, and his two buddies stepped between them to form a wall of flesh while Willie fixed his shirt and hair.

“You better stay down, runt,” Willie said. “Or else.” Matchstick, whose name was aptly derived from his hothead, flew at him, but Luke held him back.

“Or what, punk?! Or what?!” Matchstick yelled at him, and a trickle of blood showed at the corner of his mouth. “Are you gonna break my stuff?! You’ve already done that!” Willie looked like he was going to go after him again then, and that was when Jimmy just happened to show up at the door.

“Guys, what’s all the yelling about in here, huh? You’re at camp for gosh sakes,” Jimmy said, and he came in to get a closer look. He wasn’t a very imposing figure to look at, but Jimmy wore the tag of a counselor, and even to a bully, that tag carried enough weight to demand respect. Willie and his two friends eased up a little bit, and he put on a convincing smile. He had the makings of a great actor, Luke thought, because even he had a hard time recognizing the bully from the big submissive kid who stood before them then.

“No prob, no prob, Counselor. We were just practicing wrestling, you know. I gotta keep up my strength even while I’m on vacation,” Willie lied.

“Yeah, just wrestling, huh?” Jimmy said, and he got close enough to Matchstick’s face to see the red marks on his cheeks and the bruising under one eye. The blood had been licked away from his lips, and Matchstick was combing his hair with his hand. “Were you just roughhousing with him, Martin?” he asked him with a thumb pointed at Willie, and Matchstick’s eyes lit up when Jimmy surprised him by calling him by his given name. Matchstick looked a little uncertain at first, and he wasn’t used to catching up to lies on the spot, especially when they weren’t his own. He must have appreciated the stretch, because he nodded and wiped his nose, hoping blood wouldn’t show up on his hand.

“Sure, Counselor,” Matchstick agreed. “Willie and I were practicing wrestling.”

“Are you on the same team at school?” Jimmy asked.

“Yeah, yeah, we are,” Willie said as if he were swearing on a Bible.

“It says on the sign-in sheet that you go to a different school than Martin,” Jimmy noted with cutting eyes at Willie. That was a smart move, Luke thought, and Jimmy pressed for the truth when he looked over a Matchstick. “Is that right?”

“Well, sort of, yeah,” Willie started, but Jimmy didn’t take his eyes off Matchstick, who quickly interrupted Willie.

“It’s a county-wide school system team,” he said, and Jimmy looked at him skeptically.

“Bull hockey, Martin. There isn’t a county-wide team,” Jimmy replied. When Luke heard that, he knew that Jimmy wasn’t buying their lies, and if he didn’t step in, he knew they were both going to be sent home before the first night of camp had even set it. He decided to intervene.

“They’re both on the Chatham All-County team, and they compete in the summers,” Luke said, which was a more believable story altogether. The greaser and the crew cut turned their heads to look at one another with surprise. Jimmy was quiet for a second before he answered, but he did have an answer.

“Wrestling,” he said and cracked his knuckles while he considered the elaborate story. “Just make sure to practice a little lighter,” Jimmy said. “I don’t feel like sending another kid to the emergency room today.” Luke could tell that Jimmy didn’t believe what they were telling; he wasn’t stupid, but he probably didn’t want to deal with the hassle that came along with getting parents involved in schoolyard issues. He had a feeling Willie’s parents would not care whether their son was fighting or not, and he doubted Matchstick had instigated his own nose bleed.

“I’ll try not to let you down,” Matchstick said. Willie held his hand just above his hip and gave the universally recognizable sign for a gun with his thumb and two fingers, and he pressed the imaginary trigger at Matchstick as if they really were friends.

“I’ll be seeing you around, Martin,” Willie said and walked out of the dorm with his posse close behind. Jimmy soon lost interest with Willie gone, and he gave Luke and Matchstick a knowing glance before going back outside the dorm. When they were finally free of bullies and counselors, Luke got out some fresh clothes and took a cold shower, not because he was hot, but because the owners of the campground had decided to turn off the hot water heaters during the summer to save on utilities. When he came back out, Matchstick was reading a Star Trek novel on his bunk.

“Hey, I didn’t get a chance to tell you, but they’re playing soccer out there. A tournament,” Luke told him, and Matchstick lowered his book. The nose bleed had stopped, but the black eye was beginning to take on a nice shade of purple.

“So?”

“So, I thought you would want to play. It is camp, and your parents want you to get outside.”

“Yeah, but I don’t want to get outside.”

“If you stay in here, Willie might come back.” That got the wheels turning on the bike.

“I can handle him. Besides, Kirk is at a really important junction in their voyage, and I don’t want to miss it.” The wheels were turning, but the bike was upside down.

“The words will be there for you the next time you pick the book up. This may be our last real chance to have some fun this summer. Come on,” Luke said as he put his socks and shoes on. “Let’s go outside. If nothing else, I want to get to the Neuse, and they’ve covered over the trail so we can’t get in.” At the mention of the river, Matchstick laid the book down and set up on his bunk. The bike was getting flipped over onto the tires. Yes!

“You’re going to try to get across again, aren’t you? You nearly drowned trying last year.”

“I did not. I just couldn’t make it to the other side, but I’ve been practicing at the pool, and I think I can get across this time.” Matchstick gave him a smirk.

“Bologna. Nobody can swim across the river ‘cause it’s too rough. But if you want to try, I want to be there to see you screaming like a little girl,” Matchstick said and started putting on his shoes.

“If I do scream like a little girl, I learned it from the best. YOU!”

They packed their stuff away in combination lockers for safekeeping, and they headed out the door. Crowds of campers had gathered around the soccer field, and the games were in full swing for the rest of the day. Luke headed up the dirt road leading toward the highway, and when they got over the first hill where no one would hear their voices, they started to talk.

“Are you ready for eighth grade?” Matchstick asked.

“Oh yeah, I’ve been ready. We’ll be on top of the world, the oldest kids in the school.”

“No doubt. We’ll be the oldest at the school, and there won’t be anyone to pick on us except other eighth graders,” he told Luke, and Luke laughed.

“No one to pick fights with us, except maybe the Berrys.”

“That’s because they’re stuck in middle school. The teachers got tired of them failing in elementary and pushed them on their way, otherwise they wouldn’t even be in junior high. It must be tough to repeat a grade three times,” Matchstick said sarcastically.

“Dick failed his grades, yeah, but Candy hasn’t failed. In fact, she’s pretty smart,” Luke said, and Matchstick hit him in the arm.

“Oh, no you don’t. You’re not allowed to take a Berry, Luke.”

“What?” he said as he rubbed his arm. “What are you talking about?”

“I saw that look in your eye and that sound in your voice,” Matchstick said to him. “I’m telling you, you don’t want to get involved with a Berry. Besides, you already have Kristen.”

“I don’t have a girlfriend anymore,” Luke said, picked up a gravel and then flung it as far as he could down the road. “Kristen broke up with me.”

“That’s a news flash. When was the last time you called her?” Luke had to think about it before he finally came up with an answer.

“It was a week before the funeral,” he said. He couldn’t bear to say whose funeral it was, but Matchstick knew.

“So more than three weeks ago. Hmm, no wonder she broke up with you. Girls like it when you talk to them,” Matchstick explained.

“Really? Well, when was the last time you talked to Sonya?” Luke asked.

“Last night on the phone.”

“Oh,” Luke replied as they walked down the road. “I’m just not that good at talking to girls.” Luke hoped that was the end of that particular type of conversation, and he changed the subject. “Are you ready for Halloween this year? Last year, your parents threw that big costume party and invited everyone in our class over.”

“They said they won’t be doing that again this year. They said it was too much trouble trying to keep some of the boys from destroying the house.” Luke laughed at that comment, but Matchstick didn’t. “It’s not funny. Some of the guys broke into my bedroom, and they set fire to my underwear.” Luke couldn’t help himself, and he busted up laughing then. “I like fire as much as the next guy, but I’m reformed.” It was true; Matchstick had a reputation for burning things. Everyone was safer if he had a video game in his hands instead of a book of matches. Luke was still laughing about the burnt underwear, but when he finally caught his breath, he apologized to him. “How would you like it if they did that to you?”

“Sorry, man. That was Dick Berry, the same guy that hit me in the head with my own shoe, so I sympathize. You can’t turn your back on a serial killer’s kid.”

“Don’t forget that when you talk about Candy next time.” He hadn’t considered it before, but that struck Luke like a sledgehammer in the gut. He hadn’t even considered that Candy could be as bad as her brother. Or worse, as bad as her dad. The genes were there, and they had learned about heredity in Biology the year before. Behaviors were trained though, not inherited.

“So no party this year?”

“They said they would throw one, but only for a small group. Maybe we could invite some girls over and watch a movie on video, like Halloween or The Fog,” Matchstick said. Luke didn’t say anything, but The Fog scared the crap out of him when he saw it with his mom in the theater. She had been a big fan of horror movies, and she had taken him to see several in the theater, probably before Luke was ready. He kept his eyes open during Poltergeist, but The Fog gave him nightmares. It was possible that he wasn’t going to his friend’s Halloween party this year, even if he had to stay home with his dad. If he weighed them on the scales, horror movie versus horrible life, horrible life won every time.

As they walked through the woods, they reached an intersection with a foot path. One direction went toward the river, and the other was unknown. Both ways were grown up with vegetation, but nothing like the end of the soccer field.

“Let’s go this way,” Luke said, and they cut through the high grass. There were no briars in the mix, just grass, dandelions, and ivy. They spotted some of the three-leaf variety of the latter, and they tried not to come in contact with the leaves so that they wouldn’t end up with a doctor’s visit for poison ivy. They walked for a quarter mile, sloping downward and deeper into the woods until they reached a boggy section of ground. The ground there at the bottom was saturated with water, and they could see the edge of the river through the forest, but if they kept walking ahead, they would be wading knee deep in muck. “There she is,” Luke said and pointed at the river. He took off his shirt and started pulling off his shoes before Matchstick had any idea what he was doing.

“You can’t swim in this muck,” he told Luke.

“All I need to do is hike through the swamp here to the edge of the river.”

“What if you get stuck in the mud or sink down into a hole?”

“I’m not going to sink in a hole. Besides, I can swim.”

“I can’t,” Matchstick admitted, and he was shocked to find that out about his best friend. “I never learned how.” Luke stopped in his tracks, and he thought about what to do now that they were here near the edge of the river.

“It won’t take that long for me to swim over there. Can you wait for me here?” Luke asked, and Matchstick nodded and went back up the trail to sit where it was drier.

“If something happens to you though, I won’t be able to help you, and I’m too far away from the camp to get help fast.”

Luke nodded that he understood. “I’ll be back soon,” he said and waded out through the murky water to the edge of the river. He turned around and waved once to his friend, and then Luke walked out into the river until the water had reached his abdomen. When he felt the angle of the river bed getting deeper beneath his feet, he started swimming toward the bank on the other side. The river was wide and the current was more relaxed in this section of the river, and he aimed toward a goal in the center of the river where there was a large rock jutting out of the water. He swam for several minutes straight, and he began to get tired of the motion before he reached the rock, so he turned over onto his back and floated with his face up to the sky. He hadn’t counted on being tired from the soccer game, and he thought maybe this idea had been a mistake. He looked at the shore where he had come from, at how far he had swam, and he knew that there was no turning back from where he was. He had to finish before the river carried him too far downstream from the rock in the distance. He rolled back over and started swimming again, and within a minute, he placed his hands on the rock he had been aiming for halfway between shores and pulled himself out of the water. He looked back to see if Matchstick was still in the woods, but he couldn’t see him from where he was. He waved anyway to let him know he was okay, hoping that he would see the signal, and then he looked across the river to the shore where he was headed. There was a thin layer of woods along the shore, but he could see a plain with green grass and weeds on the other side with something black sitting in the grassy field. It looked like a man-made structure of some kind, though he could not differentiate the details from this distance. His eyes then drifted along the shoreline to the left, and the land appeared to become narrow at a point, as if the shore ended. He looked harder, and he could see something that he had not noticed before, that the waterway split upstream around the piece of land. He understood then that the land and shore that he was swimming toward was a forested green island in the wide river. He wasn’t crossing the entire river; instead, he was crossing over to an isolated island part of the way across. But what was that dark structure on the island at the top of the hill? When he felt rested enough to continue, he let go of the rock and started swimming the rest of the shorter distance to the wooded shore of the island. Breathing heavily as he struggled to the end, he reached the shallows and started to tread water while he searched for the bottom with his toes. His feet brushed across sharp, slimy rocks in the murk, and he dog paddled further along until his feet felt the familiar grittiness of sand on the bottom. He climbed the last few steps out of the water and onto the shore, and he bent over with his hands on his knees as he recovered from the exertion.

“You did it,” he congratulated himself. He had worked hard over the past year to build up his endurance, and it had paid off. He then peered across the waters into the bog in search of Matchstick, but he couldn’t see him beneath the leaves of the trees. Placing his hands to his mouth, he shouted across the waters.

“Hey! I made it!” Luke bellowed to Matchstick, and he heard the echoes of his own voice bounce between the shores. He waited and listened, but there was no reply from the other side. He thought about swimming back, but he was a little tired and could use some downtime to rest. He looked at his surroundings. “Maybe I can see what’s on this island,” he told himself, and he climbed up the hill in his bare feet, which was no easy task with the sharp rocks on the shore. The underbrush in the wooded perimeter was thick, but there were very few vines and thorns to block his path. He waded through the thin layer of forest and came out in the field of grass which slanted upward on a grade. At the top of the hill stood a lonely house which was dark inside with greying wood and peeling paint on the outside. “Is anyone home?” he said out loud, but the house remained still. Curious, he climbed the hill through the high grass, and when he got within a few feet of the house, he noticed that he was looking at the front porch, yet there was no driveway leading around to this side of the house. “Strange,” he whispered to himself, and he began to trek around the perimeter of the old empty house, studying it for any outer signs of an address or a name. On the backside of the dilapidated structure, he found another smaller porch with a chimney protruding through the roof. There were no roads leading up to the house on that side either, only waves of green and gold grass flowing downhill to the dark woods and a second, much narrower section of the river. There was no road or path leading up to the house and no bridge across the river that he could see through the trees, and he wondered how anyone ever got in and out of this island when they came to visit. The entire island was also ringed by trees, masking the house quite nicely from either side of the river, and there seemed to be an ominous quiet around the perimeter of the remote home, interrupted only by the sounds of the river as it flowed around the eye-shaped island. There were no birds or squirrels roaming the grounds, and Luke was stricken by how desolate of animal life this green island actually was.

He scanned the sky for power lines, and there was no indication that the home had any external connections to the outside world. The wood moldings and architectural design were like the old historic homes along the waterfront of New Bern, and with the perceived age of the home, he had no reason to believe there would be any buried utilities whatsoever. There were no lights on inside behind any of the glass panes, and the doors and windows were all pulled shut. Luke believed he was looking at a dilapidated home from the distant past, a home stuck in a time period long gone by, and he wondered why no one at the camp had ever mentioned the island or the home during their open discussions around the campfires. He circled around front where there were marble steps leading up to the front porch, and he climbed these steps and went over to the tall front windows to look inside. Moldy red curtains lined the interior, and he could not see through the fabric to tell what was waiting behind the glass. He then went over to the immaculately detailed front door and tried to look through the frosted glass half-circle at the top, but he could not see through. He heard a twig break in the forest by the river, and he turned quickly to see who was there, but no one was standing out in the open. His heart was racing, but he waited for a few moments, and when he was satisfied that he was still alone on the island, a sudden urge came over Luke to enter into the home. As if he were drawn inside, Luke wiggled the handle to the door, and the door crept open as if it had anticipated him, waiting for him to enter all along. There was a darkness inside the house that felt as if it wanted to stand up and walk out into the light, and a cold, slow wind blew from the inmost corridors of the abandoned residence and enveloped him in its chill. Luke shivered in his bones as he stood with his feet only millimeters from the threshold of the door, and he suddenly had second thoughts about stepping across the door frame and going inside. He looked down at the ancient floorboards of the porch, and there were many jagged holes scattered in the rotted wood about his feet, yet the decaying lumber supported his weight quite well with no evidence of giving way. He could only hope that the interior floor boards were in healthy enough condition to hold the load of his body, and he cautiously inserted one bare foot into the gap of the solid door and set it down on the old oak tongue and groove floor. Carefully he shifted his weight forward, and when he convinced that the interior floor was going to hold him and that he wouldn’t fall through, he stepped into the old house with his whole body.

Another twig snapped outside, followed by the creaking sound of rusted hinges closing, and the front door to the house slammed into the wooden frame behind him. With a whoosh of mysterious cold air on a hot summer’s day bursting on his back, Luke stood perfectly still as the locks of the great carved door clicked to a close behind him.

Chapter 5

*

The floor beneath Luke’s feet creaked and groaned as he stood on the first level of the seemingly abandoned old home, and he found himself trapped in the foyer of the place. He turned around and grabbed the handle to the front door and twisted the crystal knob in both directions with no success in releasing the tumblers. There were no other locks on the door, only a single key hole beneath the knob, and he didn’t have a key.

“What is going on?” he asked himself, and he knelt down to the floor and peeked through the keyhole where daylight streamed through in a thin unbroken beam. He placed his hand on the knob and turned it slowly each direction with one eye watching for movement of the mechanism inside, and he was frightened when nothing moved inside the keyhole. He dug in his wet pocket for something thin to slide between the doorframe and the door where the lock clicked into place, and the only item that might have worked was an old business card with his dad’s name on it. The card was soaked through, swelled with moisture, and as limber as a wet noodle, and when he tried to put it between the crack, it bent against the wood and flexed like paper mache’. Worst of all, when he tried to pull the card away, the paper tore and a large chunk stayed fast between the two wooden surfaces.

“That was useless,” he thought. Defeated, he stuffed what was left of the business card back into his pocket and grabbed the glass knob again, pulling back with all of his weight, but the lock didn’t give. The funny part came when he was stretched as tight as a banjo string. Still leaning back with all of his weight, Luke suddenly fell backwards onto his backside with a squish of his clothes, with the doorknob still held firmly in his hands. He was in the dark, but he held the knob up in front of his face with the light from the windows in the background, and he saw that the square cylinder of the knob had pulled completely out of the mechanism. “I’m not getting out that way, I guess,” he said to himself, and he stuck the piece of doorknob into his other pocket. It was bulky and uncomfortable, but he knew that if he set it down in the dark, he would never be able to find it. In any case, there were several ways out of the house, and the easiest way was going to be the best way. He didn’t want to do it, but he would just have to resort to breaking glass to get out. He then got to his feet and started to walk over to the transparent glass windows when a groan rolled through the old house, and the rickety floor boards creaked in a ripple which led from the center of the house, across the room, and then up to the walls where the front windows were. The ripple swelled the plaster walls, and dust and debris flew out into the air, ratcheting the shutters on the inside walls loose. Luke was young and didn’t have the experience of years, but he knew that walls and floors were not supposed to move on their own like a ripple of muscle from a snake. Something was very wrong with this old building, and he was stuck inside of it. Another cold burst of air crawled over his wet skin, and fear took hold of his sanity. Scared and alone, Luke sprinted toward the daylight that shined through the windows, and he jumped into the air at one of the panes, not really sure what was going to happen when he hit the glass. He knew the collision would not be good, but he felt that remaining in this crazy house was not going to be good for his long-term health either. Before he could get there, the shutters suddenly slammed closed across all of the windows, and his shoulder slammed into the hardwood with a thud. Pumped with adrenaline, Luke grabbed the shutters and shook the slats back and forth with his fingers enfolded in the open slats. Shaking them all that he could, the shutters held in place, resisting every force he could put on them, up, down, left, and right, and after a few minutes of trying, he gave up and slid against the wall to the floor in defeat. The walls rippled once more as if to make fun of his effort, letting dust fall from the ceiling to settle in a thin layer on his head and shoulders. Quickly, the adrenaline in his body subsided, and after a moment, the bones in his upper torso started to ache from the crash with the shutters. He sat there on the floor, waiting for the pain to subside, and this delay gave his eyes a chance to adjust to the dark. Details of the interior architecture began to materialize out of the gloom. Since entering through the front door, this was his first real opportunity to study the interior of the house, and as the gray lines and corners began to materialize, he found that there was an unsettling elegance to the bounty of details built into the design of the great room. Thick, heavy layers of crown molding lined the corners where the ceiling met the designs of the patterned wallpaper, stretching vertically up the walls, and in the center of the room, a great crystal chandelier hung down from a vaulted ceiling overhead. There were cracks in the plaster around where the brass fixture of the chandelier attached to the ceiling, as if the stress of gravity on the weight of the crystal was beginning to have a very serious effect on the connection above. The crystals themselves were shaped like curved fangs, and the bottom-most crystal was as pointy as a spear tip, and the notion of standing beneath it was deeply troubling at the least. Luke’s eyes trailed off around the room and looked beyond the crystal chandelier to the great fireplace situated between split staircases at the back of the room. The staircases spiraled around the brick chimney which rose up to the ceiling, and then the steps went into a rounded balcony and opposite hallways on the upper level. The rounded balcony wrapped around the chandelier of the great room with stair railing lining the circumference of the upper level, and the two staircases were connected in the circle by the flooring of the balcony. He stood up and walked against the rounded wall of the balcony and around the perimeter of the chandelier, trying not to step beneath it. The wooden floor creaked behind him, never in front of him as he walked, as if the house was waving him on that way, and when he walked past the staircase and reached the tall brick fireplace, he saw that there was a large pile of damp ash in the bottom, leftovers from an old fire. The tip of a solid white object barely poked out of the top of the ash, and curious, Luke bent down to brush away the pile of ash surrounding the object. The ash tumbled way, and he found something there that was unexpected: the charred remains of a bone. Not just any bone, he thought. It was so large that he believed it to be a bone from a human leg. Adrenaline rushed into his system, and afraid, Luke stepped away from the fireplace, his eyes glancing away at the mantel and the brickwork above. There, hanging in the center above the meticulously crafted dentil molding of the mantel, was the frame of an oil painting which had been centered and mounted on the bricks of the chimney. It was hard for him to make out all of the details in the dim light of the room, but he could see the bright teeth and the whites of the eyes of the man standing in the painting. The eyes caught his attention and lured him in, calling to him almost, and he wanted to see the face of the man in the painting. He looked around the room for a light switch, but there were no signs of electrical lighting or outlets anywhere within the house, which was not a surprise since the home was so old. There were whole candles in the chandelier, but he had no matches to start a fire, and even if he did, he had no ladder to reach the candles. Besides, the chandelier creeped him out in general, and he wanted to stay as far away from it as possible while in the house. The only light in the room crawled through the panes and closed shutters of the front windows, and he couldn’t very well take the immense painting down from the masonry work and carry it over to the shutters. The painting, with the heavy wooden frame, was larger than he was, and that would be an impossible task for him to try to do without risking messing up the artwork. He was in a dim, hazy light, and there was nothing he could do for it. He would have to examine the artwork the next time he came, which he hoped was never.

His mind wandered into many distracting thoughts, and before he knew it, his gaze was drawn back down to the ashes and remains in the fireplace again, and he reached down and touched the tip of the bone with his bare fingers. The outside of the bone felt greasy and filthy, and he quickly tugged his finger away in revulsion. He wiped the ick from his finger on his leg, and then to his astonishment, the bone lit up from the marrow and glowed brightly for an instant, and afterwards, dimmed to a pale green until it finally turned grey again and diminished in the pale light. Next, his fingerprint flared white where he had touched the bone and thrummed bright and dim with the familiar rhythm of his own heartbeat. Giant pocket doors at the exits of the great room to other points within the house slammed shut and locked themselves into place. Curious, Luke went to one of the doors and tried to turn the rusty lock, but it refused to be moved. He pulled against the handle to try to roll the door back to no avail. He was trapped, and he quickly went back over to the bone as it began to shake and shiver, spilling ash out onto the stone and hardwood floor. The fingerprint where he had touched it went light and dark, faster and faster as his own anxiety built, and then a glow came from one of the hallways connected to the top of the staircase to the left of the fireplace. Those pocket doors apparently had not closed, and at first, Luke did not know what to think of the mysterious light in the upper level, but then he thought that maybe the house was telling him something, to follow its direction, to go deeper into its catacombs. He scanned the great room and gathered together what he had learned so far, just the way his father had taught him to do when he found himself in uncertain situations, and he came to the conclusion that he should go up and follow the lighted hallway on the next floor. Unless he fell through the upper floor, it would put him in no more danger than he already was, and it occurred to him that there may be an unlocked door or busted out window on the upper floor that he could use to get out of the house before nightfall came. If he were lucky.

Luke chose the staircase which circled around to the lighted hallway, and he vowed that he would be extra careful of rotten boards in the decaying home. Hesitantly, he placed his right foot on the first stair tread, and though it squeaked a high pitched noise, it held his weight adequately. He placed a hand on the wooden rail and leaned his weight on the post, and he found it to be sturdier than he would have expected, given the neglected condition of the home. He carefully took the stairs one step at a time around the chimney and onto the second floor landing. From there, he could see down the long hallway paved with one solid rug extending the entire length, frayed and jagged along the edges of the fabric. He had expected to see a window at the end of the hall; instead, there was simply a dark, solid wall with no view to the outside. He found this odd, but no stranger than finding a human bone in the fireplace. There was, however, a door at the far end of the hallway which shown brightly with some unknown source of light, and since he had gone this far, he determined that he was going to continue and find his way out. The door frame separating the landing from the hallway was rather ominous, but Luke went across the verge with as much care as he had when he had started up the staircase. He tiptoed along the center of the hallway, passing various closed doors which he believed must lead into long vacant bedrooms, and he leaned against the dark oak wainscoting at the end of the hall, pausing to listen for the sound of someone moving inside of the room. He listened quietly for some time, and he heard nothing that would alert him to the presence of another person. With a nervous hand, he latched onto the doorframe, and he leaned his head over so that his eyes just barely crossed the plane of the doorway. He saw no one on the other side. What he did see was another set of stairs going downward to a landing on the first floor and then continuing in the opposite direction, deeper into the belly of the house. Luke turned around and looked down the hall behind him, and he saw no one still. To the best of his knowledge, he was alone, which made him wonder: who had locked the doors and shutters to the old house? And why? Knowing that he may never get an answer to those questions and that he was losing precious daylight, Luke grabbed the wooden handrail of the stairs, shook it to check its strength, and he stepped down the stairs, one step at a time. He reached the landing on the first level without incident, and he saw that there was a locked pocket door toward the center of the house. He checked it, and that door was firmly locked in place as well, leaving him with only one real choice. He kept going down the stairs toward the source of light and into the basement. When he had circled the house on the outside, he had failed to notice that there was a basement below ground. The more he looked around, the more he understood that this section of the house was closed off from all others except by the stairway. Whatever this was, this was no way out. The light which had led him down this far had appeared to move from the end of the stairs out to the far end of the basement, in a corner behind several vertical load-bearing beams. Luke took a peek up the stairs where he had just come from, and he saw nor heard anything or anyone following him down to this level of the house. On the one hand, he thought it absurd to be concerned with someone following him through the abandoned house, but then again, he had never before heard of doors shutting and locking themselves either. He backed up against the cold brick wall, and before he went any further, he looked at his surroundings. The basement held the very foundation of the old house, and the red bricks that made up the walls appeared to have been handmade centuries ago, having rough edges with notches missing, cracks in the corners, and varying sizes. The mortar which held the walls together was thick, and it looked like it had been layered on like so much paste, gobbed on and smashed between layers, never bothering to scrape off the excess for a clean finished surface. The bricks did look healthy where he was standing by the stairs, but where the light in the far corner was shining, he noticed that the surfaces of the bricks were beginning to turn black and sooty. He didn’t see the makings of a fireplace to create the black streaks in that far corner, and so it puzzled him to know what was causing the stain which appeared to grow from the very source of light. Perhaps it was just a trick of the eyes, an illusion, but he felt compelled to go in a little closer. After all, he had come this far; why not go a little further. Luke looked down at the concrete patchwork floor, and since there were holes in some spots, he watched carefully where he stepped so that he would not turn an ankle. He needed his legs to be healthy, and he couldn’t imagine swimming back across the river with a swollen ankle. The thought of drowning unnerved him, and he didn’t want to take any chances in here.

“You’re trapped inside a haunted house. Turning your ankle hardly seems likely,” Luke said to himself, and it was the first time since he had entered this house that he had admitted to himself what had been lurking in the very back of his mind. He was trapped in a haunted house, and he nervously laughed at the absurdness of this whole situation. The staircase suddenly creaked behind him, and Luke spun on his heels and hid quickly behind a nearby brick and mortar column. He peeked around the corner and watched for a few seconds, shaking with the combination of the dampness of his clothes and the cooler air of the basement. He saw nothing on the stairs, but he did see the fog of his own breath as a shiver went down his back. The basement ran the full length of the house, and he was standing near the base of the chimney. As he looked, he realized that in fact, he had gone past the chimney and was under the other half of the house, the side he had not visited, and the air was cooler here than it was near the staircase. “That could easily be explained,” he reasoned with himself. “Warm air rises up the stairs, and the deeper into the basement that I go, the further away I am from the stairs and the cooler the air will be.” He leaned with his hands against the brick column, and he turned his head around to find the light in the far corner. It wasn’t so far away now, and he could see that there was a chest on the floor in the corner. The light was coming from the chest. He was captivated by it, but he was mindful to keep listening for movement on the stairs, and he stayed very still against the cold brick column as he waited. A few minutes passed with only the sound of his every breath, and when he was convinced that he was still alone in the giant haunted house, he pushed off the column with his hands, and he started walking carefully over towards the lighted chest. He took long and more determined strides, and he quickly passed over the margin of the last quarter of the basement. When he broke this imaginary barrier, he felt as if he had gone over the brink of some unthinkable boundary, and it came to mind that he may have just made a regrettable mistake. He stopped in his tracks, and he waited to see what the consequences of this home invasion were going to be. The floor was cold and filthy where he stood, and the red mud of the bare floor was squishing up between his toes as he listened to the groaning of the old house. He didn’t know what it would tell him, but he felt a sudden urge to turn around and run back up the stairs. He looked from the lighted chest, all the way back to the staircase at the far end, and he didn’t know what to do. He knew that someone or something was guiding him to the chest, but he also had the innate feeling that he had trespassed where he dare not go. Luke rubbed his arms and hugged himself there in the dark. He was cold and afraid in the basement of the haunted house. He didn’t know how to get out, and he didn’t know why he was being guided to the chest, but he sensed a tiny reassurance in his mind that opening the chest was the right thing to do. His heart, on the other hand, was telling him to get out of the basement and find another way out of the house. He didn’t know what to do, but he was so close to the chest that he thought it would be a shame to have come this far only to turn around at the end. He took another step closer to the chest, and then another, and another, until he found himself standing over the lighted corner and looking down at the carefully crafted wooden box. He knelt down on one knee in the mud, and from that vantage point, he could see light pouring through the cracks, outlining the seams of the chest. There was a hinged metal clasp which was closed, and there was an opened lock dangling from the mechanism. He couldn’t resist the urge to take off the lock, and before he knew it, he had lifted it out of the clasp. When he did, he heard a thump on the floor just over his head, and dust and dirt trickled down from the exposed beams of the ceiling. He hadn’t imagined the sound this time; there was definitely someone or something on the ground floor of the house, just above his head. Should he stop? No, at this point, there was nothing for it but to keep going, and he set the lock on a nearby piece of solid concrete on the floor nearby. Then he placed his hands on either side of the chest’s lid, and he eased the box open. Light poured out of the opened chest in a blinding flood, and then it went dim in a flash. Inside of the chest, there sat a moldy and dusty hand-stitched quilt, but nothing else. Luke guessed that the quilt was a protective covering of sorts for what was underneath, and he reached in with one hand and lifted the quilt out. When he did, several spiders fell out onto the mud at his feet, and the spiders crawled across his toes. There wasn’t as much light as before, but he could tell by the shape of the spiders that he was in trouble. The rounded abdomen of each of the arachnids was much larger than the head, and the abdomens were pitch black in color. The long spindly legs carried the spiders gracefully over his skin, and he recognized them as black widows. In addition to the two that had landed on his feet, there were dozens of them, and the spiders were all over the quilt, the chest, and the floor. Luke screamed like a two-year-old child, and he threw the quilt to the floor away from the chest and hopped off the ground as if his feet were on fire. He ran around in a circle, kicking and screaming, hoping to fling the poisonous spiders off his body before they could sink their fangs into his skin. He kicked and kicked, and one of the spiders flew off onto the brick wall and scampered away into the woodwork of the ceiling. The other one hung onto his leg for dear life, and he finally had to stop and slap it away with his hand to get it off his leg. When he looked at his leg, it was gone, and he thought that he was saved until he noticed something out of the corner of his eye, a black spot on the back of his hand, and he panicked again and smacked the back of his hand against a brick column. The black widow splattered into a greenish red and black smear on the mortar, and Luke quickly checked the back of his hand for any signs of a bite. After wiping away the spidery goo, he didn’t find any red marks or feel any swollen knots from a bite. He bent over and checked his legs the same way, and there was nothing to give him any reason to think he had been bitten. In any case, if he had been bitten, he would know it soon, and he would probably die in this haunted house alone. And there was a good chance that he would never be found down here in the basement. He looked over at the chest and quilt, and he saw the last few of the black widows scurrying away onto the wall and into the dark corner behind the chest.

“Spiders! Why did it have to be spiders?!” he yelled aloud to himself, and imitating his favorite movie hero made him feel a little less nervous. Then there was another thump on the first floor, and judging by the falling dust from the ceiling, this time it was headed away from him and in a straight line to the staircase at the far end of the house. Since there was only one way down to the basement, that was not a good sign. Luke quickly went back over to the chest, and after checking for spiders and anything else that might surprise him, or worse yet bite him, he reached his hand inside and pulled out a small wooden box which no doubt had been hidden beneath the quilt in the center of the chest. After the last deadly trap of poisonous spiders which had been sprung on him, Luke was prepared to be a little more cautious. He took the tiny wooden box over to a solid slab of concrete on the floor, and he set it down with one finger on the top. The box had a golden hinge on one side, and a lock on the front. The lock was intact and would have to be broken to be opened, and out here so far from camp, he had no tools on him that he could use to open it up with.

He was fixated on the box, and he had forgotten about the thumping upstairs until another thump happened further away from him and closer to the staircase at the end of the house. He imagined that whatever was moving around upstairs must have heard him scream and was coming for him, and if he stayed down there any longer, he was going to either be caught by whatever was upstairs or bitten by a black widow spider. He didn’t like the thought of either, and he was surprised then to see the light disappear from the chest and reappear in the staircase again. It was dark on this end of the basement, and as scared as he was quickly becoming, he stuffed the little box into a pocket and started to run across the muddy floor of the basement toward the stairs. He went across the precipice which bordered the evil end of the house, and when he did, goose bumps shot up his arms. Another thump happened above, swiftly followed up by another and another, each one headed for the lonely staircase at the opposite end of the house. Luke was running full out by then, dodging between columns and mud holes, not caring about ankles and injuries, only about getting out of there as fast as he could. He slid in the mud when he reached the stairs, and he grabbed the bottom post to catch himself. The oak post snapped where it had rotted out at the attachment in the concrete of the floor, and he slammed into the brick wall. The wooden rails fell onto the steps in a jumble, and he pushed on them to get them out of the way. The rails were stuck at the top of the landing, and he couldn’t get them off the steps and out of his way so that he could start climbing. The thumping was pounding ever closer, and Luke picked up the heavy post and dragged the broken railing through the mud to the nearest corner of the basement where he dropped it with a splat. There was no fall protection on one side of the stairs, but he didn’t think about it at all as he ran up the steps two at a time, leaving wet foot prints and dirt streaks as he climbed. When he reached the second floor hallway, he saw the guiding light had moved to a bedroom halfway down the hall. The light was bursting through the cracks of the closed door, and he started walking down the center rug and tracking mud on the fibers as he went. He was looking at the bedroom door, and his gaze turned to the end of the hallway where the spiraling stairs and fireplace were located. He could still hear the thumping, but there was an echo after each thump which he could track, and it sounded as if the thing that was after him was in the great circular room and was now climbing the stairs around the central fireplace.

“Crap!” he whispered to himself, and he saw the flicker of a candle through the opening to the great room at the end of the hall. Luke hopped over to the bedroom door, and he quietly twisted the knob, trying not to make a sound and give himself away. The crystal knob turned, but the door didn’t open. Tense with nervous energy, Luke yanked back on the knob out into the hallway, hoping for a better result than his earlier experience with the front door, but the door refused to give way. The flicker of the candlelight became ever brighter in the great room, and the thumping grew louder as it went. Luke ran down to the end of the hallway and backed himself up against the corner of the wall as he watched a candle holder appear in the air with a single white candle, topped by an orange-yellow flame. He was hidden behind the cover of the wooden frame, watching with a pounding heart, and to his dismay, he saw that the candle was ascending the same staircase which he had taken to the second floor. With each thump the levitating candle rose higher and higher in a spiral around the fireplace, and it rounded the first twist and disappeared behind the bricks. The candle had picked up speed and was moving faster then, and it would not be long before Luke was overcome by the invisible “thing” with the candle. “The ghost,” he corrected himself, and quietly he ran on his tip toes back to the lighted bedroom. He examined the wooden door and crystal knob again, only to discover that he had made the stupidest mistake imaginable when he had pulled backward on the door. The door actually was built to open inward, and he turned the knob and pushed gently. The door opened with a loud echoing squeak, and he wished suddenly that he had oil for the hinges. It was too late for that now, and the thumping up the staircase sped up again. He slipped into the room and pushed the door closed behind him. The bedroom inside was morbidly decorated, and there were no windows on the outer wall.

“This isn’t a house. It’s a prison,” he said to himself, and he heard the thumping reach the top of the stairs and stop for a moment on the landing. He didn’t have much time left before whatever was looking for him came down the hallway and found him. The guiding light on the inside of the bedroom floated into the ceiling and passed through to the attic, and he saw the edges of a square cutout in the ceiling above an old armoire which served as a closet. Luke hopped up on a bureau and then crawled up on the top of the armoire, and the armoire leaned dangerously out from the wall with his weight. The thumping began to beat down the hallway, pummeling the rug as it went, and he was afraid he wasn’t going to get away before it found him. He still had a foot on the bureau, and he shifted his weight toward the wall and rocked the armoire back onto all four of its legs with a slam. Without hesitating any longer, Luke then pressed upward with his hands against the square cutout in the tongue-and-groove wooden ceiling, but the cutout didn’t move. The stomping in the hallway had moved much closer to the room, and he was almost out of time.

“Are you kidding me?!” he whispered to himself, and he pressed upward with his head and his hands together, and the cutout budged this time. Dirt and filth trickled down onto his face, but he ignored it and worked his shoulders and upper body into the hot, dark attic just as he heard the squeaking of the bedroom door hinges. He stood up tall on the top of the bureau, and he hit his head against the angled rafters of the roof of the house. He dropped to one knee, and he felt the weight of the armoire shift away beneath his feet. Quickly, he grabbed the horizontal beams in the attic, and he dragged his body all the way inside the filthy loft space just as the armoire crashed to the bedroom floor. He hoped the armoire fell on whatever was after him, and he looked around for the light which had guided him this far through the old house. It was gone, only to be replaced by blessed daylight shining into the attic space through dormers near the central chimney. He scooted toward the center of the attic space where the headroom was tall enough to stand up, and he perched with his legs spread across two of the rough sawn beams. The thumping was as loud as he had ever heard it in the room beneath him, and he knew he was out of time, but with bare feet, he would have to be extra careful of splinters on the rough cut lumber. Cautiously, he plodded from one beam to the next, using his hands over his head to hold onto the roof, and he passed a boarded up dormer along the way.

“I wonder why someone closed that one off,” he asked himself, and when he placed his hand on the underside of the roof, he felt something soft squeeze between his hand and the wood. It let out a shriek and flew into his face, and then he was surrounded by a swarm of squeals and flying animals. The swarm smacked him, butted him back toward the bedroom, but he held tight onto the rafters and made only one step back to steady himself. The swarm buffeted him in his shoulder blades and then flew to the lighted dormer and busted through the glass to the outside. He was alone in the attic again, but the thing that was stalking him below thumped the bedroom ceiling, shaking the rafters beneath his feet. Luke bounced from beam to beam to the open dormer, and when he finally stuck his head out through the roof into the fresh air of daylight, the beams beneath his feet shook so hard that he nearly fell through the ceiling below. With a last effort, he shoved himself through the window and out onto the ceramic tiles of the roof. In the daylight, he saw how dirty he was and how scratched up his feet were from the splinters in the rough cut wood, and he stopped for a second on the outside of the dormer to pull out a particularly long splinter from his foot when a pale, sleeved arm came out of the dormer and grabbed him by the wrist. He didn’t get a good look at whoever grabbed him, and startled, Luke jumped away, lost his balance, and rolled down the hot tiles to the edge of the gutters. He was on the roof of a two-story house, more than twenty feet above the ground, and he caught himself on the clay gutter at the edge near the chimney. He dangled there and felt his fingers slipping, but he saw a set of thick green vines which had crawled their way up the chimney over many years. The vines were within arm’s reach, and without looking down at the ground below, Luke grabbed hold of one and pulled it away from the bricks. The vine gave way from the mortar only just enough so that he could get a good handhold, and he let go of the gutter with his other hand to swing over to the chimney. He then dug his free hand in behind the vine and dropped down a couple of feet. He repeated this over and over, climbing down the vine until he was safely on the ground at the foot of the chimney, and he looked up at the roof to see who had followed him inside the house. Luke didn’t wait for very long, because in a lot of ways, he really just wanted to get as far away from this place as soon as he could. He didn’t see anyone or anything, and he ran with his bare feet around the perimeter of the huge outside and made his way down to the river by the path he had made. He looked back at the house one last time, and he saw that the front door was still closed and no lights were showing in the windows. It was as if he had never gone inside and taken the little wooden box away from it. He reached into his pocket and brought out the box to look at in his hand. There was nothing incredibly exceptional about the box, but two forces were apparently at work within the old house: one which wanted him to find the box, and another which wanted to stop him from leaving the house with it. He didn’t know which one to trust, and it was a mystery to him what they really wanted from him. He would like to think that it was simply another person that had been doing all that thumping down the hallways and up the stairs, but that would not explain the closing of the doors and the mysterious guiding lights which passed from room to room and into the attic. He shivered again when he thought of the soft, squealing bat in his hand, and he suddenly wanted to put as much distance between himself and the house as he could. He returned the wooden box to his pocket and waded into the mighty Neuse. Dusk was setting in, and he needed to get back across the river. He felt exhaustion building in his bones, and he knew he was going to have to come up with a good excuse for being out past curfew. Eight o’clock was the deadline for everyone to be in their dormitories, and he could tell by the pink sky in the west that it was after eight. He began swimming across the river, and in his mind, he started thinking of good excuses for his tardiness as he crawled across the Neuse’s cool waters. He started out a little ways upstream and swam out to the rock where he had paused on his way over, and when he grabbed hold of the stone, he really began to feel the cumulative effects of that four-on-five soccer game in the hot summer sun, the extra-long swim across the river, and the excitement of escaping the haunted house. He closed his eyelids, and he rested them for just a few minutes as the current tugged along at his toes and feet. His mind drifted off to happier times in his life, times when he had been out all day at the shopping centers with his mom, times when they just sat in the car and talked as she drove from one store to another across town. It made him smile.

There was one time in particular back in 1977 when they had been out shopping for a present for Matchstick. His father had been working that evening, as usual, leaving the two of them to spend the day out on the town, shopping for toys and buying candy at the dollar store. There was a bulk candy aisle, and Norma had bought Luke two scoops of chocolate-covered peanuts in a half-pound paper bag, his favorite candy at the time, and they were going to see a new movie at the drive-in theater that night. The movie was called “Star Wars”, and Luke couldn’t wait to see the young hero who shared the same first name on the big screen. She paid for the candy at the counter, and they went out into the metered parking lot and got into the car, an old Caprice Classic with long doors that were so heavy that he couldn’t shut them by himself.

“Luke, here honey. Let me get the door for you,” she said and let him get into the front seat. He hopped in and got comfortable in the huge padded seat and munched on peanuts as she closed the door. Before she had gotten the car started, he had eaten half the bag, and Norma smiled over at him as she backed the car out of the parking space. “What am I going to do with you?”

“Feed me to the squirrels?” he said with a giggle, and she grinned.

“You laugh now, but you are what you eat. You’re going to turn into a peanut, boy.” Luke’s eyes grew big, as if he believed that might actually be possible, and she patted him on the head. He kept gnawing away at the bagful, and the memory began to change somewhat from what he recalled, almost as if it had begun to take on a new life of its own. He stuffed a few too many of the peanuts into his mouth as she drove down the road, and he accidently swallowed one of them which then lodged in his throat. He felt as if he couldn’t breathe, and he dropped the bag and spilled chocolate-covered peanuts all over the floor. This was not how he remembered it, not at all, and Norma kept driving down the road, oblivious to the danger he was in and unable to hear his silent screams for help. He looked up at her, clenching his throat, and his lungs would not inflate with precious free air that the good Lord had blessed everyone with. When she finally took her eyes off the road and looked down at him, she turned her head sideways and said something to him, but the words sounded garbled and he couldn’t understand her. It looked like she was saying something about air, but he could only read that one word, ‘air’, on her lips. Then suddenly, it was as if his ears had cleared up and her voice had been turned up to full volume.

“Come up for air!” she said and reached down to take his hand. She tugged him toward her with a jerking motion, and then he came out from under the water with a splash, struggling for air. His mother disappeared, replaced by darkening skies, cool river water, and croaking frogs. He coughed up water and started to swim again, and he realized that he must have nodded off to sleep for just a moment, just long enough to let go of the rock and start floating down river. He coughed and coughed, but he kept swimming toward the far shore, scared to death that he had almost drowned and that he still could drown if he didn’t make it all the way across. He swam until his arms were exhausted, and he flipped over and finished getting across the Neuse on his back. When he finally got to shore, he rolled over onto a log in the boggy section, and he thanked God that he hadn’t drowned. Then he thought of his mother again, and he remembered how she had pulled him out of the water in his dream.

“It had to be a dream, didn’t it?” Luke asked himself as the sound of the cicadas roared in the warm dusk air. He looked down at the hand she had grabbed in the dream, and there was a red squeeze mark around his wrist. “No, that can’t be,” he told himself, and he looked out into the forest where the trail had ended.

“Matchstick!” he yelled, but there was no one there. Of course not, he thought. It was after curfew, and Matchstick had probably gone back to keep from getting into trouble. He gave one last call, and when no one answered the echo, he waded off to find the trail by himself before all semblance of daylight had disappeared.

**********

It was dark when he arrived back at the campground, and he could see the lights of the dormitories shining through the windows. There were a couple of people outside, and he guessed that they were counselors and not campers, and instead of trying to sneak by them, he walked right toward them and did not try to avoid them. One of the counselors for the boys caught sight of him, and he pointed at him and nudged the other person with him. Luke couldn’t see them well enough to tell who was who, just the lighted tip of the cigarette the one had in his mouth, but he knew the voice when he heard it.

“Luke! Where the heck have you been?” Ben yelled out to him and stomped the cigarette into the dirt, and then he and Angela Miller started walking over to him. Luke’s clothes were still soaked through from the swim, and there wasn’t much hope of denying what he had been up to.

“I went for a swim,” he said with hesitation when they got close enough for him to speak without shouting.

“There’s nowhere to swim around here, kid, unless you went swimming in the Neuse, and that’s not allowed,” Ben said to him and looked him up and down. Angela stood there looking at Luke, but she didn’t say anything. She just chomped her gum with her mouth open as if she was competing in a hot dog eating contest. “Besides, we saw you leave with Matchstick, and he said you were still walking the trails.”

“Matchstick had lied for him? What a shame he blew it by telling the truth?” he thought to himself, but his mom would not have wanted him to lie. She would have told him that telling the truth was always the right thing to do. “I got a little further out than I thought I could, and I had to rest up before I came back across,” he told them both, and Angela’s gum jumped out of her mouth as if it had miraculously escaped certain death.

“That’s bologna,” Angela replied, and Luke wondered if she had read his mind about the hot dog eating contest. As it was, she didn’t bother to try picking up her gum, though her eyes did gaze down at it in the dirt longingly. “You didn’t swim the Neuse. I don’t know anyone who has ever made it across,” she told him, and Luke caught himself before he slipped up and told her about nearly drowning. Ben didn’t happen to notice Luke’s urge to reply. Instead, he turned to Angela with a stern gaze, as if he wanted to say, “You weren’t supposed to say anything about campers trying to swim across the river.” She understood the look Ben was giving her, and she corrected herself. “I mean, because no one is supposed to try. It’s off limits.”

“Okay, then I’m wet from sweating then,” he corrected with a half-smile. “Anyways, I’m tired, and I’d like to go to bed if it’s all the same to you,” Luke said to the both of them.

“I’ll walk you back to your dorm, but you’ll get plenty of rest tonight and tomorrow since you’ll be confined to quarters for staying out past curfew,” Ben told him, and Luke’s jaw dropped. “Don’t even bother arguing with me about it. We’re responsible for your safety, and soccer star or not, you can’t go off the property OR stay out after curfew. Got it.”

“Got it,” Luke reluctantly agreed, and he hung his head down as they walked back to the boys’ dormitory. Angela went the other direction to the girls’ dorms, and when Ben had Luke alone, he took him by the arm gently and talked to him alone.

“Seriously, Luke. Don’t do anything like that again. If you really did try to go across the river, you could have drowned and no one would have known anything about it,” he explained, and Luke nodded in agreement. He was tired, and he wasn’t going to argue with him about whether drowning with other people watching was better than drowning alone; the result would be the same for him either way. When they got back to the dorm, Ben let him inside and closed the door behind him. All the other boys were milling around, telling jokes or stories, and they hardly gave Luke a second look. He went over to his bunk, and Matchstick jumped up from his pillow where he had been reading.

“You made it!” he said to Luke in an excited whisper. “What took you so long? I was worried.” Luke reached down to his wet pants and felt the box in his pocket. He was tempted to take it out and show his friend, but with all of the other people in the dorm, especially Willie, he wasn’t about to give his secret away.

“I made it back across from the island,” Luke said.

“Island? What island?”

Then Luke remembered that from the shore it was not easy to see that the island with a house had a narrow patch of water flowing on the far side. He got out another change of clothes as he thought about answering, and before he went to the shower, he whispered an answer.

“There was an island with a haunted house. I got trapped inside, that’s all.”

Matchstick hit him with a pillow. “Come on, don’t be like that. Tell me what happened,” Matchstick said with a little bit of hurt in his voice. “There was a girl, wasn’t there. Yeah, there was, you sly dog. And you’re just not telling me.” Luke smiled and walked off to the showers with the box in his pocket. If his friend wanted to make up another story and tell everyone else, what did it matter to him? “Come on, man, don’t leave me hangin’.”

Luke ignored him and went to the showers and undressed at the stall. There were no doors on the shower; it was just completely open and Luke wondered what kind of a moron built a public shower stall without a door. And who would pay for it to be made like that? Those were larger questions for the greater world at large to answer, and he was too tired to fix all of the world’s problems that night. He turned the water on, and to his surprise, all of the hot water was gone. There was only cold water left to take a shower in, which provided him with yet another important question to ask the adult world someday. He knew he was tired and grumpy and that he better get cleaned up for bed, but there was another issue burning in his mind: the little wooden box he had been drawn to within the house. Luke dug into his wet clothes and found the box, and he took it with him to hold in the shower. As the cold water poured over his head, washing away the filth from the house and the river, Luke held the box out between himself and the wall, and he tried to open the lock that was there on the outside. He knew the water from the shower wasn’t going to hurt it any worse than submerging it in the river, and he had such an overwhelming desire to open it up and look inside that he could not leave it unprotected outside of the stall with his clothes. He tried to pry it open, but he was disappointed when the lock could not be pulled apart with his fingers. After a few minutes of unsuccessfully trying to open it, he gave up and set it on the window sill above the shower head, and he cleaned up for the night. When he turned the water off, he took the box out of the stall with him, dried off, and put on a t-shirt and shorts. He kept the box tight in his hand, concealed by the dirty clothes he had, and he went back to his bed where his head hit the pillow. He stared at the bottom of the top bunk, and his mind wandered back across the river and to the things he had experienced that day. It was the first day of camp, and he had narrowly escaped death. He could never share his experiences with his father, and so he took in a deep breath, held the box up to look at one last time, and tried to relax. It must have worked because he fell immediately to sleep with the box still in his hand under the sheets.

Being so exhausted, Luke had not noticed the late arrival of the last boy to camp. He would notice it tomorrow.

Chapter 6

*

Luke slept like a rock that night, and when he woke up the next morning with the other campers at 6 a.m., he stared up at the bottom wooden slats of the top bunk. He remembered that Ben had given him detention in the dorm for the entire day, and he saw no point in getting out of bed early and competing for a cold shower. Without the privacy of stall doors, he was content to let everyone else have their shower and go about their day before he got cleaned up. He could hear Matchstick lightly snoring above him, and that made him feel a little bit better about being lazy that morning. He rolled onto his side and closed his eyes to go back to sleep, and he overheard some of the other boys talking about the soccer games the night before.

“There were eight teams, and now we’re down to four. I can’t believe we’re still in it,” one boy said.

“We got a chance to win it all, don’t we,” the second boy said with a squeaky voice. He must have hit puberty that summer, and his voice was in the middle of changing. “You saw that first team win four-on-five, or three-on-four, didn’t ya? We can kick that team’s butt all over the field, man.” The first boy laughed.

“Butt! You said ‘butt’!” he added with another chuckle before they headed off into the showers to get ready. It didn’t take much to entertain some kids, an out of place word here or there was good enough. Luke closed his eyes and fell asleep again with his hand under the pillow, curled around the little wooden box he had found. He was sleeping pretty well, and he couldn’t remember any of the dreams that were going through his head until he suddenly had the urge to go to the bathroom. The compulsion was unexpected and didn’t quite make any sense to him why it was so intense. He sat up in the bed with a start and hit his head on the top bunk. One hand had the box still inside his grasp, and so he used his other hand to rub his head and he found that it was wet. He didn’t know why it was wet, but he saw that there was a crowd of boys spaced around his bunk, watching him. He didn’t know most of them, but there was a familiar boy crouched down by his bed, holding a glass of water.

“Wazza-matter, wittle baby? Mommy need to change your wittle diaper??” Dick Berry said to him and started laughing at his own joke.

“No,” Luke simply answered, and it was true, his bladder had done him justice and held its contents, though it was beginning to hurt from the strain. He needed to go to the bathroom, and despite the crowd who had been watching him sleep, he stood up and got out of bed and pushed through to head to the restroom. He didn’t want to say anything else to Dick for fear of making the situation worse, and he kept his mouth shut while he walked barefoot on the cool concrete floor. He heard Dick and his friends start laughing again at his expense, but Luke didn’t let it bother him. He took care of business, and he hid the box in his pocket while he washed his hands. There were no paper towels in the dispenser because they were all on the floor, and Luke had to dry his hands on his shirt. With Dick Berry hanging around his bed, he didn’t want to go back to his bunk, but he also didn’t want to hang around the showers either because that would be weird. Luke wasn’t up for another fight, and he knew that if he went back in there, Dick was going to push him into one. There was nothing he could do about it though, and he went out into the bunks and went toward his bed. As he walked, he wondered how it was that Dick Berry had afforded to come to camp in the first place. With his dad serving out a life sentence in prison for murder, Momma Berry was the only source of income, and from what he had heard, she made most of her money selling weed. The crowd around his bunk had parted for him, and he went past Dick to get to his stuff.

“Did Mommy powder your butt, wittle baby?” Dick started in on him again, and the two laughing boys he had heard earlier that morning, Charlie Hubble and Milton Yancey, snickered again with the mention of their favorite word. Dick had the glass still in his hand, but it was empty. There were only a few random drops on the floor with no signs of a spill, and that made Luke suspicious. He placed his hand down on his sheets, and they were soaked through with warm water. “Oh, did he pee his wittle bed?” The gang of bystanders all laughed hysterically as if Dick was in perfect possession of pure comic genius, and Luke noticed that Matchstick was already gone from his bunk. Perhaps his friend had known about Dick’s arrival and was already outdoors to avoid him. He then wished he hadn’t been lazy and had gotten up at first light and left the dorm. He would have broken his detention, he supposed, and that might have meant an extra day confined in the dorm, but with Dick in attendance, he might do it anyways. Ben wouldn’t expect him to miss his meals anyways, and the last time he checked, breakfast counted as a meal. Luke found a dry spot on the bunk, and he sat down to put on his shoes, yet he could only just find one. He looked around on the floor, and the crowd started laughing again.

“Did you take my other shoe, Dick?” Luke asked, and he realized his own voice sounded angry.

“What, you mean this one?” Dick answered and brought the missing shoe out from where he had it behind his back.

“Yes,” Luke answered in a slow, serious tone. He had avoided eye contact with Dick up to that point, but no longer. The two stared each other down, and the laughing around them died down to murmurs. “Give it back.”

“You want it, baby? Do you want it??”

Luke started to get up, and Dick flung the shoe at him, barely missing his face by less than inch. Luke felt the wind go by his cheek, and he ducked his head away as it went between the top and bottom bunks and into the next aisle. The crowd laughed uproariously, but Luke ignored them and went to the other aisle to get his shoe. He put it on as he walked toward the door to go outside.

“Where are you goin’? We heard you were grounded, dork,” Dick yelled out, but Luke tuned his voice out and opened the door to go outside. When he stepped out of the stuffy dorm and into the fresh summer air, he felt a little bit better. People were out playing; girls were jumping rope and playing tag, and boys were throwing baseball or football or kicking soccer balls. He walked to the cafeteria, and he went through the doors inside. There was no one in line and no one behind the counters. He picked up a tray and set it on the rails, and he waited for a minute for someone to come out and serve him. There were containers with bacon, eggs, and a few biscuits, and he hadn’t realized just how hungry he was until he smelled the aromas coming from the freshly cooked food. He saw a lady with a hair net flash by the counter window in the cooking area, and he called out to her.

“Is it too late to get breakfast?” he said, hoping she would hear him. Her head popped up behind the window again, and she saw him this time.

“I’ll be there in a second, hon,” she said with a deep drawl. She reminded him vaguely of the lunch lady at his school, but her hair was darker. She came bustling out from behind the swinging doors, and she grabbed a clean plate and the set of tongs by the bacon. She had a name tag which read Helen. “What’ll it be? We have bacon, eggs, and biscuits. There’s some gravy left in the back if you want it, and if you don’t like biscuits, then I can make some toast.”

“Who doesn’t like biscuits? That’s un-American,” Luke said to her. “I’ll have bacon, eggs, and two biscuits smothered in gravy. Please, Ms. Helen,” he added at the end so she wouldn’t think he was so hungry that he forgot his manners. Luke watched her place the items on the plate, and then she took the plate through the doors to the back of the kitchen to get the gravy.

“Ahh!!” she screamed, and the crash of a breaking dish sounded from the kitchen.

“Are you all right?” Luke called out, but there was no answer, only sobbing coming from the behind the swinging doors. He ran around the counter and went through the doors to see Helen standing in shock, holding her right hand by the wrist. The inside of her hand was red and looked burned, and blisters were already starting to come up on her skin. “Oh, my gosh!” Luke said, and she turned to look at him with a tears in her eyes. “What happened?”

“It was the gravy spoon. It was hot, and I didn’t know it,” she said as she looked down at the palm of her hand and grimaced with pain. “I’ve never had this happen before. In fact, the burner that the pot of gravy is sitting on was turned off twenty minutes ago,” she explained, and Luke saw that she was right, the knob for the burner was turned to the ‘Off’ position and the gravy was starting to congeal as it cooled on the top surface. When he looked down at the large metal spoon on the floor, he could see the steam rising from it.

“Come on, let’s get you some help,” he said and put an arm around her and walked with her out of the cafeteria. When they got outside the doors, he saw Ben standing outside of his dormitory, and he waved him over. Ben started over, and when he saw that Helen was in pain, he quickly ran the rest of the distance. Helen had her hand opened up, and Ben took one look at the reddened blisters and backed up a step.

“Whoa! Helen, what happened?!” he asked, but Helen had her teeth gritted for the pain and couldn’t say much.

“She burned her hand on the metal gravy spoon in the kitchen,” Luke told him, and Ben nodded his head excitedly as if he understood.

“Quick! Bring her to my office. I’ve got first aid supplies and a phone,” he told Luke. “I’ll call an ambulance right away.”

“No, don’t. Just drive me to the hospital, please,” Helen said through her gritted teeth.

“If you come in on an ambulance, they’ll see you immediately in the emergency room. No waiting. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather do that instead?” She shook her head and didn’t say anything else. “Okay, then,” Ben said to her and ran to his office to get the supplies ready. Luke walked with Helen across the grounds to his office, and when they went inside, he had a cold pack for her hand. The pack was a thin, solid brick of plastic and not very practical in shape for the wound, but Ben wrapped a paper towel around it and she held onto it with the blistered hand. “That should cool down the skin. I’m parked out in the lot, and I’ll drive you. Luke, you can stay here and finish out your detention,” he said and ushered her out of the office to the parking lot. Angela Miller had come around for the excitement, and she asked Luke what had happened. He told her everything he knew, and when Ben’s car had left the parking lot, he started to feel hungry again.

“I know I have detention, but do you think I could finish my breakfast first?” he asked Angela.

“Sure. We’re not here to starve a teenager to death,” she said with a smile. “I’ll walk over with you then and clean up the kitchen,” she told him. As they walked together, Luke stayed a step behind her, and he looked at how her long blond hair flowed down her back. When she turned her head to look back at him, he averted his eyes before she knew he had been looking at her. “Did you really swim the river last night?” she asked, and Luke was surprised with the question since he didn’t think it was that big of a deal.

“Ben told you, huh?”

“It’s hard to keep a secret around here,” she replied. “Especially when you get detention. Is it true though?” Luke was a little bit nervous, and he reached his hand down into his pocket and felt the wooden box that was hiding there. It comforted him to do so, though he couldn’t explain why.

“Yes, it’s true,” he replied. “I have been wanting to do it since I started coming to this camp several years ago, and I practiced swimming long distances in the pool before I got here. I thought it was a real shame that they closed the access off for us.”

“Are you kidding? I’m new here this year, but from what I’ve been told, several kids have nearly drowned there, and the camp can’t afford another incident. The board that oversees the camp had to fight just to keep it open this year. Funds are low, and it was a struggle to budget for everyone’s pay through the summer. On top of that, a real estate development company, Neuse Development, would like to get a hold on the property if they could. My dad says the company’s run by a shady businessman named Richard Fromage, and he’s known for taking whatever steps are necessary to get his way.”

“Why? I mean, this is just an old campground on a dirt road in the woods. Why would a development company want this place?”

“The rumor is that they would like to build riverside condominiums, and the waterfront here is prime for development.”

“So if another kid gets hurt, that would be enough to shut the doors on this place, and the board would have to sell out?”

“Exactly. So don’t go pulling any amazing stunts like that again, okay?” Angela said, and Luke smiled and nodded agreement with her. He didn’t know times were that tough for the camp, and the financial condition of the site bothered Luke. He had enjoyed his time here, and it was one of the only things that he really had to look forward to this summer, especially after his mom had passed away.

“With the broken nose that Willie gave Horace yesterday and the burn that Helen just got on her hand, the board may already be in trouble,” Luke reminded her.

“They do have insurance, but I’m sure there will be a deductible they have to come up with,” she said as she opened the door to the cafeteria. “After you,” she said and held the door for Luke. He was pleasantly surprised by the kind gesture, and he went inside. There was no one else inside the cafeteria, and Luke went behind the counter to fill up a plate with the cold eggs and bacon leftover while Angela entered the kitchen and started cleaning up the morning mess. He scraped up what was left, and since there was only one biscuit, he took it and went to sit down at one of the nearby tables. Just then, the door to the cafeteria opened, and a familiar and unwelcome face entered the room with his two buddies.

“What do ya say, Lukie Pukie?” Dick Berry chided as he strutted across the room with his two flunkies behind him. Luke put his arms around his tray, a common maneuver in the cafeteria when food was at risk, but Dick got around his arm and snatched the lone biscuit from his tray. “Thanks for sharing.” Luke swiped his hand at Dick’s to get the biscuit back, but Dick was faster and stuffed the biscuit into his mouth before he could stop him. Dick took a bite out of it and smacked his lips. “Mmm-mmm, that’s good. You fellas want a bite?” he asked his buddies and handed it to them, and both of them took a bite of it, too. There was enough for one last bite, and Dick handed it back to Luke who waved it away.

“No, you keep it. I wasn’t sure I wanted it anyway after it fell on the floor and rolled under the sink next to the drain. I wiped the cockroach legs off for you though.” Dick’s face froze, and he stopped chewing.

“You think you’re funny, don’t ya, Pukie? Here with all of your friends in the cafeteria,” Dick said and pointed around at the empty room. Luke wasn’t afraid of Dick, but he was outnumbered so he kept quiet. Dick leaned over Luke’s tray and spit out the chewed up bite of biscuit onto his plate with a wet splat that covered his cold eggs and bacon. “You can have it back then,” Dick said and started walking back toward the exit. “Enjoy it.” Dick’s friends lingered there for a second, and Luke could see that the thought of doing the same came across the faces of his two flunkies, but when he pulled out his fork and held it in his fist, they coolly spit the bites of biscuit on the floor instead and followed Dick outside. Angela came out of the kitchen and stopped suddenly when she saw the mess on his plate.

“I heard the door open and close and conversation going on while I was cleaning up the dishes. What the heck happened out here?” Luke wanted to tell her, but he was embarrassed. He got up and took the tray of spoiled food to the trash can.

“Dick Berry happened,” he told her, and then she noticed the other two clumps of chewed biscuit on the floor.

“I just cleaned up the mess in the kitchen! Who spit on the floor?!” Angela said and looked at Luke sternly.

“Like I said, Dick Berry,” he told her again, and he wandered behind the cafeteria counter. He was able to find some white bread and peanut butter in a cabinet while she got a mop out on the floor.

“Boys!” she blurted out to herself. “Why am I cleaning this up, huh?!”

“Hey, it wasn’t me,” Luke said with the sandwich as he sat back down at the table. “Here, let me help,” he told her and stuffed the sandwich into his mouth so he could grab the mop. She watched him clean the floor, and when he had gotten up the chewed up biscuit, he just kept mopping until he had covered the entire cafeteria floor. He thought he owed her and Helen that much, and Angela’s mood seemed to lighten as he moved across the floor like a professional janitor.

“I may have spoken too soon about boys and their messes. Where did you learn to mop like that?”

“From my mom.”

“She taught you well, then. I’d like to meet her when she comes to pick you up next weekend,” she said. Luke kept mopping as if he hadn’t heard what she said, even though he had. “I cleaned up everything in the kitchen, but you know what was funny. The metal spoon that had burned Helen’s hand was still hot to the touch. I had to use a towel to pick it up off the floor, and then I tossed it into a sink full of cold water. It sank to the bottom and made the water bubble up for a few minutes before it finally cooled down. I have never seen anything like that happen before. It makes no sense how a spoon could stay that hot for so long away from the stove. Does it make sense to you?” she asked Luke, and he was surprised that she was asking his opinion. The question didn’t make him nervous, only the fact that she was asking him what he thought, as if his thoughts had some value.

“Not at all, but it isn’t the first strange thing I’ve seen happen around here,” he said, thinking about the haunted house he had escaped from the night before.

“What do you mean?” she asked, and she tilted her head to listen to him. He noticed how her eyes were a calm shade of blue, and he felt drawn to her, sort of like he had felt about Kristen. He didn’t realize it, but he had stopped mopping with her question and stared into her eyes, and seconds passed with the silence. “Hmm?” she prodded him. He came to his senses and was tempted to tell her the whole story about the house, the slamming doors, the mysterious lights, the spiders, all of it. And then he thought better of it. He liked her, and he didn’t want to spoil it with wild childish stories.

“Oh, uh, it’s just that,” he stumbled to think of something to talk about instead of the house. “I didn’t expect to see the Berrys here at camp.” Her eyes went to the ceiling.

“Gosh, don’t I know it. That girl Candy is so primitive,” Angela said. Luke started mopping again as Angela watched.

“Really? I didn’t know she was here. She isn’t the worst of the lot, you know. A couple of weeks ago, she called off her brother Dick when he was harassing me in the street. If she’s here, I could use her help with him this week, too.”

“The Strangler’s kids, here at the camp. You’re right though, that is stranger than a hot spoon,” Angela said, and it was spooky when she put it like that. The Strangler’s kids. “Come on, it’s time to put the mop away and walk you back to the dorm for the rest of your detention,” she said, and Luke returned the mop and bucket to the janitor’s closet.

“Are you sure about that? I was enjoying breakfast,” he commented as he closed the closet door.

“Yes, I’m sure. I have responsibilities to take care of,” she reminded him. The cafeteria looked to be in good shape then, and they left to step outside into the yard. “I have a favor to ask of you,” she said a little timidly. “Since Helen is gone for the day, and maybe for the extent of camp, would you be willing to help with cleanup in the cafeteria after every meal? Before you say no, I know it’s a lot to ask on vacation, but with her gone, I’m going to have my hands full overseeing meal preparation. Good kitchen help is hard to find, and you seem to have a knack for it.”

“Sure, I guess,” he said, though it did seem like a lot of work to be doing on vacation. On the other hand, it might keep him out of trouble and away from Dick Berry and Willie Yarbrough. Angela smiled and put her hand on his arm.

“Thanks!” she said, and her hand fell away. The goose bumps were still fresh on his skin, and his mind was frozen for the moment from asking the question that had come to mind. It finally popped back in when they got to the dorm.

“Why is it that you have to take over for Helen since she’s gone? Shouldn’t the camp owners be taking care of that?” Angela started walking away, but she turned around and as she walked backwards, she tried to answer his question.

“I hired her. My dad’s in charge of the camp, and I’m supposed to make sure everything stays on schedule.”

“Seriously? Her dad was in charge of the entire campground?” he thought to himself while she faded into the crowds of kids at the camp and left him wondering.

Chapter 7

*

Luke stayed confined to his dorm for the rest of the day, except when he worked in the cafeteria at lunch and dinner. Jimmy allowed him to leave during those times, and he was glad for the change of scenery, even if it was work. After washing dishes and turning the chairs so that the seats were up on the tables that evening (he had to wonder just how sanitary that particular practice was), he mopped the floor again while Angela put the food away. Jimmy, who had also been helping serve food behind the counter, ‘supervised’ Luke’s work while eating an extra slice of the chocolate cake that had been served for dessert.

“You missed a spot back over there,” he told Luke with a mouthful of crumbling cake falling out of his mouth. He pointed to a place on the floor where Luke had already mopped, which just happened to be where Jimmy had dropped chocolate morsels.

“It would help if you would stop walking around while you eat,” Luke told him, and Jimmy accidentally spit out more bits of cake as he laughed at him.

“I’m just screwing with ya, man,” Jimmy said and licked the brown icing from his fingers. “There, all done.”

Angela came out of the kitchen, and when she saw Jimmy standing around doing nothing, she pointed to the exit.

“If you’re not going to help, then head back to do a headcount in your dorm,” she told him, and Jimmy wiped his hands on his jean shorts.

“I can take a hint. Now that we’re done mopping, I was just leaving anyway,” Jimmy told her and swung his arms wide and theatrically in a graceful bow. “You may call when you need me. Just ring the bell,” he said as he walked out the door, and he grabbed the leather handle of the small cowbell at the front door of the cafeteria and struck it once with a clang.

“What a dork,” Angela said, and she stood proud with her hands on her hips at the end of a very long day. “We did it, but I sure wish Helen was here. I never knew it was that difficult to cook fifty hamburgers correctly. You know, I burned six and threw them in the trash,” she told him and eased her shoulders.

“Make that seven. Matchstick’s burger was crunchy,” he told her, and she looked tense and disgruntled with herself all over again.

“Did I really?” she said with a hurt tone in her voice. Luke waved her concern away.

“Don’t worry, you did a good job of cooking tonight. Everyone would have starved if you hadn’t.”

“That’s reassuring. Thanks for helping out,” she said and put her hand on his shoulder.

“I had my orders,” he said with a smile. Though she was tired, her eyes were as clear and blue as he had seen them earlier that day. Once he locked onto them, they stared right through him and he found it hard to turn away. There was an awkward moment of silence, and then the door to the cafeteria opened with a squeak. Angela quickly took her hand away from his shoulder, and Luke turned to see Ben coming through the door.

“I’m here to escort the prisoner to his cell,” Ben said with a smile. He had a flashlight in one hand, and the seriousness on his face actually did remind Luke of a prison guard, but one that was young and pimply. The facial expression and the flashlight were where the similarities stopped though. The tight rugby shirt with red and yellow horizontal lines around his thicker midsection actually looked more like layers of mustard and ketchup, and the fashion choice of the older counselor combined with an evening of burnt hamburgers made Luke chuckle inside, though he tried not to let it show on his face.

“Thanks again for the help, Luke,” Angela said, and she turned to Ben. “I’m going to need him tomorrow, too, I suppose.” That was news to Luke. His suspension would be over by then, and he hoped to be enjoying vacation for the rest of his time at camp. Working was a good way to pass the time, and working in close proximity to a mature and attractive counselor had its benefits as well, but still, it was vacation, which is not a four-letter word. “How’d it go with Helen at the doctor’s office?”

“The doctor said she’ll recover one hundred percent from the burn if she follows their directions with the dressing changes. He said she should stay away from the kitchen for at least two weeks while the blisters reabsorb. He also said that it might be a good idea to buy thermal gloves of some kind for the kitchen,” Ben told her.

“Great news about Helen, but not so much on buying something else with money that we don’t have,” Angela said and combed her hair back with her hand. “I still don’t understand how it happened, though. The spoon shouldn’t have been hot. Can either of you think of a reason why?” Neither Luke nor Ben had a clue what could have caused the spoon to have been so hot when it was on the floor and nowhere near the stove. “Well, it’s a mystery to be solved for sure, but I’m glad she’s going to be okay. I’ll see you two tomorrow,” she said and disappeared through the doors into the kitchen.

“Come on, sport. Time for lock up,” Ben, the king of the condiments, said to Luke, and he fell in behind the yellow and red shirt. It was exceptionally dark outside that night, and there was no moon in the sky to provide any extra lighting, making the walk across the campgrounds more difficult than normal. It was quiet, and the customary insect symphony and firefly show had taken a break for the evening. The cicadas had stopped whirring, the crickets had stopped chirping, and the fireflies had gone coldly dark. Luke felt as if the world had grown unpleasantly abnormal. As they passed beneath the lower limbs of a giant white oak tree, the flashlight in Ben’s hands went out suddenly, leaving them in the dark beneath the branches. Of course, they could see the lighted windows of the dormitories, but that wasn’t much comfort in the dark. To Luke, it seemed like he was looking out at the distant light from the bottom of a dark well. Then, it sounded as if Ben fell to the ground.

“Ben?” No answer. “Ben?” Luke lifted his hands and searched with his fingers, but he could not find the counselor. He backed up against the bark of the old oak tree, and he stuck his hand into his pocket for the comfort of the wooden box. He could not explain why the box eased his tension; at least for the moment, it just calmed his fears. But then the wooden box suddenly grew ice cold, and the bitter sting of the frosty tendrils crawled up his palm and into the bones of his arm. The unfriendly feeling of bitterness then began to take hold of his mind, and though it burned his hand with frosty hostility, he did not want to let go of it. The wooden box had been an unexpected treasure which he had recovered from the house, and it was his to hold. He had taken it away with great effort, and he would not cast it aside so easily. But it burned, and it froze, and he could hardly withstand the evil he now felt creeping with wisps of fate that hissed into his mind.

“Take us. Hold us,” the voices in his mind hissed. “We are yours, and we will all mourn together, forever.”

Luke was afraid, and he looked to the lights of the dormitories, suddenly remembering where he was and who he was with. He then yanked the box out of his pocket and flung it as hard as he could throw across the campground into the dark. When he did, the flashlight that Ben had been holding mysteriously flickered on again. The cylinder lay on the ground, illuminating a familiar face on the earth. It was Ben’s face, and he was pale and looked unconscious as he lay on the jagged roots of the sprawling shade tree.

“Ben? Are you okay?” he asked and shook his arm gently. Through the dim, indirect light of the flashlight, Luke saw Ben’s eyelashes flutter and his lips began to move.

“Wha-?? What? Where am I?” Ben whispered weakly.

“You’re at the campground. You were taking me back to the dorm, and . . . and you fell,” Luke explained to him. He kept the parts of the story out where the wooden box was concerned. “Come on. Let me help you up,” Luke said and locked his arm under Ben’s and started to lift him. Ben was heavy, and if he hadn’t tried to get himself up, Luke would not have been able to raise him on his own. As it was, Ben appeared ready to stand, and the two of them rose up together.

“My vision is still blurry,” Ben said, and he rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. “I feel like I was hit in the head with a brick. What hit me?” he asked.

“I don’t know, Ben, but I don’t think anything hit you in the head. At least, I didn’t hear anything hit you. It’s so dark that it’s hard to figure out what happened here.” Luke could see that although Ben was on his feet, he was still disoriented and would need his help getting back to the dorm. “Come on, follow me. Your dorm’s not far from here,” Luke said and guided Ben by the arm.

“Well, wait a minute. Aren’t I supposed to be escorting you back first?”

“Drop it, Ben. You don’t look like you’re even going to make it back on your own so you’re just going to have to trust me tonight,” Luke told him. Ben didn’t argue, but he was a lot slower moving through the dark, and he was having trouble focusing his vision at all.

“I hope I get better soon,” Ben said. “I still don’t understand it,” he said as they arrived at the door to the counselor’s cabin. It was a smaller building meant to house all of the male counselors on campus. There were only two male counselors on site, Ben and Jimmy, and Luke supposed that was mostly due to the camp’s financial issues. When Luke opened the door to go inside, he could hear Jimmy snoring, mouth wide open and sawing away with a steady rhythm through the night. They walked over to Ben’s bed on the other side of the room, and Ben steadied himself with the rails.

“Good luck sleeping tonight with that racket,” Luke said to him, and Ben shrugged and rolled his eyes.

“You know, I hate to wish for a mosquito to land on his tongue, but it might make him roll over on his side,” Ben told him as he sat down on the mattress and took his shoes off. “I still feel awful.”

“I don’t know what happened to you, but I have a feeling you’re going to get better by the morning,” Luke told him, but Ben wasn’t looking his best. “Do you want me to stay over here with you in case you need something?”

“It’s nice of you to offer, but no, I’ll be fine. Go on back to your dorm and get some rest yourself tonight. If I need anything, I’ll wake up the roaring dragon over there. Who knows, if I don’t start feeling better, you just might be helping Angela run this place tomorrow,” he told Luke as an afterthought. Luke saluted him as a joke, and he walked out of the cabin and closed the door behind him. The crickets and cicadas were in full symphony again, and Luke at last felt that the bitter evil of the wooden box was gone from the campground. It was late, but the fireflies were back on display, and Luke watched them rise in the dark like a bright mist. He took in a deep lungful of air in relief, and he stood there on the porch of the counselors’ cabin, trying to organize his thoughts. He stuck his hand in his pocket, and he was troubled by the fact that he had thrown the wooden box which he had worked so hard to claim somewhere out in the grass of the soccer field. He didn’t love the box; to him, it was just another inanimate object, but what he was coming to understand was that the wooden box housed something desirable . . . and evil. He had no idea what could be hidden inside, but he was sure that there was more to the mystery than he could solve by just chucking it out into the grass and forgetting about it. He hesitated to think what might happen if an unknowing individual walked by and picked it up and took it home with them. No, the results that might come of that happening were not something that Luke thought he could bear. He and he alone was responsible for finding the wooden box again. When he reached the boys’ dormitory, he opened the door and went inside. Given that it was full of teenage boys, it was quieter than he would have expected, and he walked through the aisle of bunks until he reached his own.

“About time you got back, man,” Matchstick said to him. The overhead lights were out, but he was still awake. “You’re after curfew again, you know.”

“No kiddin’, dip wad. I was with the counselors, remember.”

“Yeah, sure. You’re given detention one day, and then you’re hanging out with the bosses the next day. You are your dad’s son.”

“Whatever,” Luke brushed off his ribbing. “I need some help outside.”

“Outside after curfew again? Are you nuts? I want to go without detention this year at camp, Luke,” Matchstick said.

“What? Are you chicken?”

Matchstick sat up in his bed, and he had a look of pure anger on his face. “You know you’re pissing me off,” he said to Luke.

“Follow me,” Luke said and gave him a hand getting down from the top bunk. “I need some help finding an item out in the grass.” He wanted to say ‘magical item’, like he would have if they were playing that game about dungeons, and he had to stop himself from saying it. Matchstick put on his shoes, and they went out into the dark and closed the door behind them.

“This better not be a trick, because that’s what this feels like,” he told Luke.

“It’s not a trick, man. I wouldn’t do that to you,” Luke reassured him. “I didn’t tell you everything that happened on my swim across the river.”

“Well, whose fault is that?! I asked you what happened, and you wouldn’t tell me.” He knew Matchstick was right, and with all of the strange things that were going on, he felt that he needed to trust someone with the truth. They walked side-by-side out toward the soccer field where Luke had thrown the wooden box, and Luke began to tell the story of what had really happened to his friend. By the time they had gotten to the soccer field, he had told him about as much as he could recall, and Matchstick was hanging on every word.

“I know it sounds crazy, but do you believe me?”

“It’s like one of those Indiana Jones adventures, isn’t it?” Matchstick said with eyes wide open in the night sky. “Yeah, like that.”

“When you say it like that, it sounds incredible, but when it was all happening, it didn’t feel incredible,” Luke said. “It felt very lonely and very dangerous.” He hesitated, and then he finished with, “I was really scared.” Then Matchstick pounded him on the upper arm with a fist.

“No way, dude. No way. You’re starting to drag me down, and I’ve got enough problems with Willie and with Dick Berry. If what you’re saying is true, maybe I could use the box the next time Willie comes after me and my stuff.”

“It isn’t like that, Matchstick. If it really is magic, then a person can’t use it in that way or they’re no better than Willie or Dick,” Luke told him as they hunted around on their hands and knees in the dark. There was one particular spot on the field ahead that stuck out like a sore thumb. The fireflies were everywhere on the field except in that one spot which looked like a dark vacuum hovering over the grass. He crawled over to that spot of ground, and sure enough, he felt his hand go over the wooden box as it lay beneath the brilliant stars of the Milky Way. Except for the fireflies, it was dark beneath the cloudless night sky, and the stars blanketed the heavens. With the wooden box recovered, he gazed longingly at the majesty of the grand pattern of stars painted overhead, and they seemed to show him just how small their world really was. Somewhere, up there, he hoped that his mother was watching him, and in his heart, he knew that she was. It had been no coincidence that she had saved him from drowning with a dream, and he felt a prickle of cool air race up the length of the arm holding the wooden box. He looked down from the sky, and he caught his friend staring at him. “What?” he asked.

“Nothing. It just seemed like you were somewhere else for a second, that’s all. Come on, let’s get back to the dorm before we get caught out here. I promised Sonya I’d hang out with her tomorrow, and if we get detention, she’ll kill me,” Matchstick said.

“Sissy,” Luke said, and it was his turn to punch Matchstick in the arm.

“Nerd!” Matchstick joked back. “Hey, this really is like the movies. Maybe that box is from the temple of that Egyptian guy,” he said, snapping his fingers trying to think of the name. “Anus-bus. Yeah, anus-bus.”

“Anubis, ding-dong. It’s Anubis,” Luke said, and they laughed the whole way back until they got close to the dorm. They stopped and listened, and they heard voices talking out in the dark, and Luke immediately recognized Willie’s voice as one of them. He and Matchstick quickly hid behind a tree so that they wouldn’t get caught, and they waited as it became clear that there were only two people outside.

“Hey, isn’t that a girl?” Matchstick whispered, and Luke placed his finger across lips to tell his friend to stay quiet. He was right though; it was a girl, and Luke knew exactly who it was. He stuck his head around the tree, and he saw the silhouettes of Willie and Kristen, hugging and kissing outside the dorm. His blood boiled, not so much at the fact that she had broken up with him so suddenly, but more because of who she had chosen over him. They made out for a while, but eventually, the two parted ways, and after giving Willie time to get to bed, Luke and Matchstick went inside the dorm and went straight to bed themselves. Matchstick laid down and the sound of heavy breathing came from the bunk above Luke within minutes, but Luke barely slept that night.

Chapter 8

*

When the other boys began to stir early the next morning, Luke barely cracked his eyes. His sleep during the night hadn’t been very restful at all, and he wasn’t ready for the day. He had had dreams of breaking up with Kristen, and in those dreams, his mother had been nearby to comfort him, but as he lay there in his bunk, he couldn’t feel the warm embrace of his mother any longer. All he could feel was the stale ache of his heart and a growing dislike of Willie. When he had first gotten to camp, he had set out to get along with the bully if at all possible, but Willie’s actions in the soccer game and toward his best friend had changed all that. And then, knowing that his girlfriend had broken up with him to be with that creep, he wished he could pop Willie in the mouth with his fist.

“Why couldn’t I have had a dream like that?” he said to himself, and there was no answer. He put his hand over his eyes, and he remained in bed until nearly all of the boys had gone outside. With his other hand, he felt for the wooden box he had hidden beneath his pillow, and it’s cold, hard frame was still safely concealed beneath the pillowcase. He wasn’t exactly sure what he was going to do with it, but he thought that maybe he would take it back to the house and return it to the chest where it belonged.

The top bunk rustled, and he knew what was coming next. “Are you getting up, Luke?” Matchstick said after he had jumped down to the concrete floor from the top bunk. He nudged him in the shoulder. “Come on. Time to get up. You’re free today, no detention, and that means you can meet some of Sonya’s friends.” Luke had seen Sonya’s friends, and they were cute, but he wasn’t interested.

“I’m getting up, but I thought that I would go work in the kitchen again today.”

“Work? What are you talking about? This is vacation. Besides, I helped you out last night.”

“I helped you out with Willie the other day, so we’re even.”

“You’re sour this morning, but I think I know why,” Matchstick said, and he looked around to make sure no one could hear him. “Don’t even think about Kristen. She’s gonna get cold sores on her mouth like Willie anyways,” he added, and Luke couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, see. I knew you couldn’t stay down that long.”

“Thanks, but I really do want to work in the kitchen. It made me feel better, but I don’t know why.”

“I know why. Because Angela’s working in there.”

Luke looked at him like he didn’t know what he was talking about. “Horse pucky.”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed her. All the guys have, even Ben stares at her when no one’s looking.”

“If no one’s looking, how would you know he stares at her?”

“Don’t be a dingus. Horace said he saw Ben checking her out.”

“Geez, she’s not a library book.”

“Is that jealousy I hear in your voice?”

“No, I said that I just wanted to work in the kitchen today. You know the camp’s going to need the help with Helen out, and now Ben’s sick.”

“Oh, right,” Matchstick said as he went to the showers. “But if you change your mind, we’ll be around, and Sonya’s friends haven’t locked in on any of the other guys yet.” Luke did consider his friend’s offer, but he decided to help out in the cafeteria anyways. He knew breakfast was already in full swing, but Angela would need some help cleaning up and getting ready for lunch, and he wanted to do some work so he could forget about his problems. Besides, she had been really nice to him since camp had started, and he hoped that he could help her out in return. They were the last to get up, and he got his towel and his toothbrush and headed for the showers. Matchstick finished getting ready ahead of him, and Luke was alone in the dorm. With the towel wrapped around him, he walked back to his bed, and he got dressed. He reached into his pocket, and the pocket was empty. The old familiar shape of the wooden box was nowhere to be found. Then he remembered it was stashed under his pillow, and he picked it up to get it, but it was gone. He tore apart the bed looking for it, and he went under the bunk to see if it was on the floor, but the wooden box was nowhere to be found. “How is that even possible?” he thought to himself, and he remembered that Dick Berry and his buddies had been one of the last groups to leave. They hadn’t bothered Luke or Matchstick, which was very uncharacteristic of them, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t up to something. With the wooden box missing, he was fairly certain that Dick was responsible, and he would have to find him and find him fast. Luke couldn’t be certain, but all of the weird things: the hot spoon, Ben passing out, the lights going out, . . . not to mention the box talking to him in his head. He was going to have to get the box back before anybody else got hurt. He threw his clothes on in a hurry, and he ran out of the dorm. Jimmy was sitting just outside the door, licking a sucker and humming the theme song to his favorite television show, and he held out his arm to slow Luke down.

“Hey, hey, where’re you goin’ in such a hurry, huh?”

“To the cafeteria. Have you seen Dick Berry and his gang this morning?”

“Yeah, they went out of here in a hurry to the cafeteria, too. It’s still time for breakfast, you know. Don’t rush around here like that ‘cause the last thing we need is someone else getting hurt.”

“Okay, I’ll slow it down,” he told Jimmy. “How’s Ben this morning?”

Jimmy shook his head. “Not too good. He drove himself to the doctor. Said he wasn’t feeling quite right, vertigo or some such. Anyways, now we got no car to take anybody to town with, so again, don’t run around and get yourself hurt.”

“I’ll try not to let you down,” he told Jimmy and started off to the cafeteria in a fast walk which then turned into a run. They were down to two counselors then: Jimmy and Angela. Angela was too busy taking care of the food and maintenance to really watch over the kids outside, and Jimmy was too preoccupied with hard candy and resting his rump on a bench to be of any real use around there. If Dick had taken the cursed wooden box like he thought, it was going to be up to Luke to get it back, and that was going to be no easy task. With Charlie and Milton orbiting Dick like horseflies on poop, he was going to be hard pressed to take it back without a fight. When he reached the cafeteria, the door came flying outward just in time to nearly slam him in the face. He got stopped just in time to catch the handle and keep his face from smashing flat. He peeked around the door to see Willie holding it open with one hand while the other was wrapped around Kristen’s neck. It wasn’t enough that he had nearly slammed Luke in the face; he had to flaunt his new girlfriend in front of Luke, too. A devious grin came across Willie’s face at the sight of Luke, and he made sure to stand in the open door and block the way inside.

“Hungry?” he asked Luke with sarcasm, and then he pulled Kristen in tight to him. “I like dessert first, how ‘bout you, Green?” Kristen got the meaning, and she didn’t appear to like being compared to food at Luke’s expense. She turned away from Luke’s eyes instead and dragged Willie away from the door. Willie turned to her, and said, “Hey, what’s the rush, honey?” Then he looked back to Luke. “She can’t get enough of me, Green.” Luke chose to ignore him, and with the doorway open, he went on inside the cafeteria. The room was full of campers, idly chatting over their pancakes about what they were going to do that day, and he looked all over the room for Dick Berry with no luck. He did spot Matchstick, and his best friend waved him over to his table where Sonya and a couple of other girls that he didn’t know yet were seated. There were several tables between himself and where he wanted to go, and he squeezed carefully between a few of the chairs. He had to ask one particular red-headed girl whose chair was blocking the way to scoot her chair up so he could get by, and she gave him the look of death at his polite request. She did, however, slide the chair forward reluctantly, but she said something under her breath that sounded like the word troglodyte, to which Luke noted her face in his memory for future reference. With her freckled, pimply, and otherwise high shiny forehead, he thought she should consider looking in the mirror first before passing judgment on others’ appearances. When he got to the table, it was crowded, and there were no other seats available for him to sit, but Matchstick introduced him to Sonya’s three friends as he stood nearby.

“Luke, you know Sonya, and this is Maria,” he said and pointed to a girl with brownish-orange hair. “And this is Becky and Susie,” he said as he rounded the table. Becky and Susie each had long, kinky dark hair and painted fingernails. All three girls gave him a wave and a smile, a much nicer introduction than he had received a few seconds earlier from the red-headed girl. He returned their waves, and he asked them all if there was anything else that they would need from the kitchen. None of them asked him for anything, and Matchstick tried to get Luke to sit down, but there really was a shortage of space at the table and he passed on it for the time being.

“That’s okay, I’ve got to get into the kitchen and see if Angela needs any help.” They returned to their conversation while Luke snuck through the rest of the tables and went through the swinging doors where Angela was stirring batter in a large pot.

“Hey!” she said with a smile. “I wasn’t expecting you today.”

“You might not have heard this, but Ben got pretty sick last night,” Luke explained. “I thought you might need any help you could get.”

“I did hear about him getting sick, and Jimmy swung by my cabin to tell me that Ben went on to the doctor. He said that he was dizzy and nauseous.”

“He fell down last night on the walk back, and I had to help him get up,” Luke told her, but he left out any mention of the wooden box. He couldn’t explain what was going on, as he didn’t quite understand it himself, and he didn’t want her thinking he was crazy. “Do you need some help?”

“I can take anything you have to offer,” she told him with a wide grin, and she pointed to a tray of grits. “Can you please take those out? The first tray was scarfed up in fifteen minutes flat, not to mention the three sticks of butter for flavoring that seemed to be chosen by everyone to go with their servings.”

“If you’re going to eat grits, then you need butter to get them down,” Luke told her, and she smirked.

“You haven’t had my grits, then,” she defended. It didn’t matter to Luke; to him, the source didn’t made no difference. All grits were bad.

“I don’t know about the grits, but I’ll take a pancake if you’ve got one,” he told her.

“Sure. Would you like to eat in here with me? I could use the company,” she said and flipped two pancakes into a plate. He quietly nodded that he would like to eat with her, and she and made a place for him on the counter next to a stool. “Here you go,” she said, and Luke sat there and ate while she worked on getting the hot food out into the cafeteria lines. In watching her work, he was quite amazed at how efficiently she moved around the kitchen. It was impressive how she went from one task to the next with very little pause, as if he were watching an orchestra playing out a score. He also noticed her curves, and maybe that was more distracting to him than anything else. His pancakes sat untouched as he found himself admiring her for a moment, and at one point, she caught his eyes and smiled. “What?” she asked.

“Nothing. This food is delicious,” he told her and hurriedly dug into the pancakes. Truthfully, they tasted as good as he had said, and she went back to working while he quietly cleaned his plate.

“I spoke to my dad last night again, and he said that we needed to watch over everyone more carefully. He said that the budget this year was strained as it was and that we couldn’t handle any more accidents. Of course, this was before I knew anything about Ben becoming ill,” she said with a sigh. She paused for a second with a spatula in her hands, waiting to turn the scrambled eggs, and Luke decided he should see if she knew anything about the haunted house across the river. When he first mentioned it to her, she froze with the spatula deep in the eggs, and she looked at him as if he had done something perilously wrong. “Wait a minute. How do you know about the Newberry Mansion?”

“Uh, well, I might have gone over there the first night of camp,” he told her, and the eggs started to smoke in the pan as she listened to his confession.

“You’re joking, right? Nobody is crazy enough to go the old Newberry house on their own.”

“No, I really did go over there. And I went inside,” he told her, and Angela dropped the spatula onto the side of the pan and walked over to him.

“Are you crazy? That place is known as bad news around here,” she told him and stood in front of him with both her hands on her hips. “You shouldn’t have gone over there.”

“It’s burning,” he said and looked over her shoulder.

“What? What’s burning? The house, you mean?”

“No,” he said and pointed past her to the stove. “The eggs.” She ran over and picked up the spatula from the pan and flipped the eggs.

“Right, sorry,” she said to him and turned the burner down. “It’s just, well, no one goes to the Newberry Mansion. Ever.”

“Why?” he ventured, and she gave him a serious stare, slit eyes and one line across where her eyebrows pinched down on her eyelids.

“Let me get these pancakes and burnt eggs out, and I’ll tell you the story while I’m mopping up,” she said to him, and she prepared two more trays of food to take out to the counter. She went through the swinging doors with two full dishes of food, and she came back into the kitchen with two more empty trays. “These kids are starving this week,” she said.

“It must be the heat,” Luke replied, and she dumped the dirty trays off by the sink. “Here, let me help you with those,” he offered and ran some hot dish water while she dumped the mop water and refilled the bucket.

“Thanks for the help. I’m going to be exhausted by the end of this camp,” she told him, and when she got the mop soaked and strained of the excess water, she made a line down one side of the large kitchen. “The Newberry Mansion was built in the 1700’s, before the Revolutionary War, when the United States was still a set of colonies. Much like the Tryon Palace, the Newberry Mansion was built and operated by the British, mainly as an outpost tax office for the British governor’s use. With that stigma, you can imagine that it was not one of the most popular residences in the area, and when the war broke out, the resident George Newberry found himself quickly isolated by the colonials from the rest of the British outposts. I don’t know if you noticed it or not, but the house is isolated from land on all sides by the river.” Luke had seen the thin stretch of river on the far side which separated the island from the main land, and he nodded that he agreed with her. “That, however, had not always been the case. There had been a bridge connecting the Newberry Mansion to the main land on the other side of the Neuse River, but when independence was declared, a clandestine group of revolutionaries made it their priority to blow up the bridge,” she said as she walked behind Luke, mopping a wide line from one side of the kitchen to the other. Luke pictured the explosion in his mind, and he thought about how great the revolutionaries must have felt to exact revenge on the Empire. He had always related the Revolutionary War with the battles in the science fiction movies he had watched, and the demolition of the bridge seemed like a fun piece of history.

“Good for the colonists,” Luke said, and Angela kept mopping.

“Do you think so?” she asked and waited for his reply.

“Yeah, I mean, it was the Revolutionary War and all. It had to be cool, and I’m wondering why I never heard of it before now.”

“Let me tell you why,” she said in a very measured tone. “One of the ‘brave’ colonials was left behind with the explosives, and he decided it would send a message to the British if he waited to blow up the bridge when someone was crossing. In your mind, you might think that a long line of red coats were marching across the bridge with muskets and bayonets, ready to pillage the streets of Raleigh. But that isn’t the way it happened. Instead of blowing up the bridge and moving on, the colonial soldier that was left behind waited all night long for someone to cross. He waited until nearly sunrise with not a single soul on the road, and he was just getting ready to set off the explosives before dawn when a carriage from the main land rolled over the hill. The carriage was carrying George Newberry’s wife and the three young children of the tax collector as it rolled over the wooden bridge, and when the colonial lit the fuse, the bridge finally exploded and the carriage rolled over into the deeper section of the Neuse River, drowning the driver and all four of the passengers in the aftermath.” By this time, Luke had cleaned both trays and had placed them in the drainer by the sink to drip dry.

“What about George Newberry?”

“Now, we come it. George Newberry had ridden alone to New Bern the day before, and he had given his resignation to the Empire’s Governor. He was a very solitary man, but in his heart, he could not turn his back on his fellow colonists by continuing to collect taxes for a foreign king.”

“So, let me get this straight. George Newberry was loyal to the colonies and not to the British Empire.”

“Correct,” she said. “You can only imagine the disgrace the colonials felt when they found out that their man had killed the family of George Newberry, after George had pledged his allegiance to the colonies. That is why you have never heard of the Newberry Mansion. The colonists decided to keep it all hushed up.”

“What happened to George Newberry after that?”

“He was deeply saddened by the loss of his family and by the hostility of his neighbors. He left a letter behind saying as much. George was a good man at heart, and he forgave those who were guilty of the crime against his family, though he did not know which one of his neighbors was responsible. Two days after the family was buried on the island, George Newberry waded out into the Neuse River and was never seen again.”

“Oh, that bites the big one,” Luke said very seriously, and Angela started laughing.

“Very poetic. Do the world a favor and don’t get into writing epitaphs, okay.”

“Will do. Tell me something though: if the killings were kept a secret, how do you know about them?” Angela looked away and kept mopping the final swipe of the kitchen floor. When she had mopped herself into a corner, she rung out the mop and walked by him with the bucket. He figured that he had struck a nerve with that question, but he wasn’t sure why his inquiry had caused her to get so quiet. When she put the bucket into the closet, she turned to him and motioned for him to follow her out into the cafeteria.

“I’ll get the rest of the dishes. It’s mostly just trays and silverware, so you can run on out and practice for the second round of the tournament,” she told him, and he sensed that he had inadvertently crossed a line with her in his question.

“I don’t want to practice anyway. We were lucky we won the first game, and the next one will be four-on-five again so I doubt we have a chance,” he told her. “Besides, I’d rather help you with the cafeteria. If you don’t mind the help?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Suit yourself,” she said with a half-smile, and they both went out and started collecting silverware. When they came back in the kitchen, she separated the forks and spoons into separate piles beneath the soapy water, and she began washing the forks first and handing them to Luke for rinsing and drying. At one point, she stopped and looked at Luke. “You said that you went inside the Newberry Mansion. What did you mean?” Luke gave a look that did not hide his thoughts very well. His expression implied that the answer to the question she had asked was simple. “Hello?” she said in a sing-song voice.

“I meant that I went inside the house. It was creepy as hell,” he said and then clapped his wet hand over his mouth. He had forgotten his manners and corrected himself. “Heck.”

“Let me see. You swam across the river to the Newberry Island and knocked on the front door of the house and said, ‘Hello, I have Girl Scout cookies. Would you like to buy a box?’”

“Phhtt! No!” he said with a chuckle. “I went in the house, and it locked me inside.” He told her, and she appeared to accept his answer skeptically. “No, it’s true.”

“Luke Green,” she said in that familiar way his mother would talk to him when she knew he was making up a story. “I don’t know you very well, but I thought you would be truthful with me about your late night swim. You didn’t get into much trouble considering how unsafe it was to do that alone, and now you’re telling me that the Newberry Mansion locked you inside.”

“I’m telling you that something locked me inside,” Luke insisted. “You have to believe me.”

“No, I don’t.” Luke was hurt by her answer, but he kept working nonetheless. They were both silent until the dishes were all washed, and Luke took a washrag out to the cafeteria to wipe down the tabletops while Angela got the mop out again and swabbed out the floor beneath all of the tables. Neither one of them crossed paths with each other, and when Luke had finished, he returned the washrag to the kitchen and headed for the door. Angela was still mopping when he pushed on the door, and he turned to her before he went out.

“Why don’t you believe me?” he asked, and she rolled her eyes.

“Why? I’ll tell you why. Because the Newberry Mansion burned down a hundred years ago.”

Chapter 9

*

Hearing what Angela told him was one thing, but believing it was another. If she was correct, then Luke had not experienced the haunted house the other night. If she was correct, then Luke had dreamed the whole experience. And if she was correct, then that made Luke a liar. No. No matter what she told him, he simply could not accept that the house did not exist; he had seen the house, felt it, walked through it, and had nearly been killed trying to escape it. No, he had to disagree with her, but he didn’t know how to do it without offending her any more than he already had. He considered Angela to be a friend, and he wanted to get along with her at all costs. Friends were hard to come by, and he seemed to have very few in his life.

Then he remembered the wooden box and how it had been stolen right out from underneath his pillow. He had to find it at all costs. He hadn’t seen Dick in the cafeteria when he had entered, and he suddenly felt the urge to go out and look for him on the campground. He turned to Angela and thanked her for breakfast, and he told her he would be back to help with lunch.

“Don’t go swimming between now and then,” she said, and she cracked a smile at him that let him know she had forgiven him for telling her what she believed to be lies. “I did hear on the radio that there’s a storm brewing out in the Atlantic. Winds are picking up, and the weatherman says we might get one heckuva storm pretty soon. It’s so large in size that they’ve already given it a name, ‘Abigail’. Isn’t it odd though?”

“What do you mean?” he asked. She looked at him with that twinkle of delight that he had liked most about her.

“The name, Abigail.”

“Yeah, but I don’t get it.”

“We were just talking about the Newberry Mansion, and the death of George’s wife and kids, and it just seems funny to me that when we talk about the weather, her name comes up.”

“Whose?”

“Abigail’s, ding-dong. Didn’t I tell you that George Newberry’s wife was named Abigail?” She hadn’t told him her name before, but if it was true, then she was right, that was a strange coincidence.

Really, though, who could predict the weather, he thought to himself. “I’ll stay dry,” he said and went out the cafeteria door to the yard. There were huddled groups of teenagers everywhere, and Luke searched the grounds for Dick in particular. He was anxious to get back the wooden box, but luck was not with him at first. While he was looking, he did come across Dick’s sister, Candy, standing by herself under a tree, looking at the sunlight coming through the leaves in the faint summer wind. “Hi, Candy,” he said to her, and she was startled by him. She put her hand on her chest and rolled her eyes.

“Good grief, don’t scare me like that, Green,” she said to him and then looked back up into the leaves without saying much else.

“What you lookin’ at?” he asked.

“If you must know, there’s a praying mantis that I’ve been watching in the gum leaves above. Ya’ see?” she said and pointed up at the star-shaped leaves hanging down low. Luke searched with his eyes, but he was having trouble finding it among the rustling green stars. “No, I guess you don’t. Here,” she said and reached up to touch one leaf in particular. He still couldn’t see anything on the leaf at first, but when the morning light caught it right, he could see the shadowed outline of the bug coming through from the other side.

“Oh, I see now,” he told her, and she smiled and put her hands on her hips proudly.

“I found him crawling around this morning. My brother wanted to smash him with a rock, but I wouldn’t let him. The mantis should be free,” she said. “As all things should be.” In his time at the elementary school, Luke had avoided taking the time to talk to Candy, the same as all of his other friends. They had avoided her and made fun of her behind her back because she was the daughter of a murderer. No one wanted anything to do with her; they thought she was tainted somehow. Certainly, it was evident that Dick was going to grow up to fit into an orange jumpsuit quite well, but as Luke stood there watching a bug that Candy had saved from the hands of a certain crushing death, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of shame at his past behavior towards her. Not so long ago, hadn’t it been true that she had called off her brother from smashing Luke’s own head in the street with a shoe? They both kept staring at the mantis shadow through the leaf, and he caught his eyes wandering over to look at her profile. She didn’t meet his eyes, and so he took that chance to notice the dimples in her cheeks as she smiled into the sun. She was rough around the edges, and she had lived a hard life, growing up in the house of the Strangler, but Candy Berry was indeed a pretty girl inside and out. He felt shame well up again when his eyes outlined the traces of her smile, and Luke felt as if he wanted to go and hide from the sins of his past pride. It was obvious to him then that the school children had treated her unfairly over the years.

“That was kind of you to save it,” he said, and then her eyes looked over at him, as if she had only just realized that he was there and had given her a compliment.

“It seemed the right thing to do. My brother can be a terror sometimes, and I hate it when he’s being mean to things. Or people,” she said to him, and he knew what she meant.

“Listen, I never did get to tell you thank you for calling him off that day . . .”

“Think nothin’ of it. My mom couldn’t have picked a better name for Dick than she did, honestly,” she confided in him and made Luke laugh. When she saw that he was laughing at her joke and not at her, she blushed. At that moment, the mantis spread its wings and flew away, far across the soccer field and into the woods. It was a beautiful sight to behold, but he should have known that there was a reason for the bug’s flight. Luke heard footsteps behind him, and a familiar half-laugh came out. Candy shut her eyes and grimaced.

“Well, lookey here, if it ain’t my good friend Pukey,” Dick’s voice said. Candy wheeled around with her fists balled up at her sides, and she leaned her head and neck forward, ready to fight.

“You interrupt and mess things up all the time. That’s all you ever do, you sneak!” she barked at him. Rather than being afraid of what was surely coming, Luke was suddenly more interested in how this was all going to turn out. He had been looking for Dick, but Dick had found him with his sister first. That wasn’t what Luke had planned, by no stretch of the imagination, but it was the way things had turned out.

“Hey, now, sis. I didn’t mean to butt in on you and your boyfriend here,” Dick said condescendingly.

“He’s not my boyfriend! And you scared away the mantis!” she snapped at him. Dick was at a loss for words, something that Luke had never seen happen before, and he found himself enjoying watching him squirm at the mercy of his sister.

“Did you take something from me this morning?” Luke asked before he realized what was coming out of his mouth. Instinctively in his gut, he felt that it was the right time to ask the question, while Dick was caught offguard by his sister.

“What are you talkin’ about, sissy? There’s nothin’ you have I want.”

“So you didn’t take the wooden box from under my pillow?”

“I haven’t been anywhere near your bed, Pukie,” he said and stepped up in Luke’s personal space, face to face with him.

“What? Are you going to try to kiss me or something?” Luke said sarcastically, and when Dick noticed how close he actually was to Luke, he backed up a foot.

“I didn’t take anything from you,” he told Luke, and there was truth in his eyes and anger in his voice.

“Run on and bother somebody else for a while,” Candy ordered her brother, and Dick raised his hand as if he was going to slap her, but didn’t. “You’re as bad as daddy was,” she told him.

“Don’t you forget it. Neither of you,” Dick threatened, and then he stepped away. “Girls, I’ve got better things to do than bug watchin’,” he said and walked away.

“Good riddance,” she said. “Try not to let him bother you, Luke. He’s just jealous of you, that’s all.”

“I don’t understand that. Why would anyone be jealous of me?”

“You’re brave, smart, and handsome. That’s what all the other boys have to compete against, and some of them take it out on you while they can. Someday, you’ll be a leader, but until then, they want to let you know that you aren’t everything you think you are.”

“I don’t think I’m any of those things, Candy,” Luke replied with dismissal.

“Suit yourself,” she said and looked back up into the leaves again as if there was another mantis to watch. “Did someone take something from you?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, well, that’s not good. But I don’t think it was Dick. I can tell when he’s lying, and he wasn’t lying when he answered you,” Candy explained. Luke watched Dick join up with his buddies, and he wondered how well Candy really knew her brother. He suspected that she was right, but her assessment didn’t take Dick off his list of suspects. Looking back at Candy, he decided to ask her something.

“If I asked you to, would you do me a favor?”

“Depends,” she said and continued to gaze at the gum leaves as if she were gazing at the stars, which in a way, she was.

“Would you keep an eye out for a small wooden box?” he said. “It’s special to me.” Candy broke her gaze at the leaves and returned a sincere look.

“Of course. I’ll let you know if I see it, but I seriously doubt that my brother would want a small wooden box,” she said thoughtfully. “Unless it had matches inside. He can always find a use for those.”

“You might be right, but if you happen to see, please let me know as soon as possible,” he said and left her there under the gum tree. As he walked away several of the gum balls fell from the tree narrowly missing Candy, yet she continued her study of the leaves as if nothing had happened. “It must be nice to be so easily distracted,” he thought to himself, and he started off for the soccer fields. After rounding the corner of a building, the field came into full view, and it was bustling with activity. There were soccer teams practicing on one end, and there were others playing tag and flag football on the other end. Luke was surprised to see Matchstick playing football; the boy hardly ever got outside. Then when he saw Sonya on the sidelines watching, he understood that he was probably showing off for her, and he thought that his friend was finally growing up into his teenage years properly. He looked all around, but the next suspect on his list was nowhere to be found. He looked around the field, but Willie was nowhere to be found. Luke walked over to where Sonya and her friends were gathered, and Sonya greeted him.

“Good morning. I was wondering when you were ever coming out for practice. The way you won that game the other night, we figured you practiced a lot more often,” she said, and her three friends all gave him a smile. Luke blushed; he wasn’t used to having that much attention, living alone with his father the last couple of weeks, and he almost forgot what he was going to say.

“Thanks. I was lucky the other night, that’s all. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while,” he said, and Maria and Becky giggled. Susie didn’t. “Anyways, have you seen Willie this morning?”

“Yes, he was at breakfast, but he and Kristen went off somewhere,” Sonya said, and then caught herself. “Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot that you and Kristen had broken up recently.”

“It’s okay. I was just looking for him,” he said. At that moment, Matchstick came running by the sidelines with the football cradled in his arms and the black eye coming into its own on his face, and Sonya started cheering for him as he ran toward mid-field, which was the shortened goal line. He almost made it, and it took three guys to bring him down at the 3-yard line. Sonya and Maria and Becky were cheering for Matchstick. Susie didn’t; she just stood there popping her gum, unimpressed. Luke clapped, and when the excitement had died down, he told the girls he would catch up with them later.

“He’s going to look for Willie,” Sonya explained to Matchstick, and his friend’s face turned serious.

“Buddy, you can’t do that. You know you’ll just end up in a fight,” he told Luke.

“I’m not going to start a fight.”

“I know you’re not. Willie will take care of that for you, and then you’ll be expelled from camp.”

“Says the guy with the fresh black eye,” Luke replied. “You don’t understand, Matchstick. I think he took something from me, and I have to get it back,” Luke explained to him, and Matchstick pulled him to the side and his voice dropped to a whisper.

“I know your feelings are fresh, but Kristen isn’t property, dude,” he said and then discreetly nodded his head toward the girls. “You’re going to give these other girls the wrong impression, and at least a couple of them think you’re cute,” Matchstick explained quietly, and this revelation caught Luke off guard.

“What? No, that’s not what I mean. I’m not talking about Kristen,” Luke whispered back. “You know what we went looking for last night? It’s missing.”

“That’s not good,” he replied, though he didn’t quite seem as surprised as he should have. “Why didn’t you say so?”

“It’s dangerous enough to have that thing, and I don’t want the whole world to know about it.”

“Really? Then why did you bring it back with you from the island?” Matchstick asked. Luke hadn’t really ever thought about why he had brought it back, and when he did think it through, he couldn’t think of a reason except that it seemed like the thing to do when he was trying to escape from the Newberry Mansion. After all, someone, or something, had wanted him to find it and take it away from the house. Everything had happened so quickly and with such peril that he had simply survived on his instincts. It was a fight or flight reaction, and it had most likely saved his life. He had learned to trust his intuition, and right now, his instincts were telling him to go look for Willie.

“I can’t explain why I brought it back. I guess you would have to have been there to understand,” Luke told him. “I’ll be all right. No fights, no trouble. Okay?” Matchstick let go of his arm, and he patted him on the shoulder.

“Good luck then.”

“Yeah, thanks,” he told his friend and waved to the young ladies as he walked away. He thought to himself, “If I were Willie, where would I be?” The answer came to him quickly, and his blood did boil just a little.

Chapter 10

*

Luke had another hour before he would have to worry about helping Angela in the cafeteria, and he knew he would have enough time to get where he needed to go and back again with a few minutes to spare. He took off in the opposite direction of the soccer fields, past the dormitories and parking lot where he knew of an old abandoned trail that he and Matchstick had stumbled across the year before. It wasn’t the same well-traveled trail which led down to the Neuse. The entrance was not obvious, and it took a lot of concentration and focus to find it from outside of the trees. This trail was hidden and led out deep into the woods, and at the end . . . that was where he believed he would find Willie and Kristen. He felt vindicated when he saw where footprints had been made recently in the grass leading to the edge of the woods, and he followed them to the edge where the woods were dark with thick vines. He looked into the forest, and the foliage was so dense that sunlight was blocked from reaching the forest floor. For that reason, the underbrush was thin and offered no hindrance, but it was also very uninviting. He stood there and looked into the black and grey and brown, and he recalled the sensations he had felt when he and Matchstick had hiked the trail the year before. They had both been afraid when they had stumbled across this particular path, but somehow the combination of two people together made the fear bearable. He knew Kristen would never have gone into these woods alone, but with Willie at her side, she would not want to have appeared weak. She also would not have led the way, but she would have followed him along the old rugged path. Luke stood in front of the path contemplating, delaying, and he turned around to look behind. No one was there; no one would catch him if it trespassed, and no one would catch him if he fell. He then faced the brown and murky woods, and he took a deep breath.

“Here goes nothing,” he said to himself, and he stepped out of the open area and into the woods. He took four steps past the tree line, and then he could make out the trail as it led up a grade to the top of a small hill. By getting out of the sun’s direct light, his eyes had adjusted to the dimmer surroundings, and he was able to see how the path angled up the hill to a peak. He climbed to the top, and he found where the trail led down another hill to a valley and then along the valley through the brush. From the top of the hill, Luke listened carefully, and he did not hear anyone talking or walking through the woods. He knew that sound traveled fairly well in a valley, and when he was satisfied that Willie and Kristen were further along the trail, he hiked down the hill to the muddy bottom where he discovered two sets of footprints on the ground. One set was significantly larger than the other, and it had typical sneaker tread markings. The other footprints were smooth and had a gap between the heel and toe, indicating a slightly raised heel. They were a perfect match for what he believed were one boy’s and one girl’s set of footprints. If he had done nothing else right this year at camp, he had learned how to track. His eyes followed the prints through the valley and then up the next hill and along the trail. Willie and Kristen had been careful enough to stay on the trail, and for that he was glad. He didn’t much care for Willie, and Kristen had broken his heart, but he didn’t want anything bad to happen to them, and when he looked at the crooked sourwood, hollow persimmon, and gnarled cherry trees strangled in vines, he felt as if the forest itself could smother anyone it chose without a second thought, and no one would be the wiser. A shiver went down his spine, and he shook his head and shoulders to get the goose bumps to go away. He had a bad feeling that these woods were not safe, and he wanted to hurry up, find out what he could about Willie, and get out of there and back to the campground where at least he would not be alone. The end of the trail was not very much farther away, and he got to his feet and ran along the upper edge of the valley to stay out of the mud. He quickly climbed the next hill and crouched onto one knee at the peak. At the top of the next hill, he saw the end of the trail, and perched high up in a walnut tree, he saw the old wooden structure which he had come so far to find. It was an old tree house covered up in vines and nestled about twenty feet up in the crook of the walnut tree’s limbs. The tree was black and appeared unhealthy as it stood crooked on the top of a mossy mound of earth. There were compound leaves which grew sparsely on the ends of the limbs, but there were no round, green husks dangling down from the tips, and if Luke had been an experienced arborist, he would have known that tree was at the end of its life. As it was, he was merely a teenage boy on a quest; he knew very little about how trees lived and died. More importantly, he didn’t care about the tree, only what was in it. He listened very carefully, and he heard movement coming from within the tree house. He knew he had found what he had ventured so boldly into this jungle to find. He quietly snuck down the hill and climbed the next to the base of the tree mound. From the top of the hill, he peered down the other side, and he saw that the mound of roots stood on the top of a cliff. Central North Carolina was not known for high mountains, but the thirty foot drop to a rocky creek below was enough to make him catch his breath. He squatted down on the ground, and he looked up and down the creek to see what was below. The stream was sickly in appearance with muddy water and trash on the shore, and the sulfurous odor wafted up the cliff with a bitter wind. When he and Matchstick had come here the previous year, he didn’t remember that the tree was dying and he certainly didn’t remember the odor of rotten eggs in the breeze. The sickly creek was part of a network and must feed the Neuse further downstream, and it made him feel disgusted that the water in the river might be as dirty as the creek below. Things had changed with the land here at the campground and the surrounding properties, and it made him wonder if he was just lucky enough to stumble into the middle of it. He pinched his nose at the smell, and though he was able to feel the warmth of sunlight at the cliff’s edge, he felt the unfriendliness of the troubled land gripping him in his gut.

Suddenly, a thump came from the tree house above, and he hurriedly pasted himself to the opposite side of the tree where he would not be seen.

“Where are you putting your hand, Willie?” Kristen’s voice whispered through the cracks of the wooden slats.

“Oh, nowhere. Just getting comfortable, that’s all,” Willie said in an innocent tone.

“The longer we’re out here, the worse I feel. The stench is horrible,” she said. “I don’t think we should be out here, you know.”

“We won’t get into any trouble, and we can go back in a few minutes,” Willie tried to reassure her, but Luke thought his ‘reassuring’ voice was more demanding than it should have been. There was a slap, and then foot stomps from above.

“Stop it!” Kristen yelled, and Luke figured she must have slapped Willie. That made Luke grin, but when he didn’t hear Kristen opening the door to get out, he began to suspect he was not going to like what he was going to hear next. There were more stomps and then a muffled voice, and Luke latched onto the nailed-up boards which made a crooked ladder up the side of the tree. He swung around and climbed up three rungs to the back side of the tree, and when he looked down, he saw the creek beneath him. His heart beat right out of his chest, and he pulled himself tight against the black bark of the walnut tree. He tried to catch his breath and to calm himself down so that he wouldn’t fall, but he was having a harder time than ever fighting off the fear of falling. He knew he had to get up into the tree house, and he also knew that he had not had this problem a few days before when he had almost fallen off the roof of the Newberry Mansion. He was scared out of his wits there hovering over the putrid creek below, and he forced himself to loosen up and go up on the next board.

“Stop it, I said!” Kristen cried out, and he could hear them struggling. It was now or never, and Luke ran up the boards as fast as he could until he reached the trap door entrance to the tree house. The door was built so that it opened up into the house. In this way if someone stepped on the door while inside, they would not fall through, and so Luke pushed up on it with one hand while holding onto the ladder with the other.

“Who’s that?!” Willie’s voice snapped, and Luke felt a foot push down on the door from inside.

“Help!!” Kristen called, and he heard someone drop down to the floor boards. Dust trickled down in Luke’s face, and he let go of the door and wiped his eyes.

“You can’t go! You don’t even know who’s out there!” he heard Willie tell Kristen.

“I don’t care! I’m leaving!” she shouted, and the door was suddenly ripped open and Kristen nearly came down on top of Luke. Between all the commotion, Luke caught a glimpse of Willie, and their eyes met.

“Green! What are you doin’ followin’ us out here, boy?!” he snapped at Luke and held the trap door open. Luke backed down in a hurry to make room for Kristen on the awkward ladder, and he crawled around to the outside of the tree where the cliff was. Kristen’s shoe came down on Luke’s hand as he rounded the bend, and he almost let go of the board too soon. She smashed his fingers, and he yanked them out from between the shoe and the board, nearly losing his balance.

“Slow down!” Luke said to her, and he wrapped his hurt hand around the next rung and pulled himself against the zigzagging bark of the tree. He looked down and saw the rocky creek far below, and he stopped moving for a second while he let his heart calm down from a race. Kristen was still crying and Willie was still cursing, but Luke tuned them out. He had to get control of his fear before he moved any further. The lovers’ quarrel was still going on above him, and when Luke was sure of himself, he took another step down the tree house ladder. Then he took another and soon he was at the bottom, standing at an angle on the hill and the roots of the old walnut tree. Kristen slipped as she came around from the cliff side, and Luke quickly grabbed her shirt and pulled her toward him and she tumbled past him down the hill but thankfully not over the cliff’s edge. Luke swayed with her and had his back to the tree. When Willie came next, he whipped around the tree and jumped at Luke with his hands open, and the two boys rolled down the hill, past Kristen and into the bushes. When they came to a stop under a short magnolia, Willie was on top of him, and he seized Luke by the shirt collar with both fists and shook him.

“What are you doing spyin’ on me and my girl?” Luke didn’t answer, but he could hear Kristen crying as she ran away down the trail toward the campground. Willie must not have expected an answer because he threw a punch at Luke’s face, and though Willie had a grip on his shirt, Luke moved his head enough that Willie’s fist missed and hit the rocky dirt. Willie swore and drew back a bloody fist, and Luke grabbed the hand still around his shirt and squeezed the wrist at the pressure points of the bone. Willie dropped him, but Luke saw the motion of his leg too late. A shoe kicked him in the shoulder, and it stung Luke mightily, but the well-aimed kick made Willie loose a little bit of his balance on the hillside. Instinctively, Luke brought his own foot up into Willie’s exposed crotch with a thud. Willie grunted once, and he pinched his eyes shut with a frown. Luke kicked him again in the stomach and shoved Willie the rest of the way down the hill into the mud that painted the crease of the valley. He then slid to his feet and ran along the trail after Kristen, leaving Willie to wallow in temporary pain and nausea below the old walnut tree house. Kristen was running and had made really good time down the trail, and by the time Luke came over the hill, she was nowhere in sight. Willie’s groans of pain were far behind him, and it wasn’t until he reached the end of the trail that he remembered why he had actually gone to find Willie in the first place. He had wanted the wooden box back before someone else got hurt. It seemed like a stupid wish, what with his smashed hand and Willie’s smashed groin, but Luke felt that he needed to find the box at any cost. He looked out at the campground, and when he saw that Kristen had gone running to safety with her friends, Luke turned around and ran back up the trail to where he had left Willie writhing in the mud. He reached the top of the last hill, and he saw Willie standing up with his hands on his knees, puking. It seemed like the perfect time to call someone else ‘Pukie’ for a change, but Willie hadn’t used that name on him, and he didn’t want to promote it in anyone else’s vocabulary. He just wanted to get the wooden box back.

“Willie,” he said, and Willie craned his head around from a bent position and looked at Luke.

“Leave me alone,” Willie said in reply, almost as if he had surrendered to Luke. Luke didn’t believe it would last long, but he thought that he should take advantage of the opportunity while it presented itself.

“Willie,” he said again and went down the hill a little bit closer with his hands down at his sides in a non-threatening manner. “Somebody stole something from me this morning, and I want it back,” he said, and Willie laughed once and then held his stomach as if it had hurt him to do so.

“I ain’t got nothin’ of yours, ‘cept maybe your girl,” Willie groaned with a smirk.

“I’m not here about Kristen. I’m here about a wooden box that belongs to me, and I think you took it,” Luke explained. “I don’t intend to be finished here with you until I get it back.”

“Then you want to go another round, and I’ll kick you in the acorns and see how you like it,” Willie said, and he tried to stand up straighter, but his mid-section wouldn’t let him.

“Suit yourself. I got more where that came from, and right now, I know I can dish some more out,” he said, surprising himself, and he started down the hill towards Willie.

“You can’t hurt me no more,” Willie said as he cupped one hand over his hurt spot, and his actions betrayed his words. Luke could see a little bit of fear twinkle in his eyes, and he was going to use it for all it was worth. He stopped ten feet away, and he held his fists up in front of his face and spread his feet apart, ready to box another round with Willie. “What are you doin’?”

“You don’t listen real well. I . . . want . . . my . . . box . . . back!”

Willie’s eyes opened wider, and he shook his head. “I ain’t got your box. I ain’t took your stuff, Green! Now, go on back to camp before we both get into trouble.” His voice had changed, and Luke could detect truth in what he was saying. Maybe Willie hadn’t taken his box, but how could he know for sure.

“Pull out your pockets. I want to see what’s in them,” Luke ordered him.

“Are you crazy?! I ain’t . . . ,” he started to argue with Luke, and Luke took a step closer. “All right! All right!” Willie said and drew out his pockets. His legs were clinched together, and Luke could tell he was hurting from the first round, but when Willie let his pockets out, only money fell into the mud. Willie covered his hurt spot again, and said, “You gonna take my money now, Green?”

“I don’t want your money. That’s yours,” he told Willie, and maybe that was true. As much of a bully as Willie was, the money could have been someone else’s, but that wasn’t why Luke was here. Luke then pointed a finger at Willie, and he squinted his eyes. “Leave my stuff alone, and leave Matchstick’s stuff alone, too. Or next time, I’ll see to it that you empty your pee out of a plastic bag,” Luke threatened him and left him standing there, bent over and pockets turned out in the mud. When he departed, he didn’t turn around to look at Willie; he didn’t want to give him the satisfaction that he cared what he thought. He wasn’t exactly sure what his threat had meant because it was a phrase he had heard in a movie, but it seemed appropriate and it got his point across. When he came out of the trail, he found Jimmy waiting for him at the entrance. The counselor looked him up and down, and Luke was covered in dirt and leaves, coming out of the woods after Kristen had narrowly escaped an attack.

“You’ve got some explaining to do, boy,” he said and grabbed Luke by the arm.

“I didn’t do anything,” he told Jimmy, and Jimmy dismissed it just as soon as he said it.

“Tell that to Angela. She’s got Kristen in the cafeteria, bawling her eyes out and swearing that a boy put his hands on her.”

“It wasn’t me!” Luke said, but went along with Jimmy to the cafeteria. He didn’t want to say that it was Willie either because that was breaking the understood school ground code of squealing, but he also didn’t want to take the blame for what Willie had done. As he walked with Jimmy and thought about it more, he began to believe that maybe the school ground code didn’t apply to acts of violence against another person, and he would be more than forthcoming about what Willie had done when the time came. When they reached the cafeteria, there was a growing crowd around the outside; it wasn’t yet time for lunch but it was getting close. Luke reasoned that the crowd wasn’t hungry for food but hungry for information on what had happened to Kristen to make her so upset. Jimmy parted the crowd for Luke, and several of the girls were giving him the evil eye when they saw how dirty he was and how Jimmy was still leading him by the arm. It was possible that the condition of his clothes gave everyone even more reason to believe that he had done something wrong. Despite the implications, Luke walked with his head high, not worried about what the other girls thought because he knew the truth would come out soon. Jimmy opened the cafeteria door for Luke, and they both went inside. Angela and Kristen were seated at a table, and Angela motioned for Luke to come sit at the table with them. Jimmy locked the cafeteria door behind them and went around to all of the window blinds and closed them so no one could see inside. It was obvious they wanted the meeting to be private, but with the smell of pizza and roasted corn lingering in the air, it was hard for Luke to believe that the meeting would last very long.

“Sit down with us, please,” Angela requested as she pulled a chair out across the table from Kristen. Angela was between them, and Luke was grateful for the distance. He looked at her once, just to see how she was, and Kristen wiped tears from her eyes but didn’t make contact with him. “Kristen has told us that Willie made her . . . upset in the woods and that you intervened. Is that true?” she asked Luke. Luke nodded, not wanting to say anything else yet. Jimmy was standing behind Kristen, and his eyes lit up as if he finally understood that Luke really was not responsible for Kristen’s misery. “Tell me what happened, Luke.”

Luke composed himself and thought carefully about every word he was going to say. He didn’t think there was much need in going into detail about kicking Willie in the groin. “Well, I was trying to find Willie, and I saw him go into the woods that leads to the creek,” Luke said.

“You know that trail is off limits,” Jimmy said with his arms crossed.

“Yeah, but they didn’t seem to notice the rule when they went to the tree house,” Luke said. It was weird getting rules read to him by two teenagers who were only a couple of years older than him. Then it dawned on him that Angela and Jimmy were the only two older people on site and in charge of the entire camp, and he suddenly felt as if the camp was near the brink of shutting down. If any of the other campers came to the same realization, there would be anarchy set loose for the remainder of their stay. He didn’t want that to happen, and he supposed that from now on, he would try to set a good example and be extra careful to obey all the rules.

“Rules aren’t supposed to be broken because someone else breaks them, Luke,” Jimmy reminded him, and Luke nodded his agreement.

“Anyways, when I got to the tree house, I heard them arguing and decided to step into the middle of it. That’s when Kristen was able to get away,” Luke explained.

“What about you and Willie? You look like you’ve been in a fight,” Jimmy noted.

“Nah, no fight. There’s a lot of brush in the woods, and I got dirty on the trail, that’s all,” Luke said. Jimmy walked around the table and asked Luke to put his hands on the tabletop. Luke did, and three of Luke’s fingers on one hand were bruised and swollen where Kristen had stepped on them. Across the table, she had composed herself a little better, and she was looking as if she were recovering quickly from the incident. Luke supposed she had fought Willie off well enough that no physical harm had actually come to her, at least he hoped that was the case, and she looked at Angela and then at Jimmy.

“I stepped on his fingers on the way down the ladder,” she said. “I didn’t mean to, but I wish you wouldn’t treat Luke like a suspect. He didn’t do anything except help me out of a bad situation, and it could have been worse for me if he hadn’t been there.”

Jimmy kept quiet and looked at Angela for her opinion, and Angela patted Kristen on the hand. “We’re not blaming him for helping you. Jimmy’s just reminding Luke of the rules,” she told Kristen, and then she looked to Jimmy. “Shouldn’t you round up Willie?”

“Sure, sure,” Jimmy said and went on out of the cafeteria, making sure that no one else came inside when he left.

“Can I go back to the dorm now, please?” Kristen asked Angela.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to call your parents?” she asked her, and Kristen shook her head.

“No, I’m okay. Just please keep Willie away,” she said.

“You’re sure. It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Angela reminded her.

“No, really,” she said and got up from her chair. “I didn’t let him do anything to me. I punched him in the nose, and that’s how I got away,” she added.

“Good for you, I’m glad to hear that, Kristen. One thing is for sure: Willie is getting sent home regardless. We won’t allow that kind of behavior,” she reassured her and walked Kristen to the door. Kristen took in a deep breath and cleared the last of the tears from her face, and when the door opened, Kristen’s friends were there waiting to console her but also to hear what had happened. Luke watched, and though this whole situation had been awkward for everyone, he was grateful that he had decided to look for Willie when he had. When Kristen went out the door, the lunch crowd stayed outside, and Angela told them to wait for a few more minutes and she would have everything ready. Luke was still at the table when she shut the door again, and Angela came by his chair and dragged him into the kitchen. “Come on. We’re behind schedule,” she said to him, and she put him to work on the trays of corn. Luke thought it was odd to serve whole ears of corn from a cafeteria, but who was he to say what was on the menu. He was curious and he asked her how that came about.

“One of the local farms donates their seconds to us every year throughout the summer,” Angela explained, and Luke raised his eyebrows. “Seconds aren’t bad. Heck, with corn, you never know what you’re getting until after you shuck it. Most of the time, the food’s good.”

“So none of the ears have wax?” he said to her, and she bit back a smile.

“No, dork, but you do have to look out for the occasional worm or two.”

“That’s good to know,” he said. There was also one other thing that was good to know. Though Angela hadn’t believed him about seeing the Newberry House before, she had apparently forgiven him for telling the story, true or not.

**********

With Jimmy and a posse of other boys out searching the forest for Willie, the lunch crowd was much thinner than usual. Matchstick was there with Sonya and her crowd, and Luke’s soccer team had shown up together with an additional member, Candy Berry. When Luke traded out one of the pizza trays, Jan came up to him and reminded him that they needed another team member for the upcoming game.

“Yeah, we’re one short with Ken suspended. By the way, how’s Horace?” he asked.

“He says that his nose throbs at night when he lays down and that when he sneezes, it feels like his whole face is exploding. Besides that, he says he’ll be ready for the game,” Jan said.

“What if he gets hit in the nose again?”

“He’ll have on a face mask. It looks creepy when he has it on, like one of those serial killers from the movies, but he says he doesn’t want to let us down. What I was going to ask you is: how would you feel if we asked Candy to substitute for Ken?” she asked him. A pizza line was forming, and he needed to take the tray back and bring in another before he faced an angry mob.

“Hold on. I’ll be right back out,” he said as he took the empty tray back and traded it for a full one in the kitchen. Luke thought about how it might go with Candy on the team, and he couldn’t see any reason not to give it a try. The only thing that he worried about was Dick hanging around and screwing with their practice later that afternoon. When he brought the replacement pizza out, he told Jan that he was fine with the choice, that Candy was a better choice than Dick, he supposed.

“Oh, yeah, that goes without saying,” Jan agreed. “Candy is smart and athletic. Dick, on the other hand, well, not so much. Let’s just say we all agree that Candy is the choice for the team.” Jan obviously didn’t want to say anything bad about Dick, and with the crowd of pizza lovers hanging around to listen in on their conversation, he didn’t want to say anything negative either.

“Good, then. I’ll see you later this afternoon,” he said, and Jan rushed off to tell the others the good news. Candy was the strangler’s daughter, but she couldn’t help who her father and brother were. Everyone has at least one black sheep in the family; Luke just hoped that more than one bad berry hadn’t spoiled the bunch.

When lunch ended, Luke took his usual dance with his favorite long-haired mop, and he was swabbing beneath the tables when Jimmy came through the door.

“Did you find him?” Angela asked before he could say anything.

“No, and I think it’s time to call the police,” Jimmy said to her as he scratched his head. He turned to Luke, and he pointed a finger at him. “You’re sure he was in the woods when you last saw him?” Luke stopped mopping and nodded.

“He was at the bottom of the ridge, standing in the mud. Did you follow his tracks?”

“Sure, but they led to the top of the next hill and over the cliff. None of us are crazy enough to go over the edge to look for him, that’s why we need the police.”

“You didn’t see any signs of him in the creek below?” Angela asked, thinking the worst.

“No, I don’t think he fell in the creek. I don’t know what happened to him,” he said and shrugged his shoulders. “That’s why we need help.” Jimmy sat down at an empty table and rubbed his head nervously with one hand. Angela untied her apron, and she hung it up behind the counter. Then she pointed at the mop bucket and told Luke to put the mop in there for Jimmy.

“You can finish up,” she ordered Jimmy, and he looked shocked and hurt. She motioned for Luke to follow her, and he fell in behind.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“To look for Willie,” she answered, and they left Jimmy sitting alone in the cafeteria. Then she popped her head back in the cracked door. “And don’t go calling the police until you’ve heard back from me,” she yelled at him and shut the door behind her. Jimmy looked over at the mop and bucket with disgust, and he sniffed the aromas wafting in the air. His eyes suddenly perked up.

“Is that corn I smell burning?” he said and headed for the kitchen.

Chapter 11

*

Outside, Angela led Luke to her cabin, and she told him to wait for her there. A minute later, she came out with a compass in her hand and a backpack slung over her shoulder.

“What’s that for?” he asked about the backpack. He knew what the compass was for but he hoped she wasn’t planning on camping.

“In case we don’t make it back soon.”

“You know you’re leaving Jimmy in charge of everyone,” he said, and she didn’t give a hint one way or another about how she felt about that. “We might come back and find the camp starved to death.”

“We won’t be gone that long. If we were, look on the bright side, there would be fewer mouths to feed,” she said. He wasn’t used to seeing this sarcastic side of Angela, and he thought he liked it. When she was ready, she went out of her cabin and walked by his side to the entrance of the trail. Upon arriving, they stopped outside the forest, and they both stared at the foreboding woods with reluctance. “I can’t see how Kristen could have gone in there with Willie in the first place. If nature could hang a sign right here, it would say, ‘I am hungry. Please come in and I will swallow you.’” It sounded ridiculous, but Luke didn’t agree or disagree with her on that front. These woods spooked him out, too, but he wasn’t going to give the forest the satisfaction of saying it out loud. His mother had taught him that words carried power, and he didn’t want to transfer any unnecessary authority to the woods. She didn’t seem to notice his silence, and she started for the trail.

“Let’s go,” she said, and they entered together. The gnarled trees hung low, and they had to duck beneath low hanging limbs much more often than Luke could recall from his previous walk. He took her along the way to where he had tangled with Willie, and the signs of their struggle were still fresh. Then they hiked the last hill to the bottom of the tree house, and they carefully glanced over the edge of the cliff to the winding creek below. Angela studied the nailed up boards which wound around the tree, and she shook her head and looked at Luke. “You must have been crazy to climb up there. One wrong step and down the cliff you go.”

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” Luke replied, and they walked back down to the mud in the crease at the bottom of the hill. They hadn’t noticed it before, and maybe that was because they were standing in a different spot, but from this angle they were able to make out the way Willie had hiked off the trail and deeper into the woods. Angela examined the compass in her hand, and she brought out a thick piece of white chalk from her pocket. “You know what this is for?”

“You want me to write a hundred times, ‘I will not get into any more trouble this week’?”

“That’s not a bad idea, Luke,” she said. “But no, not really. This chalk is for marking trees so that we can find our way back.”

“Isn’t that what the state parks do to mark the path on trails?”

“Bingo,” she said and knelt down by Willie’s footprints in the mud. “You see how Willie’s feet were pointed along the trail to make us think that was the way he was going, but you’ll notice that the outside edge of his left footprint is deeper than the right side. It’s shaped as if he rolled all of his weight to the left.” Then she pointed at leaves that were off the trail nearby. “Now, you see how those leaves aren’t dry on top, that they’re kind of wet. Those leaves had been underneath the top layer, and were exposed when someone stepped on them.”

“You’re sure that wasn’t Jimmy’s doing?”

“Jimmy can say what he will about searching for Willie, but he didn’t get this far down the trail. If he had, we would have seen more footprints in the mud. I count three distinct footprints: yours, another boy’s, and a girl’s. If you didn’t go off in the woods that way, and we know Kristen didn’t, then that leaves Willie.” She was right, Luke thought. The more he studied the ground and the leaves, the more obvious the clues became. He agreed, and he let her lead the way. She took the backpack from around her shoulders, and she handed it to him. “Do you mind carrying this for a while? I can track better with a lighter load.” Luke took it and strapped it on his back, and he followed her as she slowly tracked Willie’s footprints through the woods. Every so often, she would mark a tree with the chalk about head high, and then she would continue tracking. They walked beneath the canopy of the spooky woods for the better part of a mile, and the whole time, Luke glanced over his shoulder as if he felt eyes were watching them going through the forest. The land had gradually tilted downward as they tracked Willie, and they soon found themselves pointed toward the creek. The putrid odor he had come across before drifted through the air and filled their sinuses. Luke breathed through his mouth as often as he could, but the odor was strong, and he got hints of it rising from the back of his throat. He was walking listlessly, not paying much attention when he felt Angela’s arm come across his chest to stop him. Without saying a word, she looked him in the eyes and pointed at the trees ahead. The tracks had led them in line with a muddy stream which fed the fetid creek, and crossing the water like great crooked arms were two sourwood trees on either side of the stream. Together, they formed an ‘X’ with the stream running through the center.

“Does ‘X’ mark the spot?” Luke said.

“Apparently. Come on, the tracks lead through there and further on,” Angela replied, and they made their way beneath the sourwoods until they reached an intersection of the small branch and the larger creek. At the edge of the woods and the shore of the creek, they stopped and looked for signs of Willie’s tracks. They went through the mud and disappeared upstream, and Angela lifted one finger to her lips for Luke to be silent. She knelt down behind a bush at the creek’s edge, and she pulled Luke down next to her and whispered in his ear. “I see him upstream,” she said.

“Why are we whispering? Aren’t we trying to find Willie?”

“We’re whispering because I want to see what he’s doing without letting him know that we’re watching,” she explained, and she pointed at a faraway yellow dot on the edge of the creek. “It looks like he’s getting in a kayak or canoe.”

“I don’t understand. Why would he do that?”

“I’ve no idea,” she replied and then lifted her hand for him to be patient. The yellow dot was moving, getting closer, and they stayed hidden behind the bushes while Willie rowed past them and rolled onward toward the Neuse River. When he had finally passed by them, they no longer had a reason to hide, and so they stood up and watched the yellow dot fade into the distance. “Things are strange at camp this year. Why did I agree to help out?” she said rhetorically and shook her head.

“You’re tellin’ me.”

**********

Luke and Angela hiked back along the chalk marks to the trail and then to the campground, and along the way, Luke decided he should tell Angela about the wooden box that he had found in the Newberry Mansion, how it was stolen. At first, she sloughed off the details and appeared irritated with him once again, but he insisted that he couldn’t help feeling that the incidents were related somehow. He was so persistent and believable in the telling of his strange tale that she was silent until they reached the end of the trail and came out of the creepy section of woods. Unexpectedly, that’s when she spun around on him with the same angry eyes he had witnessed before, and she got up into his face.

“You know something, Luke? I’m going to prove you wrong,” she said and latched onto his arm. “Come on and follow me,” she said and pulled him toward the parking lot of the campground.

“Where are we going?”

“You want to prove to me that house is still standing, then come on, let’s go over to the island,” she challenged him.

“But . . . I’m not ready to swim back across the Neuse again,” he answered but kept walking with her towards a different, wider path.

“Why? Are you afraid of being caught in a lie?” she asked as they headed through the grassy road that ended at an old shed in the woods.

“No, not at all,” he replied confidently.

“Then you have nothing to be afraid of,” she told him, and when they reached the old shed, she made her way through the high grass and weeds along the right side of the building to a door. There was a huge padlock on the door, and she dug in her pockets until she found her keys.

“What is this place?”

“It’s a shed.”

“I can see that. What I mean is: why are we here?”

“You’ll see,” she said and after sifting through the numerous keys on the ring, she settled on one in particular and inserted it into the rusty lock. She wiggled it back and forth until she finally released the lock, and she took it off the latch and opened the door. The shed was dark when they stepped inside, and there was no electricity for overhead lights, but when his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw what she was going after, hanging on the wall. It was a canoe. “Help me, please,” she said, and together, they lifted the old wooden canoe from its hangars on the wall and set it on the weeds outside the shed. “What do you think?”

“I think it’s probably full of spiders,” he said as he clipped the webs that were strung across it with his fingers. Angela grabbed a nearby broom and swept the seats clean, and dust flew everywhere.

“Satisfied?”

“Getting close. I think that we need oars and a rope,” he said with a sarcastic grin, and she went back inside and brought out two wooden paddles and an old rope.

“And water?”

“You’re making me do a lot of work to prove that your story is true,” she said with a huff. With the oar in her hand as a guide, she pointed up to a small, forested knoll. “Just beyond those trees and over the hill is the river.”

Luke wished he had known this secret location the other day when he took his swim. He might have saved himself the longer walk through the woods and marshy area on the other trail. Together, they dragged the canoe up over the hill and down to the shoreline. With the canoe sitting in the shallows, they got into the boat and pushed off with the oars. They were in a wider section of the river that flowed more slowly, and Luke could see the island further downstream. Within a few minutes, they had paddled across the river and were pointed in line with the island, and with the current pulling them easily along, they didn’t need to paddle anymore. The current of the water was steady and tugged them downstream, and they simply used the oars to direct the canoe left or right. Within minutes, they had parked the boat at the tip of the island and tied it to a tree with the length of rope that was wound up in the floorboards.

“Now, you’re going to see what I’ve been telling you, Luke. There is no house left standing on this island,” she said, and she started walking through the thick forest that surrounded the rim of the land. She was so set in her belief that he wasn’t going to argue with her. He would simply let the facts bare themselves out. When they reached the clearing, they stood in the tall grass and looked up the hill. At the top, sat Newberry Mansion, dark and foreboding.

“You’re right. I don’t see anything,” Luke said to Angela, but she stood there frozen in the tall grass. At first, he let her stand there staring blankly, but after a few seconds of silence, he waved a hand in front of her face to see if she was okay. Angela looked over at him, and she swallowed as if she were going to try to clear her throat, then looked at the house again.

“I don’t believe it,” she said. “This can’t be happening. I came over to the island a few years ago with my dad, and I know that there was no house here. It had been burned to the ground many years ago like I told you, with only the foundation standing.”

“But it isn’t burned down,” Luke said, no longer needing to plead with her to understand. The evidence was towering before her, as plain as day. She looked at him and then looked at the house, back and forth and back and forth, maybe readjusting her eyes, maybe hoping that the house would disappear. But it didn’t, and she finally reached her hand over to his own and shook it.

“I guess I owe you an apology. I’m sorry for not believing you,” she said. “Do you want to go inside?”

“No, thanks!” Luke said vehemently. “Going in there once was one more time than I ever need to.”

“But this is incredible. I mean, from here, the wood and paint look old and weathered, so it couldn’t have been recently rebuilt. How do you think this happened?” she asked him.

“Magic?” he answered, and she didn’t argue with him. Angela took a step up the hill toward the house, and Luke reached out and took her hand in his own to hold her back. “I’m not going up there, and I really don’t think you should be in any hurry to go either.” She stopped, and for a second, he thought that his advice was sinking in, but then she tugged him a step closer. Luke dug his heels in, and she could see that he meant what he said about staying put. “You do remember what our original mission was: to find Willie and bring him back to camp. Looking at that old house isn’t going to get us any closer to our original goal,” he reminded her. She was ready to say something back when they both heard the sound of footsteps in the distance. Luke ducked down low beneath the high grass, and Angela did likewise. On their knees at the edge of the woods, they gazed in the direction of the movement, and they both were taken back when they saw who was coming up out of the woods and hiking up the hill toward the front porch of the old house.

“That’s Willie,” she whispered.

Luke rubbed his eyes to make sure he was genuinely seeing what he thought he was seeing, and after he pulled his fingers away from his eyelids and blinked a couple of times to refocus, Willie was still climbing up the hill to the mansion. “I don’t believe it,” he said suspiciously. “Why is he here?”

“Huh, well who knows, but we’re back on track then,” she said to him, and his lips involuntarily sneered at the sight of him. “Now are you ready to go check out the house?” If he wanted to appear brave, there wasn’t much Luke could say, and he shrugged his shoulders. Angela reached over and put her hand on Luke’s knee.

“We can do this. It’s just a house, and there’s nothing to be afraid of,” she encouraged him.

“Who says I’m afraid,” he replied. “Lead the way then. I’m not scared,” he told her. They had come to a small compromise, and he was glad for it. From a distance, they waited and observed Willie as he went up the steps to the front porch. Willie then went straight to the door, turned the door knob, and went inside. When the door shut behind him, Angela took that as her cue to move. She stayed bent over beneath the grass for cover, and she made her way up the hill to the edge of the porch with Luke following. She was hunkered down low at the corner, and she raised her head so that her eyes were above the floor of the porch, and she looked through the nearest front window to see if Willie was still in the front room. To their surprise, they heard voices talking on the inside of the house, one was Willie’s and the other was unfamiliar and had a higher pitch.

“Is that a woman’s voice?” Angela whispered, but Luke could not tell if it was or not. From outside of the house, he couldn’t even understand the words that were being said. “Whoever is in there with Willie doesn’t know what he’s been up to today, and they may be in danger.”

“I think we’re in danger,” he told her.

“Still afraid of the house, are you?”

“No, not exactly. Someone in that house was trying to keep me from leaving,” Luke explained. “I don’t think they have to worry about Willie. I think Willie has to worry about them.”

“Let’s go in,” she said to him. “It will only take a few minutes to settle up with Willie if we do it now. Besides, I was listening to the weather forecast on the radio this morning, and Hurricane Abigail is headed our way within the next few hours,” she said as the wind started to build. It was summer on the Atlantic coast, and there was always the possibility of a hurricane or tropical storm coming through from the east, but the timing of the landfall was proving to be problematic. “The last thing we want to do is get caught out here on this tiny island in a tropical storm when the river starts to rise.” There was sound logic to what Angela was proposing, but Luke was still struggling with himself over whether he should go inside the house again. He wouldn’t be alone, but he had a strange feeling that when it came to the Newberry Mansion, the number of people with him wouldn’t matter. On the other hand, he didn’t want his caution to come across as fear, not to Angela. He had grown to appreciate her strength as a friend, and he felt his feelings toward her confusing, as many teenagers do.

“All right, I’ll go with you on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“That when camp is over, we go see a movie to celebrate.”

“Why, Luke. Are you asking me out on a date?” she said with a wide smile, which made her more attractive to him than just a friend. He hesitated for a second before answering.

“Yes, I am asking you out,” he said simply and took her hand. “This time, I’ll lead the way.” Then he stood up straight so that his head and shoulders were clearly visible from the front windows, no longer hiding, and he climbed the front porch steps with her in tow and knocked on the front door. The voices which had been abuzz stopped instantly with the first knock, and they looked at each other quizzically. “Hello, is anyone home?” They waited for a response, but the house stayed deathly quiet within, as if whoever was inside did not want Luke and Angela to know they were home. Luke knocked again, this time more boldly, but still there was no answer.

“Should we open the door?” Angela suggested. “Since it shouldn’t exist, I would think this house is abandoned. It wouldn’t really be breaking any law if it’s abandoned.”

Luke tried turning the doorknob with no success. “You’re sure no one owns this house? I mean, that we’re not trespassing?”

“My dad is in charge of the real estate across the river, and if anyone was going to build on this property, he would have known about it. This house was rebuilt without a meeting of the town council, and that means no permit. You know what’s even weirder is that they were somehow able to build it with antique lumber,” she said as she passed her hands across the hand-planed wooden siding. “The door moldings are hand crafted. What is most amazing is that whoever rebuilt the Newberry Mansion was able to find a carpenter living these days who even knew how to craft this kind of carpentry work.”

“The craftsmanship on the inside is just as amazing,” Luke said, and Angela tried peeking in through the front windows, but the shutters were closed. As he stood there on the front porch again, a creeping fear began to take hold of him. He was resolved that he was going to go through with trying to bring Willie out of the house, but he was going to have to battle his emotions to do it. Not wanting to put off the inevitable any longer, Luke tried the doorknob again, and to his surprise, relief, and regret, the oversized and extravagant door squeaked open. Luke waited but didn’t make a move until Angela placed her hand on the door panels and pushed inward. With the shutters closed, the house was dark inside, and the musty smell of old paper drifted out the front door. The memories of his prior experience inside the house came rushing into his mind, and they instantly froze him with fear. But Luke closed his eyes, took Angela’s hand, and stepped over the threshold.

“Willie?” Angela called, and her voice echoed within the wood-lined great room. No one answered, and they moved further inside. They hadn’t gotten two steps past the front door when the door slammed closed behind them. Angela jumped and squeezed Luke’s hand tight, and Luke gritted his teeth with the pain of her firm grip. Then he hung his head low with his chin on his chest. He didn’t say it, but he thought that he could kick himself for getting into such a snag again, and all of it was because of his pride. It was of no use to torture himself with the mistake of entering the haunted house; what was done was done. Angela let go of his hand, and he knew that she was going try to open the front door. She did, and the door was locked and refused to open.

“It’s stuck,” she said and leaned back with all of her weight on the knob, but it would not budge. After many tries, she gave up, and they stood there in the dark.

“Do you believe me now?” he asked, and she hesitated.

“About the house being haunted? No, that’s impossible,” she replied. “Willie must have snuck out of the house and pulled the door closed, that’s all. WILLIE!! LET US OUT!!” she yelled and banged her fist on the door, and Luke covered his ears as she screamed even louder. “This isn’t funny!” When she stopped yelling and listened for a reply, there was no answer, and the door remained shut. Angela felt her way through the dark, and when she found Luke’s hand, she clasped it tight again. “There is no such thing as a haunted house,” she repeated her personal belief, but the resistance was less emphatic than it had been before.

“Follow me,” Luke said and led her toward the stairs.

“Where are we going?” she asked, and though it was the middle of summer, a cold chill surged through the great room. Luke sped up the pace, and they went up to the second floor balcony and stopped when the chandelier began to glow dimly with candlelight from candles that they had not lit. They had an excellent view of the great room from where they stood, and they both drew in a gasp when they saw the three children playing tag in the room below. Where the area had been empty before, now there was furniture, and the largest of the three children was Willie. He didn’t seem to notice Luke and Angela at all; he simply hid behind a sofa and played with the other boy and girl.

“Has he gone crazy, maybe?”

“Maybe,” she agreed, and she yelled out to Willie again. “Hey! What are you doing here?” she hollered at him, but he did not answer. It was as if he did not see or hear them at all. Angela bit her lip and ran down to the bottom of the stairs, and she went to where Willie was hiding behind the couch. “Hey! Willie!” she said again, and she pulled on his shirt sleeve to get his attention. Luke considered going down there with her, but now that he was in the great room again, he remembered his last experience in the house much too vividly. Willie, for his part, laughed and giggled, completely out of character for the sarcastic bully Luke knew so well, and no matter what Angela did to get his attention, there seemed to be no getting him out of the trance for the moment. Angela looked up to Luke and shrugged her shoulders in bewilderment. The other two children, a boy and a girl, came running around the corner of the sofa where Willie was, and he took off and ran around to the other side. The boy and girl ran full speed at Angela, and she held out her hands, closed her eyes, and braced herself for the collision. If Luke hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, he never would have believed it. The boy and girl slammed into Angela, and they went straight through her and came out the other side as if she was not even there. When she heard their voices pass through and go behind her, Angela opened one eye and checked herself with both hands to see if she was okay. She was, and the children were all on the other side of the room, laughing and playing as if they were all alive and well, never noticing Angela or Luke in the process. She looked at the smile on Willie’s face, and seeing him happy was a definite improvement but a strange sight to her nonetheless. She needed no further convincing by Luke that the house was haunted; there was no other explanation for the children’s ability to pass through her as if she had not even been there. Still, she was caught up in the moment, and she found it difficult to break away from them and climb the stairs to the one person who could see her. She did it anyway and forced herself to walk away, to climb the steps upward, but her head was turned around and looking backward with every step. The scene scared her, confused her, and excited her all at the same time, and she was as enthralled with it as Matchstick would have been with a new video game. Or an old one for that matter. When she reached the landing on the second floor, she took Luke’s hand in her own again, and together, they considered the implications of what their eyes were seeing against what logic was telling them was real.

“The two children with Willie . . . they’re real because we both can see them, but yet they’re not. Does that make any sense?” she asked.

“It kind of does. I didn’t see them when I was here the other time,” Luke answered.

“If you didn’t see them, then who did you see?” she asked, and Luke swallowed a gulp of air. He thought about the question very intently before he replied.

“I didn’t see anyone’s face. An arm came at me from a window in the attic, but I never actually saw anyone. It freaked me out to say the least.”

“And this doesn’t?” she said with humored sarcasm. “Willie is acting like he’s one of them, and he doesn’t seem to recognize either of us. I honestly think we should get out of here and let the authorities handle it.”

“Ironically, that was my vote before we ever decided to step inside the house,” he replied back to her.

“Point taken and duly noted, mop boy,” she said and poked him in the gut with a finger. “How did you get out the other day?” He pointed down the darkened hallway, and her expression lost confidence. “You went through there? You’re kidding me.”

“Would I kid the cook? No way, she might spit in my food, and I don’t need any extra flavoring,” he said to her and pointed with one hand down the hallway. “It’s that way or no way, but whatever you do, don’t go downstairs to the basement. That’s a dead end. Literally.” Hand-in-hand, they started down the hallway. Angela turned around one last time to look at the kids playing in the great room below, and when she turned her head to look where she was walking down the hallway, she missed Willie’s eyes looking right up at her. Luke stopped at the bedroom door where the light had led him into the attic access several days before, and he tried the knob to see if it was still unlocked. He turned it both ways and the door stayed closed against his wishes. He threw himself shoulder-first into the wooden paneled door, and it would not budge.

“You’re sure this is the right way?”

“Yeah,” he said, and he stepped back to measure the distance from the end of the hallway where he had come up from the basement. “This is it,” he said to her and pointed at the gap beneath the door at the floor boards. “You see, there’s no light, meaning no window. That’s the way I remember it,” he explained. She saw that the other doors had no light beneath them either, and if they couldn’t get inside the room, she couldn’t be sure that he was correct. She didn’t doubt his memory, after all, he had discovered the house and proved her wrong altogether.

“Is it worth trying another door?” she asked, not giving up, but clearly looking for other options than breaking through a locked, solid wood door. If they were going to do that, they should just bust out the front door of the great room.

“Anything is worth trying to get out of here.” Together they tried all of the other doors in the hallway, and every one of them was locked from the inside with no key conveniently left in the latch. Then they walked to the end of the hallway and stopped where the stairs led into the basement. “I’m not going down that way. I’d just as soon take my chances with the front door and Willie and the imaginary ghost kids.” The stairwell had no windows, and without a candle, they would have to feel their way around. Angela took his hand again, and she pulled him toward the stairs.

“Come on, big guy. There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she reassured him, but he didn’t budge.

“I’m not kidding. You don’t know what it’s like down there. There’s spiders and creepy stuff,” he said, and he tried to let go of her hand, but she wouldn’t release it.

“Fine. I’ll stay here with you tonight. I’ll sleep on the sofa and you can sleep on the floor in the great room with the ghosty kiddies.” He knew she was trying to appeal to the common sense side of him then, and he rolled his eyes.

“All right. But I hate spiders!” he told her, and a slight grin came across her face. She led him down through the dark of the first set of stairs, and they came out on the first floor hallway. Luke had not ventured along the hallway on this level, but he knew the basement was a dead end and not worth the trouble. “Now what?” he asked, and they looked down the hallway for any signs of an exit.

“This hallway has to go somewhere. It can’t just end here, can it?”

“Nothing would surprise me with this house,” he replied, and he felt a tingle go up his spine as the hardwood floor creaked beneath every footstep they made. The tingle went through his arm and into the hand she was holding, and the sensation must have passed up her arm as well because she quickly looked at him with a bit of fright in her eyes.

“Did you feel that tingle?” she asked, and he quietly nodded. They passed three more locked doors as they traveled down the corridor, and all sense of hope had vaporized until they reached a T-junction where another hallway intersected the first. They stopped at the intersection and turned to peer with wonder down the new hallway. There were swirls of red, green, and yellow vapors in the air, and at the end of the long hallway, there was sunlight gushing out of a full-length window, tall enough for a person to open and climb out of. Luke leaned over and pulled Angela closer so that he could whisper in her ear.

“There’s only one more door left in the corner of this hallway, and after that, there is no other way to go. I have to admit this house is extremely screwed up,” Luke said to her, and she agreed. “Should we go to the light?” he asked. She let go of his hand and went to the last door, only to find that it was locked as tight as the others. When she returned, she put one fist in an open palm and held it out for him to see.

“Let rock, paper, scissors decide. If I win, we go back upstairs and find another way out. If you win, we go through the rainbow fog,” she bargained.

“We’re losing daylight, and trust me, you don’t want to be in here after sunset.”

“Why? What happens then?”

“The whole creepy house will be dark, and we’ll be in here, all alone with the ghosts of wars past.”

“Oh, I thought there was something else you knew about that you weren’t telling me.”

“No, that’s enough, isn’t it?” he asked, and she agreed with a nod. They played rock, paper, scissors, and after a best of five, Luke won 3-2. “The rainbow fog it is,” he said, and he led her down the new hallway, which appeared much longer than the footprint of the house. They reached the first traces of the yellow fog, and they stopped before going into it. “Isn’t mustard gas supposed to be yellow in color?”

“You’re asking me about poisonous gas? I don’t know, but do you think we should turn back?” Luke sniffed the air around him, and he shook his head.

“No, we shouldn’t turn back unless poisonous gas smells like fresh bread. The rules of rock, paper, scissors dictate that we must go on,” he said dryly and took two more deep breaths of the delicious smelling yellow vapor. Angela couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, but she figured he was, and she followed him into the soupy mist. They both held their breath for a time, but the further they walked along toward the hazy light at the far side of the endless corridor, the more they needed to breathe. It was pointless to hold their breath for that long of a time; the end was so far away, it might take them many minutes to reach it, even at a full jog. They breathed out and back in at almost the same time, and the smell of freshly baked bread filled their sinuses and gave them a comfort not felt since they had arrived on the island. With the fog, it had been hard to see anything down the hallway, but on their left, they came upon the first room in the long line of the hallway, and the door to the room was open. They stopped to look inside, and light opened up within the room, revealing a recently used kitchen. Curious, they stepped inside and were surprised to find an old wood-fired brick stove from which an orange glow of warmth was radiating. They stared at the stove and then they looked at each other, puzzled by the mysterious inner workings of a long-dead kitchen. With a nearby towel to protect them from the heat, they opened the door to one of the enclosed chambers. Warmth and orange light poured out of the stove, and there were three loaves of bread inside, perfectly spaced and rising from the yeast in the dough.

“It smells wonderful, but I don’t understand how any of this is even possible. The outside of the house is much too small to contain all of these rooms, not to mention the fact that people don’t make bread this way anymore. It’s completely unconventional,” Angela said to Luke. She was very familiar with the workings of a modern kitchen, but the cooking utensils that were present in this kitchen all appeared to be one-of-a-kind handmade instruments. She picked up a nearby rolling pin, and initials were carved into the handle: NS. “Who do you suppose NS was?”

Luke shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, but the initials don’t end with an ‘N’ so they can’t be a Newberry’s. Maybe it’s the maid’s initials.”

“It could be,” she said and placed the rolling pin down and looked at all of the other items hanging from the nails in the boards that ran above the counters. “The Newberry family was employed by the British Empire, and this is a large home to maintain. Was a large home to maintain, I should say. It would make sense that they had a maid to help out with the chores.”

“Or to do all of their chores,” he said.

“Not necessarily. There were no washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, running water, or any of the other amenities we take for granted. The maid probably stayed busy preparing food and hand washing garments, and in exchange, she was paid a fee and provided a place to stay. But she would have a hard time getting a day off though.”

“I’m having that same trouble myself more recently,” Luke said, and Angela slugged him in the arm.

“This is no vacation for me either, you know,” she said.

“Hey, now. No offense. I was just making light of the situation,” he said and licked his lips. “Do you think we could get some of that bread?” There was a fresh loaf sitting on the counter, and the crust was a perfect golden brown.

“I don’t see why not,” she said. “What are they going to do with us if they catch us? Lock us in the house?”

“The basement maybe,” he said as she sliced a piece off for them. “How do you know it isn’t poisonous?”

She held up a piece under his nose for him to smell. “Does this seem poisonous?” she asked rhetorically and took a bite herself. She savored the taste with a smile and then cut a slice for each of them. When she offered a slice up to him, he accepted it warily, and he waited for her to swallow her bite first. She wolfed down her whole slice and went to cut another. Satisfied that there was nothing wrong with the bread, he bit down into his slice. The taste was unbelievable, like nothing he had ever had before, and he soon found that his piece was all gone and that he craved more. Angela had already finished her second piece when he reached for the knife to slice off another hunk, and before he could pick up the blade, she snatched it off the counter and began to cut another larger piece for herself. “This is too good,” she said as her lips smacked with the moist and freshly baked bread.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were keeping this all to yourself,” he commented before she put the knife back down. The knife was still in her hand and almost placed on the counter when he uttered those words, and he saw her fingers tighten around the handle of the blade. Instead of letting go, she kept it within her grasp.

“Do you want some more bread?” she asked, but she used the cutting knife to rake the last section of the shrinking loaf along the surface of the counter toward herself. “It’s really, really good, and there’s barely enough for me,” she added, and though Luke was a novice when it came to relationships with girls, he could sense that something within Angela’s mood had changed. She was no longer acting like herself; her personality had changed perceptibly, and she was giving off an air of greed which he had never noticed in her before. His stomach rumbled, and he looked down at the remainder of the loaf with strained hunger, wondering if he was going to get another piece of the exquisite bread.

“I would like another piece, Angela, if you would be so kind,” he spoke in a lowered, more intense tone of voice. The words read like a polite request, but the tone of his voice implied a command. The pretty smile which had graced Angela’s face before had vanished, and in its place, a cruel frown occupied residence.

“No bread for you. You’ve barely done your chores, as I see it. Be gone with you from this kitchen,” she snapped at him with all the civility of a coiled copperhead. Luke was utterly dumbfounded by her words, her tone, and the way she pointed to the exit through the yellow mist. He was also so overcome with hunger that he was unwilling to leave the kitchen as she demanded.

“You’ve had enough of the loaf for yourself, miss, and I’ll have you know that I’d do more chores on a full stomach than on an empty one,” he reminded her, and then he wondered exactly what he was saying and why he was saying it. Yes, it was true that he was hungry, but what chores was he referring to? This wasn’t his home, and this wasn’t her home either. Her eyebrows raised as if she had come to the same conclusion as he had, that neither one of them was making any sense, and they looked at each other for wisdom where there was none. “I’m sorry I snapped at you,” he said, and there was a gleam of recognition in her eyes, yet she nodded silently. The sharp, discontented, and some might say nasty side to her dissipated, and she seemed to glide over to her old self again. When the buttery yellow look in her eyes had reverted to the white again, she blinked her eyes repeatedly to clear the milky matter from her eyelashes. He couldn’t tell if it was a trick or whether she really was herself again, but he was willing to take a chance that it was the Angela he knew.

“Me, too,” she finally replied in her old voice, and then she held out the last bit of loaf left for him to take. When he reached for it, her eyebrows furrowed again, and she jerked the bread to her chest like a running back would cradle a football. “NO!” the other voice inside her screamed at him, and the bread knife swung at him viciously. The edges of the serrated knife went wide and missed its target thankfully, and Luke jumped back to watch the conflict going on inside of Angela’s mind. He could see it in her face and sense it in the air. Whether it was the yellow vapor or the tasty bread or the foul presence that hovered in the house, he could not decipher the source, but they were both being affected in horrible ways. If they didn’t get out of the kitchen, he felt that they would die here, possibly at their own hands. He couldn’t drag her away while she had the knife, and there were way too many other cutting utensils available in the kitchen, leaving him with very little choice about how to proceed. Despite the lust for the bread, he had regained a majority of control over his own senses, and he could leave the kitchen by himself. And he was certain she was going to make him leave regardless, but what would Angela’s fate be if he abandoned her? He couldn’t leave her here in this haunted house with Willie. A flood of doubts bolted through his mind, and he feared all was lost.

Then a desperate idea popped into his head. A risky one, but one which he believed would work. There was one sure way of getting her to leave. She chased him around the baker’s island of cabinets, and he grabbed a towel from the basin as he rounded the rectangle. When he came back by the oven, he pulled the door open and saw the other loaves of bread rising to a golden glory. Angela’s hand and the bread knife came over his shoulder and smacked the oven door just above his fingers, nearly missing his pinky finger. He turned around and she swung again, and he dodged and caught her wrist with the hot towel, wrapped it around her arm and twisted. The towel wasn’t hot enough to burn her, but she screamed with the shock from the heat and dropped the hot knife to the floor; then she hit him in the back of the head with the last of the precious loaf. The bread was soft and didn’t hurt, and when she tried to hit him again, he let go of the hot towel and snatched the bashed loaf with both hands. Then he ran out of the room and into the hallway with her following close behind. She was an emotional mess, and she had snatched an iron skillet to belt him with on her way out of the kitchen. Luke thought he was going to find out what a flat iron steak felt like, but at least she didn’t have a sharp knife in her hand. The skillet would hurt, but it was heavier and bulkier, harder to use in close, tight spots. He intended to stay as many feet ahead of her as he could so that she couldn’t hit him with it, but if all else failed, he would get in her personal space where she couldn’t swing the skillet for a homerun. All she could do then was bunt him with it. The hallway seemed to be never ending, and he ran and ran toward the tiny light at the far end, which never seemed to get any closer no matter how much time passed by. Angela was behind him and must have swung the pan because he felt the wind as the flat side whirred by his head, narrowly missing his skull, and he ran all the harder without looking back.

“Angela!” he yelled hastily. “Angela!” Nothing came back from the Angela he knew, only the guttural yells for each of the swings. The yellow gas filled his lungs and his insides, and he felt the cramps of overexertion begin to clamp on the sides of his ribs. It wouldn’t be long before he would have to slow his pace, and he dreaded the battle he was going to have to fight when she caught up to him. He turned his head slightly to see where she was in his peripheral vision, and when he did, he saw an edge of black come at his head, and he only got his hand up just in time to pad the impact of the skillet to his head. The skillet struck his hand, and his knuckles smashed his face with a cruel blow. Luckily for him, the pan slipped out of her hands and fell to the floor, and Luke blundered into the paneled walls but kept running nonetheless. Literally, he almost had not seen that coming, and he had only been saved by his hand. His head ached, and his palm was smashed, but adrenaline had kicked in and he was running even harder. The side stitch in his ribs seemed the least of his worries then, and he looked back to see Angela picking up the skillet from the floor and laughing hysterically in the jaundiced fog. Whatever nightmare he found himself in, he wished he could find his way out. His vision had doubled with the pain of the skillet to the head, but he could see that the yellow fog was turning to a garden green not too many yards ahead. He opened his sore jaws and stuffed the last piece of bread into his mouth as he ran. He still had a lust for the taste, and he was hoping to swallow it down before she caught him, and he chewed up the last of the luscious food as the yellow vapors thinned. He swallowed and a gong rung in his skull, shaking his teeth, and he saw the lines and grains of the hardwood floor rushing at his face. He skidded with a thud, and the iron skillet skipped over his head and bounced between walls. Luke’s face lay flat against the cold, dusty floor, and his thoughts no longer came straight and narrow. Nothing made sense; all he could think were two things: ‘bread’ and ‘run’. He rolled over onto his back and squirmed in pain and exhaustion. An unhappy Angela knelt on her knees by his head, and her face rolled in circles around his eyelids, in focus and out of focus. Her lips were moving, but it sounded like she was yelling at him through a pipe.

“Bread . . . kitchen . . . kill it and skillet . . .” was all he could hear, though her lips mouthed many other words. He saw her make a fist that circled around the rims of his vision, and soon, the fist was falling at his head with extreme prejudice. He wanted to move his arms, but he couldn’t. If this weird place was the fourth dimension, then the iron skillet had gonged his noggin into a fifth dimension, and he was helpless. The fist came down on his lips, and he tasted blood. Her fist was like a jackhammer, and it went back up and was on its way down when a black circle eclipsed his vision and blocked his view. The next hit didn’t come, but he heard a gong followed by ancient curses about wagon wheels and road berrys. Luke saw the black eclipse go up with a gong, and the cursing and swearing ended abruptly with a grunt. With the luck he was having, he expected the black circle to come down against his head, but it didn’t. He was stunned and couldn’t turn his head well enough to see, but the circle disappeared, and strong calloused hands enclosed his armpits. He was dragged along the floor from the end of the yellow vapor and into the green. His head was gently laid down in soft, cold earth, and he closed his eyes and blacked out.

**********

When he woke up, he wasn’t entirely sure how long he had been out, but his vision was no longer blurred. Above him, he saw leaves, trees, and a hazy grey sky through the green mist. The cool of the earth was on his spine and the back of his skull, and he carefully craned his head to see Angela lying beside him beneath the greenery. Her eyelids fluttered, and when they opened, she looked at him through clear white eyes. All traces of yellow had been drained away, leaving the girl he once knew at his side. He sincerely hoped.

“Where are we?” she said and pushed herself up onto her palms. “This looks like a garden of sorts. Elizabethan, possibly.” Luke sat up on one elbow and touched his lips. They were swollen and puffy, but when he pulled his hand away and examined his fingers for red, there was no bleeding there anymore.

“I’m glad you’re a garden expert now,” he slurred sarcastically through engorged lips. “It wasn’t long ago that you were a proficient baker. And down right dangerous with a skillet,” he added.

“I’m so sorry about that,” she apologized profusely and reached out to touch his aching lips. He drew away protectively, and she frowned. “I couldn’t help myself. I could see everything happening, and I didn’t want it to happen, but my body and actions were out of my own control.”

“No, really,” he replied and sat up on his knees beside her. “With a swing like that, did you ever consider playing softball?”

Her frown edged over to a grin, and when she combed back her blond hair with her hands, he saw a welt of her own in the center of her forehead. “I really am sorry,” she said again, and he nodded gently. It hurt too much to do anything else, and he felt all over his face for the sore spots. There wasn’t much of his face that wasn’t swollen or hurting.

“It’s all right, I suppose. I don’t think I have a concussion, but moving fast hurts like the dickens.”

“I’m sorry,” she said again. She had that look of worried regret, and he believed her finally.

“It’s okay. You have a unicorn horn of your own growing out of your head,” he said and pointed at her swelled forehead. “Out of the frying pan, I suppose,” he continued and got to his feet. He looked through the yellow vapors of the hallway from where they had come, and he watched as the swirls of fog took on the form of a hefty housemaid. She grinned and clapped her hands together with a laugh. Then, as suddenly as the figure had formed, the shape of the ghostly lady of the house dissolved, leaving the last outlines of her yellowing teeth to fade into obscurity in the churning gases. Luke held his head steady in his hands, and he carefully turned his body one hundred eighty degrees. His vision and balance hated him for doing so, but when the touch of vertigo eased, he saw the bright windows of the door at the end of the hallway. They had gotten somewhere, but they weren’t out of the woods yet. Literally. “Where do you think we are?”

Angela glimpsed around, and she shrugged her shoulders that she wasn’t sure. “This could be the garden. The Newberry’s must have had a gardener, don’t you think?”

“You’re worrying me,” he answered, and she turned her head questioningly.

“How do you mean?”

“You’re talking as if you’ve bought into the haunted house idea, but I’d like to think that it was all a bad dream.”

“It’s bad, all right, but it’s definitely not a dream,” she said as she swirled her hands through the green fog which layered the air. She stood up with him, and they found that they were inside a maze of roses. The maze was easy enough to see from above, but the bushes were tall, thick, and thorny. The roses were a beautiful white and they were in full bloom. Angela reached out and touched the bushes, and her finger was pricked by a particularly nasty thorn. She jerked her hand back and stuck her finger in her mouth. “These thorns are real,” she said and held her pricked finger up in front of her face. A fat droplet of blood congealed on the tip, and she put pressure on the end of her finger to try to stop the bleeding.

“Look,” Luke said, and she gazed at the bush which she had touched and cut her finger on. The roses turned from a gorgeous white to a deep, blood red before their eyes. They looked at each other in worried stares. “We had best be careful,” he said, and he took her free hand and edged around the first line of bushes. They had no more gotten around the first batch when the red rose bush sprouted taller and shook itself free from the ground. Luke backed into another bush and pricked his own finger in the process, and as blood dripped to feed the hungry ground, the offending rose bush grew taller, thicker, and pulled its roots from the deadened earth. He stuck his finger in his mouth and sucked on it to stop the bleeding, and he pushed Angela further along the maze while the red roses flexed their limbs. Two roses on each of the altered bushes remained white, and these white roses grew together on a bushy head, forming what looked like white eyes with dark pupils and green, leafy eyelids.

“I think we should hurry now,” Angela uttered worriedly, and she didn’t wait to see whether Luke was with her or not. She just yanked him around the corner of the next turn, and they were off into another run. Luke’s head was killing him, and he was having trouble keeping up, and more often than not, Angela was dragging him through the maze of bushes. At one of the quick turns in a short bend, Luke craned his head around to see the rose bush running with roots for feet and white roses for eyes. It was both unbelievable and ridiculous to watch, he thought, and he suddenly felt like he had been transported to the set of a low budget science fiction movie.

“Do you see that thing back there?” he asked her as they rounded another corner.

“Yeah, I do. What have you gotten us into, Luke?”

“Me?! I was the one that wanted to stay outside of the house, if you’ll recall. This was your idea,” he replied, and she pulled his hand so hard that his leg brushed another rose bush. “Hey! That hurt!” he snapped.

“Sorry,” she said, but she didn’t sound very sorry when she said it. It was the kind of apology that went like ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to run over that possum in the road at 85 miles an hour. Would you like some marsupial soup?’ or ‘Sorry, I didn’t know you would feel the square needle when it went in. Should I take it out?’ Luke looked down at his leg, and it was bleeding where the thorn had pricked him through his pants, and when they rounded the next corner, a new rose bush warrior had joined the pack. Three pricks in all were chasing them.

“Great, we’ve got another one, and I don’t see an end to this maze,” he said, and they turned it up a notch and ran faster at the straightaways, only Luke was having trouble cutting the angles without hitting more bushes and making more rose warriors.

“Just . . . keep . . . running,” she said, pronouncing one word with each breath. Round and round they went, through the maze of rose bushes, and at one point, they seemed to be leaving the rose warriors behind in their dust. It was a bizarre race that they were running, and they somehow managed to avoid getting cut by any more thorns for a little while, but eventually, they both began to grow weary from the frantic side-to-side running and stopping and hopping and dodging. No matter how fast or how slow they went, the light at the end of the hallway never seemed to get any closer, and there seemed to be no clear end to the green vapor section of the maze that would lead into the final leg of red vapors in the hallway. They were able, however, to grow enough of a gap between themselves and the red rose warriors to allow themselves a short, temporary break. Angela was the first to stop, and Luke ran into her backside when she did, nearly sending them both tumbling into the white rose bushes at the end of a straightaway. Angela fell forward with the impact, but Luke grabbed her by the waist to break her fall in time before she face planted into the nearest bush. “Thanks!” she said with a white rose a few inches from her face, and she backed up into his arms.

“Are you okay?” he said while catching his breath, and he held her steady.

“Yeah. Yeah, I think so,” she said, and when she caught her breath, he let go of her, and she turned to face him. “I just needed a break. Just for a few seconds,” she huffed. Then the rose bushes around them suddenly sprouted higher, past the tops of their heads, and within a few short seconds, they were surrounded by green walls with white flowers and red thorns.

“We’re never getting out of here,” he said. “To top it all off, we can’t see which direction the hallway leads out of the maze.”

“Perhaps we should let the bushes get us,” she replied, and no sooner had she spoke those words, the first of the red rose warriors came around the corner and skidded to a halt. With tangles for arms, the warrior stretched out its limbs and enveloped them within a cage of thorns, and the two white roses which had been its eyes found their way within the cage, perched high in the leafy ceiling. The white petals blinked, and the golden tipped anthers began to glow as the warrior watched its captured victims within the thorny cell. Angela crowded in close to Luke, and instinctively, he put his arms around her to shield her from the thorns. This was not at all how things were supposed to turn out for them. They had set out to find Willie and hopefully bring him back to camp, simple as that. Instead, Willie was playing hide and seek with two ghosts, and they had been captured by an animated rose bush, perhaps never to see the light of day again. Luke looked the rose bush in the eyes and was drawn in by the magic of the two white flowers, and they reminded him of something familiar. Somewhere that he had been not that long ago. It was a selfish memory of a time when he and his mother had taken a day trip to the arboretum in Raleigh. She had had to bribe him to get him to go, and he had vowed that the only way he was going to go look at flowers with her was if it was on a weekday so he could play hooky from school.

“I can’t keep you out of your classes. Your father will have a fit,” Norma explained to her son. “And then he’ll ground you for the next month. You don’t want that, do you?”

“Well, if you’re asking what I want then, I don’t want to go flower picking,” he told her with crossed arms. “That’s for girls.”

“I’m a girl,” his mother said to him with big, sad eyes, and Luke rolled his own. “Don’t I get some attention now and then?” She had a good point there, and he knew it. His mom had always taken him to the mall, to the arcade, to the comic book shop, to the movies, and on and on, and she hardly ever asked anything in return from him, save this one request. He didn’t know that it would be his last chance to go with her to the arboretum, or he would have tried to show more interest than he had. His stepdad was always there at the bus stop to see him off in the morning, and Luke knew he would not be able to fake getting on the bus. It would have to be for real, but his mother had agreed to meet him at the principal’s office as soon as he got off the bus. Supposedly, she was there to pick him up for a doctor’s appointment which they had forgotten about before they were able to stop him from getting on the bus that morning. Luke wasn’t a problem child, and the principal had let him go with his mother home early with the promise of a doctor’s note the next day.

“How are you goin’ to pull that off, momma? Aunt Regina?” he asked, and she nodded. Luke may have been an introvert by nature, but Norma hadn’t raised him to be an idiot. Her own Aunt Regina, Dr. Regina Jones of Jones & Swaggart Pediatrics to her patients, was a local physician and occasional author of school notes. If Norma plead her case properly to her aunt that day, Doc Jones would sign an appointment note for Luke and all would be swell in the dell.

“What do you want to go look at a bunch of flowers for, momma?”

Norma thought about the question for a little while as she drove down the road toward Raleigh, and she finally gave him an answer. “Tell me something, Luke. Is your father handsome?”

Luke gave her a frown, and said, “No, he’s a guy.”

“Right you are. Now, do you think you’re handsome?”

Luke blushed and said, “No.”

“Exactly. A lady can only spend so much time around hairy, sweaty, and gassy creatures before she needs to spend some time looking at pretty things that are full of color for a change. That’s why I need to go to the arboretum.”

“You don’t need me for that, then.”

“No, I don’t. But I believe that if you go with me often enough, you might get seeds in your head and sprout pretty flowers amongst all that dirt behind your ears.”

“I don’t know about seeds, but I made some good fertilizer this morning.”

“Oh, Luke, that’s awful.”

“That’s what I said before I flushed it,” he told her, and his mother tried not to reward the crude joke by laughing, but the devious part of her smiled anyway. She was breaking him out of school to look at flowers; the least she could do was put up with his bad jokes. When they arrived at the arboretum, his mother paid for the tickets, and they went through the gates. There was a well-worn trail to follow which split in two, and there were trees in both directions. They followed the path and passed through an orchard of fruit trees where they found a garden maze between the two paths.

“Not that I want to look at flowers, mom, but I don’t see any around here,” Luke admitted. She pointed to the maze of boxwoods which wound through to a high wall of holly bushes that seemed to form a box in the center of the maze.

“Inside the hollies. That’s where we’ll find the flower garden,” she explained, and they passed through the maze and entered the outdoor room created by the barrier of holly. Between the four walls, there was a highly maintained rose garden, with roses of all varieties of colors and sizes. Norma bent down to sniff one of the large white roses, and when she came back up, she clasped her forehead suddenly and began to rub it with her fingers. While the white rose survived the experience, his mother did not look well.

“Mom, are you all right?” he asked as she rubbed her forehead.

“Yes, yes. I’m okay,” she said, but she didn’t look okay. Her face had turned pale, and she closed her eyes. “It’s another one of those headaches that I get sometimes,” she told him. “I’ll be fine when my head clears.” With one hand in her purse and her eyes still closed, she jingled around the many items inside the bag until she found a bottle of aspirin. She took it out of the purse, and the bottle made no rattling sounds as she tried to open it because it was empty. Then before she could get the cap off, Norma fainted without a word and fell to the ground where she lay at the foot of the rose bush, twitching with a seizure. The white rose bush sat haughtily in the garden as it stood over his mother’s frail form.

Luke shook his head to make the imagery from the memory go away. He had loved his mother very much, and it wasn’t a memory that he wanted to think on right that minute, but he did gaze up at the two white roses of the cage with a strong hurt in his eyes.

“Luke, we need to get out of here,” he heard Angela saying, almost from a distance, though she was standing right beside him. The white rose eyes flashed brightly and then went dim, and Luke stood up on his tiptoes so he could reach them, and he yanked both of the white roses from their stems. When he did, the bushy cage that held them captive began to wither and fade from around them. He held the soft petals in his hands, and he let them fall to the ground at his feet. Then he felt a tug at his elbow, and Angela’s voice was telling him that they needed to get out, to run. He stared at the white petals, and he knew that it was too late to do anything about what had happened to his mother, that he was helpless to change the past. Angela gently placed her hand under his chin, and she lifted it so that his eyes met hers. Her lips were saying that they should run, and he didn’t question it any longer. He took her hand, and he ran as hard as he could go from the crushed white petals of his past. They rounded many more corners of the maze, and the yellow fog shifted to the red when they skirted the last wall of the maze and found themselves standing on the dusty hardwood floors of the Newberry mansion’s long hallway.

“This house is too creepy,” Luke told her through swollen lips, and she didn’t argue. They kept walking down the corridor, and they were grateful that the bright opening at the far end was much closer than it had been before the maze.

“We’re almost there,” she said.

“It can’t come soon enough,” he added, and she squeezed his hand and looked at him closely. Then she gave him an unexpected hug and a pat on the back. He blushed as she stepped away.

“What was that for?” he asked.

“I’m so sorry for hitting you before. That isn’t like me, and I don’t want you to think that’s the way I act,” she reassured him. “And I wanted to say that I’m sorry about your mom. I heard about what happened to her from the other counselors,” she explained.

“Great. They were whispering about me where I couldn’t hear them.”

“No, no, Luke. It’s not like that at all. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry and that even though she’s gone, you’re not alone. Okay?” she said, and when he looked in her eyes, he could tell that she was sincere. That she cared.

“Okay.”

The moment of peace didn’t last very long though. The maze behind them disappeared, along with the rose warriors, and they walked carefully as they went deeper into the red. They were tired and saw no need to rush through the hallway into another trap. They were still holding hands, and a tingle of goose bumps ran up Luke’s arm with her touch. Throughout all of these strange experiences, he had grown closer to Angela, and he was glad that he had come to camp this summer. He took a secret glance at her so she wouldn’t notice, and even on this crazy adventure through a haunted house, with her hair unkempt and her clothes dirty, he found her to be an attractive young lady. She was older than him, of course, but there was nothing he could do about that. He was a teenager, and even in the thick of danger, he couldn’t suppress his hormones.

But this was not the time for romance however, and he forced himself to break his sideways glance. Instead, he aimed his eyes at the end of the hallway, and he thought that there was only one thing that mattered right then anyways, and that was a safe escape. The Newberry Mansion was trying to kill them, and they had one more period of fog to go through before they would get to the door. When they did, he had no doubt that the house would have some other surprise for them, another challenge to overcome just to get out of the door and outside the old home. The red fog swirled dangerously around his face, and he thought to himself, one fog at a time.

He pulled her close to him and whispered in her ear. “I don’t know what’s in store, but it might make the most sense if we tread lightly down the hallway as far as we can go.”

“The yellow and green fogs were bad enough, but you can almost cut the air here with a knife. I can taste iron on my tongue, and it reminds me too much of blood,” she suggested, and he licked his own lips. Sure enough, she was right. He tasted the metallic flavor on his tongue, and it made him wince. The crimson gas was so thick that he swore he could drown in it, and he clasped Angela’s hand tighter in his own.

“Come on. Let’s keep moving,” he urged her onward, and they swam through the dense vapors, sometimes coughing through the bloody mist. Luke was in the lead when they reached a break in the mists, and he stopped abruptly for a moment to enjoy the bloodless air. Before them, swirls of red began to take form, swatches and strands of crimson weaved themselves together in the shape of a long, hooded dress robe. The sleeves of the oversized robe lifted and slid down the silky white arms which had been covered beneath, and the hands and fingers came up to the hood and peeled back the cowl to reveal the curly red hair and frail white skin of the lady beneath. Her lips were dry and pale, scaly might be a better word, but they stretched wide and returned a smile of welcome nonetheless.

“Greetings,” the lady in the red robe offered, and she emerged from the red mists and stood humbly with both hands clasped, her fingers intertwined with each other. “Welcome to the Newberry Mansion, ever the humble servants of the King. May I be of assistance?” she asked. Angela and Luke both turned their heads and looked at each other at the same time, uncertainty written on their expressions. Luke shrugged and circled back to the lady in red, and he knelt down on one knee, a humble gesture he had witnessed on a late night King Arthur movie.

“Oh, Lady of Newberry,” he said, and then paused as if he was uncertain of what to say next. What did he want to say next? He didn’t know, and the length of the pause was growing too long so he said, “We come in peace.” Angela nudged his leg with the side of her shoe, and she gave him a questioning look which seemed to say, ‘What the hell was that?’ Luke frowned and raised his shoulders as if to tell her he didn’t know, it was just the first thing to come to mind. If it worked for aliens in the movies, it should work for ghosts, or whatever this was. Then he realized, no one had ever met an alien and therefore it had never worked for aliens. Too late now.

“If you come in peace, pray tell, then why have you entered my home without permission?”

“Ma’am, if I may,” Angela said, but she did not kneel. The red haired lady’s eyes cut over to Angela, and her eyes seem to shrink to slits as she spoke. “We were following our friend Willie so that we could bring him back to camp. He’s downstairs right now, playing with two younger . . . children, about yea high,” she said with her hand raised to indicate their height.

“I do not know anyone named Willie,” the lady in red interrupted.

“He’s downstairs right now. I’ll show you,” Angela said, and then she realized she would have to go through the green and yellow mists to get there. “Well, maybe if you’ll take my word for it, he is in the great room at the entrance, playing hide and seek.”

The lady in red frowned and turned her gaze over to Luke, who was still on one knee. “You make claims that you are searching for a friend, and yet you show no official warrant to validate your entry into my home. Some would call such behavior a home invasion.”

“I see what you are saying, my lady. We would like more than anything to leave, if it pleases you,” Luke replied, and he made no mention of Willie or the children from that point forward. The lady in red rested her head on the steeple of her hands, and she considered his request. Dead to rights, perhaps a poor choice of words, but Angela thought they were caught that way by this mysterious lady, and she kept quiet as she waited to hear her reply to Luke. The lady of the red mists stepped forward on unseen feet, and she stopped when she stood before Luke, seeming to ignore Angela altogether. She looked down her nose at Luke on his yielded knee, and he could not read her expression, whether she was angry or merciful.

“While I have you here, perhaps you may answer a question for me. I, too, am missing something, not a person, but an object. A wooden box which I hold dear.” Her eyes opened wide and burned with passion. “You would not happen to know where this box is? Hmm?”

Luke swallowed a gulp. He was not greatly skilled in the art of deception, but the box had been stolen from him. “I do not know where your wooden box is, my lady. Scouts honor,” he said and held up the hand sign. He was telling the truth.

“If you come across it then please bring it to me,” she said to him, and the emphasis on ‘bring’ was well understood. “You may go.” She backed away as her robe glided toward the thick red mists of the fog, and a door suddenly appeared before him. He stood and went to take Angela’s hand, and he saw that her hands were tied behind her back, swirled in red cloth.

“What about Angela?” he asked.

“My children love to play hide and seek, as all children do,” she said and snapped her pale freckled fingers. Angela faded into the twisting red mists and disappeared. “Seek the contents of the box and return it to me. Only then may you find your friends where I have hidden them, Luke Green.” Then the lady in red boiled away, and the white of her skin and the red of her robes meandered into the crimson fog.

“I was telling the truth. I don’t know where it is,” he said to the mists.

“Do not waste time, Luke. I will only hold the door open for two more days, and if the box has not been returned, I will keep the boy and girl as payment for the children to play hide and seek with,” the distant voice echoed in the hallway. Luke took hold of the door knob, and he opened the door to the outside of the mansion. The waning sunlight of late afternoon immersed the high green grass, and Luke took one step out of the door before he thought to ask his final question. He straddled the precipice of the door’s threshold, which spanned the seemingly endless distance between the inside of the haunted house and the landscape of the island, and he made his final inquiry.

“If I don’t get back in time, then how long will you keep them?” The hinges of the door creaked, and the lumber in the house moaned.

“Forever,” the lady in red replied, and a harsh red wind blew him over the threshold and slammed the door closed behind him. Luke was thrown from the porch and into the deep grass in the yard, and the wooden door slammed shut behind him, followed by the sounds of the fastening of multiple locking mechanisms into place. He brushed himself off, and when he turned to walk away, a man with an angry scowl on his face blocked his path.

Chapter 12

*

“What are you doing here, boy?!” the angry man yelled at him, and Luke fell backwards with a start. The stranger was middle aged, but he was dressed in the clothing of the 1700’s with a dark green suit coat, a top hat with a yellow sash that matched the yellow design on his bowtie, and a cane. The design of the bowtie was a yellow and green diamond pattern that he could have sworn was the same as the decoration on a rattlesnake, and the yellow and green of his outfit reminded him of the yellow and green fogs he had seen within the house. There was no red though; that was reserved for Lady Newberry. Besides the creepy snake pattern on the bowtie, the gentleman was rather well-to-do, and Luke wondered if this was Lord Newberry in the flesh, though he was afraid to ask.

“Nothing, sir. I was just leaving,” he told the stranger, and when he looked the stranger in the eyes, he could have sworn he saw the same yellow-green diamond pattern there, too. Snake eyes. Luke took off in a run down the hill toward the woods.

“If I catch you prowling about, it will be into the shackles with you,” he swore at Luke and pointed one finger at the sky as if he were going to pull down lightning. Luke tried his best to move along and follow the path which he and Angela had made earlier in the day, but the tall grass had recovered from where they had stepped on it in some spots, leaving only spare strands pointing in odd directions. As it turned out, those few strands were all he needed to find his way, and he soon came to the edge of the woods where they had left the canoe tied up. He saw where they had parked it, and he ran through the bushes and the vines to the water’s edge. He untied the rope and then launched the canoe into the Neuse River, paddling his way across at the wider point. When he reached the far shore, he was forced to drag the boat against the current along the shallow water of the river to the point upstream where they had first launched. He did this because he had every intention of going back to the island directly from the boat house which Angela had shown to him. There was a good chance that Hurricane Abigail would strike land on the Atlantic coast and bring a flood of rain in her wake, and the last thing he needed to have happen was for the canoe to be left unprotected from the weather and for it to be washed downstream with the coming storm. He dragged the canoe up the short hillside of the shore, and when he got to the top of the hill, he pulled it over the edge and stopped in his tracks. There were two sheriff’s deputies standing outside the shed with their backs turned to him, and Luke froze with nervous energy and watched them talking to one another. He couldn’t hear their words, but he imagined that although Angela had told Jimmy to wait until she had returned to call the authorities, the lone counselor had called them anyway.

“Jimmy’s such a chicken,” Luke whispered to himself as he hid behind the shelter of a tree trunk. The two officers talked to each other outside of the shed for the longest time without doing any actual investigating, and the daylight of the later afternoon was beginning to fade with every moment. Daylight, or the lack thereof, was not Luke’s biggest problem right then. His biggest difficulty was the thick swarm of mosquitos that had gathered around his body, and every swat he made with his hand had the potential to make a slapping sound against his skin, giving his hiding place away. He needed to return to the island and free Angela and Willie, and he couldn’t afford to be caught before he had a chance to retrieve the wooden box from the thief in the camp. If the deputies found him out in the woods alone with swollen lips from the beating he had received from Angela at the haunted house, they would surely think he was guilty of something far more sinister than breaking curfew. As it stood, a pair of teenagers were missing, and Luke was the last person seen with each of them, making him the prime suspect in their disappearances. It abruptly occurred to him that if he didn’t find the wooden box, the best alternative that he had was to go back to the Newberry Mansion and try to set them free by himself. Otherwise, he would spend the rest of his life in prison for their disappearances.

“Great,” he told himself. His mind wandered through the myriad of possibilities as time slowly passed, and the tiny black mosquitos gradually drained his blood. He hardly noticed it when the voices of the two deputies had died down, and it was only because of the annoying buzzing of a persistent mosquito in his ear that he swatted the side of his face and turned his head to notice the silence in the clearing. Luke listened carefully for the deputies behind the shelter of the tree trunk, and he didn’t hear any activity going on outside the shed. He took a chance that no one would see him, and he carefully peeked around the edge of the tree so that he could see what was going with the authorities. As half of his face came out of hiding, one eye gained a clear view of the deputies, and they were examining the ground for tracks. They hadn’t left after all; they had simply started investigating the signs which he and Angela had left behind. Watching intently, Luke spied them looking at the unfortunate trail of pressed down vegetation which the weight of the canoe had made in the grass and weeds by the shed, and one of the deputies raised his head and his eyes followed the path to the hillside where Luke was hiding, with the boat in plain sight. Luke quickly ducked his head out of sight behind the tree, and he looked at the orientation of the canoe where he had left it, seeing that even though the canoe was visible to him where he was hiding, there was a thick evergreen bush between the canoe and the shed, masking its bulk from the viewpoint of the investigators. If he was lucky, the deputies wouldn’t venture out into the woods, and they might not see it. Luke fought with the desire to peek around the tree again, but patience and restraint wouldn’t put up much of a fight against his desire to know the facts. He gave into his desires, and he peeked one eye out into the open, more or less. What he saw made his body tense up. One of the deputies had followed the tracks in the grass to the edge of the wooded area, and he was looking directly at the bush which shielded the canoe from view. With his hands on his hips, the deputy looked up into the crowns of the trees above his head, and then he looked to each side of the woods. Luke was riveted to the spot, hidden and afraid to move, scared that with him this close, the deputy might see the sudden movement.

“Hey! Harrelson! Riggs! We need you in the camp,” a voice called out, and though his feet stayed where they were at, the deputy’s head turned to the call of his name.

“You coming, Harrelson?” the deputy by the shed said to the one near Luke. Harrelson turned his eyes suspiciously back to the woods, and Luke thought his time was up. He was going to be captured by Harrelson and Riggs, and they were going to drive him to the county jail to await trial for crimes he hadn’t committed. Harrelson’s eyes wandered through the trees, moving quickly and assessing the possibilities. “Harrelson?” Riggs asked again, and just that easy, Harrelson huffed to himself and stalked away from the woods to join with his partner.

“I’m comin’,” Harrelson told him, and the two men left the shed and wandered back to camp. Luke sat there by himself, and he really had an ‘oh, crap’ moment. Here he was outside of the campground, alone and surrounded by the police. He could not figure out what he was going to do to find the wooden box; he had no idea who had taken it, and no idea how he was going to get it back, let alone how he was going to deliver it across the river to the Newberry Mansion. There would be people watching out for him all over the place, and if they caught him, they would never believe the outrageous ghost story he had to offer.

“How long are you goin’ to sit there before you do somethin’, Luke?” a girl’s voice came from behind him. Luke jumped backwards and then sprawled onto his backside, and he got a good look at the person who had snuck up on him. It was Candy Berry, and she was hunkered down behind a nearby tree. Luke grabbed his heart with one hand and leaned his weight on the other.

“Candy! You scared the fudge out of me,” he said to her.

“I hope you have a change of underwear out here then, ‘cause you’re not gettin’ anywhere near camp today,” she told him. When she saw the bruising on his face from where Angela had pounded him with her fists in the yellow fog, she reached up instinctively to touch the color marks on his cheeks. “You look like you got into a fight again.”

“No kidding,” he said and pulled away before she could touch his face. “How did you find me out here?” he asked as he got up from the ground and brushed the leaves from his clothes.

“How’d I find you? I followed you and Angela out here, and I waited right here for you to come back,” she said bashfully.

“That was a while ago. You mean, you sat here that long? Didn’t you get hungry and go back to camp?”

“Yeah, I’m hungry, all right, but I overheard Jimmy say he was calling the cops after you two were out of sight. So I thought I would wait here for you when you got back,” she explained, and she looked across the river as if she was expecting someone else. “Where’s Angela?”

That was who she was really looking for, and with good reason. Luke hesitated to tell her what had actually happened, and he considered making up a story. But how can you make up a good story when the real one is ten times better?

“Candy,” Luke began, and he made eye contact with her. Her eyes meandered, as if she was afraid to keep a constant connection, and he held out his hand to her. She looked at his hand as if she was not certain what he wanted, or possibly that she couldn’t believe it. “Will you take my hand?” he asked, and she did and her eyes drifted up to his own. “I have a story to tell you, and it will sound crazy, but it’s the truth,” Luke said to her. She felt her hand squeeze his own, and he saw a grin break out with dimples in her cheeks.

“Luke, you can tell me the truth. I can tell when someone’s lyin’. I got plenty of practice at it, bein’ the daughter of the strangler,” she said to him, and it dawned on him that it was no secret to her that her dad was a bad guy. It’s one of those things he had taken for granted. Everyone else in school knew who Candy’s dad was, what his reputation was, but since no one had had the nerve to say it to her, Luke wondered if she even knew her dad was a real live criminal. Apparently, the soles of those shoes were worn down already. Candy knew her father was a serial killer, but she had never had any reason to bring it up before. School was for learning the alphabet and counting higher than the number twenty, and she had kept her head down and in the books as long as he had known her. The same couldn’t be said for her brother, but he had to trust someone else at camp, and with the police roaming around, he may as well put his trust in Candy.

“All right then. Angela and Willie are across the river on an island, and I have to return a wooden box that I took from the island. If I return the wooden box, then Angela and Willie can come back to the campground. Otherwise, they may never return.”

“I have to admit, that does sound crazy,” she said to him, and he squeezed her hand.

“Please, just believe me.”

She looked down at his hand, but she didn’t pull away. “So you’re tellin’ me that somebody has kidnapped them, kinda like a few years back when people in town were sayin’ that a little green man had kidnapped local kids, the ones that went missin’ from around town. You know the stories I’m talkin’ about, don’t you?” she asked. Luke did know the stories Candy was talking about. The tales were almost legendary around Millborotownville City, how a mysterious man would show up into town and then someone would always disappear. The little green man would always have the same description, short with green clothes, like he was some kind of leprechaun. There were rumors that the little green man was recruiting people to work in an underground mine, but Luke thought the rumors were a large pile of road berrys. He didn’t know of any working underground mines within a hundred miles of town, and sending out a little green man to recruit employees was insane. Who would be crazy enough to go with him? Still, there had been many unexplained disappearances over the years, and only a few were admitted to by Candy’s father. There had also been rumors of a government agent with cat ears who could solve the mystery of the missing people for the town, but Luke didn’t put much stock in those rumors either.

“Candy, I think Angela and Willie’s kidnappers are different than the ones you’re talking about,” he said, and he held his tongue for a second before he let it slip out. “Their kidnappers may possibly be . . . ghosts.” Candy’s eyes opened wide, and she gripped his fingers in her fist.

“You’re jokin’ this time, aren’t you?” she asked, but there was no skepticism in her eyes that he could tell. She believed him.

“No, I’m not. That’s why I need your help. If I go to the authorities, they’ll never believe me, and they’ll lock me up as the prime suspect, but I haven’t done anything wrong. Unless, of course, if you count lifting of goods from a haunted house, and I hope you don’t look down on me for that,” he explained, and she shook her head that she didn’t. “I’ve only got 48 hours to get back to the Newberry Mansion with the wooden box. After that, I don’t know what will happen to Angela or Willie, but I can guess it won’t be good.” Candy squeezed his hand again, and she placed her other hand on his cheek.

“I’ll help you, Luke, but you know the news on the radio. There’s a hurricane comin’, and they see it’s goin’ to hit in the next couple of days. They don’t know the path, but they’re expectin’ a lot of rain across the state, no matter where the eye travels.” Her hand moved down from Luke’s cheek and went to his shoulder. He was certainly getting a lot of unexpected attention from the girls at camp lately, and he didn’t mind it, but he wasn’t sure what to make of it. Candy was willing to help, and he liked her and didn’t want to do anything to discourage her support. So he gave her a smile and told her what he wanted her to do. He explained that he would need her to go to camp and talk with Matchstick about the wooden box. He told her she could trust Matchstick to help them out, and that he would have the best chance of getting the wooden box back from whoever stole it from Luke in the first place.

“It’ll be simple. Just walk into camp like nothing is wrong and find Matchstick and get him to help you to get the wooden box back. I’ll wait here for you,” he said.

“Won’t you be hungry? And what if it starts rainin’ and lightnin’ with you out here in the weather?” she asked. He shrugged his shoulder. He may have taken on a haunted house twice, but he was still just a teenager and hadn’t thought that far ahead.

“Try your best to come back soon,” he replied, and she agreed and headed off quietly through the woods of the shore so that she could come into camp a different way. Despite her family’s issues, Candy was an intelligent girl, and she seemed to always think one step ahead of everyone else. She disappeared over the hill, and he couldn’t hear her walking through the woods at all.

**********

Candy crept upstream along the river shore for a good quarter of a mile before she took a hard left-hand turn and made her way through the thick underbrush which led to the soccer field. She didn’t know that Luke had tried to go through that way once before, only to discover it was too difficult to walk through without ruining his clothes. Candy scrounged around on the ground under the trees, and she came up with a thick oak branch, which although rotten, would serve as a great stick for pushing briers away from her clothes. She also found a sharp slab of flint rock that fit into the curve of her palm, and she used this along with the oak branch for cutting a path through the thicket and undergrowth. She soon found herself standing on the outskirts of the empty soccer field, and she set the rock and stick down on the sidelines where she could find them again. Then she walked up the middle of the field toward camp, and when she reached the far side, she saw someone step out from behind a tree to her left. She recognized him; it was her brother, Dick.

“Where you been, little sis?”

“I went for a walk to get some fresh air,” she said to him, and she kept walking with purpose. Dick nudged in close to her, and he matched her pace.

“Really? You can’t get any fresh air at the campground so you have to go out into the woods? You know the deputies aren’t lettin’ anyone leave like that,” he needled her.

“I didn’t leave the camp. I just went for a walk, that’s all. What can you say for yourself?” Candy asked rhetorically. Dick’s face turned red, and he grabbed her by the arm and stopped her in her tracks. “Ow! You’re hurtin’ me!”

“Now you listen here, girl. I know you like that Luke fella, and you got that look about you that says you been sneakin’ around, so you tell me where you been or else,” he threatened her. She knew her brother quite well, and she knew that when he made a threat, he usually came through with it. Candy looked down at her arm, looked at how he was squeezing it with his fist, and she understood that he was going to get the truth out of her through force if necessary. So she opened her arm and started screaming at the top of her lungs, a tactic which never worked at home (why would it when you live in the home of a strangler), and Dick panicked and slapped her across the face. This didn’t stop Candy from pulling away and screaming some more, and when he drew back his hand to slap her again, she head butted him in the teeth. Dick was so stunned that he loosened his grip on her arm, and she pulled loose and took off with a shot. He put his hand up to his mouth and saw blood on his fingers, and he yelled with anger and then started running after her. Two deputies appeared from behind the trees between the soccer field and the dormitories, and Candy recognized one of them who had been very close to finding Luke. She went running into Deputy Harrelson’s arms. The deputy caringly gave her a hug and then cut his eyes over at Dick, who had skidded to a halt.

“Hey, you! Boy!” the other deputy cried out, but Dick turned tail and ran as hard as he could down the soccer field and into the trail where Candy had cut through the underbrush. Dick was much faster than the deputy, and he disappeared in the brush before the deputy ever made it across the field. “Dang these kids!” he swore, and he bent over with his hands on his knees trying to catch his breath. Dick was gone, and the deputy was out of shape and he knew the only thing he would be able to catch in the thick vegetation was poison ivy. He turned around and threw his hands up in the air to show Harrelson he had lost him, and Harrelson waved for him to come back up the field and turned to his only person of interest.

“What’s your name, girl?” Harrelson asked Candy, and she told him her full name, after which he had to choke down a laugh. It wasn’t every day that you met someone named after sticky fair food, and he knelt down in front of her and asked her, “Did he hurt you?”

She thought about for a few seconds before answering, not long enough for Harrelson to think she was holding anything back or figuring out how to change the story, and then she shook her head. “No, not really. When you showed up, you stopped him. He’s my brother anyways, and he’s got a bad temper, but don’t hold that against him.” The deputy looked her over, and then her last name triggered a memory, a memory hidden in the dusty closets of his cobwebbed mind which he had to trip over to find, but it was there nonetheless.

“Oh, you’re the Strangler’s daughter?”

“Nice. Deputy, don’t call me ‘the Strangler’s daughter’. My name’s Candy Berry, and I hate it when people do that to me,” she said to him through gritted teeth.

“I’m sorry, Candy,” Deputy Harrelson apologized, but he really didn’t seem all that sincere.

“And my brother is Dick, which is exactly what he is.”

This time Harrelson opened the floodgates on the laughter, and he eased up on her as Riggs joined them. “Come with us. We’ve got a few questions to ask you,” he said, but she didn’t move.

“Is that a request, because I have other things I wanted to do today,” she explained, not making eye contact with either deputy, and Deputy Harrelson’s smile waned.

“It is most definitely a request, and if you don’t want to do it, well, then consider it an order, missy,” Harrelson emphasized, catching her eyes as she looked up to meet his own. He could see there was some mischief stirring in the dark corners of her intellect, and he wanted to get to the bottom of it without the possibility of being interrupted or overheard. Candy didn’t fight him though, and she walked side by side between the two deputies to the cafeteria where she supposed that all of the interviews by the authorities were being held. The blinds on the windows were all closed, and Deputy Riggs opened the door and held it for them as they walked inside. The smell of food lingered from the previous meal, but there was no one cooking that evening. Harrelson dragged out a cheap metal-legged cafeteria chair for her, and the grating screech across the tiled floor echoed throughout the empty facility. Reluctantly, Candy sat in the chair he offered, and then the deputies planted themselves across the table from her like two competitors in a round of poker that she wanted no part of. Harrelson and Riggs both leaned their forearms on the wooden-paneled table top, and they started dealing questions out to her, one at a time.

“How long have you been coming to this camp?” Harrelson asked.

“This is my first year,” she answered.

“Really?” Riggs said annoyingly, and she nodded.

“How about your brother, how long’s he been coming here?” Harrelson continued.

“It’s his first year, too. We both got an invitation this summer as a gift, paid for by the First Baptist Church of Millborotownville City.”

“Wow, that must have been a surprise to you?” Riggs added, and Candy tilted her head as she looked back at him.

“It sure was,” she answered him with a flat tone.

“And would you say that you and your brother were happy about coming to the camp? Or is the atmosphere here too, let me see, what’s the word? Oh, uh, is the atmosphere here too clean for you?” Harrelson asked and leaned back with his arms crossed in his chair.

“Clean?”

“Yeah, you know, too straight-laced? Too honest?”

“No, I don’t suppose that it’s too ‘clean’ or too ‘honest. What does ‘too honest’ feel like anyway, Deputy Harrelson?” she said to him, and Harrelson puffed out his lower lip as he thought about it.

“You know, you come from a different background than most of these folks at this camp. I just wonder if you might feel like a bug on a windshield sometimes?”

“Sure, sure, I know exactly what you’re askin’. You’re sayin’, since I come from a family of dirty rotten stranglers, that maybe this camp which promotes the fraternizing of successful people’s children is too elevated above my current status in society?” Candy summarized.

“What did she just say?” Riggs asked Harrelson, and Harrelson looked down his nose at his partner.

“Harrelson is asking me whether I belong with these snobs here,” Candy said to Riggs, and he looked at her like a kindergartner in a calculus class. Then he turned to Harrelson.

“Really?” Riggs said to his partner.

“Really,” Candy answered him, but Riggs straightened up from a slouch in his chair. “The answer is no, Deputy Harrelson, I don’t feel out of place. I am not my father, and neither is my brother.”

“He sure was quick to lay a hand on you, girl. What did you do to provoke him?”

Candy Berry turned red almost instantly. “What did I do!?? Do you always blame the victim, Deputy? Because, that’s what it sounds like to me,” she said to him with a face as red as a strawberry.

“I’m sorry, Miss Berry. Pardon me, but didn’t you also just tell me that your brother isn’t like your father, and yet before that, you were also saying that you were a potential victim of violence by your brother. I saw that for myself when I came up on you two arguing. Those are contradictory statements about your brother, Miss Berry. Wouldn’t you say so, Riggs?”

“Huh. Oh, yeah, yeah, sure.” Riggs was following, but Candy could tell he wasn’t the sharpest of the knives in the drawer. Perhaps, he was a spoon instead.

“Look, fellas. My brother is complicated, I’ll admit, but he isn’t like our father,” she told them, and she decided that she was saying too much and that maybe she needed to end this discussion. “I don’t think that there’s much more for me to say, do you?”

“I’m not finished with you yet, Miss Berry,” Harrelson said. All pretenses of subtleness were gone from his expression, and his hands drew up tightly, not into fists, but the change in seriousness was evident by the closing up of his hands on the table. He clearly was not good at hiding his body language, and Candy could tell that he was going to make it tough for her. She thought that she may have to tell him more about what she knew just to get out of the interrogation. “There’s a matter of three other missing kids from this camp: Luke Green, Willie Yarbrough, and Angela Miller. What do you know about their whereabouts?”

Candy almost slipped up and corrected the number of missing teenagers from three to two, and that would have been a catastrophic mistake. She caught herself before it came out, and she changed what she was going to say and asked a question instead. “Why would you think I know anything about any of them?”

“Because according to eyewitnesses, you were seen talking to Luke today,” Harrelson said as his eyes met hers. He didn’t blink as he stared her down, and he waited for an answer or possibly a clue in the expressions of her face.

“It’s true. I saw Luke earlier in the mornin’,” she started. “But I don’t know where he’s at now,” she lied. “The last I saw, he left out with Angela to look for Willie. Willie had had an argument with his girlfriend or somethin’, and they were out lookin’ for him. Word around the camp was that Willie had gotten handsy with Kristen and she didn’t like it, but I don’t know why she would have expected any different. Everybody knows Willie’s that way. He’s a player, and I don’t see why she thought he would be a gentleman with her. He was always handsy with me.” Both of the deputies’ eyebrows shot up at the same time. Neither one of them could resist a juicy story, and there was some meat left on the bones.

“You know Willie pretty well then?” Riggs asked. She thought it was a stupid question, but she didn’t expect any less from him, and the conversation had moved off of Luke, so it was all good.

“Yeah, we dated for a couple of weeks. He could be physical, but he had a soft side,” she told him.

“He never did anything to make you uncomfortable?” Harrelson asked.

“No, he expected to get to second base, that’s all. Nothing that Kristen should have been surprised by. It didn’t bother me, but that must be because I’m so out of step with the highbrow kids here, huh, Harrelson?” It was a shot across the bow, but what did she care.

Harrelson slid his chair back with a squeal as the metal scraped the tile, and he got up from his seat, never taking an eye off Candy, but she could tell he was finished with her. For now. “Thank you for your help, Miss Berry,” he said, and he tapped Riggs on the arm. Riggs had been engrossed by the conversation about teenage angst, and Harrelson had to snap him out of it.

“I can go then?” she asked, and she got up from the table as if the matter had been settled, even though they hadn’t told her she could leave.

“Sure, we’re done here. You can go about the camp until your mother comes to pick you up in a little while,” Harrelson explained, and she didn’t understand the part about getting picked up this early into camp.

“Camp’s canceled?”

“Indeed it is, young miss. Lack of qualified counselors and missing person reports have the parents freaked out, not to mention the fact that a hurricane is due to make landfall in the next day or so. You’d best be finding your brother,” Harrelson said as she started heading for the door. “Oh, and can you please do me a favor?”

“I suppose,” Candy replied.

“Good. When you see your father, please tell him that Deputy Harrelson sends his regards.”

She nodded and went out the door, closing it behind her. She looked around at the camp, and heads were hung low as the other kids were either moping or packing up their belongings. Her first trip here, and it had been ruined by the combination of her old boyfriend Willie and by the ghost story that Luke had told her, if it was true. Sadness climbed from her insides and goose bumps rolled over her shoulders, and for the first time, she began to doubt Luke’s wild story. But he had a good reputation, and deep down, she liked him more than he realized, and she wanted to see how things were going to turn out if she helped him find his wooden box. It was silly, but she hoped that if she helped him, Luke would notice her with as much enthusiasm as he showed for other girls. Like he did for Angela Miller. On that note, she supposed the first thing she needed to take care of was getting the wooden box for Luke, and she knew precisely who to see to get that done. She marched over to the boy’s dormitory, and she knocked on the door. The door was closed, and she waited for a count of ten. When there was no answer, she turned the knob and went on inside. Jimmy wasn’t around, and besides, what were they going to do if he caught a girl going into a boy’s dormitory? Send her home early? They were all going to be heading home ahead of schedule anyways, so she didn’t worry about anyone’s opinion anymore. She wanted to help Luke most of all, and that’s what she focused on. Helping Luke. The dormitory was almost empty, and she walked down the first aisle on the right side of the building. No one was on that aisle, and she went to the next one where she found Matchstick, laying down on his bunk and playing video games. She didn’t know him very well from school, but she knew of him, and his obsession with video games was widely known. She walked by his bunk, and she stopped and stared at him, seeing if he would notice her without her having to say anything. His shirt was off, and his eyes were glued to the handheld football game, never noticing her at all. Candy cleared her throat, hoping that this would snap him out of his trance, but he still ignored her.

“Hey, Matchstick,” she said to him, and his fingers pressed the control buttons and froze the LCD screen in place. His head lolled to one side where he was looking at her sideways, and suddenly his eyes bulged when he realized who it was. He dropped the game to his bare chest and covered up as best he could.

“This is a boy’s dorm! What are you doing in here?!” he asked as he tried to cover himself up with the bed sheet.

“I have a couple of questions for you that can’t wait,” she said.

“If it’s about a date, I already have a girlfriend, and she’s going to be pissed if she finds out you’re in here with me.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t tell if you don’t,” she replied with a wink. “Now, are you goin’ to tell me what you did with Luke’s wooden box, or am I goin’ to have to tell the police you took it?” she asked, which of course was a bluff, but what did she have to lose, really.

“What are you talking about? I don’t have Luke’s stuff,” he answered, but his eyes broke contact with hers, and that was a telling sign of just how correct she was. She hadn’t counted on discovering the thief so easily, and to tell the truth, she hadn’t believed that it was Matchstick at all. He was the first person she asked, and it was just a shot in the dark. Apparently, she had made a good first try.

“Listen, we can spend the next hour goin’ back and forth about it, but we both know you took it from him,” she said. “And now, he needs it back.”

“I told you I didn’t take his stuff. He’s my best friend,” Matchstick proclaimed. “Why would I take it from him anyhow?”

“Because you have a very needy girlfriend, buddy. I know Sonya pretty well, and I know how she likes precious things, and that makes you the prime suspect,” she illuminated. He didn’t bother trying to tell her anything else; instead, he laid down with his head on his pillow and started playing games again.

“I don’t answer to an Berry,” he said to her.

“No, but you owe an explanation to your friend. Do you know that there’s a good chance that they’re goin’ to blame him for Angela and Willie’s disappearances?”

Matchstick put down the game again and looked at her more seriously. “Angela’s disappearance? What are you talking about now? She’s with Luke,” he said, and Candy shook her head.

“No, I hate to break it to you, but she’s not. It’s hard to put into words, but she’s missin’, too.”

“Go ahead and try putting it into words then. I’m listening,” Matchstick advised her, and he paid attention as Candy conveyed the story which Luke had divulged to her out in the woods. It was second hand, but she kept it close to what Luke had explained, and when she had finished, Matchstick got a wide grin on his face. “You’re kidding me. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“He said that you walked out to the river with him the first time, and that you would understand.”

“Yeah, I understand that you’re crazy. You better leave the dorm before my parents get here,” he said, and he started up the handheld football game again.

“I thought you were friends with Luke, but I must have been mistaken,” she remarked.

Matchstick huffed and set the video game down again. “I don’t have the wooden box.”

“Then where is it?”

Matchstick’s eyes cut over to Candy, and he hesitated before he finally admitted what she had been waiting to hear all along. “I gave it to Sonya, all right,” he grumbled. Candy didn’t budge from where she stood; she just stared him down with a look of disbelief.

“You know you stole from your best friend. How can you live with yourself?”

“Look who’s talking, daughter of the strangler. Who are you to lecture me, huh?!” he snapped, yet there was already a look of remorse in his eyes. She could tell that he hadn’t intended for things to go this far. She placed her hand caringly on his knee, and his icy temperament began to melt. It was a tough thing to admit, stealing from a friend, and he didn’t think that it would ever happen, but he felt that he could trust her not to judge him too harshly for his weakness. Finally, he said, “It was just a dumb old wooden box, and maybe it had something inside, but Luke couldn’t open it. I didn’t have any problems getting it open, and you know what, there was a silver ring inside with three small jewels in it. I kept the box and gave the ring to Sonya, and she’s got it now, okay.”

“Can you help me get the ring back to Luke?” she asked, and Matchstick frowned as he got down off the top bunk. He dug his hand in beneath his own pillow and retrieved the wooden box, and then he threw a t-shirt on and slipped on his sneakers.

“Come on. Let’s go get the ring back,” he said, and she followed him to the door. He opened it and turned back to her and said, “Luke shouldn’t be out in this weather anyway. When we get the ring back, you can take it to him in the box and tell him I’m sorry. I really am.” Candy put her hand over her mouth in surprise at something behind him, and Matchstick looked perplexed. “What? What is it?” Then a voice came from outside the door, right behind him.

“You know where Luke is, do ya?” Deputy Harrelson’s voice said.

Chapter 13

*

Luke sat down in the leaves beneath the old oak tree where he had been hiding, and he looked east across the Neuse River. The moving water rushed across the rocks, and the sound of the current was as peaceful as he had ever remembered it. In fact, it was one of the most important reasons he loved coming to the campground in the summer. He sat in the leaves and pondered his young life, and thoughts of his mother came to mind. He remembered a particular time when she had picked him up from Camp Roanoke, and he had been sad beyond belief that he was leaving.

“It isn’t the end of the campground,” Norma reassured him as she combed the hair on his head with her hand. “The school year will fly by, and you’ll be back this time next year.”

He had looked down at his shoes, and he had curled his toes inside his socks. He did that when he was nervous, and he was doing it even then as he recalled that moment with his mom. “Next year is so far away. I can’t even imagine how it will be then.”

His mother knelt down on one knee so that they were eye to eye, and she tilted her head to one side and smiled. “Everything will be as wonderful next year as it has been this year. I promise,” she said, and she gave him a hug so large and warm that it had enveloped him completely like a blanket. “I love you, son, and I’ll always take care of you.”

He sat in the dirt, alone and hiding in the woods, and he couldn’t help but think that she hadn’t been correct. She hadn’t kept her promise to him, because here he was, in the worst trouble of his teenage life, and his mother was nowhere to be found. She had been buried in the ground a few weeks before, and she wasn’t able to take care of him anymore. She hadn’t told the truth. He knew that it was out of her control, that she had passed away from an aneurism which had burst, but where was she when he needed her most? She was dead, like the historical Newberries, the dried up old berries, and the imaginary tooth fairies. He had his memories, but his mother was not real to him anymore. He couldn’t hug her, he couldn’t talk to her, he couldn’t laugh with her. She was gone, and he was alone in the woods with no one to help him. He was having a moment of self-pity when he heard footsteps along the bank of the river, and he froze where he sat while he waited to see who it was that was walking along the shore. He hoped it wasn’t a deputy, and he hunkered down low to keep from being seen too easily. He was up on the top of the hill side, and his lips made a flat line which turned to a frown when he saw the old familiar face coming out from behind the leaves and brush. It was Dick Berry, and he didn’t look so well. Dick looked scared and unhappy, and when his eyes met Luke’s, he ducked down low and sat on the ground next to him.

“I’d kick your behind for knocking my tooth out, Green, if I was havin’ a better day. As it is, your face looks like somebody already beat me to it,” he told Luke, and Luke saw the gap in his smile as evidence of their street fight on the day of his mother’s funeral. He wished he had knocked more of his teeth out, but he was in too much trouble right then to want to pick up where they left off. He shrugged his shoulders and grunted instead, as if he didn’t care.

“Suit yourself. This day is about over anyways. Might as well end it on a bad note.”

“I’ll get right to the meat of it then. We need to talk. Have you been hangin’ out with my sister?”

Luke didn’t like Dick at all, and it disturbed him on many levels that he was sitting here alone in the woods with him. The thing was though that Luke was in a tight pinch, and Candy had offered to help him get out of it. She was someone that Luke believed he could trust. Dick, on the other hand, was not someone that Luke felt he could depend on, given his behavior and his upbringing. Still, there were two missing teenagers which he had last been seen with, and there were deputies running around the campground looking for him. That he was sure of. If Luke wasn’t going to give himself up (and he wasn’t because no sane adult would believe his story), then he was going to have to rely on others for help. Seeing as how Dick had found him out here, he didn’t think that he had much choice but to have a conversation with his arch nemesis, no matter the outcome. He thought about what he should and shouldn’t confide in this creep, and then he answered him.

“Yes, but it was really her that found me, like you did.”

Dick didn’t say much to that, and he brought up one knee and rested an elbow on it. “I don’t like you, Green. I don’t want you spendin’ time with Candy.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Dick, because I have hardly talked to her since we’ve been at camp. Besides, I’ve got other things on my mind right now.”

“Sure you do. There’s cops runnin’ around all over, like ants at a picnic, and they’re all lookin’ for you from what I heard,” he said, and then he cut his eyes shrewdly over at Luke. “We’ve had enough trouble at home without you stirrin’ up more problems datin’ my sister.”

“Dating your sister? Dude, I don’t know what you think is going on, but I’m not dating your sister.” ‘What was this guy thinking?’ Luke asked himself.

“It doesn’t matter what you think, Green. I know her better than you, and I see the way she looks at you when you’re not lookin’. She likes you, but she don’t need no boyfriend, especially one that gets hisself in trouble with the law.” Luke thought that was ironic, considering who their father was, but he was smart enough not to say it.

“Don’t worry, I’m trying to rectify my situation with the law,” he told Dick. “Anything else you want to say before you go?”

“Yeah. What did you do with Willie and Angela?”

“Nothing. Your sister was going to help me find them, but first she was going to get something back that was stolen from me.” He could tell that he was going to have to confide a little more in Dick if they were going to come to an understanding. “This thing that she is searching for, the plan was that when she brought it to me, I was going to take it and trade it for Willie and Angela’s release.”

“You’re tellin’ me that they been kidnapped?”

“Yes, that’s it exactly. And if I don’t trade with the kidnappers, they won’t be set free,” Luke recapped for him. Dick’s face turned unbelievably thoughtful, an event that Luke had never witnessed him do before in his life, and the teenage bully pushed back his bangs from his eyes with his hand.

“I’ll go with you to get Willie and Angela back from the bad guys then, but first, we’re goin’ to have to get my sister away from the police.”

“Wait a minute, what? What are you talking about? What did they do to her?”

“Nothin’ I believe, after all, she hasn’t done nothin’ wrong,” he told Luke, failing to mention the fact that he had been caught being rough on her himself. “But her last name’s Berry, so she don’t have to do nothin’ to get in trouble. Trouble just follows the name.”

“Getting her away from the deputies is going to be harder than you think, my friend. They don’t play around when it comes to investigating disappearances. You know the story about the kids that disappear occasionally from town, supposedly kidnapped by a little green man,” Luke reminded him, referring to a mystery that would be solved thirty odd years in the future by a special division of the Secret Service called the Department of Adventures and Mysteries. Today, Luke was mired up in a different set of kidnappings by a different threat altogether, and with the local authorities now heavily involved, he was going to need whatever help anyone could offer him. If he didn’t accept the help he was offered, it was likely that he was going to be looking at the world through a vertical set of iron bars in a youth prison in Butner, North Carolina. Camp Butner, as it was known around those parts, was notorious for its gangs and internal violence. It was rumored that only about half of the boys sentenced there ever made it out alive. Luke didn’t like the thought of serving time in such a miserable hole for crimes which someone else had committed. Or maybe ‘something’ else was a better description.

“I didn’t think it would be easy, Luke,” he said and shook his head and looked down at the ground. “I was mad at her a little while ago and I grabbed her, but I wouldn’t a’ hurt her. The cops, they saw me bein’ mad at her, and I know I got myself in trouble now, too. I’m as screwed up as my dad,” he declared disgustedly and picked a rock up and through it out into the flowing water. Luke couldn’t believe what he was hearing, but if Dick’s regret was genuine, then he was actually feeling a little bit of pity for Dick. Luke relaxed his shoulders and rested his head against the back of the tree as he let his compassion sway his judgment.

“Don’t let it get you down, Dick. We all do things we regret, but it doesn’t make us bad through and through. I can tell you care about your sister, and so can other people. We know you guys stick together like glue, and there are people that are even jealous of how you guys bond together at school. I wish I could say I had a brother or sister, but I don’t,” Luke said to him, and Dick seemed to hear him. “You know what we could do, don’t you? We could go on and try to get her and finish up what we started. Those sheriffs aren’t so smart, you know.”

“Why, no, we’re not, Luke Green,” a voice said unexpectedly behind them. Both boys turned their heads at the same time to see Deputy Harrelson grinning from ear to ear. “Us dumb sheriffs would like to have a talk with you, if you can spare the time. Perhaps, maybe you could enlighten us just a little.”

**********

Luke sat on a stool in the kitchen of the cafeteria with Deputy Riggs. He had one leg pulled up with his chin resting on his knee and his eyes looking down on the tiled floor. A glimpse of worry was evident on his face, but Deputy Riggs was standing at the door between the kitchen and cafeteria, whistling Dixie and twirling a nightstick in his hand. He didn’t look worried at all, and Luke figured that was because the authorities believed they had caught the culprits behind the disappearances of Willie and Angela. Luke’s thoughts wandered in despair, and it wasn’t until Riggs dropped his nightstick on the floor that he snapped out of it. He glanced over at Riggs who was bending down to pick up the nightstick, and he saw that he had trouble bending his back far enough over to reach to the floor. Riggs’ eyes met his own, and the deputy shot him a look of anger as he was forced to bend his knees to get to the floor. His joints popped like firecrackers on the Fourth of July, and still he couldn’t reach the nightstick, making Luke wonder how the old guy had gotten the job in the first place. Riggs strained and groaned until his fingertips touched the nightstick, and he gripped it in his hand. Luke made the mistake of whistling Dixie himself at just that moment, and Riggs stood up straight in a symphony of popping joints and gave him a glare.

Luke stopped whistling and asked, “Are you okay?” It wasn’t a question voiced with cruel intent, rather it was a question asked with genuine concern, but the timing was horrible nonetheless.

“Are you screwin’ with me, boy?”

“Uh, no, sir.”

“’Cause if you are, we can make it hard on you, you know. Camp Butner is a good place for boys like yourself, and I would say that’s where you’re headed after your escapades today.”

“What escapades are you talking about, Deputy? I haven’t done anything wrong,” Luke argued.

“So you say. But Angela Miller and Willie Yarbrough can’t speak for themselves, so we have to speak for them,” Riggs replied. “When Harrelson finishes with the Berry boy, you’ll be next. Hangin’ with that kinda crowd has gotten you nowhere good fast.” Luke felt a well of righteous indignation swell up in his bones, and he couldn’t keep his mouth shut at the jab.

“You’re as bad as the others, you know that. I’m no close friend of Dick’s, but you can’t judge a person solely by heredity.”

“Really? You ain’t never heard the phrase, ‘An berry doesn’t fall far from the tree’?” Luke gave up talking to the out-of-shape deputy, and he went back to staring at the floor. It was a better image than the deputy, and less irritating. Riggs paced around until Harrelson came into the room, followed by Luke’s stepdad Andy. That was a surprise to Luke, and not a welcome one at that. Andy went over to his son, and he stood between Luke and the deputies with his arms crossed.

“I had to get off work to come in here. What is all this trouble I’ve been hearing about, Luke?”

Luke saw the two deputies hovering behind his father like vultures, and he was afraid to say much to him about what was really going on. The truth was too unbelievable anyways, and when you threw in the fact that he and Andy rarely saw eye-to-eye, he knew the scenario was going to be much worse with his dad involved.

“I haven’t caused any trouble, but you wouldn’t know it from what these two guys are saying,” Luke said. He thought that he didn’t have much to lose, and his dad’s scowl brought out the worst in him.

“Where are the other two kids that are missing?”

“Darned if I know, dad? The last I saw them, we were all over on the island on the far side of the Neuse River. There’s a house over there, and we all went inside. I got out first, and I waited for them to come out, too, but it was getting late so I rowed back across to this side.” His dad’s scowl didn’t subside and his arms stayed crossed with the explanation, both signs that his dad was dissatisfied with the answer.

“You left them over there by themselves? Without a boat?” his dad asked with a shrewd expression on his face.

“No, dad, there’s a boat over there. Angela and I had followed Willie over there, which is what started this whole ordeal in the first place. Dick had nothing to do with any of this that I know of, so you should let him go,” Luke told them.

“Wait a minute, go back a few steps because I’m lost,” Andy said.

Luke took a deep breath and then exhaled it out impatiently. “Willie had ticked Kristen off . . .”

“Your girlfriend, Kristen.”

“Well, no. It’s complicated. She’s not my girlfriend now. But anyhow, Willie had made her upset, and I had gotten into a tussle with him over it,” Luke explained, and all three men listened. “Willie must have known he was going to get into trouble, and he stayed gone from camp after that, and Angela and I went looking for him. We hiked pretty deep into the woods to the creek, and then we saw him paddling downstream, heading to the Neuse River. We watched him go, and we came back to camp and got a boat and went over to the island where Willie showed up. He climbed the hill and went into the house, and Angela wanted to go inside, too, which I thought was a bad idea, but we did it regardless. It was dark inside, and the next thing I knew, I was outside and they were still in there.”

Deputy Harrelson interrupted. “That’s a fine story, son, but the last person here at camp that says they saw Willie was Kristen, and she agrees that you were in a fight with him. You admitted to it, too, so how do we know you didn’t do something to him and to Angela afterward?”

Luke thought about what Harrelson was saying. It was a different angle than he had imagined anyone would have thought about it, and it made Luke look guilty of something sinister for sure.

“I know you’re having a hard time believing me, but I didn’t do anything to Willie or to Angela, deputy. I’m telling you what I know,” or at least a part of what Luke knew. He was not going to tell them he thought the house was haunted; that kind of story would convince them he was crazy. And if they thought he was crazy, then he could definitely be guilty of a bit of skullduggery. “Why don’t you go over to the island and check it out for yourself?” The deputies glanced at each other, and then at Luke.

“It’s late, but that’s not a bad idea,” Deputy Harrelson said. Luke’s dad turned around and faced them.

“Which one of you is going?” he asked. Deputy Harrelson pointed a thumb over at Riggs. “I’ll go with you then,” he offered, and Riggs shrugged his shoulders like he didn’t mind.

“Suit yourself. It’ll give me company,” Riggs told Andy. Andy then turned to his son, and he gave him a stern expression.

“You tell Deputy Harrelson everything he needs to know, son. This is serious business,” Andy emphasized to him. “Your mother would be ashamed to know you’re in the middle of a mess with the Berry kids.” Luke was so stunned by his dad’s accusations that his lower jaw hung low and his mouth opened wide. “Keep your chin up,” he told him and gently nudged Luke’s chin up with his fingers. Then he left the kitchen with Deputy Riggs. When they had left the cafeteria and the door closed behind them, Deputy Harrelson pulled up a stool across from Luke, and he relaxed with his elbows on the countertop.

“All right, cut the crap, kid. I can tell you’re not telling us everything.”

Luke wouldn’t meet his gaze, but he did roll his own eyes. The wind was whipping the shutters on the dormitories outside, banging and clattering in the night air, and the first droplets of rain had begun to strike the roof from Hurricane Abigail. “What did you do with the Candy and Dick?” Luke asked, and Deputy Harrelson smirked.

“Funny you should ask. They’re confined temporarily in separate dormitories, and that kid they call Matchstick is with Dick.”

“Matchstick? What did he do to get locked up with Dick?”

“Nothing I can prove yet, but I overheard him telling Candy that he had a stolen box that you were looking for,” Deputy Harrelson said with devious eyes. “That’s the key, isn’t it? That box bein’ missin’ is what this is all about,” he said to Luke, and Luke didn’t like the implications. He was making accusations, sounding out his questions as statements of fact. Luke didn’t reply, but it was hard for him to hide his surprise at finding out that Matchstick had taken the wooden box. Deputy Harrelson could read Luke like an open book. “You didn’t know your best buddy had it, did ya?” Luke shook his head ‘no’, and Deputy Harrelson pulled out a fresh box of cigarettes from his shirt pocket behind his badge and lit one up. He then offered one to Luke, but Luke declined. He thought that he would never be old enough to smoke; those things would kill Harrelson, he reckoned, but then so could STD’s those days. “Let me tell you a little bit about life, Luke. You can trust your friends to be there for you in hard times, but when it comes to two things, girlfriends and money, you can’t trust anyone with those. If that box you had was worth anything, you should have locked it up or left it at home.”

“But I found it here,” Luke slipped up and told him, and Harrelson caught it as soon as it came out.

“You found it at the house you were tellin’ us about, didn’t you?” The ash on Harrelson’s cigarette was growing ever longer as the smoke rolled off the orange glow at the tip.

“Maybe.”

“Come straight, kid.”

Luke didn’t want to come straight, but this whole situation was all new territory for him. The wind howled outside, and the rain began to come in sideways. “The storm’s up,” he commented.

“The storm sped up once it hit the coast. It’s goin’ to be doin’ this all night and into tomorrow. Now, I don’t want to be out there in the woods with all these oak trees and a hurricane on the way, so make it snappy. Where are Angela and Willie?”

“I told you, I last saw them in the house on the island. That’s all I know,” Luke repeated. Deputy Harrelson took a draw off the cigarette, and the ash was so long then that it bent down with the heavy pull of gravity. Time passed as Harrelson stared at him steadily through the smoky air, but Luke kept his mouth shut. Harrelson took another draw, and the ash curved toward the floor with the orange flame that consumed the ever-shrinking cigarette, but still the ash didn’t break.

“Boy, I don’t believe you. I know there ain’t no house on the island ‘cause it burned down years ago,” he said with two pointed fingers and the remnant of the cigarette clamped in between. The weight of the ash finally broke, and the cinders floated down to the otherwise clean floor. Then Harrelson reached behind his back, and he took out his handcuffs. “You can stay in the dorm with the other two fellers while we wait for Riggs and your dad to sort this thing out. If I find out you been lyin’ to me and that you had somethin’ to do with their disappearances, I’m gonna see to it that you spend the rest of your life at Camp Butner behind bars, boy.” With his hands held out together in front of him, Luke watched as Harrelson put the cuffs on his wrists, and then Harrelson nudged him toward the exit and marched him out of the cafeteria and into the deteriorating weather. The rain was drizzly and misty, but with the wind pushing it along, it chilled him to the bone as it fell.

Chapter 14

*

Andy Singleton walked outside of the cafeteria with Deputy Riggs, and the orange sun had already set in the cloudy sky. The wind howled and the rain blew in sideways as they stood beneath the edge of the shelter. Riggs whipped out a long, black metal flashlight, and he smacked it up and down in his hand like it was a nightstick, which Andy figured it was.

“Hurricane’s comin’ in early they said on the radio,” Riggs noted as he scanned the empty campground.

“What are we waiting for then?” Andy said. “I’ll get my rain jacket out of the truck,” he added and took off in a jog out to his pickup.

“Amateurs,” the deputy grumbled to himself, and he flicked the flashlight on and walked out to his car. Every now and again, the wind would gust and he would lean sideways into the draft to keep from falling over. He had a bright yellow rain jacket among the tools of the trade in the trunk of the squad car, and he unlocked the trunk and fished it out. Throwing it on over his uniform, the jacket covered his head, shirt, and the top half of his pants, but it didn’t do much for his calves and dress shoes. Walking over to meet Andy at his truck, Riggs’ shoes squished in the muddy earth, and he felt the cold water seep into his socks through the shoelaces. “I hate the rain,” he murmured to Andy beside the truck, and Andy grabbed a thermos full of hot coffee along with his rain coat from the cab.

“At least we’ve got hot coffee,” he said to the deputy, except it sounded more like ‘caw-fee’ with his southern drawl. “I was meanin’ to ask you. Do you have a boat to go across the river on?”

“Naw, but Harrelson said there was one out where he found Luke a while ago. We can take it and be back here before the downpour, I hope.”

“All right. After you then,” Andy said, and he fell in behind the deputy as they marched out into the darkened campground with only the flashlight to guide their way. The sky was so overcast from the coming storm that the glimpses of moonlight were absolutely no help at all to them. Riggs remembered where the boat shed had been located, and he maneuvered through the darkened trail with ease though he swore to himself every time his foot slogged through the two-inch deep puddles along the way. Many four letter words passed out of his mouth, and Andy wished he hadn’t agreed to go with the disgruntled deputy, but he knew that if he hadn’t, they would lay all the blame for the disappearances of Angela Miller and Willie Yarbrough on his son’s shoulders. It chafed him to know that his son had been breaking the rules of the campground by going out across the Neuse River, but he did not believe that Luke was guilty of anything more than teenage curiosity. Andy had been a teenager once, and he knew that boys would be boys, so he was willing to look the other way under normal circumstances. These were special circumstances, however, and he knew that Luke was going to get the full blame for the two disappearances if he didn’t try to help the police get to the bottom of what had happened on the island. Deputy Harrelson was notorious for pressing charges on people with or without evidence, but his word was trusted without question by the local judges. Besides, the county court system had its hands too full of caseloads to give any extra time to Luke’s circumstances. Andy did not believe, could not believe, that his son was guilty of harming anyone. He believed, however wrongly, that Luke was caught up in the middle of a teenage love triangle somehow. Perhaps Angela Miller and Willie Yarbrough were seeing one another and Luke just happened to like Angela as well. Or maybe Luke and Angela had gone searching for Willie and possibly Willie was to blame for Angela’s disappearance. Who really knew, he thought, but he and Deputy Riggs were going to do their best to find out the truth.

Before long, they reached the boat shed, and at the moment they came out into the clearing, the whipping of a mean cross wind blew through the woods, bending the tree tops low and snapping branches in its wake. Deputy Riggs, who was in the lead, stopped and shined the flashlight into his own face so that Andy could see him talking. The sound of the whipping wind had grown deafening, and it was hard to hear what he was saying, but Riggs hoped Andy could read his lips.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Riggs told Andy. “We should wait until after the storm.”

Andy heard him and shook his head. “It’s starting to get bad out here, but the two kids are on an island in the middle of the Neuse River. If we can, we need to hurry up and get out there, try to get them to safety. Otherwise, they’ll be drowned when the river rises with the heavy rainfall.”

Riggs stared at him thoughtfully, and his head wobbled with uncertainty. “Maybe, but this seems too risky to me to try.” He looked up in the dark sky and watched the outlines of the clouds eddying through the atmosphere, and he gave the weather its due consideration. “There better be some kids to find on the other side, that’s all I got to say.” Then he motioned for Andy to follow him into the woods where Harrelson had told him he would find the boat behind several bushes. They searched and found the boat; it was right where Harrelson said it would be. They picked it up and together they carried it down the steep embankment to the edge of the river. The waters hadn’t risen too high yet; the outer bands of the hurricane had only just reached the vicinity, and Andy reasoned that they had a few hours before the accumulation of rain would be enough to change their fortunes. They started off in the boat, rowing across the flowing current and down the Neuse River. Though it was darker than usual outside, there was enough light to see shadows of rocks protruding from the waters, and they maneuvered through the river’s current with only a few minor scrapes against the stones in the river. The batteries in Riggs’ flashlight were holding up well under the circumstances and it was still shining brightly, and they used it to flash on the far coast every now and then to make sure they were still churning out progress. Both men were uncomfortable in the wind and rain, and neither one had much to say to the other as they rowed, but when the water in the bottom of the boat began to rise from the sloshing of the waves, they both grumbled about the shortsightedness of teenagers. Andy only had one of his own to watch over, and he considered himself lucky. Except for this one instance of misbehavior, Luke had fared well with the law and had never been in any other trouble with the authorities. He hoped that the disappearances were just a circumstance of a teenage boy and girl running off to find out things about themselves and each other. Anything else was beyond his comprehension. He didn’t think he could live with himself if his son was guilty of a violent crime. More than likely, Dick Berry was the one that the authorities needed to be worried about, not Luke, and they had Dick locked up in the boy’s dormitory until they could sort the facts out. Until such time, Andy was stuck in a boat with a crusty old deputy to talk to and three inches of cold river water to keep his feet warm. They were nearly across the river when they spotted the island rushing up to meet them, and they thrust the oars sideways into the current to try to slow the boat down and keep it from crashing onto the shore. The current had the boat in its grip, and the little bit of rowing they did had hardly any effect on the speed they were traveling. When the boat crashed into a log sticking out of the water at the edge of the shore, both men fell forward out of the boat and tumbled into the water. It was shallow where they went under, and neither one of the men had hit the log, which was fortunate considering the condition that the boat must have been in after the collision. It was even darker beneath the thin forest, and they couldn’t see much of their surroundings as they climbed up out of the water. Riggs had set his flashlight down in the boat when he had grabbed the oar with two hands, and when they hit the log, the flashlight had gone flying out of the boat and sank into the water. It was glowing on the bottom of the river in the shallows, and Andy went in after it. He bent down in the water and reached for it in the silt, and when he brought it up, he shined it on the wreck to see that the front section of the boat was caved in where it had struck the log. With all of that damage, there was no way they could use it to paddle across the river.

“Great,” Andy grumbled aloud. “Now how are we going to get back across?” he asked Deputy Riggs, who was rubbing one of his elbows and appeared to be testing if his arm still worked. It must have been okay because he was able to flex it all the way out and then all the way in.

“Beats me. I guess we should have stayed on the other side until the storm passed, huh? But don’t worry, I have my walkie-talkie,” he said as he reached into his raincoat. When he took the gadget out of his pocket and held it in front of his face, water poured out of the speaker and microphone. He clicked the button and spoke into it several times, and when he released the button to hear a reply, he listened carefully for the static that should have been coming from the speakers, indicating it was receiving a signal. There was nothing, however, no static at all, as Andy would have expected. Luke’s dad knew that water and electronics were not a good combination.

“Your flashlight is water tight, and it stills works, but the same can’t be said for your walkie-talkie. It’s water logged, Riggs, and I don’t think it’s going to work any time soon,” Andy said to him, and he shined the flashlight through the woods to the mansion which stood on the top of the hill. “We better get moving to shelter. The wind is really picking up out here.”

“No boat and no walkie-talkie, but at least the flashlight is workin’,” Riggs encouraged Andy. It was odd to hear the curmudgeon turn full circle into a beacon of hope in just a few short minutes, but there it was. And not ten seconds after he said it, the flashlight went out.

“You were saying?” Andy grunted and shook his head with disbelief. Riggs took the light out of Andy’s hands and slapped it with his palm to see if he could get it to turn back on. After several tries, he seemed to give up on it, and he stuck it in the holder in his belt loop. They were in the dark, soaked from head to foot and standing in the wind and rain, and they each tried to find their own way through the thickets in the forest. They groped their way through the thin layer of woods, and when they reached the grassy hillside, they stopped to look up the hill at the dark outline of the Newberry Mansion at the top.

“Wasn’t that place burned down years ago?”

“Yeah, I believe it was,” Andy admitted. Luke must have been telling the truth about the house after all, and he felt a small amount of remorse for doubting his son. Then he thought of what they could expect to find in the house, and a feeling of dread crept into his bones. “I guess we better get moving. We’re stranded, and the old house would make better shelter from the storm than the open sky.”

“I’m with you there, pard’,” Riggs replied, and they climbed the hill and stood at the foot of the front porch. Riggs looked over at Andy, who was trying to understand how a house rebuilt itself on its own. Andy had seen drawings of the Newberry Mansion in local history books, and though it was too dark to see the fine details, he could tell the outline of this house resembled it closely. “You think we’ll fall through when we step on the porch.”

“Maybe,” he said, and he placed his hand on the stair rail and shook it to see if it was sturdy. The wooden structure didn’t budge with the effort, and this puzzled him and reassured him both at the same time. He didn’t understand how the house could even exist, but he did understand that they were stranded and would need shelter until help arrived to transport them off the island. They went up the couple of marble steps onto the front porch, and the wind blew the rain in sideways under the roof of the porch. Not wasting any time, Riggs went to the front door and knocked, and inexplicably, the door cracked open on its own. The deputy didn’t hesitate to step inside. He disappeared into the even darker great room of the house, and Andy stood alone on the front porch, wondering what was waiting for them inside. He felt a chill in the wind, and he thought he heard the howl of an unearthly call come from within the walls of the deserted mansion. Before he went inside, he turned around and looked out at the gathering storm, and he thought he glimpsed the smoky outline of a man in the front yard. Even with the high winds, the smoke stayed together and moved straight at him from the yard, up the steps, and onto the porch. At the last second before it struck him, he glimpsed the face of a man in the strange smoke, and then it blew through him. He shuddered as the smoke enveloped him, and remarkable thoughts of a past life raced through his mind’s eye. He saw happy children in tailored clothing, and an immaculate house built of hand carved wood appeared from within the dark of night. He was home, and mother needed attention. Andy rubbed his forehead as it ached with the pressure of another consciousness pushing the boundaries of his skull, and the curious thoughts evaporated with the wind.

“Are you comin’ inside or what?” Riggs said from the blanket of darkness within the mansion. The headache subsided as quickly as it had manifested, and Andy examined the edges of the boxed door frame. Suddenly, the rectangular door moldings seemed like the outline of a grave, and Riggs’ face appeared from within the pit. “You’re all white and pale, boy. Look like you done seen a ghost.” There was more than fear holding him back from going inside; there was an intuition which said to stay away. But there was a hurricane coming, and they were stranded on this island for the night. Andy could stay out on the porch and take his chances in the storm, or he could go inside and face what lay within. He let out a sigh of abandoned hope, and he stepped across the threshold of the mansion.

Two teenagers had disappeared on a dark and stormy night, and they needed rescuing, but somehow, Andy couldn’t help but feel that they weren’t the only ones in need of salvation.

**********

The wind wailed in gusts across the campground, and the rain seemed to fall from the sky in shimmering waves on Luke’s face as he walked toward the dormitory. He kept a steady pace in front of the deputy, and at times it seemed the wind almost picked him up off his feet.

“What are you going to do with me?” Luke asked.

“You’re goin’ to stay locked up in the dormitory until Deputy Riggs and your father get back from the island. It shouldn’t take long, so don’t worry. After that, I suspect you’ll get to enjoy an all-expenses paid trip to juvenile hall until your court hearing, care of the taxpayers of the old north state,” Harrelson explained with a dry growl. Luke didn’t think the two deputies were looking out for his best interests, but considering the circumstances, he didn’t think he could hold them accountable for feeling that way. He wondered what he would do if he was in their shoes, and he thought that he would be just as suspicious about himself, if not more. That made it hard for him to be too upset with them, but it still didn’t help his condition. He also didn’t think that the deputies were the right people for the job of taking on ghosts, and he considered whether it had been a good idea at all for his stepfather to insert himself into Luke’s problems. Luke hardly believed that Andy was sincere in his offer for help, and it seemed completely out of character to see him do something like this to help his son out, especially since his mother had passed away. Lately, Andy had been colder than a wet puppy in the artic, and it was completely out of character for him to volunteer to do anything for his son. His mother had always told Luke that Andy had a soft side and that he cared as much for him as she did, but Luke had never seen it. In his experience, Andy was your typical hard-nosed parent, the one who would send his kid off to camp for two weeks every year during the summer so he didn’t have to spend any time with him at home. Hence, the stay here at Camp Roanoke. In a hurricane.

“Yeah, that’s more like my dad,” he thought to himself. His mind drifted as he walked outside in the deteriorating weather. Luke was lost in his own world of teenage drama when he reached the dorm, and as the electrical transformer exploded and lit up the dark and stormy night in a blinding flash, he nearly jumped out of his skin. Deputy Harrelson covered his own eyes from the brilliant flash of electrical energy, but Luke struggled to do so with his hands cuffed, giving him flash blindness for a few moments. Then when he stumbled onto the stoop to go inside the dormitory, his vision was still so washed out with the flash that he nearly ran into the door.

“What a night to be out, huh?” Harrelson commented, and when the deputy’s own vision had stabilized, he nudged Luke to keep moving. Though his wrists were shackled together, Luke had some movement of his hands, and he rubbed his eyes with his fingertips. He was seeing a huge white spot in front of both eyes, and when he closed his eyelids, he could still see the white flash in the center of his line of sight. It was as if the flash were etched like a photograph into his retina, and he found it hard to move. He was momentarily blinded, but he could hear Deputy Harrelson stepping up beside him. “Are you all right?” he asked Luke with a hint of real sympathy.

“I hope I will be. That burst seemed as bright as the sun, and I was looking directly at it,” he said, and he kept rubbing his eyes. Slowly, the white flash began to shrink, and he regained a little of his sight, enough to see the outline of the building by the pale moonlight which broke through the circling clouds. The door to the dormitory was shut, and since Luke had on cuffs, Harrelson reached in front of him and turned the knob for him. When he pushed it open, the door hinges squeaked with the effort, giving it that extra feel of worn out luxury which Luke had come to know and love over the past few years of staying there. The lights were out on the inside, a fact which Luke was thankful for at the moment as his eyes were healing from the blinding explosion, but he knew it was going to be difficult riding out the storm in the campground with no electricity. He looked over at Deputy Harrelson, and though he could not see him well enough, he could tell it was him by his breathing. “Where are Matchstick and Dick Berry?”

“I’m here,” Matchstick said from under a bunk. “He has me cuffed to one of the beds in here.” Luke wheeled around on what he could see of Harrelson, and he gave him an exhale of disbelief.

“Why do you have him chained to a bed? He hasn’t done anything,” Luke snapped. Harrelson flipped the switch on his flashlight, and he set it on the floor, pointing it at the ceiling. The battery powered light provided enough of a glow so that Luke could see Matchstick laying down on a bed with one hand stretched out and cuffed to a bed. He didn’t look completely unhappy, but it was still a disturbing sight to see.

“So you say, kid. But there’s a lot at stake here tonight, and I can’t let you boys run around free,” Harrelson said, and he dragged Luke by the cuffs to a nearby bunk bed. “I’m going to unlock your cuffs for a minute. Get you connected with your own comfortable bunk as well. Don’t be gettin’ any ideas about runnin’ away or anything, ‘cause I still have my pistol.”

“Where would I go, Deputy? We’re waiting out a hurricane,” Luke scoffed, and he heard a familiar contemptuous laugh from the neighboring bunk. It was Dick Berry, and when Luke looked over at him, Dick nodded his head and winked at him.

“What do ya say, Greenie? Long time, no see,” Dick said sarcastically. “I hope you brought an umbrella to the party.”

“Keep it down, Berry. You’re in enough trouble as it is, so don’t make it any worse on yourself,” Harrelson warned him, but Dick had no illusions about his future in Millborotownville City. He was permanently marked by his father’s crimes, Luke had to guess, and he thought that the boy actually clung to his father’s offenses like a badge of honor. It was sad; he knew Dick had had nothing to do with Angela and Willie disappearing, but the boy couldn’t rise up out of his father’s infamous reputation. Or he just didn’t care to.

During their exchange, Harrelson cuffed Luke to the bunk bed, and then he went and sat down on the squeaky mattress of a nearby bed. The deputy leaned back against the wall and got comfortable for the long night ahead. Dick started to speak up, but Harrelson cut him off and told him to keep it down, all of them. The boys got his meaning and didn’t say much else for a time as the flashlight began to go dim. Hurricane Abigail wailed outside, and windswept debris struck the sides of the building, turning the dormitory into a giant snare drum. Unlike Dick and Matchstick who could lay down with only one hand cuffed to the bed post, both of Luke’s hands were cuffed around the post, and he couldn’t even get comfortable enough to rest. His hands were starting to go numb from having them raised up, and when he tried to let his arms dangle, the cuffs cut painfully into his wrists. When the pain got to him, he finally spoke up.

“Could you please just let one of my wrists loose so I can sleep?” he asked Harrelson. The deputy gave him a look for a few seconds, and then he got up from the squeaky bed. He then picked up the flashlight and instead of unlocking one of Luke’s wrists from the bed, he walked right by him and took out a cigarette. He flicked the flashlight off and stuck it in his belt loop, and then the small blue flame of a lighter lit up the cigarette as it outlined the edges of his stone cut face. The deputy took in a deep draw from the cigarette, and the small orange glow burned bright at the tip. Luke’s eyes followed the flame of the cigarette’s tip as it went down to the deputy’s hip, and he heard the long exhale of a satisfying nicotine fix follow. Harrelson tried to clear his throat, and he started to cough that wet phlegmy hack that long-time smokers shared. He coughed hard several times and almost gagged before he finally got control of himself, and Luke heard his lips smack as he swallowed whatever he had coughed out loose from his lungs. When the lip smacking stopped, Harrelson spoke up.

“Kid, I can’t trust you enough to do that.”

“But you trust them enough?” Luke replied with an emphasis on Dick and Matchstick.

“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” Matchstick piped up from the dark.

“Yeah, Greenie. You’re the one who keeps losin’ people. Not us,” Dick declared defensively.

“Keep it down, you three,” Deputy Harrelson ordered as he flicked the ashes from his cigarette to the cold concrete floor. Another draw from the cigarette, followed by another hacking cough, and Harrelson sat down on the creaky mattress. “Sorry, Luke, but you got to stay sittin’ up and awake until Riggs gets back. Ya’ see, you got some explainin’ to do.” The flashlight flicked on again, and Deputy Harrelson held the little wooden box in his hand, the same box that Luke had taken from the Newberry Mansion, the same box that had been stolen from beneath his pillow. The very one that he needed to return to the red lady of Newberry Mansion so that Angela and Willie could be released. He couldn’t wipe the look of surprise from his face fast enough, and Harrelson saw it in his expression. “You know what this is, boy?”

“It’s a box, made of wood,” Luke said dryly. He met Harrelson’s eyes with his own, and his irritation at the deputy was conveyed through the expression he held.

“Good, I knew you were a smart kid. Your buddy over there, Matchstick I think it was you called him. He had it in his possession, and like I said before, he told Candy that he had nicked it from you during the night. Now I’m goin’ to ask again, do you know what’s inside this box?” Luke shrugged his shoulders. It ticked him off that his best friend had stolen his stuff, and he was particularly irritated to be reminded that Matchstick had betrayed him and that he couldn’t trust him. More than that, he was cut deep by the betrayal. The last thing he felt like doing just then was answering twenty questions in a police interrogation. “No?” Harrelson flicked open the top with the index finger of his other hand, the one with the cigarette, and ashes flew from the tip when he did. Someone had unlocked the box, though Luke didn’t know who, and truthfully, it didn’t matter. Everybody seemed to be able to get it open but himself, and that ticked him off, too. “I’ll give you three guesses,” Harrelson continued, and he was serious. Luke shrugged his shoulders again, and he heard Dick shuffling on his bed in the dark. Matchstick stayed quiet; perhaps he had had enough of these mysteries.

“It’s a rabbit,” Luke finally answered sarcastically.

“That’s one. Guess again.”

“Little tiny handcuffs? Tighter than the ones you have on me?”

That got a grin out of Harrelson. “I like that, kid. But, no, not handcuffs.”

Luke thought harder about it. He had actually become interested in this cat and mouse game which Harrelson was playing, and he wanted to give it a better try on his last attempt. “It’s a key.”

“Locked up in a wooden box, where it could be kept safe? Is that what you think?”

Luke shrugged his shoulders again.

“Pfft! You’re no fun. It’s not a key,” Harrelson said and flipped the lid closed again with one finger. Then he enveloped the box in the palm of his hand, and he slipped it into his other front shirt pocket. “I guess you’ll never know,” he said, and though he should have expected him to keep it a secret after his ridiculous guesses, Luke was slightly disappointed anyhow and it showed on his face in the dim glow of the flashlight. The winds kicked up outside, and acorns and limbs struck the side walls of the dormitory in a barrage. The weather was getting worse very quickly, and his father had not returned yet from the island. “I think you do know what’s in the box, kid. After all, it was in your possession before Matchstick took it from you.”

“Borrowed it!” Matchstick corrected from his bunk.

“Yeah, sorry, borrowed it,” Harrelson said as he threw the finished cigarette butt to the floor and stomped out the orange glow. He was ruining the dorm floor, but he didn’t look apologetic. “You would be interested to know that, according to the borrower over in bunk number one, there was a silver ring inside.”

“Wait, what? Really?” Luke asked with wide eyes. He turned his head around to look at his friend in the dark. “Where is it?”

There was silence from Matchstick for a moment, and then he sighed. “I gave it away,” he answered.

Dick Berry started laughing. It was a wild, maniacal laughter, the kind that seemed more fake than real. Loud and obnoxious. Both Luke and Matchstick glared at him in his bunk, and Dick glanced over at Luke. “You know where it is then.” He looked over at Matchstick and said, “What a soft puss you are.”

“You gave it to Sonya, didn’t you?” Luke replied.

“Well, yeah, sort of,” Matchstick admitted, and Dick bawled in laughter. “What’s so funny, Dickweed?”

“Nothin’. Here Luke is searchin’ all over the camp for it, losin’ two people in the woods, and all the time you had it. What a great friend you are!” Dick declared with a cry of laughter. No one else seemed to think it was funny. The laughter made Dick seem like a crazy person, and it distracted Luke for a little while from the anger he felt towards his best friend, but only for a moment. When Dick’s amusement finally died down, Luke hung his head as he considered that Dick may be right about Matchstick. He had always been able to trust his friend, but now, things had changed, and he wasn’t sure he even wanted to be in the same room with him anymore. He was handcuffed to a bunk bed though, so he didn’t have a choice in the matter. Matchstick didn’t say anything to dispute the matter, further exacerbating their friendship, and this made Luke even more depressed about their friendship. All trust was gone. Finally, he lifted his head, and he saw that Deputy Harrelson was watching him, not Dick or Matchstick. Eyes boring into him as if they could read his soul.

“You got somethin’ you want to confess?” he asked Luke and then covered his mouth as he went into another hacking fit. Luke shook his head no. “All right, suit yourself,” he told Luke, and he got up from the bunk with a squeak and strode confidently over to where Dick was stretched out. “Dick, you’re comin’ with me?”

“Where we goin’?” Dick asked. He sat up on the bed and waited for Harrelson to sort his keys with the flashlight hanging over his forearm.

“I’m movin’ you over with your sister. She’s probably more used to your tongue flappin’ than these boys,” the deputy said as he found the handcuff key on the ring. He unlocked the one cuff which held Dick to the bed rail, and while he was putting the keys into his pocket, Dick snatched the flashlight hanging in the crook of Harrelson’s elbow. “What are you doin’?” the deputy got out just as the flashlight struck him in the head. Harrelson didn’t budge at first, he just sort of tottered on his feet, stunned, until Dick hit him again, but this time with an uppercut. The deputy fell hard on his backside with a grunt, and the keys fell onto the concrete by his side. Dick seized them from the floor, and he jumped across the bed where Luke was hitched up. He quickly unlocked the cuffs which held Luke to the bed, and then he pointed the bright flashlight in Luke’s face.

“We got to get my sister loose,” he told Luke, and Luke rubbed his wrists to get the feeling to return. He had tingles all up and down his arms from the numbness the awkward position had caused him, and he stood up and shook his hands and arms to get the sensation to return. “Come on.”

Luke looked over at the bunk where Matchstick was held. “Aren’t you going to let him loose, too?”

“Heck, no, Greenie. He ain’t nothin’ to me.”

“But for some reason, I am?”

“Not to me, but you are to my sister, and that counts for somethin’.” Luke heard the deputy groaning on the floor, and he looked over at him in the dark. “Don’t worry about him. My dad did worse to me, and I’m still kickin’. Now, come on, quit wastin’ time.”

“Yeah, Luke. Quit wasting time,” Matchstick said from his bunk. Luke took a chance and wrestled the keys from Dick’s hands, and Dick didn’t put up much of a struggle. Maybe the strangler had knocked the sense out of his son with the beatings he gave his kids, or maybe Dick himself just didn’t care what Luke did for Matchstick at the moment. Either way, Dick let him have the keys, and Luke unlocked Matchstick’s cuffs. Matchstick rubbed his wrist where the cuff had been too tight, and he looked up at Luke. “What are you going to do now that he’s assaulted a deputy, huh?”

“You can do what you want, but I’m going back to the island, and I’m going to return the ring and wooden box.”

“How are you going to get the ring from Sonya? She’s not going to just hand it over to you after I gave it to her,” Matchstick said.

“Funny how this works. You gave her something that didn’t belong to either of us. Something dangerous that has to be returned to its rightful owner, and you’re going to help me fix it. We’re going to find Sonya tonight, and then you’re going to ask her to give the ring back to you. After you get it back, you’re going with me across the river,” Luke explained with his index finger pointing at his best friend’s chest.

“Oh . . . yeah. I guess,” Matchstick said sheepishly. “But in this weather? We’ll get swept away.”

Luke then stepped over to the unconscious deputy and fished the box out of his front pocket. “If you haven’t noticed, Deputy Riggs and my dad haven’t made it back yet, and I don’t think they’re coming back unless we go get them. That ring and this box have to be returned, or Angela and Willie will be stuck over there forever.”

“You’re full of it, Luke. This isn’t a movie scene where we return the artifact and save the day. This is real life,” Matchstick said in the most mature voice Luke had ever heard him use. “You’ve assaulted a deputy, and you’re throwing in with the likes of the Berrys.” Dick had stood by idly watching them argue until that comment, and his eyes suddenly squinted shut as he glared at Matchstick, who ignored it. “You’re not the friend I used to know,” he told Luke.

“Neither are you. What were you thinking, stealing from me?”

Matchstick didn’t reply; he simply shrugged his shoulders. Dick stepped in between them and swiveled his head between the two.

“Let me know when you two girls are finished. There’s a hurricane comin’,” Dick said as the wind whipped sideways in a gust that shook the windows of the dorm. Matchstick nodded once as he looked at both Dick and Luke.

“All right, let’s get moving then. It’s a bad night to get caught on the Neuse,” Luke replied to both of the boys. One was his arch enemy; one was his best friend.

“Level one complete,” Matchstick said with a wink. The game was on.

Chapter 15

*

It didn’t take long to find Candy and set her free. The deputies had handcuffed her to a table in the girl’s dormitory, and they had left her alone in the dark. Luke called out to her and he used Harrelson’s flashlight to find her, and when he discovered her, she started crying. He wasn’t sure if they were tears of happiness to be free or tears of sadness at her plight, but when he unlocked her handcuffs, she grabbed him and held him in a tight hug as Dick and Matchstick looked on. Her hair was under his nose and chin, and he felt her sobs as her arms squeezed his chest. His heart softened a little at her sadness, and he put one arm around her waist to comfort her.

“It’s okay now,” he told her, an expression he had learned from his own mother when she had comforted him. He waited patiently and when her sobs finally died down, he stepped back away from her so she could see his face. The tears were fresh in her eyes, and she wiped them away quickly with the back of her hand. Her eyes were puffy, and she felt embarrassment as she looked over at her brother. She then turned back to Luke, and he gave her a thin smile as he started to explain. “The hurricane is coming, and I have to find Angela and Willie,” he explained to her gently. “Dick is here for you now, and he’ll stay with you through the storm,” he added and shifted his gaze to Dick. “Won’t you, Dick?”

“I’m not goin’ out in this storm, if that’s what you mean, Greenie,” Dick replied prickishly.

“Come on, Luke. We better get moving if we’re going to see Sonya before the storm really sets in,” Matchstick said, and they started for the door.

“How are you goin’ to get there, huh? Walk?” Dick asked sarcastically. Truthfully, neither Luke nor Matchstick had given it much thought, and it was an awful night to be outside. “Yeah, that’s the big gap in your plan as I see it.”

“You know how to drive, Dick,” Candy said. “Why don’t we drive them over?” For once, Dick didn’t look cross at his sister at her question. In fact, a grin spread across his face.

“I appreciate the help in escaping, but this isn’t your fight, Dick,” Luke told him, and Dick walked up to him with that smug grin still on his face. “What are you thinking?” Luke asked.

Dick put his hand on his shoulder, and he laid his empty palm out between them. “Pass me the sheriff’s keys, Greenie.” Luke then realized that not only did he have the handcuff keys, he also had Deputy Harrelson’s car keys. His eyes grew as big as saucers at the recognition of what Dick was thinking, and he placed the keys in his palm. Dick sorted through the ring of keys and held up the car door key. “I said I wouldn’t go out in the storm before, but stealing a sheriff’s car? I can’t miss that.”

**********

Within minutes, they were heading down the wet country roads, Dick in the driver’s seat, Matchstick in the passenger’s seat, and Candy and Luke in the back.

“Where’s Sonya’s house?” Dick asked.

“Over on the Mack Road. You know where that is?” Dick looked over at Matchstick with a pissed off expression.

“Yeah, duh,” his mouth said, but ‘I ain’t no dummy’ was what his eyes said.

“You asked. I was just trying to help,” Matchstick replied. Luke sat in the backseat watching them, and he thought it was funny seeing the two of them talk to each other, and a smile cut across his face. Above all the other things they had done wrong that day, they were certainly going to jail for this stunt, but he couldn’t do anything about it and he had to find relief for the stress where he could. When he glanced over at Candy, he saw her eyes looking into his own. She had been watching him without him noticing, but she averted her eyes when he finally noticed her.

“Thanks for coming along,” Luke said to her.

“I can’t let you do this by yourself. That’s what friends are for,” she said, and a smile as wide as the horizon and as warm as the morning sun spread from ear to ear. At that moment, Luke forgot all about the building crush he might have had for Angela, and his heart melted a little for the girl sitting next to him in the back seat of the sheriff’s patrol car. He had known who she was for many years, but he had never really known what she was like until this summer, and he admired what the person he saw.

“Don’t get too cozy back there, Greenie,” Dick said from up front, and he adjusted the rearview mirror so that he could keep eye contact with Luke.

“Mind your own business,” Candy said and glared at her brother, but Dick paid her no attention.

“How much further do we have to go?” Luke asked, and just as he said it, Dick looked back at him. At the same time, a large oak tree fell across both lanes of the road ahead.

“STOP!!!” Luke and Matchstick yelled in unison, and Dick slammed on the brakes. The car hydroplaned in the thick layer of water on the pavement, and the front end started to turn left while the back end headed right. The patrol car then lost all control and spun in a complete circle before righting itself again with the hood pointed in the direction of they were going. The car was slowing but the immovable tree came closer and closer, and to make matters worse, the tip end of one of the limbs was pointed at the windshield like a giant spear tip. Matchstick covered his face with both arms, and when the car finally came to a complete stop just inches from the perimeter of the fallen tree, the sharp end of the pointed limb grazed the windshield and slid up onto the top of the roof. Luke had closed his eyes at the last second, and when the car stopped, he opened one eye to see what had happened. Dick held his breath and sat frozen in the front seat staring at the gigantic limb that had nearly shattered through the windshield. After a couples of seconds of sitting there silent, he looked at Matchstick and Luke, and then he exhaled the biggest laugh he had ever had in his life.

“Holy crap! That was insane!” Dick hooted, and he slapped the gear shift in reverse to slowly back out from beneath the limb. The roof had a dent in it where the limb had contacted it, and there was a loud scraping sound as the car backed away from the tree.

“How are you going to get around the tree?” Luke asked. “It’s blocking both lanes, and the siding is too steep to drive around.”

“I can’t get around it, Greenie,” Dick answered, and he did a three-point turn and headed back to the last intersection to find another way to Mack Road. “Anybody know another way to get there?” Dick asked, and he looked over at Matchstick as if he was willing to listen to some advice this time around.

“Take a left at the next turn and then take the first left on the Planer Road after that. Go to the end and turn left, and that should bring you further up this road, way past the downed tree,” Matchstick explained.

“You don’t think there are more trees down between here and Sonya’s, do you?” said Luke.

“Does it matter? I mean, how else are we goin’ to get there if we don’t keep tryin’?” Dick replied.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Luke answered. The weather was awful, time was running out, and they had to try to get to Sonya’s to get the ring from her before it was too late for Angela and Willie. Then they would have to make it back to camp again before the worst weather from the hurricane set in. They arrived at the first intersection with no problem at all, and they turned left and drove down to the Planer Road. There was a skinny pine tree down across the road at the intersection which split the Planer Road in two, so they were able to turn left and drive on the wrong side of the road until they got past the tree. About a mile down the Planer Road, they met up with a set of three small oak trees which had fallen together with their root balls sticking up in the sky. The trees were across both lanes, but there was a wide space on the siding, wide enough for two cars to pass, and they drove along the wet grass without slowing down too much and sinking into the mud. As they moved past that set of trees, they got back on the road and had a clear path for another mile or so before they had to turn left again to complete their large square route around the first downed tree. They didn’t encounter anymore downed trees on those streets, and soon they had turned right on the Mack Road and were heading to Sonya’s house. The weather was deteriorating quickly, and the wind had picked up in gusts. Invisible forces of air buffeted the patrol car from one side and then to the other. Low hanging limbs and small trees bent over into their path and slapped the windows as they rode on, and Candy was so scared in the back seat that she grabbed Luke’s hand and held on tight. They were taking a narrow ninety-degree curve when a small oak tree uprooted and fell across the road in front of them, and though Dick slammed on the brakes, they slid into the tree. The patrol car survived the wreck with a few minor scratches, but the ditches on either side of the road were too steep to drive on and there was no getting past the tree in the road.

“Now what? If we sit here for very long, we’re going to get pinned in between trees,” Luke said from the back seat, and Candy clinched his hand tighter when he said it. Dick looked at him in the rearview mirror.

“Looks like you’re walkin’ from here,” Dick replied.

“In this weather?! That’s insane!” Matchstick protested.

“Do I have to remind you that we’re doing this because you gave her the ring?” Luke asked him rhetorically. Matchstick shook his head and opened the car door against the pressing wind.

“Come on,” Matchstick said, and Luke started to get out of the car when Candy squeezed his hand again.

“Be careful,” she told him.

“Yeah,” he said as he stepped out of the patrol car. “Keep the lights on for us,” he said to Dick, and Luke forced his way through the canopy of leaves and then under the tip end of the oak tree. Matchstick got out under protest, and they broke into a jog in the wind and rain. Soon, they could no longer see the patrol car through the leaves of the fallen tree, only the headlight beams, but they knew that they only needed to follow the street to find them again.

“What’s your plan when we get there?” Matchstick asked with his hood over his head, covering his face.

“She’s your girlfriend. I thought you should be the one to get the ring back from her.”

“It’s always my fault, I see.”

“In this case, you have all the blame for stealing it from me in the first place.”

Matchstick stopped arguing with Luke after that, and they jogged silently down the road for another mile in the miserably dreary weather. At the end of the mile, they came to the outskirts of a neighborhood surrounded by woods. There were light posts spaced evenly throughout the subdivision, and many of the homes had the lights on inside. It occurred to them that many people there were either eating a late dinner or settling in to watch television for the evening. Luke’s stomach growled audibly at the thought of eating a warm meal in dry clothes, and he wondered if Matchstick felt the same way just then.

“Are you hungry?” Luke asked his friend suddenly.

“I’m a teenager. All I do is eat and play video games.”

“Do you think you could get us something to eat when we get to Sonya’s house?”

“I’ll ask, but don’t count on it. Her parents are funny, you know. They never invited me over for dinner, and the way I look right now, I can tell you they aren’t going to even let me inside,” he told Luke as he held up his arms and displayed his soaked through clothes. Luke was disheartened, and his growing hunger was affecting his mood. Though he didn’t want it to, it showed on his face, and Matchstick recognized it right away. “Don’t worry, if she comes to the door, I’ll ask her for something to eat, too.”

“Thanks,” Luke said as they took a side street into the neighborhood. There was a wooden sign held up by red brick columns on either side with the words ‘Dogwood Ferries’ eloquently written across it. “Sonya lives with the fairies?” Luke asked, and they both busted up laughing so hard that they had to stop to catch their breath.

“We have to take a right at the T intersection at the end of this street, and her house is the last one on the left,” Matchstick directed when he had finally caught his breath. There was a street light at the intersection, and they braced themselves against the pole for just a moment as the wind gusted and pushed the crape myrtles over almost to the ground. The droplets of rain reflected in the light as they fell, and the watery beads appeared as a steady shower of shiny pellets, pelting them cruelly as the force of the storm intensified. “Let’s keep moving,” he yelled at Luke over the wind. Based on the way the lights were spaced apart, there should have been a street light at the end of the lane where Sonya’s house was located, but no lights were on in the houses at the far end of the street and the structures seemed to fade into the dark shadows of the forest in the background.

“Are you sure the house is back here?” Luke asked, but Matchstick didn’t immediately reply. It was hard to tell in the dark, but Luke thought that something was bothering his best friend. “Did you hear me?” he yelled out over the noise of the storm, and Matchstick nodded his head under his hood.

“Something isn’t right,” he told Luke and held his arm out to stop him from going any further.

“What are you talking about? We don’t have any more time to waste,” Luke said and pushed past him. Matchstick shook his head in frustration and followed in behind him close enough so that he could talk to him without yelling.

“All of the lights are off at the end of the lane. It shouldn’t be that way if Sonya’s family is at home. Doesn’t that bother you?”

“It doesn’t seem right,” Luke admitted, “but we can’t second guess what we have to do. Not this far along.” So they stayed close together as they moved past the empty looking homes, and it wasn’t until they reached the front yard at Sonya’s house that they felt it in the air. Something unnatural. Something . . . evil. The neighborhood of Dogwood Ferries was settled in the midst of rolling hills, and the Morning house was perched at the top of one of those hills. The front yard was a steep incline which led through a narrow wooded area and then was cut in two by a brick sidewalk which wound its way up to the front porch. A paved driveway was the only clear, straight path up the hill to the home, and as they hiked the black asphalt, they sensed an increase in the speed of the circling winds. Before he knew it, Luke was leaning forward with all of his weight, pushing against the wind, and he felt that if he eased up and stood upright in the driving wind, he would be blown down the hill like a tumbleweed. He continued to struggle his way up the hill, and halfway to the top, he grabbed hold of a small dogwood tree planted along the side of the pavement, steadying himself so that he could rest for a moment. The jogging on Mack Road hadn’t been so bad, but hiking up that hill against the wind was more work than he would have imagined.

“This wind is too strong!” he yelled over at Matchstick who was also bent over with his legs spread apart, trying to stay standing.

“Do you want to turn back now?”

Luke considered it. They had met adversity all along the way, but he thought he should face his fears. He wouldn’t lie to himself any longer. There was something holding them at a distance, and if they weren’t careful, the storm was going to take their lives before the night was over. Luke gritted his teeth, and he let go of the tree and gently pinched the front of his friend’s jacket and tugged it up the hill.

“We can’t stop now. It isn’t just our lives that are at stake,” Luke said at last. “I need you to help me, Matchstick. I can’t do this alone.” Matchstick frowned but took a step forward with his friend and put a hand on Luke’s shoulder.

“This isn’t a video game, you know. We can’t just reset it if something goes wrong,” he told Luke. “I’ve come with you this far, but there’s something very wrong with Sonya’s house, and I’m afraid this wind is just a warning. I hate to admit it, but you may have been right about that ring. I felt it, a nauseating and sickening feeling when I opened the wooden box and found the ring inside. And I feel it again now.”

“Listen, the only thing I know to do now is pray. You and I, we can’t fight the wind and the weather by ourselves. I know what’s waiting for us at the Newberry Mansion, and there is no strength in us that can stand against it,” Luke proclaimed, and he knelt down on his knees on the driveway there in the pouring rain, and he prayed like his mother had taught him every night. It was a simple prayer, and he repeated it, hoping the heavens would hear. Matchstick closed his eyes in respect, and though he wasn’t sure even how to pray, he did ask God to protect them. When Luke finished on his knees, he got to his feet and fought his way against the forces of nature up the long driveway, resting from tree to tree, until they reached the top of the hill where the brick foundation of the house rose before them.

**********

When Luke and Matchstick disappeared on the other side of the fallen tree, Dick put the car in reverse and crept slowly out from under the canopy of limbs and leaves. Then he pressed the door locks on all four doors.

“What are you doin’?” Candy asked from the backseat of the patrol car.

“What do ya think? I’m gettin’ outta here before we get any more trees dropped on us.” Candy suddenly bolted up in the seat and slapped the wire cage that separated them.

“You coward! You can’t just leave ‘em out here in the storm like that!”

“Sure, I can. Just watch me,” he said and drove slowly in the opposite direction down Mack Road. Candy fumed visibly in the back seat, but Dick flipped the rearview mirror up where he could no longer make eye contact with her. “We helped ‘em, and you know it. They can finish their little quest without us. I’m droppin’ you off at the house, and then I’m takin’ this car back to camp before the deputies know what happened.”

“You’re as big a liar as daddy ever was,” Candy said with her arms crossed. “Luke needs our help, and all you have to do is stick around long enough to drive us all back to camp. It ain’t gonna be that long before they return, and then you can go crawl under a rock and hide until the storm’s passed.” Dick slammed on the brakes and the car slid to a stop in the middle of the lonely road. He threw the car in park and whipped around on her.

“I’ve heard enough of your whinin’, girl,” he said with a finger in the air. “Luke ain’t your boyfriend, and he ain’t your friend, neither! We’re brother and sister, and we got to stick together no matter what.”

“’Cause we got nobody else, right? Well, I’m tired of havin’ nobody else but family, and I don’t intend on bein’ alone for the rest of my life with you. It don’t matter none to me that Luke’s not my boyfriend. He’s my friend, and that’s somethin’ to me even if it ain’t to you. If you’re not goin’ to wait for them, then let me out of this car right now,” she said and tried to unlock the door. She found that it was no use; the passengers in the back seat of a patrol car were usually suspects and were at the mercy of the patrolman. Short of tearing the moldings off the door by hand, there was no way to get to the locking mechanisms and unlock the door. “LET ME OUT!” she yelled at him.

To her surprise, she heard the locks in the back doors disengage, and when she tried to open the door, it cracked open. Dick didn’t turn around, and she looked into the rearview mirror and spoke.

“I’m leavin’. If you find that you want to be a real friend and help out, then look for me on the road. If not, then I’ll see ya at home whenever we’re done,” she said and got out of the patrol car and into the rain. She shut the door, and as Dick sat there alone in the car, watching the wind bend the trees to and fro, his lips pressed into a tight line as thoughts raced through his mind. He adjusted the rearview mirror, and he watched the shadowy figure that he knew was his younger sister walking away. She stumbled along in the rain, moving from one side to another in the blowing wind. He moved the mirror again so that he couldn’t see her reflection, and when he let go of the mirror, he caught the image of his own eyes in the glass. The eyebrows, the nose, the lines on his forehead, they all reminded him of his father, one of the most hated men the town had ever known. It was a reflection which bothered him deeply, and he twisted the mirror so that he couldn’t even see himself any longer. Self-examination was not a practice Dick Berry wanted to start doing that day, but seeing the face of his father contained within the lines of his own had made its unusual case to him. He put the car in park, took the keys out of the ignition, and jumped out into the rain. He wasn’t exactly sure what he was doing, but he couldn’t let his sister go it alone.

“Candy!” he yelled out as he started to run toward her. “Candy!”

She must have heard him because she turned around and saw him running for her in the whipping winds. She stopped in her tracks and waited for him to catch up to her. He grabbed her arms with both of his hands, and he looked into her face. Before he could say anything, she stood her ground.

“Dick Berry, I thought I made myself clear. You are not goin’ to stop me from helpin’ Luke.”

Dick shrugged his shoulders, and as the rain ran in rivulets across his face, he looked as if he was struggling to find the right words. At last, he did.

“I ain’t gonna let you do this alone. I don’t much like Greenie, but I ain’t gonna turn my back on you,” he explained, and she could see in his eyes that he meant it. “Come on back to the car, and we’ll wait for them together.” Those were hard words for him to say, and she knew him well enough to know that it had taken a heavy amount of courage for him to speak them.

“You promise?”

“I promise,” he said sincerely. In the distance, they heard the sound of a tree falling in the forest, and they started running back to the patrol car. “I’ve done some crazy stuff in my life, but this has to be the wildest thing yet.”

“Crazier than the time you toilet papered the math teacher’s house in the rain?”

“At least that was fun. Nothin’ about this here trip is entertainin’,” he said when they got back into the car. She sat in the front seat with him, and she turned on the radio to listen to her favorite station. Normally, Dick would have protested and punched her in the arm for changing the channel, but it was different this time. As the radio played in the background, they waited quietly for Luke and Matchstick to come back with the ring.

**********

“I don’t think anyone’s at home,” Matchstick said as they peeked in the rear windows of the covered back porch. Luke had his hands placed on either side of his face to block out any glare, and he stared into the breakfast nook area of the house. From all indications, Matchstick was right. The house looked empty inside from every direction that he could see, but there was a sensation of dread, or fear, which Luke couldn’t quite pin down, and it all stemmed from something inside Sonya’s house.

“Do you know where they keep the spare key?” Luke asked Matchstick without looking at him. He didn’t want to see the look of disbelief that he knew he would cover his friend’s face, so he kept looking on the inside of the house through the windows, waiting for an answer.

“Are you crazy?! That’s breaking and entering!”

“It’s not breaking if you have a key,” Luke contended. “It’s just entering.”

“Yeah, I know where they keep a key, but I’m not about to br- . . . enter the house with no one here. That’s just wrong.”

Luke turned to face him. “Do I have to remind you that you STOLE that ring from me and gave it to her? That we struck Deputy Harrelson and knocked him out. That we took his patrol car without permission and drove it into a tree. Laws have already been broken, and in the grand scheme of things, this would only be another half a law to add to the growing pile.”

“Yeah, but . . . ,” Matchstick tried to think of a good reason to debate the finer points, but he decided it wasn’t worth the effort. “Fine then. The weather isn’t getting any better, and they may not even figure out it was us, especially with all the other charges we’re going to have laid out for us.”

“Look, just pretend this is the video game ‘Adventure’, and you’re going to use the hidden key to try to find the magic dot in order to save people’s lives. You wouldn’t let some pixelated duck-dragon stop you from rescuing a princess, so don’t let this entering thing stop you from the performing a task for the greater good. Angela and Willie’s lives depend on us.”

The video game comparison seemed to take Matchstick to another frame of mind, and he nodded as if he understood.

“Okay, but if it comes down to it and we get caught, this was your idea.”

“I am the duck-dragon of this adventure. I accept full blame,” Luke said with one hand on his heart and one hand in the air as if he was swearing an oath.

“Wait right here,” Matchstick said and ran down the wooden steps and lifted a stone on the side of the walkway. Beneath the rock, there was a key, and he snatched it and ran up the steps holding it up for Luke to see. “Here it is,” he said and placed it in Luke’s open palm. Luke walked over to the storm door, pulled it open, and before he could insert the key into the wooden back door, the door squealed open. So much for the key.

“Not this again,” Luke said, and he returned the key to Matchstick. The gale force winds slipped between the two boys and the storm door, and the wooden door blew open against the inside wall, knocking a nearby picture frame off the wall and onto the floor. They both stood at the entrance and looked inside.

“What do you mean, not again?”

Matchstick hadn’t been with him when he had gone to the Newberry Mansion, and so Luke didn’t bother to explain. What should have been a simple task, retrieving the ring from Sonya, had apparently turned into a significant piece of the quest.

“I guess you’re not going to say, so . . . after you,” Matchstick said, bowed politely, and ushered Luke inside the house. Luke reached over to the inside wall, and he searched for the light switch. There were two switches mounted there just within arm’s reach of the door, and when he flipped them both, nothing happened.

“Great. No power,” Luke said, and he sighed to himself in disappointment. This task was not going to be easy. “You’ve been here a lot, I suppose. Do you know where her bedroom is?”

“Are you kidding? Of course I know where it is, but I was never allowed to go in her bedroom at any time,” Matchstick said. “Her parents are strict about that kind of thing.”

“That doesn’t help us then, because you know that she would have hidden it in her room.”

“Like I said, I know where her room is, Luke. I’ve just never been allowed inside it. We’re in the den now, and the hallway to the stairs is right there,” Matchstick clarified and pointed straight ahead. “Follow me,” he said, and he walked across the den with Luke close behind. They tiptoed across the hardwood floors to the end of the room, and then they reached an even darker hallway. There were no windows in the hallway, and the little bit of outdoor light that was available in the den was sucked up by the closed in space. Matchstick felt around with his hands and shuffled his feet until his foot hit the bottom stair tread. The hallway was wide and split in half with the stairs on one side, and when Matchstick found the railing with his hand, he started climbing the steps to the next floor. Luke couldn’t see him, but he could hear his footsteps, and he trailed him up the flight of stairs to the landing at the top. It was still very dark on the next floor, but Luke could tell that they were at the end of another long hallway. The curtains must have been lifted inside the rooms because he could see that there were at least six doorways on this level, three on each side of the hall.

“Which door?” Luke whispered.

“It’s the one in the middle on the left.”

“This is a big house. What do they do with all of this space?”

“Enjoy it, maybe? I don’t know. You sound like a real estate agent,” Matchstick said. “Don’t spoil this adventure by acting like an adult.”

“Sorry. Just making conversation,” Luke said. The doors were all placed so that they mirrored each other on each side of the hallway, and when they passed the first set of doors, Luke looked inside the first room on the left and out of the corner of his eye, he saw the shadow of a person in front of one of the windows. Impulsively, he reached out and grabbed Matchstick by the shoulder and pulled him backward to look into the room. “I saw somebody in there,” Luke whispered, but when he stopped and studied the window more closely, he discovered that he was wrong. What he had actually seen was the shape of a table lamp blocking the window.

“Where? I don’t see anybody,” Matchstick replied, and Luke was at a loss.

“Nothing. Nothing. I thought I saw something, but I was wrong,” Luke admitted. “Let’s keep moving.”

“It’s your nerves. You’re just on edge. Breaking rules will do that to you.”

“And you would know, huh,” Luke chuckled and followed in behind Matchstick to the doorway of Sonya’s room. Oddly enough, when they peeked inside of her bedroom, there was a strange glow coming from the inside.

“What the crap?!” Matchstick exclaimed as a powerful wind blew through the hallway, tossing them into the bedroom and slamming the door closed behind them.

**********

“What the crap is taking them so long?” Candy said as she reached over to the volume knob on the radio, and she turned it down so that they could talk.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a long way to Sonya’s house. Maybe they fell in a ditch. Maybe a tree fell on them,” Dick said, and Candy swatted him across the chest.

“Don’t say stuff like that,” Candy snapped. “There’s nothin’ funny about it.”

“Well, what do you want me to do? Chop down that tree blockin’ the road?”

“Would you?” Candy said, and her eyes lit up with the suggestion.

“What?! No!”

“I’ll bet there’s some tools in the trunk, maybe a hatchet,” she said ignoring him, and she hopped out of the car. Dick didn’t follow; he just sat there in the patrol car, staring at the ceiling and shaking his head. Candy popped her head back inside and said, “Come on!”

Dick huffed and mumbled to himself under his breath something about opening his big mouth, and he reached down beneath the seat to find the trunk release. With a click, the trunk popped open, and he got out and joined his sister who was already bent over deep in the trunk. He had his arms crossed, and he waited there until she came up with a full length red-bladed axe in one hand and a black-bladed machete in the other.

“Here,” she said and handed him the axe. “I’ll whack the small limbs back with this so that you can get to the tree trunk,” she told him, and she ran off in the rain toward the fallen tree in the road. It wasn’t a very large tree, but there were a lot of leaves and limbs. She was right handed, and she placed her right leg against the trunk and swung down on the limbs on the other side of the tree so that the tree could do the blocking for her and keep her from chopping herself with the sharp blade. “Watch out and give me some space,” she warned her brother, and she started chopping the tree just past the double yellow line in the road. The machete was extremely sharp and must not have ever been used because she was taking off an entire limb with each swing. Within a couple of minutes, she had the top half of the tree de-limbed on one side of the road, and she threw the biggest limbs off into the ditch. The rest blew away in the strong winds.

“Your turn,” she said as she looked at her brother. Standing out there in the rain, he was soaked from head to foot, and he didn’t look as excited as she apparently was to be chopping a tree into smaller logs.

“You look like you’ve had some practice, but I ain’t never done this before,” he told her.

“Just pick a spot on the other side of the road, and start choppin’,” Candy told him.

“No kiddin’,” he replied sarcastically, and he clutched the axe just below the head with one hand and about midways with the other. He was getting ready to swing down on the tree when she interrupted him.

“Hold on,” she said. “You’ve got to spread your feet apart because if you miss the log choppin’ down like that, the axe is goin’ to go right straight into your foot.” Dick looked at her with squinted eyes, and she couldn’t tell if he was mad at her or just had water in his eyes.

“If you know so much, how’s about you just do the choppin’ then, girl,” he said and shoved the axe in her hands.

“Fine then,” she said, and Candy set the machete down on the pavement and gripped the axe in her hands as she stepped over to the tree. She was at a right angle with the log, and she spread her feet as far apart as she could. Then she brought the axe back over her head and swung down on the log. With her first chop, the blade missed and the handle of the axe struck the tree. The vibration shook her arms to the bone, and the handle was so wet, she almost dropped it on the ground.

“Ha-ha!” Dick laughed out loud and pointed his finger at her as if she had gotten smashed in the face with a banana cream pie. “You swing like a girl!”

“Come a little closer, and I’ll show you,” she mumbled, and she stepped back three inches and brought the axe back over her head. When she brought it down this time, the blade hit the trunk on the edge and slid through the bark to the pavement of the highway. This time, the reverberation shot back into her arms, and she dropped the axe on the pavement. Dick laughed even harder as he watched, and then she thought about getting the machete and working it through the smaller tree instead. She knew they didn’t have much time left before the hurricane came through, and she decided to try the axe one more time. She moved in another inch and found her spot again, and this time, she took several slow practice swings, lining up the sharp edge with the middle of the wood. When she swung down full force with the axe again, she finally cut a deep slice into the meat of the wood. She gripped the axe by the handle like a lever, and she pried the blade out of the wood and got back into position. She wanted to cut a notch out, and when she swung the next time, she came down at a slight angle. A chunk of wood that would make a beaver happy flew out of the log, and Dick’s laughter on the sidelines quieted down. Thirty more swings later, and the blade cut through the last fibers of wood holding the log together. The top half fell onto the road with only a thin strip of bark connecting it to the rest of the tree. Candy shoved the axe into her brother’s hands, and she took the machete and cut the thin strip of bark loose, completely severing the connection of the two logs.

“There. Now drag that thing off the road,” she ordered her brother, and rather than argue, he grabbed the chopped end in his hands and carried it to the grass on the side of the road. Then he tossed the heaviest end down into the ditch, and the log rolled easily down the hill. Without a word, Candy started walking to the patrol car and got inside, slamming the door. Dick laughed to himself about her as he walked to the car in the rain. Then he got in, turned the car around, and started driving past the tree toward Sonya’s house.

“Where’d you learn to swing an axe like that?” he asked her smugly and looked over at her.

“Dad taught me,” she said. He paused in deep thought what she said, wrinkling his wet forehead in the process.

“But he never cut firewood,” Dick replied, and she only looked at him calmly as he drove down the road. She then flipped on the radio to cover the silence while he pondered the axe.

**********

Sonya Morning stood in front of her bed, and her hands were relaxed at her sides. Even in the dark, the outline of her frame was wrong; Luke couldn’t say exactly how it was wrong, just that it was wrong.

“Sonya?” Matchstick said with hesitation, and she didn’t move. She stood there in the darkness, silently staring at them. Luke watched as his friend stepped over closer to her, and suddenly she moved. Her arm was as fast as a whip, and she smacked Matchstick across his midsection with her hand and knocked him to the floor. “OW! That hurt! What did you do that for?!”

Sonya’s head looked down on the floor at him for a second until Luke took a step forward. The floor creaked, and her head changed direction to focus on him instead.

“Sonya, everything is okay. We wanted to come visit you and see how your family was doing in the storm,” Luke said and approached her very gently. Sonya’s head tilted as she examined him.

“You lie,” she said, but it wasn’t her voice at all. The voice was very unnatural and sounded like a chorus of several people all joined together.

“Where are your parents, Sonya?” Matchstick asked from the floor.

“There’s a storm coming,” she replied, not answering his question.

“Yeah, we got that,” Luke said to her in his rained-on clothes. “What did you do with the ring Matchstick gave you?”

Sonya’s head and shadowed face looked his way.

“Why, we are wearing it, my child,” she growled, and her eyes lit up in yellow. A yellow glow from the ring came from her hands, and she cupped them together and held them up in front of her face.

“Sonya,” Matchstick spoke softly and knelt down before her at the foot of her bed. “We need to take the ring back across the river where it came from.” Sonya averted her gaze from Luke to him. “Could you please take off the ring and let us return it? Please. I’ll find another one for you, but this one has to be returned tonight.” She looked at him with her yellow eyes, and an electric sizzle arced across her eyelids.

“Never,” she whispered, and she threw Matchstick into the wall like he was a tennis ball. “We will not give up the ring, for you nor for anyone else,” she declared, and she shoved Luke through the doorway and out into the hall. “Get out of our house!”

Matchstick scampered off the floor and into the hallway, and the two boys ran down to the end and onto the stairs.

“Now what?” Matchstick said.

“Geez, I don’t know. I didn’t think we were taking on a super human. You never told me she could kick your butt that easy.”

“Ha, ha, very funny. Your jokes aren’t helping,” he said and ducked his head as a cassette tape exploded against the wall, narrowly missing his face. Sonya was coming for them and turning anything sitting around loose into a missile.

“Go downstairs. Maybe we can think of something, but right now, being out in the hurricane is looking safer than being in this house,” Luke added while running down the stairs. She chased them to the first floor, throwing lamps and dolls and record albums at them, sometimes hitting them, sometimes missing them. At the bottom of the stairs, Matchstick ran a different direction toward the front of the house, and Luke tried to follow him but got lost in the dark and kept running into chairs and tables. Within seconds, his friend had left him behind, and Sonya was catching up with him. Finally, Luke laid down on the floor behind a living room table, and he waited there for her to walk by him, as still as a possum.

“This was a horrible idea,” he thought to himself, and he closed his eyes and tried to calm his hurried breathing. There wasn’t much that he could do to change the events as they had occurred. All that he could do at that moment was try to stay calm and keep from being found. His mind wandered back to when he had found the little wooden box in the Newberry Mansion, and he wondered how things had gone so badly since then that Sonya’s life was ruined by this small piece of jewelry. It didn’t make sense to him, and he didn’t know what to do to correct things as they were. He sensed though that getting the ring and taking it back to the mansion was the only course of action that could make things right, even though his life and Matchstick’s life and Sonya’s life all appeared to be in jeopardy at that moment. “Well, my life may be the most in jeopardy,” he thought as Sonya’s footsteps entered the room.

“Where are you?” she asked. “Why are you hiding from us? Wouldn’t you like to come out and play?” she hissed. “Oh, we are going to have so much fun together. You and us and the ring,” she said with a wicked laugh. Luke didn’t know what she was talking about, and he couldn’t understand why she kept saying ‘us’ when she referred to herself. She entered the room through the hallway, and she stood under the entryway with her hands on her hips. Then she raised one hand in front of her face, and when she did, all of the furniture within the room began to rise off the floor on its own, as if gravity had been suspended at her command. Luke stayed still where he was, and the table which he was hiding behind lifted up and floated away. Then a nearby recliner rose two feet in the air and slowly floated over his body, looming menacingly over him. He began to shiver with fear as he imagined the heavy chair dropping on him and crushing him on the hardwood floor, and he braced himself for the impact if it did. The recliner floated over him like a weird version of a parade balloon, and instead of it dropping on him, the velvet covered chair pressed itself against the far wall with all of the other furniture, leaving him alone and exposed on the floor.

“My dear, did you think that you could hide from us so easily?” Sonya’s weird voice spoke to him from across the room. There was no point in his hiding, so Luke rolled over onto his back, and he got to his feet.

“Sonya, I know you are not yourself, but please try to understand that the ring has to go back to the Newberry Mansion,” he reasoned with her.

“We are not going back, and that is final,” she said to him.

“What do you mean by ‘we’? Am I talking to Sonya, or to someone else?”

“Sonya is here, among others. As for who we are, let’s just say that we were trapped on the island, and we thank you for freeing us, but please do not try to spoil your that accomplishment with talk of going back. That’s not happening. Not now. Not ever,” the voices within Sonya explained. She stared into his eyes, and she walked closer to him. Luke didn’t dare move, and when Sonya stood face to face with him, he could see other people behind the features of her face, changing back and forth constantly, and the cycle repeated during the few seconds that he could barely stand to watch. In those few seconds, he only recognized one of the faces as Sonya. Of the rest, he guessed, two of them may have been her parents, but the other one was scaly like a reptile.

“Whoever you are or whatever you are, what you are doing to Sonya isn’t right,” Luke said to the being, and he gently took the hand with the ring in his own. “It isn’t natural, and I can’t let you continue.”

“You can’t let? I see in your eyes, Luke, that you could not stop your own mother’s death, one who was so close to you. You failed her,” the being sneered and pulled the hand with the ring away, balling it into a fist. Sonya’s eyes turned a bright yellow, and she let out a scream of rage, throwing him against the wall of furniture and holding him in place by an invisible force. He tried to flex his arms and push himself off of the sheetrock, but there was little hope of breaking free from this nightmare.

**********

Matchstick flew out the storm door and onto the wet concrete of the front porch, and when the slick bottoms of his sneakers slid across the glassy surface, he tumbled over the edge of the porch and into the steep front yard. He was covered in grass and mud, and he glanced up to see if Luke had followed, but he hadn’t and Matchstick found himself alone in the yard. He took a chance and waited to see if his friend was coming, and when he heard the furniture slamming against the wall inside, he figured Luke wasn’t far behind. He stepped behind the cover of a nearby maple, and while he hesitated, thoughts went rushing through his mind. He didn’t understand what had happened to Sonya. He didn’t understand where her parents had gone. He even wondered why he had let Luke guilt him into running around outside with a hurricane fast approaching.

“None of this makes any sense,” he thought to himself, and he watched the front door to Sonya’s house carefully. There was no sign of Luke or Sonya, and as he observed from the relative safety of the blowing wind and rain, he saw the front door slam to a close. He balled his hands into fists, and he kicked the grass in frustration. “Luke, you dip wad. Where are you?”

Suddenly, a bright white light surged through the glass picture windows, and Matchstick averted his eyes from the intense glare. He hadn’t looked at the light for very long, but it had left its mark on his eyesight. He covered his face with his hands, and he rubbed the soreness in his vision until the white spots had faded to gray. He opened his eyes, and thankfully, he found that he could see once again, but when he turned to gaze at the picture window on the front porch, he was careful to only peer through the gaps between his fingers. There was no light to be seen in the house any longer, and he dropped his hands to his sides in calm surrender. With his mouth wide open, the stinging rain struck his pale cheeks and ran down his chin while he stood frozen behind the cover of the maple tree. Matchstick closed his lips and gulped the mouthful of rain water which had dripped in from the storm, and the first signs of real fear began to take hold of his reckless teenage abandon. This wasn’t like his favorite Atari video game, Adventure. It wasn’t that easy to get the special items hidden in the far flung places and take them to the secret castle at the end of the maze. He didn’t have the hidden key to unlock the impenetrable gate. Matchstick was just himself, a wet, dirty teenage boy who was alone and afraid, and there was no reset or pause that he could switch to stop the action and think over what to do next. There was, however, a massive hurricane bearing down on him while a possessed and crazy ex-girlfriend laid siege to his best friend, and Matchstick didn’t know what to do. Finally, after a minute of standing in the whipping rain, he ducked his head and bent over low to the ground as if he was hiding from an unseen sniper, and he did the one thing he thought he was good at. He started running away from Sonya’s house toward the pitch-black street at the bottom of the wooded hill.

**********

The patrol car slowed down as the woods started to clear on one side of the road and Dogwood Ferries came into view. There was no traffic on the road except for the patrol car, and the headlights beamed as it turned into the first intersection and stopped.

“Now what? I don’t see neither of them boys,” Dick said to Candy.

“It’s a big neighborhood. How about we drive around until we find her address,” she suggested. Dick didn’t argue with her; he knew it wouldn’t get him anywhere.

“All right, but you got to find the house. I got my hands full tryin’ to stay out of the ditches,” he told her. They crept along the narrow and winding unmarked pavement of the neighborhood, looking at house after house beneath the street lights until they came to a T-intersection. Dick looked both ways, and he saw that all of the power was out at the end of the street leading up to a mountain. The street sign ahead read ‘Pit Road’, and Candy slapped him on the wrist excitedly.

“That’s it! That’s the street she lives on,” Candy said and looked both directions, trying to figure out which direction Sonya’s house must be.

“Great. She lives on Pit Road. Does her dad sell tires for a livin’?” he mocked.

“Which way?” she said, ignoring his terrible attempt at a joke.

Dick pointed toward the mountain. “It would be our luck that her house is one of them what has the power out,” Dick supposed, and he went ahead and turned that way down the street. He was going slow and watching everything around him as best as he could through the pouring rain when a blur jumped in front of the headlights of the car and then whizzed across the street and into the woods. It had happened so fast that he had slammed on the brakes, and his heart had jumped up out of his chest and into his throat. Without meaning to, he had nearly plowed into a frightened deer which had bounded across the street in two hops in front of the cruiser, and he sat there with salty sweat beads bubbled across his forehead, gripping the steering wheel as if he was hanging onto it for dear life. He looked casually over at his sister in the passenger’s seat, and her eyes were nearly bulged out of her head as well. Then she hiccupped and started to laugh at him, as if they had just miraculously finished three death-defying loops on the world’s tallest roller coaster. He didn’t want to laugh; it wasn’t the ‘tough’ thing to do, and he didn’t want his sister to see him as weak. But as he saw the wide smile stretch across her face, he found that he couldn’t help himself at that moment. She was his younger sister, and she had always been able to make him smile.

“Are you all right?” he started to ask when a body slammed onto the hood of the car and then came around to the passenger’s side door. They both jumped again, but in this instance, there were no smiles or laughter. The rain outside was pounding the windows so hard and the thing was so darkly garbed that they couldn’t see what was out there. Whatever it was outside, it had moved out of the range of the headlights and around to the side of the car, and since there were no wipers on the side windows, they couldn’t tell if it was another deer, or something else altogether. Yet the shape and shadows indicated that it was a person and not a scared and harmless deer this time. Candy squinted her eyes to try to make the features focus into place, but it was too dark and there was a flood of water pouring across her window to distinguish who was pulling on the door handle and trying to unlock the door. Dick hit the gas pedal with his foot, leaving the person behind, and he drove to the end of the lane and nosed into the steep driveway by the mailbox. They both rolled down their windows enough to see out. Dick read the mailbox and recognized the last name ‘Morning’, and he slapped his sister in the leg.

“Hey! This is the house!” he told her, and without lingering, he gunned it up the steep driveway, past the wooded front yard and parked at the base of the huge house. Candy cracked the door and was going to get out when Dick put his hand on her shoulder. “Are you sure you want to get out? That crazy person could still be out there runnin’ around.” She shrugged her shoulders and smirked.

“Nothin’ we can do about that, is there,” she told him and went out into the rain again. He shook his head at her impulsiveness and got out with her. She looked up at the house in wonder while Dick gazed down the driveway at the person he could see running up the hill. He locked the car doors and then urged her toward the backside of the house where the deck was located. Dick didn’t wait for her to tell him what to do; he started banging on the back door with his fist, hoping somebody was home. After three straight tries and no answer, he kicked the bottom of the door with his foot. She nudged him to the side, and she took two steps back and then rammed her shoulder into the middle of the wooden door. To both their surprise, she ripped the lock out of the soft wooden frame, and the door flew open.

“Hey, I loosened it up for ya’,” Dick defended his sad attempt to get in. Candy was rubbing her shoulder with one hand while pressing a finger to her lips with the other. She had a gut feeling that there was something more that was wrong with Sonya’s house than just lost power. Dick zipped his lip, and he checked behind him as he stepped into the room and tried to flick the light switch. Nothing. Candy grabbed his hand so she could keep track of him, and they crept across the room together in the dark. When they reached the hallway, they stopped and listened to catch if anybody was home, and they were not surprised to hear only the erratic wailing sounds of the growing storm outside. They passed by an end table with a lamp, and Dick unplugged the lamp, took off the shade, and gripped it like a baseball bat. He hadn’t brought any of the tools from the patrol car, and he hoped that the lamp would serve well enough as a baton, though he hoped he would not have to use it. Adding another charge of assault to the mounting list of infractions was not going to help his case when he got caught, but he wanted to be halfway prepared for trouble in any case. They didn’t see anybody in the hallway, and there was no one on the stairs, but there was an awful lot of objects all over the place on the floor, making it even harder to sneak around in the dark. They turned a corner and came into a large room with a picture window, and all of the furniture was placed oddly against the wall. That was when they saw Luke pinned to the wall with duct tape between a chair and a couch.

“Luke!” Candy said aloud when she saw him struggling to get out of the trap. She gently peeled back the tape from his mouth, and when his lips were free, he felt them with his tongue where the skin had been stripped off by the tape. “Are you okay?” she asked while she worked on unwrapping his wrists so that he could help get himself free faster.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Luke told her and before she could get any of the thick tape off his legs, an invisible force shoved Candy and Dick face first into the wall on either side of Luke. A sadistic laugh echoed in the disheveled room, and Sonya stepped out of the shadows of the hallway and stood beneath the arched doorway of the room, laughing at how easily she had trapped the Berrys.

“My, my, my,” the being in Sonya’s body chimed. “The party has started, it seems. The gang is all here,” the being growled in the many voices.

Then, there was a loud ‘thunk’ in the dark, and Sonya’s body grew limp and then fell over onto the floor. Matchstick strode out of the shadows and stood over her unconscious body.

“Never throw a Michael Jackson album at me,” he said to Sonya on the floor, and then he bent over and tugged the cursed ring off of her finger. When he did, three things happened. The first was that the yellow glow coming from under Sonya’s eyelids disappeared. The second was that her parents materialized on the floor beside Sonya. They were both unconscious, but they were all alive and breathing. The last thing that transpired was that the lights came on throughout the house, surprising all of them. Matchstick held the magic ring up in front of his face and considered it, turning it around in his hands.

“You don’t want to put that thing on, do you?” Luke asked him skeptically from his place against the wall.

“Nah, I’m no ring collector. I was just taking a second to admire the magic item we just collected to get past the second level of this adventure,” he explained with no apparent temptation to try it on. He flicked it over at Luke, and Luke stuffed it in his front pocket.

Chapter 16

*

When they were satisfied that the Morning family were all alive and would be all right, the four teenagers left the house and got into the stolen patrol car. Luke sat in the front passenger’s seat this time, while Matchstick sat in the back with Candy. Dick revved the car up and backed it down the steep driveway to the street below, and they all kept out a sharp eye for falling trees. It didn’t seem possible but the wind had picked up to an even greater intensity, and they would have to be even more careful on the roads ahead. Luke reached over and turned on the police radio to listen in on any emergencies that might be going on around them. He thought it would be an unwelcome surprise to come upon another patrol car with all of them on board and with no good explanation as to why they had possession of Deputy Harrelson’s cruiser.

Then a terribly awful thought popped into his head. They had left the campground a good while ago, and that fact alone led him to a very scary question: what if Deputy Harrelson was already awake? Luke pictured Harrelson opening his eyes and getting up off the dormitory floor with a headache and a strong thirst for vengeance. His palms became sweaty and his heart started racing as the imagined story began to run away with itself. The possibilities were endless, but all of the outcomes had them arrested and sitting behind bars for a very long time. Luke rubbed the sweat from his hands onto his wet jeans, which really did absolutely no good at all, and he listened to the static on the police radio more carefully. There was only static for the time being, but with a night like they were having, he knew there would soon be a call going out for the stolen car and their capture. Dick drove past the chopped up tree in the road, and he made some comment to Luke about his sister, ‘the logger’. The remark distracted Luke from his growing dread for a moment, and he asked Dick what he meant by that.

“She chopped the top of that tree off with an axe, Greenie,” Dick said with a smirk.

“You did?” he asked Candy with his head turned around to look into the back seat. She had the hood pulled over her head, and he couldn’t see her face in the dark, but he could hear her voice.

“It was nothin’,” she said simply and left him wondering about that as well. He had never known a girl who was good with an axe before, but then again, he had never known anyone who was good with an axe either. Dick didn’t bother to tell Luke about how she had been worried about them in the rain, and Candy stayed quiet and didn’t say anything else on the matter.

“It’s bad enough drivin’ in this storm, but I ain’t goin’ to listen to no more of this static,” Dick said and flicked off the police radio and flipped on the FM station to listen to music. A Michael Jackson song was playing, and Dick cranked it up. “Here you go, Toothpick. Your favorite singer.”

“The name’s Matchstick, and that’s not my favorite singer,” he said. Luke knew what music he liked, but he wasn’t going to tell Dick. The less they said to the bully, the better. The song played on, and Dick didn’t harass him any more about it, but he did have a smirk on his face as he drove that made Luke want to smack it right off with his fists. Dick was a jerk through and through, and Luke didn’t suppose he would ever grow to call him a friend. Yet, he and Candy had chopped a tree in half in the rain and cleared the road to get to them, and if they hadn’t, Luke would still be trapped in the Morning house. Maybe even dead. That was worth something, wasn’t it?

“I didn’t get a chance to say it yet, but thanks for rescuing us,” Luke said to him. There was that smirk again, spreading across Dick’s face in the orange glow of the radio.

“If it had been up to me, I’d have gone home by now,” he told Luke in no uncertain terms. “It’s Candy’s fault I’m still ridin’ around in this storm with you losers.”

“‘You’re welcome’ would have been as good an answer, Dick,” Candy snapped at him from behind.

Dick didn’t answer her; he turned the radio up louder so he could drown her out with the bass thumping. The way his head was bobbing ever so slightly with the beat, he figured that Dick was the real Michael Jackson fan in the car. The next song that came on talked all about the seeing the rain coming down, and Luke thought that was more appropriate for this long night. Dick dodged more treetops and took a few turns that Luke didn’t remember on the way to Sonya’s, and suddenly they were getting ready to cross a long bridge with a body of running water rushing beneath it. The mighty river was higher than usual with all of the rain, and there were wind-driven waves beating the concrete pillars, sending spray into the air and across the bridge.

“I don’t remember crossing the Neuse on the way to Sonya’s house. Did you take a wrong turn?” Luke asked, but Dick ignored him, stopped at the edge of the bridge, and put the car in park.

“Nope,” he said after sitting there studying the storm through the dim light of his headlights. The bridge was a narrow two-lane passage made of concrete and steel, and the guard rails that ran the length were short and stubby, giving very little cover from the wind and overshooting waves. Dick revved the motor several times as if he were going to drag race across the long, flat passage.

“Look at those waves,” Luke said to him. The river was up higher than he had ever seen it, and water beat the support pillars and sloshed across the highway. “Don’t you dare go across this bridge,” he warned, and Dick gripped the steering wheel tighter.

Dick,” Candy’s voice came from behind. She knew him better than anyone else in the car, and she saw that look in his eye, the one that said ‘screw you’. As if he had heard nothing but a challenge from both of them, Dick shifted the gears from park to drive, and he slammed his foot to the floor. The motor in the patrol car was huge and powerful, built for chasing suspects or blazing to the scene of an accident, and when his foot struck the gas pedal, the back wheels spun and bounced on the slick pavement. He slammed his other foot on the brake at the same time, and the car spun in a circle of burning rubber and smoke. They went a full circle in a doughnut, and then they stopped suddenly as Dick let off the gas. Luke, Candy, and Matchstick were holding onto the dashboard, the back of the seats, and the door handles, trying to stay still and not be thrown through the windows. The smoke cleared, and they were back where they had started on the street again, pointed in the direction of the bridge.

“Dick!” Candy yelled again. Her brother grinned with laughter, and then he gunned it full speed ahead. Luke’s head whipped back against the seat, and he held onto the door handle with one hand and started praying. The bridge was a half mile across at this juncture, a long way to go in a flood, and before they even got a hundred feet, they hit a huge puddle that splashed over the hood and windshield. The deluge covered the glass in a blanket, and nobody could see where they were going. But that didn’t matter to Dick. They just kept going. The windshield wipers did the best they could under the circumstances, like mopping a sea of water back and forth, and when the water finally cleared, they saw that they were in the wrong lane of the highway and heading for a guardrail. Dick made a minor adjustment to straighten their path, and the cruiser’s doors ground against the guard rail on one side, throwing sparks and ripping the door handles off one side of the car before he returned to the center of the road. Luke was praying even harder then, trying not to close his eyes but not wanting to see them crash.

Steam from the waves of water on the hood was rising off the radiator, and Matchstick was swearing in the back seat, using the most colorful and creative groupings of four letter words that Luke had ever heard before. Even his father Andy would have been surprised by the brash vocabulary and interesting combinations, though the language wouldn’t have bothered him in the least. Another wave from the river sloshed over the rails and across the hood of the patrol car, and they lost sight of the road ahead for a few seconds until the windshield wipers had mopped the gallons away. When the murky liquid had been cleared where they could see again, they found that they were driving in the center of the road, and fortunately for them, there were no cars coming from the other direction. Luke couldn’t imagine anyone else crazy enough to attempt the crossing of the bridge under these conditions. Or maybe someone else had tried but had been washed over the sides. It was an awful thought and not encouraging in the least. Luke’s head began to ache as he felt a severe migraine rising up and taking residence behind his eyes. He tried to put some careful pressure on his eye sockets with his fingers, but the car was bouncing and swaying so recklessly that he poked his eye with his thumb in the process. The sloshing of his brain from side to side within his skull was going to mirror the sluicing of the car on the bridge, regardless of how badly it cost him, and he would just have to hold onto the dashboard with his hands and try to cancel the sway to the best of his ability.

“When I get out of this car, I’m kicking his rump to the other end of the bridge,” he thought to himself about Dick, and he bounced upward in the seat with his head touching the roof. As if the other boy had sensed his thoughts, Dick slung the steering wheel from one side to the other, fishtailing the car between puddles on the lonely bridge and throwing Luke’s body against the door frame. When the car straightened again, he laughed out loud about his trick driving like he was a native of Hazzard County.

“This isn’t funny!” Luke yelled at him, and then Dick lost control and the car went into a spin in the center of the road. It all happened so fast that Luke barely had a chance to grasp all that was happening. It was a sensory overload as the patrol car slammed into the guard rail on the passenger’s side, knocking the concrete and steel into the rushing river below. The windshield shattered into tiny fragments, letting the wind and the rain pummel Luke in the front seat. He looked out his side window and saw the raging current flowing out between the piles of the bridge, and he wondered why he could see down into the river by looking out of the side window. He didn’t feel the headache throb just then, and so his mind began to catch up with reality. He turned and looked at Dick, who was unbuckling his seat belt and ripping the keys from the ignition, and he watched as his arch nemesis struggled to open the driver’s door to get out. Luke turned his head to gaze at the river below again, and then the screaming started to register in his ears. He didn’t know how long the screaming had been happening, but now that he heard it, it was deafening, even with the storm winds blowing through the busted windshield. When he realized that it was his own voice and no one else’s, he held his breath and tried to unbuckle the seat belt. He found that he was leaning against the door, and he noticed that the angle of the world outside of the windshield was tilted heavily to one side. That was when the reality of his circumstances came rushing into his consciousness at the same time as the throb of the migraine. The patrol car was dangling by a thread from the bridge and slowly being tugged by gravity toward the violent flood waters of the Neuse River below. Luke ignored the throbbing wave of the migraine, and he pressed the release button on the seat belt, but nothing happened. Trying to keep his cool, he pressed the button again and worked the buckle in and out with no success. It was jammed. He looked up at Dick, but he had gotten out of the driver’s side door and had jumped down out of sight on the pavement. Luke craned his head around to see if Candy and Matchstick had gotten out, and he cringed when he saw that they were trapped in the back seat of the patrol car. The cruiser was only a cruel machine, a tool with no inkling that they weren’t criminals, suspects, or violent prisoners. They were somewhat innocent teenagers who were out on a dreary night trying to save the small world which rotated within their young and inexperienced lives.

And they had been deserted by Dick.

“Dick,” Luke swore the four letter name under his breath. Not only had he endangered Luke’s life, he had also been negligent with two other innocent lives, and Luke’s migraine was forced away by the anger which welled up with an unstoppable force like the flooded river waiting below. “Get your seat belts off!” he yelled to his friends in the back. “I’ll get you out!” he promised, but he didn’t know how he was going to make good on that promise, nor did he know how he was going to get himself out either. His eyes darted around searching for a sharp object, and the only thing he could find within reach was a shard of broken glass that had fallen on the floor between his feet. He opened the glove compartment and found a pair of leather work gloves, and he slid them on each hand. Then he carefully snatched up the triangle of glass and sawed on the section of seat belt around his waist with it. The glass was extremely sharp, and he was glad that it hadn’t struck him during the wreck, but also glad that it had landed within his reach. After an interminably long minute of sawing across the tightly woven threads, he was three-quarters of the way through the belt when the car suddenly dropped a foot down with only the jagged ends of exposed rebar from the bridge holding the car in a fragile suspended cradle above the flood.

“Maybe this isn’t going to work,” he thought as he kept sawing. He looked down at his hand and felt the slick of blood on his gloves, and he realized that the glass had punctured the thin leather with the sudden fall. It was too late to worry with pain then, and he kept digging into the fibers of the seat belt as long as he could stand it.

“Where’s Dick?! Why isn’t he helping?!” Candy shouted in terror. They were hanging onto the seats, hoping for a door to unlock and open out onto the bridge, yet it wasn’t happening. Not tonight or any other night when Dick was the last hope for survival. Luke cut the last threads of the seatbelt away and flung the cutting glass out the front windshield to the river below. He knew the driver’s side door was unlocked, and he pressed the button to unlock the back doors as well.

“Try the door, Matchstick!” he yelled to his friend, and when Matchstick lifted the handle and pushed on the weight of the door, nothing happened. “Come on! Push!”

“I am!” Matchstick yelled as he braced his feet on the backside of the driver’s seat and pressed upward with his shoulder and head on the door. The door stayed shut. He lifted the handled and pressed again, straining with all his might, but nothing was happening.

“Push like you mean it!” Luke yelled at him as he opened the front driver’s door to climb out. Matchstick didn’t argue; he just grunted and pushed again with all of his strength. Luke awkwardly climbed out of the car, and his eyes found Dick’s shadowed form standing alone on the bridge, many feet clear of the wreckage. He couldn’t see Dick’s eyes, but he could read body language and recognized shock when he saw it. Dick’s hands were clenching his body to stay warm in the driving rain, and there was an indication of a shiver beneath his clothes. “Throw me the keys!” Luke yelled to Dick as he jumped down to the pavement. The keys came at him and hit him in the head before he was ready, and they jangled into a crack in the asphalt beneath the tilted cruiser. The time for useless swearing was past, and Luke dove to his knees under the frame of the car and stuck his fingers into the rough crease in the road. He bent his head down close to the ground, and the patrol car dropped another six inches, touching his hood with a tap and causing him to slide away from the danger of the falling car. It held, and he swore at himself for the distraction. That self-protective move could have cost his friends their lives, and he wouldn’t forgive himself if it did.

“Aren’t you going to do something for a change?!” he snapped at Dick, but except for another whole body shiver, Dick didn’t budge. Luke was wasting his breath waiting for help from him; he could see the paralysis of shock in Dick’s eyes. The rebar creaked and groaned again. There was no time to waste any longer so he dove to the crack in the pavement beneath the car again, digging and straining to get the keys out before the vehicle and his friends were washed away in the great Neuse River flood of Hurricane Abigail. He dug deep into the jagged pavement with his knuckles, and he scraped and scratched with his fingertips, but the keys were out of reach. Then he felt around him for anything he could find to fish it out of the hole, and he came across a thin wire mesh. The mesh formed a grid of squares from small gauge wire, probably used to strengthen the concrete form, and there was one end longer than the others. He took the mesh and warped it with his hands, ignoring the bleeding from the recent cut, and he was able to make a hook on one end while compressing the remainder so that the mesh was thinner than one of his own fingers. Then he stuck the hook down in the crack as far as it would go, and he dragged it up to see if he had caught anything. The first time, there was nothing, and before he stuck the hook back in, he peeked into the dark crevice. He couldn’t see the key ring very well, but it was there. With one eye on the ring and the other on the hook, Luke carefully scraped past the pavement surrounding the key ring and into the plane of the inner diameter. The hook was in the key ring. At last, he had it!

The rebar bent toward the river another inch, and the car dropped suddenly along with it. Luke jumped with the abrupt movement, and the key ring fell back down into the crack, positioned even further than it had been before. He was almost out of time, and he dipped the hook through the crack and around the ring again, but when he lifted this time, the keys twisted and hung up in the asphalt. With his other hand, he pushed his fingers as far as they would go into the pavement and he pried the gravel and tar away with his fingernails until he could feel the keys. He felt the key ring slip around the end of his index finger. He curled his finger up and immediately jingled on the keys. At first, the keys were turned in all directions and some of them were wedged crosswise between layers of asphalt. He pushed down and loosened them, jiggling them to and fro until they broke loose, and then he eased the set of keys up gently until he could see the glint of metal in the dim moonlight. In the background of his vision, he saw the patrol car had sunken over the side of the bridge, the side door was almost level with the street, and now that he had the keys, he didn’t know if he could do anything to save his friends. He had to try though. He sorted the keys on the ring and found the door key, and then he held onto the guard rail with one hand and climbed over the side of the railing behind the trunk of the dangling car. The flood waters below were dizzying to watch, and the roar of the current was almost as deafening as the winds of the storm. To save himself from the growing fear of death, Luke stared at the trunk and windshield of the car, and he found that if he stretched his arms full length and pushed against the broken concrete toward the water below with his feet, he could touch the latch to the trunk with his hand. If the rebar moved any more though, his opportunity would be lost. With the door key held out, he inserted it into the trunk, and he turned. When he did, it occurred to him that he had not considered what would happen when the latch opened. The trunk lid flew open with the keys still in it, sending a shudder through the car, and the rebar groaned and stretched further than Luke could have imagined. But it held on, and so did Luke. With the trunk open, Luke saw what he was looking for: the axe. But it was clumped together in a mass with everything else, all the way down on the passenger’s side wall of the trunk, and, with the awkward angle of the car, the side wall had then become the bottom.

“Are you kidding me?” he said to himself. He couldn’t reach the axe, and if he couldn’t reach the axe, then he couldn’t save his friends. It was either of two choices: either risk everything and save his friends, or risk everything and die with his friends. He was content with either one, but he preferred choice number one. There was nothing for it at this point. He lightly placed one foot on the side of the back fender and gradually shifted his weight onto the car until his other hand was only needed for balance. Then he knelt down on his knees, let go of the railing completely, and placed his other hand on the swinging trunk lid. The rebar groaned and creaked, but it did not give with his weight. That was a good sign, giving him a little bit of confidence, and then he dropped one foot between the trunk lid and the car, hoping the lid would not slam on his leg with a gust of wind. As he lowered himself into the trunk space, he discovered that with one hand on the trunk lid, the other hand had nothing but the smooth surface of the fender to grasp onto, and he panicked when his chest dipped past the lid. His free hand slipped in the rain, and he fell with his legs spread, one foot against the bottom of the trunk and the other against the trunk lid. Extended in space in a split, he quickly leaned toward the trunk and away from the lid, and he fell against the trunk where he could get a handhold on the carpeted interior. The trunk light was on, and he could see the axe beneath his foot. There was also a flathead screwdriver beside the axe, and he grabbed it first and stuck it in the hook for the trunk latch. With his feet spread and holding his body in place, he pulled the trunk lid almost closed, not worrying about it locking with the screwdriver in place, and he reached a hand out of the narrow gap, pulled the keys out of the lock, and stuffed them into his pocket. He let go of the lid, and he sidestepped and bent over to retrieve the axe. Luke’s hand gripped the handle, and he held it up. He had it, but when he looked around himself, at the dire situation he found himself in, he began to doubt whether he could even get out of the trunk and up onto the bridge again with the axe in his hand. He looked up at the sky through the open trunk lid, and raindrops stung his face and eyes.

“Dick!” he yelled. “Dick!”

Luke waited on a count of three, and nothing happened. He knew he couldn’t depend on him, but he thought he had to give it a try anyways.

“Headache!” he bellowed, and with a light jump and a heave, he tossed the axe between the lid and the fender and out over the bridge. He hoped he hadn’t hit Dick with the axe, but Luke and his friends were very close to drowning because of Dick’s carelessness. “So one good trick deserves another,” he reasoned his own carelessness away. He grabbed onto the trunk lid and pulled himself up over the edge of the fender, and then he struggled with his feet and hands until he got his chest onto the fender and one hand on the wheel well. He had it then, and he rolled up onto the fender with his hips and snatched the security of the bridge railing. When Luke rose up and stepped off the side of the patrol car, he found himself standing face to face with Dick, who had the axe gripped in both hands like Johnny in the Shining. There was no toothy grin on his face, only a creased forehead and a straight line of eyebrows where his angry eyes were squinted.

“You threw an axe at me, Greenie,” Dick growled.

“In case you hadn’t noticed, you threw a bridge at us, Dick!” Luke screamed at him and seized the axe with both hands. Dick let it move, but he didn’t let go of the axe. “Drop it!”

Dick clenched it tighter, and he pulled it back to his chest in a tug of war with Luke. Their eyes glared one with the other, and they pulled back and forth on the axe like two boys with a toy train they both want. The patrol car moved another inch down toward the river just then, and the rebar was necking at the ends, almost at a breaking point. Dick’s eyes cut over to the car, and Luke shoved the axe into Dick’s chest and then jerked it away from him with a grunt. With the axe in hand, he quickly knelt down over the railing by the passenger’s side back window and got Matchstick’s attention. He showed Candy and him the axe in his hand and made a chopping motion with it.

“Cover your eyes!” he hollered to them over the howling wind, and when they both had ducked their heads out of sight, he raised the axe over his head and chopped into the glass with a mighty swing. The glass shattered on the first try, and Luke tossed the axe aside and motioned Dick to come over. “Give me a hand,” he ordered him, and Dick held out his hand. Luke took it and leaned his body out onto the back door. Candy came out of the window first, and Luke dragged her safely over to the bridge. Then Matchstick crawled out onto the door with only his legs left to go. It was at that perfect moment in time when the rebar caved, and the car fell away. Matchstick reached out, and Luke leaned over the empty air and grabbed his hand. The glass had broken away, and the smooth frame slid down Matchstick’s legs. Luke had him in his grip until the window frame caught Matchstick’s shoe. Luke’s body heaved forward over the edge, and Candy gripped his shirt with both of her hands just in time to keep him from tumbling over into the flood waters. Matchstick’s hand slipped on the cut on Luke’s palm, and he fell down into the rushing waters of the Neuse River. The last thing Luke saw on his best friend’s face was the look of disbelief as the flood submerged his body and washed him away into the night.

Dick and Candy lugged Luke from the brink and onto the remnants of the aged bridge, and Luke stood there in the storm and stared at the red cut on his hand.

“I had blood on my hands,” Luke said aloud to himself. Candy put her arms around him, and she hugged him. There was nothing that she could say to make things better, and she didn’t try. She just held him in the storm as Dick looked on.

Chapter 17

*

They all watched the flood waters wash downstream for several minutes, but there was no sign of Matchstick to be seen after that. He was gone, and the waves from the rushing water were pounding over the top side of the bridge.

But in this weather? We’ll get swept away.”

Matchstick had predicted it would happen, and it hardly seemed fair or just, but they were going to have to leave him behind. It was only a few more feet to the end of the bridge, and the three remaining adventurers walked quietly to the edge, saying nothing to each other. Luke’s hope had been diminished with the loss of Matchstick to the flood, and out of respect for him, it seemed that it was too soon to talk about what had transpired. But it wasn’t too soon for Luke to confront Dick’s recklessness. When they reached land, Luke dropped the axe on the ground, and he came up behind Dick and tapped him on the shoulder. Dick turned to see what he wanted, and Luke punched him square in the nose. Blood flew everywhere, and Luke followed the first punch with a second to his jaw. Dick drew back into a protective stance with his forearms and fists covering his face, and he took a lame swing at Luke and missed.

“Stop it!” Candy ordered them both and jumped in between the two of them. She had her back to Luke as if she was guarding him from her brother, and Luke relaxed and lowered his fists just a little.

“What are you protectin’ him for?! He started it!” Dick shrieked at her in anger and bewilderment. The shock of the wreck hadn’t worn off either, and he didn’t look like his mean old self.

“You tried to kill us out there on the bridge with that stupid stunt, and we were all lucky that the guardrails saved the three of us from drowning! This was all your fault!” Luke reasoned heatedly. “You did nothing to help me get either of them out of the car. Matchstick’s death is on your hands.”

“You dropped him!” Dick said, trying to maintain his innocence and reminding Luke of his own hand in his friend’s death, but even Candy knew whose fault it was. Luke tried to get to Dick around her, but she kept her hands out to separate the two of them.

“Stop it! Both of you!” she yelled, but this time she made sure that Luke knew he was included. “He’s gone, but this storm might still kill us if we don’t get moving.” She stepped in closer to Luke, and she pleaded with him. “Remember Angela and Willie on the island. It’s why we’re out here,” she appealed.

“Does he have to come with us?” Luke asked her and gestured at her brother, and she shrugged her shoulders.

“How am I supposed to know?” she said to him rhetorically, and she took his hand in her own. “Listen, Dick and I found a way to get to Sonya’s house when you needed it, and that has to count for somethin’. Please just forgive Dick and let it go, okay.” Luke didn’t agree with letting Dick off that easy, but he didn’t disagree about continuing on ahead either. Debating right and wrong, forgiveness and unforgiveness, those arguments could wait for a clear, sunny day, he supposed. The wind had picked up noticeably, and so had the rain. Candy kept his hand in her own, and she started walking down the road and away from the Neuse River. Luke fell in behind her, saying nothing. Dick followed in several steps behind Luke, but not before he retrieved the axe that Luke had dropped. Luke watched the river’s shoreline crook around out of sight to his left, and he guessed that they were on the same side of the river as the island, which meant that they wouldn’t have to row as far to get to the house, if they could find a boat. That was a big if, but Candy veered off the left side of the road to a trail in the woods.

“There’s a creek that feeds into the Neuse, and we can go over the river to the island. It’s shorter from this side of the river,” she said to Luke, and he nodded. “It beats swimmin’.”

“You got me there,” he answered. “But we don’t have a boat, and I guess dad took the only one available that I know of when he went across with Deputy Riggs.”

“I might know where another one is in a creek on this side of the river,” Candy answered.

“Oh, no, you’re not, sis,” Dick said and grabbed her by the wrist. She wriggled her hand loose and got behind Luke.

“Dick, just settle down,” Luke said as he tried to stay between them. The situation was already tense enough, and Luke did not think he could be reasonable with Dick so soon after what had just happened, but he had to try. “I’m not taking her with me across the river. I know its suicide to even try, but I have to do something. Matchstick’s death has to have meaning.”

“Candy’s not going,” Dick reiterated.

“That’s right,” Luke affirmed.

“You’re not goin’ across either, Luke,” Candy added. “I’m not takin’ you to the boat unless you take me with you.” Dick huffed at her and tried to get around Luke, but she was dodging around the other side of Luke and having none of it. “You’re goin’ to keep screwin’ around, wastin’ time, and the police are goin’ to get us.”

“It’ll be your fault,” Dick argued. “I don’t know what you see in Greenie here, but you ain’t goin’ with him, and that’s final,” he said and crossed his arms with the axe held high and his chin tilted up in the air.

“I’m not afraid of the weather, and I’m not afraid of you, Dick,” she told him. “Those people need our help, and we’re not turnin’ our backs on them. Look inside yourself, and try to be a better person than daddy was. It won’t hurt you to try, and I’ll bet Luke here won’t tell anybody that you did somethin’ good for once, somethin’ that wasn’t selfish. You got it in you, Dick. It’s okay to let it out once in a while.” Dick looked down his nose at his sister, and the frown on his face stayed frozen as he considered what she was saying.

“Are you gonna do like I tell you when we get done?”

“You know I don’t lie to you, Dick,” she said, and Dick snorted derisively.

“Right, like the time you promised to keep a secret for me, and then you told momma that I was the one who painted on the back porch.”

“I’m sorry, but that was a pretty picture, and I thought momma would be happy to know that her son was the one who painted it,” she said.

“She was happy all right. She knocked me clean across the head with a shot glass for it,” he replied. “But she did say it was pretty,” he added.

“You paint?” Luke interrupted.

“That ain’t your concern, Greenie,” he snapped at him, and then he turned on his sister. “You promise me you’re goin’ to stop followin’ after Greenie if we go?” he pressed, and she paused with his question for a second. “Are you?”

Candy stepped up and leaned into her brother, and then she got right up into Dick’s face. “Yes, Dick Berryonyourhead!” she said. Luke looked down at the one hand she held behind her back, and he saw that she had her fingers crossed. “Now, let’s go get that boat!” Then she grabbed Luke by the hand and pulled him ahead into the woods.

Dick followed them down the trail, the last person in line, and he pulled his jacket tight around his chest to keep the water from pouring onto his shirt. He started jogging to catch up to where Luke and Candy ran into the underbrush, and when he reached the next hilltop, he stopped on the narrow trail just behind Luke and Candy where they had paused at the precipice of the steep hill.

“We have to climb down these rocks to the bottom where the creek winds through the woods,” Candy explained loudly over the wind. Luke looked at the valley below, and the creek had risen to new heights.

“It doesn’t look very safe. The creek drains out into the river, and since the river is up so high, the water is backing up into the creek,” Luke said as he described the problem he saw with her plan. “And I don’t see a boat either.”

“Just follow me,” Candy said, and she started climbing down the muddy hill feet first. She was holding steady as she went, but the rocks were rounded and smooth, and there were old slippery leaves from the last autumn all over the ground. Luke and Dick followed, and soon they were all climbing down the narrow path to the creek below. A flash of lightning flickered in the evening sky, lighting up the woods to show the swollen creek more clearly, and Luke started to lose his nerve at the sight of the raging waters below.

“Candy! That creek really looks out of control,” he yelled down to her over the din of the weather, but she ignored him and kept climbing down the steep embankment. For his part, Luke had unintentionally slowed down his descent, and he suddenly sensed pressure on his fingers. He looked up to see Dick’s shoe smashing the fingers of one hand on a rock. He couldn’t see his face, so he couldn’t tell if Dick did it on purpose or not, but he quickly yanked them out from under his shoe. When he did, he lost his footing on the rocky slope. Luke slid past Candy, and he twisted his body sideways as he passed by her so that he wouldn’t knock her down. His move helped him miss her head, but his backside bumped her hip as he slid by, and she went sideways off the rocks she was desperately clinging to. They both lost control and slid down the embankment of wet leaves, mud, and rocks, and when they hit the bottom of the trail, they skated into the rushing waters of the creek.

“Candy!!” Dick bellowed out to her, but her head had bobbed beneath the surface and she never heard his voice calling out. Candy and Luke had both been washed away by the creek, their heads bobbing up and down in the raging waters as they flowed out through the darkened woods toward the swollen river. Dick stood there on the lonely trail, helpless to do anything to help his sister from drowning in the furious waters. Dick’s face showed concern, which was an abnormality for the school’s biggest bully, and the truth was, there may be no saving his sister now. His mind wandered, and he imagined himself hovering over a search and rescue team posted by the riverside, two bodies covered in black plastic along the muddy rocks of the shore. In his mind, he imagined the search had turned from rescue to recovery. “I need to go and get some help,” he said to himself and started running back to the highway.

**********

The waters buried his head, and with the faded light of the evening, Luke could hardly tell up from down. The bubbles were his best indicator; they always managed to travel upward, but the force of the current kept him struggling to hold his head above his feet. He held his breath, and he waited for a chance to bob to the surface, but the pull of the current tossed him like a doll and dragged him down, down, down, until he finally touched the bottom of the creek bed. Despair was nagging at him, and he wondered if he would be joining his mother in heaven much sooner than he would have liked, so he squatted on the rocks of the earth and shoved his body up and away from the murky base. His body felt weightless as he rocketed downstream, his head going up and out as if he were flying through the air in some dark circus tent. He somehow escaped the drag of the deadly current and his head popped out of the water into fresh air. Without the nasty weight of the rip current drawing him downward, Luke treaded the surface and breathed. He looked all around him for Candy, but he couldn’t see her head anywhere nearby. His eyes trailed up to the treetops, and he saw the oaks and poplars bending and swaying with the coming storm. He knew that if he didn’t get out of this creek and get to shelter soon, he may not have to worry about dying from drowning. The probability was growing very high that a full grown hardwood would blow over on top of him and crush the life out of him in the woods. If that happened, it would be days before anyone ever found him, and the buzzards would pick his bones clean before they ever retrieved his body. The same might be true for Candy, too, and he yelled out her name into the stormy night. The sound of his call echoed between the hills, but there was no sign of her anywhere nearby. He floated around a ninety degree bend in the creek, and as he swung wide to the edge of the bank, he reached out to grab some low hanging limbs which were dangling in the water. He held on tight with his wet fingers, and the limbs stretched with his weight and the pull of the current, but they didn’t give, and for an instant, he thought that he might be able to pull himself to safety. The current pulled his feet up to the surface, and his upper body turned perpendicular with the flow of the waters, and the stream ran up his chest and between his arms, surging into his mouth and nose. He closed his eyes and mouth and held his breath as he pulled himself toward shore, but the waters were relentless in overcoming his body. Soon, he found himself submerged and aching for air. With a sigh, he let go of the limbs and went away with the current. He was no closer to getting out of the creek’s water, but his face was no longer submerged and he could breathe once again. He floated down the creek until he saw a couple of large canoes hovering in the stream ahead, banging against each other. He wondered if these were the boats that Candy was trying to get to, and their appearance gave him hope, but he didn’t know if he could swim over to them before passing by them. The ropes which anchored the boats to shore were stretched as tight as banjo strings, and they meandered to and fro in the stream, sometimes banging against each other with the surge. Luke started a front crawl toward the shore where they were tied, and as the boats quickly approached him, he could see that he was going to miss catching the ends of the two boats by mere inches. He swam that much harder in the drowning current, and as the first boat passed by, he stretched out with one hand to grab the sides and his hand caught only air. He swore aloud for no one to hear; he had missed the first boat and half of his hope. He pushed himself and swam two more quick strokes in hopes of catching the second boat. With a last effort, he thrust his hand out . . . and missed the second boat.

“NO!!!” Luke screamed into the tropical storm, but the second boat was only just inches out of reach. Inches may as well have been miles. He had failed, not only himself, but Matchstick, Candy, his father, Angela, and Willie. Then a quick movement came into the corner of his eye, and he felt the warm grip of a hand around his wrist. He looked up, and all that he could see were shadows inside the boat, but in the storm, any hand was a good hand. He seized hold of the wrist of the person who had grabbed him, and he held on tight as the water fought to tear him free of the mysterious person in the boat. The stranger leaned back and hauled Luke’s hand over the side of the boat, and Luke clutched the side with his free hand. The small boat rocked with his weight, but the stranger leaned their weight to the other side of the boat for balance so that Luke was able to pull himself into the vessel. He stretched out in the back seat, and his savior spoke for the first time.

“That was a close one, Luke,” the girl’s voice said, and Luke instantly knew who she was.

“Candy!?”

“Yeah, I knew where the boats were hidden, and so I knew which side of the stream to be on when the time came. I nearly drowned in the water though.”

Luke relaxed and leaned back to rest his head, but the boat was simple and empty of any comforts, and instead he lost his balance and slid backward into the rainwater that had gathered in the bottom from the storm. “I’d hardly call it a stream at this point,” Luke said as he gathered himself up from the floorboard and picked up a bucket from the between the seats. Then he started scooping and throwing water out of the boat. “Anyways, thanks for saving me,” he said, and she nodded with a smile. They were both soaked through to the bone, but at least they wouldn’t drown in the boat.

“If we’re goin’ across the river, then we have to untie the line, Luke,” Candy reminded him. She took hold of the knot, and she started undoing it. “Are you ready?” she asked him as she readied the release.

“Shouldn’t we call Dick over here, first?” he asked.

“I tried and he can’t hear us over the storm,” she explained. “Besides, we’re runnin’ out of time.”

Luke sighed to himself. “Might as well do it then,” Luke told her, and she undid the last loop which held the boat in place. When she did, the canoe took off down the creek in a heck of a rush, and Luke fell forward into her lap. Candy laughed and shoved him back into his seat, and then she handed him an oar which had been laying in the puddle of water in the bottom of the boat. The creek swirled and snaked through the forest until it finally cut deep through a hillside and emptied out into the fast-moving and swollen Neuse River. Without the trees blocking the dim evening sky, they could see the swirling cloud formations in the dark grey sky, and they knew that the hurricane must have hit land and had changed to a tropical storm. The downgrade of the storm didn’t mean much to them though; it was no less deadly. With the ground already saturated with water, the slightest gust of wind had the ability to blow over the largest oak trees, which were held in place by the shallow roots near the muddy surface.

“Where’s this island you were tellin’ me about?”

The banks of the river had swollen five feet higher than normal, submerging and shrinking the circumference of the island with every extra foot of water. Luke pointed toward the mass of land ahead in the river, and he barely recognized it from where they were.

“It’s out there,” he said. “Once we get closer, we will have to steer the boat through the woods on the outskirts. If we don’t do that, we won’t be able to wade through the rushing waters and trees on foot.”

“It doesn’t look very safe to me, Luke,” she said. “But I trust you,” she encouraged him after a pause, and he thought she was crazy for trusting him at all, especially after what had happened to Matchstick. It had been a terrible evening so far, and the night was young. He sighed to himself as he began to row out into the water. Within a few minutes, they had crossed the narrow part in the river and were on the receding shores of the island. The water was already up high, but the trees helped to slow down the rushing current on the perimeter, and Luke was able to guide the boat from tree to tree until they reached higher ground. When he couldn’t row any further, he passed the oar to Candy, and he jumped out into the shallow water to drag the vessel up onto land. The perimeter was then surrounded by tall grass, and Luke pulled the boat up a couple of feet onto land before he needed to ask Candy to get out and help him drag the canoe several more feet onto the shore. When they had gotten it completely onto dry land, they looked up the hill at the Newberry Mansion where it stood, and they felt a sudden chill radiate through their bones.

“Did you feel that tingle go up your body just then?” Candy asked Luke, and he nodded yes. They both had sensed it, and in this circumstance, he felt it was a warning. He stared up at the old mansion, wondering whether this was going to be the last time he would ever enter it.

“I don’t see my dad or that deputy that went with him, do you?” Luke asked, and Candy shook her head no.

“I’ve got a bad feelin’ about this. Are you sure they’re even in there?”

“Definitely,” he said, and he stuck his hand in his pocket to see if the ring was still there. It had become a nervous habit that night, but he wasn’t going to stop checking for it until this adventure was over. He remembered how he had encouraged his best friend by comparing the ring to a magic dot in the Atari game Adventure, and as he stood there looking up at the old home, he began to think of the Newberry house as one of the castles. All that he needed to do was get inside, free the prisoners, and all would be well. With the ring delivered to the house again, the ending credits would roll and all would be fine. He looked around at Candy, and let her in on a secret. “Listen, I didn’t bring it up before because I didn’t know how to describe it, but you’re right to have a bad feeling. There’s something evil inside that house. I can’t really explain it, but you’ll see. Keep your head and don’t get distracted,” he said to her, hoping that she would take his meaning. Instead, she took his hand.

“We’ve come this far, and I can’t see quittin’ now. I’m with you,” she said, and he wished he had as much confidence in himself as she apparently had in him. She still had his hand in hers, and he squeezed it once in affirmation and then they walked up the hill together to the house. The man in the green and yellow suit didn’t show his face in the front yard this time, and they were able to walk up the marble steps to the front door without being stopped. Then he let her hand go so that he could knock on the front door. Luke lifted his fist up to the door, and he hesitated for a second as he wondered again whether he could go through with this adventure. He thought about all the things they had been through that night, and he lingered on losing his best friend to the flood waters of the Neuse. At that moment, something else clicked in his mind. He couldn’t explain it, but he suddenly felt the courage to do what he knew was right. The strength didn’t come from inside himself, but maybe all the praying had made a difference. He gripped his fingers tight in his fist, and he knocked three times on the wooden door. In return, he heard the echo of emptiness resound on the inside of the house.

“Here goes nothing,” he said, and then he turned the knob and pushed on the door. He wasn’t surprised at all when it creaked open and the darkness of the lifeless void bloomed before his path. A breath of cold air blew from the inside out, piercing the fibers of his damp clothes and bringing a chill deep beneath his skin. He shivered, but swallowing his fear, he stepped inside first with Candy close behind. The entry room was gloomy and neither one of them could see where they were going. Candy felt around in the dark until she found Luke’s arm, and she intertwined her own with his and moved in snug with him.

“I’m scared,” she whispered to him, and she nearly jumped out of her skin when the floor boards cracked beneath Luke’s feet.

“It’s just the floor settling, Candy. Don’t worry, I won’t let anything happen to you,” he reassured her, knowing that it was a promise that he could not personally guarantee any more than he could guarantee the rising flood waters were not going to swallow the house. She squeezed his arm in hers once to let him know she heard him, and together they walked toward the staircase that Luke knew was there in the blackness. “I recall that there were steps ahead of us so be careful not to stub your toes,” he cautioned as he used his free hand to feel ahead of him in the dark. To his surprise, he felt the knob on the post at the bottom of the staircase, and he felt reassured that they were going the right way at least. When he placed his foot on the bottom tread, everything changed.

**********

Suddenly, the sun was shining, and the world around them turned bright and cheery. Luke looked into Candy’s face at his side, and he could see that she too was surprised by the world around her, to say the least. All signs of the storm outside were gone, and the sun was beaming bright through the windows, as if they had been transported to another time altogether.

“I don’t understand,” Luke voiced his fear aloud. “I told you this place was crazy.”

As they stood there at the bottom of the staircase, a lady appeared at the top of the stairs. At first glance, Luke didn’t recognize her, until the sun shown across her face. It was Angela, but yet not quite the girl he knew from camp. She was wearing a beautiful red dress and a winsome smile, but there was an air of worry which reflected on her face. She gazed around, and when her eyes passed across Luke and Candy, she seemed not to notice them at all. Then there was a knock on the front door, and Angela’s attention turned toward the entrance.

“Oh, where is Naomi?” she asked herself and started down the stairs. When Angela came down the stairs, Luke and Candy backed off of the first step and moved out of her path as she went for the door. Another knock came before she could get to the door, and when she opened it, there stood Luke’s stepfather, Andy Singleton, just outside the entrance. He was clothed in attire which was dated but appeared to be from the Revolutionary War era.

“My lady, Abigail,” he said with a bow. “I have returned from the long journey to New Bern,” he said, and she turned her back on him coldly and stomped toward the middle of the large room. He walked into the house with his hands out at his sides. “Aren’t you glad to see me?”

“You’re late, George,” Abigail, or Angela, or whoever she was answered him coldly with her back turned toward him. “As always,” she added for good measure.

“What the crap is going on here?” Luke whispered, and Candy punched his arm with her fist and then placed a finger on her lips, telling him to be quiet. He did, and they watched as the play rolled on. George came up behind his wife, and he gently placed his hand on her shoulder and touched her dress. Abigail flew into a rage, and she whirled around and smacked him across the face.

“Dear, I suppose I deserved that, but the King required my service and Governor Tryon insisted that I stay on at the palace grounds for an extra month to see to my duties,” George explained.

“While you were off gallivanting around the countryside on that bag of fleas you call a horse, I have been here taking care of our three children. Alone.”

“Why, you’re hardly alone, Abby,” he began to explain to her about the servants when her eyes turned as fiery red as the dress she wore.

“Never call me that name!” she barked, and then she stormed out of the room with Luke’s father trailing behind. Andy was pleading with her the entire way, but Angela was having none of it. When Luke and Candy were alone again, they looked at each other, and they could see that there were so many questions running through each of their minds.

“Huh?” Candy finally asked with a wrinkled forehead.

All Luke could say in return was a more decided, “Huh.” He crossed his arms, and he scratched his wet head in thought. “I feel like we stumbled into a soap opera from the 1700’s.”

“Should we follow them?” she asked him, and Luke searched the entire entry room with his eyes, from top to bottom for clues on what to do next. There was nothing, and reluctantly, he shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he answered, and there was a growing worry spreading across Candy’s face.

“We’ve risked so much to get here. Please tell me you have a plan,” she said desperately, but there was too much doubt clouding her own thoughts. Luke closed his eyes, and he stuck his hand in his pocket to bring out the ring. “What are you doin’?”

“I still don’t know, but this whole problem centers around this ring,” he reasoned. “Maybe one of us should put it on?”

“No!” Candy snapped. “You saw what it did to Sonya. I’m not lettin’ you risk it,” she said with her hand tight around his wrist.

“Matchstick risked his life, didn’t he? How can I do any less?” There was no argument on that account, at least not an argument that Candy wanted to debate just then. Instead, she looked into his eyes calmly, and when the tension left from his arm and he lowered the ring to his side, she put her other hand behind his neck and brought his lips to hers. They kissed for a few short seconds, and when she pulled away, she let go of his wrist. “What was that for?” he asked awkwardly, but she ignored the question.

“I’m not goin’ to stop you from puttin’ it on, but you have to promise me that you’ll not lose yourself like Sonya did,” she said softly.

“I won’t,” he replied, and he slipped the ring around the end of his pinky finger. It went past the first knuckle, but it was small and that was as far as it would go. He held it up and looked at the ring on his finger. Then he looked at Candy. Nothing. “Do you think I’m missing something?” he asked, but she had no idea what to tell him. Just as he was looking around the great room, he spotted movement at the top of the stairs. Luke stood still and watched the upper landing, and after a few seconds had passed, a little girl’s head popped up between the rails. Her hair was long and straight, and she bore a bright smile that stretched from one rail to the next. “I can’t explain why, but I think that girl might be able to give us some information,” Luke said and pointed upstairs. Candy turned to look, but she didn’t see anything.

“Girl? What girl?”

For his part, Luke was not alarmed, and he pointed again at the landing. “Tell me you see her,” Luke repeated, but Candy told him no. The little girl started down the steps, and she came down them one step at a time. She was wearing a full length dress which again appeared to be a period piece from centuries ago, and she had worn leather shoes on her feet that clicked on the hardwood stair treads. When she reached the third step from the bottom, she stopped and clung to the knob on the top of the post. “What’s your name?” he asked. She did not answer at first; instead, she looked him over from head to foot. Her eyes scanned over him quickly until they found the magic ring on his pinky finger, and it was there that she paused for a moment. Then she looked him in the eyes, and her smile turned from a happy grin to a frown.

“My name is Elizabeth,” she answered him, and she pointed her finger at the ring on his hand. “You took it away, but now you’ve brought it back again. Why did you bring it back?” she asked with a sigh.

“Luke? Who’s there?” Candy probed him, and Luke wagged his head.

“You don’t see her at all? That little girl who just came down the stairs?”

She looked where he told her, but she saw nothing. “You’re hallucinatin’,” Candy said to him, and Elizabeth heard her.

“You’re the only one who can see me, Luke,” Elizabeth remarked.

“Oh.”

“If you want to save your friends, then come with me,” the little girl said, and she took Luke’s hand in her own and led him up the stairs. Candy followed, and when they got to the top of the stairs, they entered the hallway on the next floor.

“Luke. Do you know where you’re going?” Candy asked.

“Elizabeth is taking us to save our friends,” he answered, but the answer didn’t make Candy feel any better. Elizabeth guided them through the hallway to the familiar stairs at the end, and she took them deep into the basement of the house where Luke had been so terrified before. This was the place where he had found the ring in the treasure chest, but it was dark and gloomy, save for the glowing of the ring and a familiar halo of dim light around Elizabeth’s young frame. Moving shadows formed on the basement walls, and Elizabeth quickly opened a secret pocket door in the wall and pulled him inside with her while Candy followed as well. Just as the door closed, the sound of something very heavy and very large slithered in the hallway above and echoed through the cold, open basement, and dust broke loose from the joists above their heads and fell down onto their hair. Except for Elizabeth. The dust simply passed through her body to the floor.

“What was that?” Luke asked Elizabeth, but a look of fear came across the little girl’s face. She tried desperately to grab Candy’s hand, but she had no substance to her ghostly frame and her hand slipped through Candy’s. The thing slithered again, and this time, it sounded as if it was coming down the stairs. Candy was scared and yet fascinated by the sound, and she took a bold risk and stepped outside the secret room, mesmerized by whatever it was that approached.

“I see a light,” Candy whispered, and indeed, there was a growing light piercing the darkness of the basement. A shiver went up Luke’s spine, and Elizabeth put her hands over her own eyes so she wouldn’t see what she knew was going to happen next. “I want to go touch the light,” Candy told Luke in a distant voice, but Luke grabbed her before she could go anywhere and quietly slid the pocket door shut. The slithering came down the stairs, and for a moment, all was quiet. Luke could hear himself breathe, and he held onto Candy tight so she couldn’t open the door again.

“Let me go,” Candy said, and Luke quickly covered her mouth with his hand as the creature slid against the pocket door and stopped. Luke mumbled a quick prayer as more dust crumbled onto his head, and Candy tensed in his arms, but she tried not to speak again. It seemed to Luke that the pocket door, blocking most of the light from whatever was outside, had helped Candy, and she had come back to her senses. After waiting for the longest ten minutes of his life, Luke felt the rumbling of the thing outside the door lessen, and he sensed that it had moved back up the stairs from where it had come. He let out a sigh of relief as he heard it slither by overhead and further down the hall of the upper floor toward the other end of the mansion. Finally when the danger had passed, he took his hand off Candy’s mouth, and she whispered to him.

“Thanks. I don’t know what came over me,” she explained. “I couldn’t resist it. I was drawn to the light.”

“It’s okay,” he reassured her, and then he turned to Elizabeth. “Do you know what just happened to her?” The ghostly little girl still looked afraid to speak, but she did anyway.

“My mom said that it was an ancient creature that lived here many years ago. The natives called it an Uktena,” Elizabeth said. “It calls people to itself.”

“Never heard of it, and I play lots of Dungeons and Dragons,” Luke said.

“Are you still seein’ people that aren’t there, Luke?” Candy asked. She still had not seen the little girl, and she was becoming more troubled by the minute. Luke pulled off the ring, and he took Candy’s hand and slipped it onto one of her fingers. Luke looked around, and without the ring on his finger, Elizabeth had indeed disappeared from his sight. Candy suddenly gasped in a breath of air. “Well, hello! You must be Elizabeth,” she exclaimed when Elizabeth unexpectedly materialized before her eyes. Luke quickly, but gently, placed his hand over Candy’s mouth again, and she tensed with the realization of just how loud her own voice was in the old house. “Sorry,” she whispered, and Luke took his hand away.

Elizabeth looked at them both, and then she replied to Candy. “Hello,” Elizabeth said shyly, and a long uncomfortable silence passed between the two girls, one living and one dead. At first, seeing the ghostly young girl had been exciting to Candy, but as time passed and she stood there face to face with an actual ghost, Candy grew anxious, and she felt the urgent need to remove the ring before any other ghosts popped out of the walls. She was also afraid that what had happened to Sonya while she wore the ring could happen to her as well. The ring itself was a strange source of . . . magic, for lack of a better word, and it wasn’t completely understood by either Luke or herself.

“Bye,” she said abruptly and quickly pulled off the ring, shoving it into Luke’s hands. “You can wear that thing all you want, but I got no desire to see dead people.” Luke slid the ring back onto his pinky finger, and he felt a weight begin to trouble him as soon as he did. Perhaps he hadn’t noticed it before with all of the strange activity in the mansion, but he definitely noticed it now. Elizabeth reappeared to him, as expected, and he knelt down beside her to talk.

“Elizabeth. You called the creature an ‘uktena’, but I’ve never heard of it. Can you tell me what it is?”

“I’m not real sure myself, but my mother said it’s a giant serpent with horns on its head,” she said, and she knelt in closer to him and whispered. “It has been roaming this house, waking us up, and I am scared of it.”

“You say it woke you up. Do you mean from your sleep?”

“No, . . . and yes. Oh, I can’t remember,” the little girl tried to explain with frustration. Her eyes looked like they were lost in thought, as if she was trying to find just the right memory, but it seemed to be jumbled up inside her mind somewhere deep, recessed in the back of her consciousness. Then she looked at Luke with sad eyes, and she held her arms behind her back. “Are we . . . are we . . . not alive?” she finally asked. Luke didn’t know how to answer such a grave question from this child, but in the end, he knew that he couldn’t hold back the truth from her.

I am alive, and we’re speaking to each other, so you must be alive, though you may be in the middle of transitioning to a different place,” Luke tried to reassure her. She didn’t seem to buy his explanation.

“It’s okay,” Elizabeth said finally and bowed her head to look at the cold basement floor. “You can tell me the truth. One of the last things I remember before waking up down here not too long ago was riding in the wagon on the bridge with my family. We were returning from getting supplies in town, when there was a bright flash, and then I went to sleep. When I woke up, I was at home, at peace. I thought I was safe here, but the beast was roaming the halls, looking for something. It caught both of my parents, my brothers, the gardener, and the maid, and it tried to get me, but I hid down here in the basement where the ring was stored. It’s my favorite hiding place, where no one else can find me.”

“But the Uktena didn’t catch you? Was it you that led me to the locked chest then?”

Elizabeth nodded. “I wanted to be rid of the ring once and for all,” she told Luke as she looked down at it on his finger. “I was alone. But then you came along, and I saw the chance to be free once and for all, so I led you down the stairs and to the chest.”

Luke thought about what she was telling him, and there was something that didn’t seem to make sense to him. “I still don’t understand why you wanted me to take the ring from the house. Things seem to be much worse here than they were before the ring was taken. None of this quite adds up,” he explained to the ghostly young girl, and Elizabeth averted his gaze as she answered.

“Trust me, you should take the ring away from here and never return.”

“What about the lady in red? She’s your mother, isn’t she, and she wanted it brought back. What of that?”

Elizabeth brought her head up and glanced at Luke then, and he saw her countenance grow dark for just an instant before she answered. “I think the ring is a missing scale from the Uktena, and once you took it away from here, the serpent sensed that it was truly rid of the ring for good. The Uktena has been rambling restlessly through the halls ever since, searching for others, and it grows more powerful by the day. It roams the halls, hissing and spitting, biting and gnawing, and the magic which it wields has become fierce and unpredictable. I was watching you when you came with Angela, and I saw how the magic distorted your senses and terrorized you both. My mother wanted the ring brought back, but I fear its evil. I am almost certain now that with the coming of the storm, our eternal rest will soon be upon us,” she explained, but he sensed there were some details left out.

Luke thought about what Elizabeth was telling him, and he swallowed once before he asked the obvious question.

“Are you saying that all of the others who came here to the island, Angela, Willie, my father, and the deputy, are dead?”

Elizabeth paused, and she took his hand in her own. “Please believe me. I never meant for this to happen.”

“But I just saw two of them, my father and Angela, upstairs acting like they were someone else. They are alive,” he insisted.

“As I said, the Uktena’s magic is strange and unpredictable. I cannot say for certain who is alive or who is dead.” The little girl didn’t speak at all like the appearance of her age. If she really was the child of George and Abigail though, then she was two hundred years old at least, making her much older and wiser than her appearance conveyed. Realizing this, Luke jerked his hand away from the spirit. Something was still amiss in her story.

“Is the chest still down here?” he asked, and Elizabeth looked down at the floor and shook her head no. “You wanted the ring gone for a reason, so you were just leading us on a wild goose chase. You used me for your own gain, didn’t you,” he accused Elizabeth, and to her credit, she didn’t deny it. “And the worst part is, the serpent didn’t die when the ring was taken away. In fact, it grew stronger.”

Candy put her arm around Luke. “What is she saying?”

“It’s what she’s not saying!” he explained hotly. He pointed a finger at Elizabeth, and he laid his guesses on her even harder. “You’re following the Uktena’s orders, aren’t you! You wanted us to keep the ring and never come back because there’s something you’re getting for it. I can’t imagine why you would do that, but you know what? One of my friends drowned while trying to help us get back here to the island with the ring, and it was ALL . . . FOR . . . NOTHING.”

Elizabeth looked mournful, and she bowed her head and placed a hand on Luke’s. Then she started to cry. “It’s true. The serpent whispered to me in my sleep, before I awoke, that if I got rid of the ring, we would finally get to leave the haunting of this house and go on to heaven. He said that if the ring stayed, it would hold us here forever. Believe me, I never meant for anyone else to die, and I am so sorry for the pain I have caused you. The story of my family is a sad one, too, and it continues to play out its dreadful acts over and over. You cannot imagine, but we relive everyday as the last day, again and again,” Elizabeth admitted. “Our lives go on repeating here, over and over, for hundreds of years, and say what you will about me, but this painful play of our former lives has to draw a closing curtain soon. I am not afraid of what lies ahead.” Once he had pulled the truth from her, Luke sighed in sympathy for her and her family, and he found it hard to hold a grudge against the sad little girl he saw standing before him. When he thought of how Matchstick had drowned from this whole dubious game though, he clenched his teeth and gave her a hard stare anyway.

“What’s happened, Luke? Talk to me,” Candy asked him when she saw how angry he looked.

“The lady in red was right about the ring. Elizabeth has been doing what the Uktena wanted, which was to take the ring and keep the ring away so that the monster could grow in power,” he said to Candy. “And it has grown in power. When I first came here, only a few ghosts were running loose, but now, there is something far more evil roaming freely in this house, and it intends on killing us all.”

Candy swallowed. She had felt the draw of the creature not long before, and she dreaded facing it with no way of protecting herself. “What are we going to do then?”

“We’re going to rescue everyone in this house, and we’re going to finish the last act of this game.”

Chapter 18

*

When the creeping sounds of the giant snake had stopped echoing through the house, Luke was confident that the creature had moved on and wouldn’t hear them come out of the secret room where they hid. Holding Candy’s hand, Luke quietly snuck out of the secret closet and into the darkened basement, and he paused to look at everything around him. The darkness around him was so thick, he couldn’t even make out any shapes or tell what was near him.

“Elizabeth!” he whispered. “Elizabeth!”

“Yes,” she answered from the dark.

“You’re a ghost. Can’t you glow or something? We need some light.”

“Oh, . . . yes . . . , but I don’t want the serpent to see me,” she said in a timid voice.

“We’re alone,” he reassured her. “It can’t see us now,” he said as he tried to put a more positive spin on their situation, but he really didn’t know whether what he had told her was true or not. In fact, he knew very little about the serpent, and from all of the evidence, it was a powerful and unpredictable creature that they were up against. To his knowledge, it hadn’t killed anyone; it only seemed to toy with them and confuse them. His father and Angela were deceived into living other people’s lives, but they were still alive. He had to guess the same was true for Willie and Deputy Riggs, though he had not seen them in the house yet.

“I can glow for a moment, but I cannot risk it for long,” she said, and she closed her eyes and puffed out her cheeks as she held her breath. Her face brightened and the yellowish light spread across her entire body, lighting up the room around them so that they could see.

“I’m never gettin’ used to that,” Candy remarked with surprise. She couldn’t see or hear Elizabeth without the serpent’s ring, but she could see the light from the spirit’s glow. “I’m not even goin’ to pretend I understand any of this.”

“That’s good, because if you did, I’d ask you to explain it to me,” Luke said with a smile, and he studied what he could see in the room around him. “There!” Luke pointed to a shovel leaning against a wall. They ran over to it, and when he picked it up, Luke grabbed it up with both hands, holding the ash handle as if it was a baseball bat. Behind where the shovel had been, Candy saw a small hatchet resting against the wall. She reached down and took it by the handle, and she tried out the weight with her wrist. She stepped to the side and put some distance between herself and Luke, and she swung the hatchet from side to side. She had to admit that it felt good in her hands.

“What are you going to do with those rusty tools?” Elizabeth asked Luke.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t really know,” he said with an expression of doubt. “But there’s no way I’m going back through the house without some protection, and there is one thing that a snake is afraid of. That’s a sharp blade,” he explained.

“If you use that shovel on your friends, it will hurt them,” Elizabeth argued, and Luke smirked at her.

“I’m not going to swat anyone with a shovel, if that’s what you’re thinking. Angela’s smart enough to stay out of the way of a shovel, and so is my dad,” Luke said as he let the wooden handle rest in his hands. “When we fight the Uktena, they’ll stay out of it,” he reasoned. Candy heard what Luke was saying, and her eyes opened wide as she listened to Luke talk idly to the empty air. She still couldn’t see the little girl, and it was oddly distracting to watch him talking to someone she couldn’t even see. “Show me where the others are.”

**********

Quietly they climbed the stairs up to the first floor; Luke first, followed closely by Candy, and Elizabeth safely brought up the rear. The ghostly girl had dimmed her glow to a faint burn, and the darkness pressed in upon them on all sides. When he rose up the last step and into the hallway, he stopped and looked into the dark surrounding them. There was nothing for him to see, but he thought he would try to look anyway. The black of the air seemed to swirl in dark grey rivulets, but still yet, he could not make out where he was going. He hadn’t realized just how thick and dense the air in the house was until he stood still in the hallway, and he sensed his throat start to tighten up. He struggled for air, and he felt himself breathe in a breath despite the clenching in his throat, and his mind suddenly wandered back to thoughts of his mother.

In his thoughts, he remembered laying in his bed with a Dr. Seuss book held high over his face by his two little arms and hands. His mother laid beside him, and she remained quiet as he fought to sound out the words of the short story. He recalled getting stuck on one word in particular. Such a short and simple word, he wondered now how that could possibly have been the case.

“Brah . . . vay?” he finally sounded the letters out, and Norma smiled.

“Good, that’s almost it,” she encouraged him. “The word is ‘brave’, and the ‘e’ is silent.” She craned her head up from the pillow and rested it on her palm. “Do you know what that word means?” Luke shook his head, no. He had heard other people say it many times: brave the heat, brave the cold, brave the smell of the outhouse, but he didn’t really know what the word meant. “‘Brave’ means to be courageous.” She was explaining one word with an even larger word he didn’t know, and so he still didn’t understand the meaning.

“You mean like when it’s thundering outside, you should stay out in the storm?” he ventured, and she grinned.

“Not exactly. You know what it feels like to be afraid of the thunder though?” she asked, and he nodded. “Well, to be brave means that you would not let the thunder stop you from doing whatever it was you were doing before the thunder came. For instance, if you were inside the house playing checkers with your father and a storm suddenly blew in, you wouldn’t stop the game, right? You would keep playing checkers with your father, even if the house was shaking.”

“So if I’m brave,” and he said the word right, “then I wouldn’t be afraid when the thunder rumbled the whole house?”

His mother took in a deep breath and looked him in the eyes. “Close. It’s okay to feel fear and yet to be brave at the same time.” She took the book and set it behind her on the bed, and she took his hands in her own. “Being brave means that you don’t let the fear paralyze you from doing what is right or necessary. Do you see?”

“Yes,” he said to her, “but you use too many big words, mom.”

The memory faded from his mind, and the darkness of the Newberry Mansion pressed in on him again. Luke was not at all sure what he was going to do. His stepfather, a deputy, and two of his friends were wandering around this huge house with a gigantic snakelike creature. And there was a hurricane building outside with a flooded river surrounding the island. Here he was, with a magic ring and a few tools from the basement. Pretty much, things looked and felt hopeless, and there was a growing fear inside himself that told him he was not going to make it out of this situation alive. He let out a sigh as he stood there at the top of the stairs, and he felt a calm and warm set of fingers interlace into his own. It was Candy. She had been standing there, quiet as a mouse, watching him. He turned his head and looked at her, and what he saw there in her face surprised him. He had believed that after all that had transpired during the night, she would have been at least as afraid as he was and that she would feel quite lost. “Wouldn’t that be normal?” he asked himself. Instead, he saw in her face the hard chiseled eyes of determination and strength.

“Are you all right?” Candy whispered, and she squeezed his hand gently as if to reinforce the question. Luke took in a deep breath, and he bit his lip nervously. Then he let it out, and he squeezed her hand.

“Sure,” he lied. “I was just thinking. That’s all,” he answered, and he broke eye contact with her. At first, he had been afraid to bring her to this old house, but now that he was alone with her here, he decided he had underestimated her entirely. Candy wasn’t some sweet innocent girl in a pink dress and sporting flowers in her hair. She was much more than that; she had steel in her that came out when the pressure was on. And in this house, there was more than one atmosphere of pressure crowding in on them. There was the past and the present colliding and compressing them together, mixing in a stormy bowl of confusion and anxiety.

“Well, if we stand here much longer, you won’t have to think about your next move. The hurricane is goin’ to blow the house down before we get down the hall,” she prodded him with a smirk, and she saw his eyes drop in exasperation. “If it helps, think of what you did the last time you were here.” He did as she asked, and he recalled the long hallway and the red witchy woman. It occurred to him then that perhaps the Lady of Newberry and the Uktena had more in common than he had realized at the time. Perhaps they were one and the same? He brushed that thought away, deeming it ridiculous at first, but the more he considered it, the more he began to wonder. If they were going to last the night, he had to find out. He turned to Candy, and he held her hand in his own.

“I have an idea, but you’re not going to like it.”

“Shoot. I’m listenin’.”

“Give me the hatchet and let me go after the Uktena by myself. You stay here and when I come back, we’ll leave the house together,” Luke explained. He had to admit that his plan to go off on his own was flimsy and flawed, but he couldn’t risk having someone else there with him for the Uktena to take captive. He had to do this alone because he had seen how Candy had had a weakness for the serpent’s call. To her credit, Candy didn’t question him. Instead, she handed the hatchet over to him, and she let him take it.

“What if you don’t come back? What should I do then?”

“Hide in the secret room in the basement until daylight. You might be able to get out through the roof like I did before.”

She shook her head in disagreement, but she bit her tongue and let him have his way. He had saved her life just hours earlier, and she knew that he had the best intentions for everyone in mind.

“Go then,” Candy told him and quickly kissed him on the cheek before he knew it was coming. Luke’s face turned red, but in the dark of the house, Candy couldn’t see his face flush. For that, he was thankful. He wasn’t used to all of this attention he had been getting lately from the female members of the species, and it was becoming somewhat distracting.

Luke then left her and ran up the stairs to the second floor where he knew the territory better, and he stopped at the landing and looked both ways for the giant serpent. He couldn’t see any signs of the creature, and he figured that made him as safe as he was going to be under the circumstances. There were three rooms on this wing of the second floor, none of which did he have the time or the care to enter. The storm outside was growing in intensity, and soon, if the flood waters didn’t swallow the Newberry Mansion in unbridled turmoil, the storm would blow the very house from its foundation. There was no time left for him to twiddle his thumbs in impatient inaction; Luke had to settle the score with the creature and soon. Andy Singleton, Deputy Riggs, Willie, Angela, and now Candy, all of them needed for this haunting to be over with once and for all. Even Elizabeth, the little spirit who secretly roamed the halls, even she needed for the Uktena to be dealt with decisively.

Then his mind regretfully wandered from certainty of purpose to realization of facts. Even if he succeeded, there would be no bringing back Matchstick, and his heart fell with the reminder of the loss. He counted his failure to save his best friend as a shadow of things to come, and he began to doubt his part in this play. Who was Luke that he should be the one to fight the giant serpent? Luke laughed to himself in doubt, and he rubbed his arms with the cold chill that suddenly swept through the hall. “I’m nobody,” he said to himself, and he lifted his hand and brought the ring up before him. To his astonishment, it was glowing. Curious, he held it up closer to his face so that he could see the details more clearly, and when he observed the handiwork of the circle’s craftsmanship, he saw that streams of light ran the rounded track of the ring. It was then that he noticed the fine cracks in the design which he had never noticed before. The ring wasn’t as smooth as he had first imagined. There were fine, rippled shadows on the surface where the ring appeared to have textured layers, much like a serpent’s skin has scales. He had overlooked that detail before, and Luke wondered what this could mean. He wondered, maybe, if this ring was a part of the serpent, a part which it needed. “If that were so, then why had he been urged to take it away from the house? Why was the serpent so strong now, where it had only been an oppression on his first visit?” he asked himself. It was Elizabeth who had admitted to orchestrating the taking of the ring because she wanted the cycle of haunting to end, but perhaps the ring needed to be stored in the chest. Perhaps the ring held the spirit of the Uktena in a mystical prison. Possibly, the serpent’s powers grew with the coming storm. There were too many mysteries and too many strings to this web. All Luke knew was that he had to free everyone and put this house to its final rest before the night was over, and it wasn’t going to happen if he stood there in the hallway doubting his calling. It wasn’t for him to decide his fate; he believed in God with his whole heart, and he understood that no man was free to do his own will all of the time. Noah was chosen to build the ark, and he had to float helplessly for months in the great flood. Samson had been blessed with great strength and speed, and in the end, he had to defeat his enemies in complete blindness. And there was Daniel, the prophet who had interpreted many dreams for various kings, and even he had to face the lion’s den. Luke had been brought here for a reason, and it must be his fate that he would have to challenge the Uktena, and only God could decide what the outcome would be. If he won against the serpent, then what? He, too, would have to face the flood before the night was out. He found himself in the makings of a great and tragic play, one that may never be told again, and he was all alone with no one there to help him. No one, and he despaired.

Just then, a sound echoed down the hallway from the foyer, and Luke tightened the grip on the hatchet and marched to the end of the hall where the stairs led down to the great room. From the rails of the stairs, Luke peered over the edge, and he saw the great serpent coiled onto the floor below in the shape of a terrible wheel. The eyes of the serpent glowed bright yellow, just as the fog in the kitchen had been, the same color and tint, while the diamond pattern on the rest of its body was a bright green mixed with glowing yellow stripes in the bands. The colors matched perfectly with the suit of the man he had met in the front yard on the way out from his last trip here, and this fact confirmed that the serpent had been toying with him all along. While he stood there at the top of the stairs in quiet observation, he noticed that the Uktena was also lined with tiny glowing yellow spots which were spaced evenly down the length of its body. He counted the spots from the head to the tail, and there were twenty-nine spots in all on one side, though there was one missing in the seventh spot from the head, forming a gap on that side. On the opposite side, the seventh spot was filled in as it should have been, and Luke counted thirty on that side of the snake.

“Strange that there should be one glowing spot missing,” he thought to himself as he looked at the snake and then at the glowing ring on his own hand. Could it be? The snake slithered below, and Luke found his attention drawn to the small wings which poked out of the serpent’s back just behind its head. They weren’t like dragon’s wings as he would have imagined from the role playing games he liked to play, because despite the similarities, the Uktena was certainly no dragon. Its tiny hoard of treasure consisted of a broken down house and a few captured people. There was nothing here so extravagant as a huge mound of golden coins and platinum goblets embedded with diamonds. No, this serpent had collected people, some of which were ghosts and others of which were among the living. Perhaps, the creature simply appreciated the drama of having a house full of people. That was possible. But most of the living happened to be close to Luke, and perhaps it was a means of striking back at him for invading the house twice before. That second consideration seemed the more likely of the two, and the more Luke considered it, the more he began to feel that was the reason. He looked at the missing spot on the Uktena’s side again, and his mind was lulled into a sense of security on the stair landing, and he sat the hatchet down on the floor and placed his hands on the rails, leaning forward with his weight on the thick piece of carved oak. When he had leaned forward far enough to bring his head and shoulders above the rail, the wood ground out a most unfortunate groan as it settled into a compressed position with his weight, and Luke quickly released his hands from the stair rail. He was too late by then though; the damage had already been done. The Uktena’s head snapped around and the great yellow lidless eyes found him high on the landing above. The sharp diamond-like pupils instantly turned from black to green as the serpent locked in on him standing alone on the second floor landing. Rather than run, Luke clenched his fists at his sides, and he braced for the serpent to strike. The small wings on the creature’s back began to beat furiously, and the snakehead started to rise high above the entry room floor while the coil of its body knotted into a taut coil. The wings could not lift the creature’s whole body from earth, but it could help raise its heavy head.

“Ahhhh, you have returned, young one,” the serpent hissed, and its tongue flicked out once while the head leveled up in front of Luke. “Even after I warned you to never come back.” The yellow irises of its eyes swayed from side to side with the bobbing of the head, and Luke could see an image of the man in the green suit etched into each pupil. Then he knew for certain who he had really been dealing with on his last visit there.

“I have,” he said, and he held up the clenched fist with the ring wrapped around one of his fingers. He did not know why the ring had not taken control of him the way it had Sonya earlier that night, but at that moment, he did not care. “I trust this is what you have been looking for,” he continued, steeling his nerves to keep from quaking in his boots. At that moment, he felt like his favorite hero from the movies, Indiana Jones. A snake, why did his enemy have to be a snake. The Uktena flicked its long tongue out again, and this time, the tongue stretched out far enough to reach him, and it licked across his hand. Luke was tempted to draw his fist away in fear and disgust, but he thought better of it and stood strong. He looked the mythical beast in one of its gigantic yellow eyes, and he saw the image of the man in green change slightly until he saw the face of his mother smiling out at him. She didn’t say anything to him, but she tilted her head lightly to one side and called him forward with her hand. He felt himself drawn in by the authority of the suggestion, and both of his fists loosened with the effect. As if on cue, lightning struck across the sky above the mansion, and the stained glass windows shined like sun beams overhead. The serpent’s head appeared to grow with the intensity of the storm, as if it drew its power from the chaos. That was a real possibility, though he knew nothing about this creature other than its ability to change shapes at will.

“You wear the ring on your hand,” the serpent said, and it moved its head in closer with one eye to look at Luke’s hand. “You couldn’t wait to open the box before camp was over then. Ssssshame on you, boy.”

“How do you take a scolding from a giant snake?” Luke asked himself with rising fear. The snake could swallow him whole where he stood, but he held his ground and refused to run away. “The curiosity was not mine,” he replied, but he stopped himself short of mentioning that his best friend was the cause of that debacle. The wound of Matchstick’s death on his own soul was still too fresh, and it hurt much too deeply to even think about, so he gripped the ring with the fingers of his other hand and started to pull on it. The ring had other plans apparently, and it refused to budge past the first knuckle. The snake’s head drew higher and away, and while it looked down on him, the Uktena’s jaws opened to show its enormous fangs. Luke tried to pull the ring off again with no success, and a bead of sweat rolled down his forehead with the effort. “I would give it to you, but it’s stuck on my finger.”

A crest of yellow light shimmered on the larger scale between the snake’s eyes, and Luke’s gaze was drawn to the diamond-shaped plate. The creature’s head began to sway back and forth, seemingly with the rhythm of Luke’s heartbeat, and Luke tried to work the ring over his knuckle, yet it failed to yield its spot on his hand.

“Offer it to me,” the Uktena suggested while it bobbed to and fro in a dreadful dance, “and I will free everyone in thissssss housssssse.” Unable to do anything but comply, Luke tugged and pulled and twisted the ring, but there was no getting it off his finger. Not then, and maybe never. The snake’s jaws widened, and saliva and venom pooled around its tongue as the head swayed faster in time with Luke’s racing heartbeat. The ring would not give up its position on his finger, and the harder he pulled on it, the more pain he began to feel. Blood flowed where his skin had torn beneath the small circle, and Luke finally had to let go of the ring in defeat. He had come all this way to accomplish one thing, give the ring back so that his friends would be free, and he couldn’t even do that.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered and dropped his hands at his sides in defeat. He could not break eye contact with the snake, and that was okay because he didn’t want to.

“Have no fear, sssssssimple one,” the Uktena reassured him. “This too will passssss,” the serpent affirmed, and it drew back its mighty head and opened its mouth wide to strike. White horns then appeared on either side of its crown, and at last the creature had assumed its full sinister form. Great and mighty was the Uktena, and small and tasty would be the roughage of its diet that night. It was a grand night for a long awaited dinner after all, the night of Hurricane Abigail.

**********

Candy watched Luke walk away from her, and she sensed much more guilt inside him than was normal. She didn’t know why she could feel Luke’s emotions so strongly just then. Perhaps it was the admiration she had recently developed for him that made her more understanding of him, or perhaps it was the freshness of Matchstick’s death which played on the merry-go-round of her mind. Maybe. But maybe it was the ring he bore on his finger.

“Could it be?” she wondered, yet she knew the answer to that question without hesitation. She had seen all manner of magic that night, especially when Sonya had worn the ring, and she knew that it was having an effect on Luke as well. The ring had been terrible for Sonya, and the longer Luke wore it on his finger, the worse it would become for him as well. Candy had grown up in the household of a very ruthless individual, a boogey man to some of his victims, and she knew the fine line between good and evil was almost unmeasurably small. Luke was a good person at heart, but she knew he was no saint, and the longer he had that ring on, the worse he was going to become. She would forgive him for what he might do that night under the magic item’s influence, and she watched him go. In the dark of the stairwell, she steeled herself for what was going to come, and as she stood alone, she felt a tingle rise up the back of her arm. She clutched her tingling arm with her other hand and rubbed her fingers along it to warm it up, but again, she felt the tingle of someone else there. She looked all around her, but there was no one she could see. Still, she knew who it was. Elizabeth.

“What are you tryin’ to tell me?” she asked the air around her, and the tingling left her arm. “Do you want me to go hide?” Nothing. “Do you want me to follow Luke?” The tingling came back stronger than ever, and she shook her head no. “I can’t do it,” she said, and she started down the stairs to the basement, the opposite direction from Luke. There was a flash in front of her face, and for an instant, Candy thought she saw the outline of Elizabeth’s face in the dark. It was so quick that if she had blinked, she would have missed it. She had seen her though, and in that instant, there had been a reflection of hurt in Elizabeth’s appearance. Candy stopped in her tracks where she was on the third step down. She hadn’t been afraid to go help Luke, but more than anything, she had been afraid of what he might say to her with that wicked ring on his finger. That he might say something that would hurt her deep down inside, and she didn’t think that she could handle it if he did. With a sigh, she relaxed her shoulders and stared into the darkness where Elizabeth’s face had flashed. “What do you want me do?”

**********

“Come downssssstairsssss to me, my obedient, little one,” the Uktena hissed at Luke, and he felt his feet moving on their own, taking him down the rest of the way to the great room of the old home. He had lost control of himself, of his movements, but not his mind.

“This must be how Sonya felt,” he thought to himself. He tried with all his might to make his legs obey him, but it was no use. The Uktena had taken all control of his reflexes, most likely through the power of its voice but possibly because of the ring he had put on his hand by his own will, and he would soon find out his fate. He thought of what it would be like to be swallowed whole, to be suffocated in the serpent’s esophagus by its digestive muscles before he was submerged headfirst into a pool of stomach acid. “I hope I give it heartburn.” He forced those dreadful thoughts away and tried to think of anything more pleasant, and his mind drifted to thoughts of his mother. If nothing else, maybe he would see her again soon in heaven. He believed in Christ, His death on the cross, and His resurrection on the third day, and it was a comfort to him to know that the Creator of all the universe cared enough to live among us and to shed his own blood for us that our sins might be covered. Luke believed that God’s grace was the only way he had to get to heaven, to see his mother again, and he knew in his heart that he was ready, if it came to it.

“Thank you, Lord,” he said in his mind, and he felt goose bumps rise up his spine. He knew he was not alone, and that in itself was a comfort. As he drew down to the final stair of the case, he saw a wisp of smoke form in front of him, and when his feet touched the hardwood floor of the great room, the thin white mist rushed at his face and into his nose and mouth. Inside of his mind, his mother appeared to him, and she walked out of the curtains of his imagination where he could see her full figure. She was dressed in robes of gold which flowed gracefully from her shoulders to the floor, and her hands were stuffed into warm furry pockets just above her hips. She walked to him, except that with her whole body covered from her neck down, it almost seemed that she glided graciously to him like a sled on the slippery ice. When Norma came close to him in his spirit, she drew out her hands from the golden robes, and she cupped a cheek in each palm and stared into his mind.

“You are not alone,” she said to him, and she stroked strands of his hair behind his ears, just like she would do after reading him a story at bedtime. He knew that it was her in the form of an angel, and even though he had no control of his body, tears formed in his eyes and rolled down his cheeks.

“I miss you so much, mom,” he confessed to her.

“I miss you, too,” Norma said with a smile. “But it is not quite yet your time.”

“When that big snake swallows me, we’ll see,” he told her with more than a little bit of sarcasm in his thoughts.

“Yes, we will see,” she said, and her eyes flicked to somewhere off behind Luke. In his mind, he turned, but there was no one there. At first. But then, the small figure of a familiar girl appeared from the fringes of his thoughts, and he recognized Elizabeth immediately. She waved once to Luke and Norma, and they each waved back.

“Is she going with you, mom?”

“Not yet, but soon,” Norma said, and she let go of Luke and stepped away from him. “I must go, but be assured that you do not face this fiend alone. Take care of your father while you have him, Lucas. Goodbye,” she said and disappeared from his thoughts, never to return except in memories.

When he came to his senses, he found himself standing with his palm and ring finger held up high for the serpent to see. The serpent had lifted its many coils one at a time for him to walk beneath, and Luke was standing in the center of the spiral with the snake’s head looming high above. The snake’s tongue flicked out and slowly licked Luke’s cheek, tasting the salty tears and hissing its pleasure at his sadness.

“I feed on your fear, child,” its voice sizzled. “Tonight will be my first meal in centuries, and there are so many tasty morsels here to break my fast,” the serpent crooned, and it made Luke turn his head around to see the others find their way in amongst the coils. There was his father, Angela, Willie, and Deputy Riggs standing by with wide-open, haunted, and empty eyes. He could only guess that the other people he had seen before were no more than ghosts or apparitions the Uktena had summoned as its strength had grown. “Since you have brought a grand crowd of those whom you love the mosssst to the island, I will reward you for your loyalty and obedience. I will consume you firsssssst before all of the others, that you might prepare the way for them,” it susurrated. It was a sick analogy, and it angered Luke that the serpent could classify humans as food, especially himself. Yet, he could not move his jaws, lips, or tongue to say as much. All he could do was think angry thoughts, and he did. Then it occurred to him that Candy was not gathered among the visitors standing there with him, and he desired against all hope that she had at least escaped the fate that awaited him.

**********

Candy carefully crept along the wall of the hallway, trying her best to sneak up to the second floor landing at the end without being heard. She couldn’t see Elizabeth, but she could feel her presence every once in a while, a tingling that would go up her arm and make her shiver. There was an oriental rug in the center of the hallway, and she wanted to keep her feet on it because it would pad the sound of her shoes while she walked. The problem with stepping on the rug though was that the floorboards beneath it were especially creaky, and every time she took a step, the floor boards would groan. That being the case, she kept as close to the bare floor along the wall as possible, and she used the wall to lean some of her weight against. She had gotten half way to the doorway out with no more than a couple of wooden squeaks, and she thought she could make it to the end without any more trouble. Then she saw Luke start to walk down the stairs. She heard the Uktena hissing, and she believed that whatever was going on out in the great room, the outcome was not going to be good.

As she stood there hiding in the hallway, a red fog began to build behind her, and the swirls of crimson mist rolled over her shoulders and took her by surprise. Candy quickly turned around to see the source of the fog, and she almost screamed out loud at what she saw. There, standing alone in the darkened hallway, was a skeleton shrouded in a crimson robe of mist. The bones were that of an adult, and the skeleton stood taller than she did.

“Oh, sheesh!” she whispered desperately for lack of any better words to describe her surprise, and she stepped off the rug and backed up against the wall. The skeleton walked elegantly towards her and then past her to the end of the hallway with the steamy vapors of the red robe orbiting the bones. Candy was afraid, and she took in a breath and held it until her lungs ached, but the skeleton stopped just outside the landing and waited. Watching. Then the light that had been by her side slowly flowed toward the skeleton and stopped when it was beside the old bony frame. The skull turned to the side and looked down at the light with vacant eye sockets, and just for a second, Candy thought she could see the outline of Elizabeth within the sphere of light. The little girl reached out her hand and took the bare metacarpals of the skeleton, what was once a mother’s gentle hand, and the two stood together at the end of the hallway and watched as Luke sacrificed himself to the Uktena. She didn’t know where it came from, perhaps it had been bottled deep inside from years of torment in her father’s home, but Candy felt a curious anger take control of her, and she managed to move her feet. Before she knew what she was doing, she found herself walking the last few steps over to the skeleton, and she reached her hand into the cold red mist and tapped the skeleton on the scapula. The skull craned around to look at her with empty eyes, and Candy gripped her hands into fists at her side so that she wouldn’t shiver, and she blew a breath of air into her bangs to clear the hair from her own eyes.

“We brought the ring back, like you told Luke to do. Now, are you just goin’ to let all those people down there die?”

The jaw bones separated to make an open mouth, but there were no lips to form the words. Still, she heard them echo in her mind. “Of course. Why should I care who lives and who dies? No one cared for me and my own children when we were here.”

“What could she say to that?” she wondered to herself, hoping that her thoughts weren’t detectable by the skeleton. She had to do something though, because if she didn’t, they were all going to be dead very soon. “You two don’t make any sense at all. Elizabeth was tryin’ to get us to keep the ring and never bring it back, and you were tryin’ to get us to bring it back. Which is it?” she asked, but the skeleton turned its head back around to face the serpent. “Don’t you ignore me, lady!” she snapped, and the skull whipped around to look at her again. This time, she could see the outlines of the lady’s face around the bones.

“I will show you,” the skeleton of Abigail let go of her daughter’s glowing hand and grabbed Candy’s arms with two bony fists. Candy’s eyesight blurred, and she found herself falling into a well with a bright light at the end of the tunnel. Her body was drawn to the light like a magnet, and when she had passed through the well and came out on the other side, she found herself standing upright on a field of green grass. Above her, there were white birds flying through the air, egrets that had been fishing in the marshy grasses at the edge of the river behind her, and she looked out across the flowing Neuse River at a world that had been passed by many years ago.

She heard the sound of metal striking rock, and she swiveled around to look up the hill where the house should have been. There was no house there yet, but when she walked to the top of the grassy knoll, she found a large hole that was being dug in the ground where the foundation should have been. It was the basement, and there was a crew of three men with shovels digging in the red clay soil. The men were below ground level, and they had hit a patch of stone in the soil with their shovels. She called down to them to ask what they were doing, but they kept working and acted as if they hadn’t heard her. Then they started singing a song as they dug around the borders of the rock in unison. It was a song she had never heard before that kept the pace of the work in time, and she began to tap her foot as their rhythm sank into her bones. Before long, they had cleared off the clay from the top of the stone and along the top edges, and the stone appeared to have a crack around the seams just beneath the cap, as if the stone was a giant lid. When the men had dug the top out thoroughly, one of them took his shovel and banged down hard on the stone, as if he was trying to break it with the effort. Of course, nothing happened when he did, but he and the other men were curious to open it up and see what was inside. Then the workers took a crowbar, and all of the men worked together to pry it open. Within minutes, they had the lid shifted a few degrees off center, and one of the men stuck his hand down into the gap to see what was inside. He shifted his arm around to reach where he couldn’t see, and his fingers closed around what felt like a smooth stone. He brought it out for the others to see, and it was an egg that had been buried for many centuries. There were ancient Native American writings inscribed on the lid, and none of the three men knew how long the egg had been closed up inside, nor did they care.

“A rotten egg,” the second man said when he sniffed the shell when it was handed to him, and then suddenly, he dropped it to the ground when he felt something move inside. The egg wobbled around in the dirt until a crack formed in the slimy shell.

“Clumsy fool,” the third man said to the other, and he reached down to pick it up carefully with both hands. When his fingers had cradled it, he raised it up close to his face where he could see what was inside it. “Slimy thing . . . ,” he started to say, and a tiny snake popped out of the crack with its needle-tipped fangs bared. The snake bit him on the nose, sunk its little fangs into the skin and cartilage of his nostrils, and pumped its poison into his face. Instead of helping their friend, the other two men laughed and slapped their legs in merriment, until their friend fell over to the ground unconscious. His faced had turned purple from the poison, and the second man who had dropped the egg picked up his shovel and was going to slam the snake (and his friend’s face), but the first man grabbed his arm and stopped him.

“Don’t you be doin’ that. You’ll kill him for sure,” he said, and since the snake was so small, he reached down and pinched the small snake behind the head to see if it would let go of his friend’s nose. Try as he might, he couldn’t squeeze the snake hard enough to make it let go of his friend’s nose. The two men then dragged their friend’s limp body out of the hole that would become the basement of the Newberry Mansion, and once out of the hole, they laid his body out on two oak branches like a stretcher. Then they carried him across the Neuse River to the main land on the newly built wooden bridge. On the other side, they set their friend down and rested for a moment to figure out what to do about the snake and their friend. They had no horses because they had walked to work, and there was no doctor nearby to help with the poison, but they did know of a Cherokee Indian camp that was only a mile away through the woods. The Indians fished the Neuse River and hunted the neighboring woods, and they hoped there would be someone there who could help their friend before the poison killed him. They carried their friend through the woods until they reached the border of the camp where two braves with spears in hand met them, and when the young men saw the snake and the bitten man’s face, they quickly escorted them to the medicine man’s tent. Once inside, the medicine man took one look at the snake and stepped back out of the tent. He yelled many Cherokee words at them which they did not understand, and the medicine man ended his tirade by yelling the word “Uktena!” at them repeatedly, pointing at the tiny snake on the man’s face. At the sound of that word, the braves who had escorted them to the tent looked at each other gravely, and they lowered their spears at the men who had brought the Uktena to their camp.

“Uktena?” one of the man’s friends repeated, and the medicine man nodded his head. Then he spoke to them in broken English and hand gestures.

“Take snake off,” he gestured to his own chest to show that he would remove the snake from their friend’s nose. Then he pointed at them. “Show where find!”

“You want us to show you where we found it?” the first man asked, and the medicine man nodded as the braves watched tensely. There was a deadline, and the diggers had to go back to work, no matter what the consequences with their friend would be, and so they nodded their heads yes. Satisfied with their answer, the medicine man uncovered a set of instruments from a nearby blanket, and he had a small knife and a tiny wooden box. Then he drew down close to the victim’s face, and with the knife, he quickly sliced a small chunk of scaly skin from the squirming snake’s side. The young snake was clearly agitated, but it still did not let go of the man’s nose. The medicine man motioned one of the men over, and he held out the wooden box.

“Hold for friend!” he ordered the man, and the man took the box and held it open in his palm. The medicine man then scooped the cutting from the snake with the blade and dumped it into the box. When he reached over to close it, the snake hissed, let go of the victim’s nose with its jaws, and launched itself at the medicine man who was closing the lid on the box. As soon as the box closed, the snake went limp in midair and landed harmlessly on the medicine man’s shoe. Reverent and respectful of all living things, he picked the snake up by the tail, and he laid it on top of the little box in the visitor’s hand.

“Now what?” the man asked as he held the box and the snake nervously in his hand.

“You,” the medicine man pointed at him with his finger. “Take back. Bury,” he commanded him, and then he ordered the two braves with spears to escort them out of the tent.

“What about our friend?” the other man asked, not wanting to go back empty handed. The medicine man sighed.

“Gone. Great Spirit,” he explained and pointed towards the sky. The two men looked at each other for answers, but they both knew what he meant. “Go. Do not forget. Bury,” he ordered them, and they walked back into the woods as the dream faded in Candy’s mind’s eye.

When the dream had completely faded out, she found herself looking the skull directly in the eye sockets, and she understood what it was that she needed to do.

“It’s the box, isn’t it? I need the box,” Candy questioned though she knew the answer. The Lady of Newberry nodded, and Candy started to panic. “I don’t know where it’s at! Can’t we just throw the ring in any old box.” The skull shook its head no, and Candy huffed. “We’re in the middle of a tropical storm and a flood! What the heck am I supposed to do?!” she said in exasperation, and the skeleton held up her bony hand and pointed at Willie. Candy looked where she was pointing, and she didn’t understand. “It’s Willie. So what?” she said, but almost as soon as the words came out of her mouth, she noticed the bulge of something hidden in the front pocket of his jeans. Though Matchstick had taken the ring, Willie had had the wooden box all along.

The Lady Newberry’s face appeared over the skull for an instant, and she wore a mixture of compassion and sadness. “My daughter made a choice for all of us that we have to now face, but I am afraid that she was right. Our family has been forced to lurk these corridors for long enough, and maybe that is all because of the power of the snake that dwelt here beneath the surface. I will help you get the box, but it is up to you to finish the work,” she explained, and then the skin faded from her face and the hollow eyes stared back at Candy. The lady of the red mist was all bones, and she started down the stairs at a run, catching the attention of the Uktena and delaying Luke from becoming the protein portion of a late night snack for at least another minute. The storm thundered outside and the wind picked up, blowing the shutters and shaking the walls. Hurricane Abigail was making her presence known outside as well as inside, and Lady Abigail marched over to Willie’s hypnotized body and stuck her bony hands into his front pocket. Then she pulled out the little wooden box that had held the Uktena prisoner for centuries, and she held it up for the great serpent to see.

“This is my house, and you will let these people go!” she shouted with invisible lungs.

The serpent circled its raised head and leaned its chin down so that it could see her clearly with the diamond slits in its eyes. Then its forked tongue rolled out and the snake started laughing, and the wings on its back flapped as if to lift it off the ground.

“Who are you to lecture me about property?” the Uktena hissed and then laughed some more. Luke stood there frozen, and he tried to move his hands. To his astonishment, he had regained some control over his own body, and he credited it to Lady Abigail’s interruption. If he was going to do something about the serpent, it would have to be soon. Otherwise, he might never get a chance to act again, but unlike Candy, he was not at all aware of the significance of the wooden box. When Abigail’s skeleton suddenly tossed the box at him, he watched it fly through the air as a section of the serpent’s tail rose and blocked it in mid-flight, knocking it over to the base of the staircase. The skeleton’s jaw dropped, and Abigail started to run over to pick it up, but the Uktena wrapped the end of its tail around her bones and lifted her up in front of the serpent’s head. “I would eat you now, but there’s nothing but bones,” the serpent hissed with evil laughter.

Candy saw the wooden box bounce off of the bottom stair, and she ran down the steps to go pick it up while the Uktena was distracted. “This is crazy, this is crazy,” she kept telling herself with every step, and she snatched the box from the floor. She knew what she had to do next; it was simple. She had to put the ring back into the box and close it up, and maybe then some of this nightmare would be over. The only trouble was that part of the serpent’s body was between herself and Luke, and Luke was still under the spell of the Uktena. That was also a potential problem that she would have if the Uktena spotted her.

Just then, another strike of lightning exploded outside, and a burst of wet air blew the front door open, letting droplets of rain cover the floor at the entrance. The Uktena thrived on the utter chaos, but it gave Candy a wild idea. She picked up a broken piece of stair rail, and she flung it at Luke. The wooden rail struck him along the back, and he stumbled forward a couple of steps as the Uktena swallowed the bones of Abigail. Luke snapped to, and he spun his head around to see who had struck him and saw Candy running for the open front door. She was waving her hands for him to come, too, and he didn’t waste any time thinking it over. He leaped over the serpent’s tail and slid across the oily scales, and he bolted for the door. By the time he had made it to the opening, Candy had already gone out into the storm and was in the grass of the front yard, running for all she was worth. Before Luke could cross the threshold, a sliver of the serpent’s tail came down in front of him, blocking him from going out the door.

**********

Candy saw her chance, and she ran through the open front door, hoping that Luke would follow. When she hit the front porch, she kept going down the marble steps and out into the front yard. She stopped and turned around to watch for Luke, and she felt someone tap her on the shoulder. Scared, she jumped and spun around in the dark to find her brother standing in the rain with an axe in his hands.

“Dick!” she shouted and gave him a hug. “You made it! Come on, we have to go back to the house and see if we can help Luke escape.”

Dick didn’t say much. He just nudged her down the hill away from the house instead. “No, we’re leavin’ this place before we drown.”

Candy put her hands on her hips. “We can’t abandon our friends, Dick. There’s a giant snake in there, and it’s goin’ to eat everybody in sight.”

“Then you need to get outta sight, sissy,” he told her and pushed her further away from the house, trying to get her to go back to the boat and get out of there while she could. He was pushing her, but he wasn’t going with her though, and she wondered what he was up to.

“Where do you think you’re goin’?” she asked.

At first, he wouldn’t answer. He simply grunted. But when she didn’t get moving fast enough, he gave her something to satisfy her curiosity. “I’m goin’ to stand guard until you’re outta sight.”

“Oh no, you’re not. I got the wooden box, and all we need now is the ring, and then this whole big party will be over,” she explained. “Luke’s got the ring, and he’ll be bringin’ it out any second.”

“Not with that giant snake. I saw it from the window, and I know he can’t get away from it. It’s too big,” Dick told her. “I’ll watch your back while you get the boat ready though.”

“You need to help, Luke,” she insisted, and he shoved her.

“Go on!” he yelled at her, but she wouldn’t move. Finally, he gave in to what she really wanted. “Will you go if I help Luke?” She grinned and nodded. “All right, then. Git!!” he snapped at her, and this time she went. Thunder rumbled overhead, and he started running for the cover of the front porch. Two seconds later, a flash lit up the yard and the crash of lightning nearly blew him off his feet when the bolt of electricity struck the earth. Dick jumped off the ground and hurdled onto the front porch without touching a step, and he hid from the open doorway by putting his back to the wood siding. He listened, and even though the lightning strike had nearly deafened him, he heard the footsteps of someone running toward the front door on the inside of the house, probably to get out. He rubbed the blinding flash from his eyes, and then he stood at the front door and saw the snake’s tail blocking Luke from getting away.

“Leaving so soon? No worry, I love fast food,” the Uktena said as it swallowed another gulp, and the bulge of the skeleton moved further down its esophagus. Luke was trapped again, and if the Uktena had its way, it would take control of his thoughts and freeze all of his movements. He would never be able to escape if he didn’t do something, but what could he do? His way was blocked again, and he had no power over his own destiny. Despite the lack of hope, Luke tried to get over the snake’s tail, but this time, the Uktena toyed with him by moving it up and down, keeping itself between him and the door out. Soon, he would be a lump in the Uktena’s throat, and there was nothing that he could do about it. The only bright spot was that Candy had managed to get away, and that brought a thin grin to his face at least. Then he saw another blinding flash of lightning explode in the yard, and he was momentarily blinded from the flash. When the spots had cleared, Candy was nowhere to be found, and the serpent’s tail was still blocking his way.

“Poor, poor, Luke,” the serpent hissed. “He’s lost his way home and hisssss girl.”

At that moment, Luke believed all was lost, and he hung his head low. The grin that had graced his face was long gone with the combined power and cruelty of the serpent and the storm.

“What are you quittin’ so soon for Pukie?!!” a familiar voice yelled out over the wind, and an axe chopped down on the snake’s tail and split it into two pieces. In the instant when all hope had vanished, Dick Berry stepped into the doorway from the dark, and he grabbed Luke by the front of his shirt and pulled him out the front door.

“Dick?!”

“Yeah, that’s my name. Are you comin’ or not?”

Luke gripped him by the arm and said, “Heck, yeah!” The boys hurdled over the porch steps and into the thin layer of standing water in the grass, and they ran in the direction that Candy had been going. “Where’s Candy?!” Luke yelled.

“She ran this way, but we got to find her and get to the boats.” Luke stopped all of a sudden, and Dick almost fell down trying to turn around and look at him. “What are you waitin’ for?!”

“We can’t just leave everyone there to die, Dick.”

“Ugggghhhh!!! You people!” he said in frustration. “Well, what else are you goin’ to do?! You weren’t much help in there anyways, from what I saw.”

He was right, of course. But that didn’t make the situation any better for Luke. It was probably survivor’s guilt that was playing with his mind, but maybe it was something more than that. There had to be some way to save everyone in the house, at least the ones that weren’t ghosts already. But what could he do?

“You can stay here and get eaten, struck by lightnin’, or drown. The choice is yours, Pukie, but I’m gettin’ my sister and gettin’ out of here,” Dick said, and he ran off into the dark with his axe still in hand. He was running away, but at least he had a weapon. What did Luke have?

“Nothing,” he said to himself, and he looked back at the Newberry Mansion. There was nowhere that he could go that would make things any better for him. Sure, he could make it to a boat, escape the snake, and maybe survive the flood, but he would have no one left in his life. He had watched his mother fade away in a hospital bed, and he had witnessed his best friend get washed away in the Neuse. His father was the only person left in his life, and though they were never on the best terms with each other, Andy was still the only father he ever knew. He couldn’t just leave him behind to be swallowed like Abigail’s skeleton had been. Luke did the only thing he knew to do at that moment. He knelt down on his knees in the rainwater, and he closed his eyes and said another prayer for help to the only being that could change the outcome of this disaster. When he had finished, he looked up into the sky and covered his eyes from the stinging rain. For a second, all was quiet, even the wind, and in that second, Luke heard the squawk of a bird, a raptor in the night. When he scanned the heavens, he didn’t see anything in the sky though, and his gaze fell back on the house. Through the front door, the Uktena’s head slithered out with the yellow diamond glowing on its forehead, and Luke tensed up with fear.

“Crap!” he said, and he knew he had to run. He hated it, but Dick had been right, and he took off after him to find Candy and get off the island. He ran as hard as he could through the wet, tall grass of the field, and he skidded and almost ran into Dick in the dark part of the way down the hill.

“Why’d you stop, man?! The snake’s coming!”

Dick didn’t say anything, he just pointed ahead where the rain water was starting to flood the lower parts of the island. “We can’t get through that. We’ll drown.”

Luke put his hand on his shoulder and encouraged him. “I can get through it. Somebody has to because Candy is farther ahead, and she’s probably already in the boat by now.”

“Suit yourself, but I’m not goin’ in there. It’s suicide!”

“I’ve got a better idea. The snake’s coming after me, and that means the house is unguarded. Take the axe with you and get everybody out while we have a chance. We’ve got hours to go before this storm passes, and this flood’s only going to get worse.”

Dick didn’t look so sure about that idea. “Are you goin’ to save Candy?”

“Either that or she’ll save me,” he told him, and Luke didn’t wait any longer and went straight ahead, wading into the waters. Dick watched him go, and he saw that Luke could swim like a fish. That didn’t help him any, but he looked back at the house and saw the snake slithering around the yard looking for them. He tightened his grip on the axe handle, and his lips tensed into a straight line along with the slits of his eyes. “If there’s one thang I hate, it’s a snake,” he said and started hiking around the perimeter of the island to the backside of the house.

Chapter 19

*

Luke swam across the field to the tree trunks of the forest, and he grabbed onto an oak limb as the water rose. If he let his legs float up to the surface and stayed on the downstream side of the tree, the current would be parted by the tree trunk and the drag of the flood waters would be much weaker than anywhere else he could find. It was dark that night, and even though his eyes had adjusted to the lack of light, it was hard for him to see anything more than a few yards out. With a giant snake chasing after him, being in the dark may have been for the best thing for his nerves, and he let the water soothe his tensions and ease his mind. Then he called out for Candy, and he could hardly tell his own voice over the sound of the whipping wind and rains. He called for her again anyway, no matter how pointless it seemed, but no one called back. He thought about how she may have had problems with the boat since the rain had probably filled it up to overflowing, but he pushed those negative thoughts away because they weren’t helping him survive the night and they weren’t helping him rescue the others. Another thought came to mind as the waters drifted by.

“Snakes can swim, and sometimes they move even faster in water than they do on land.”

He couldn’t remember where he had heard that before, perhaps he had read it in a monster magazine. He didn’t know the origin for sure, but it wasn’t a very comforting proposition, and he suddenly felt the world caving in around him. He began to feel that maybe he wouldn’t make it back home that night.

“Candy!! Candy!!” he yelled out, but no one answered, and so Luke took the time to say another quick prayer before he called out again. At least God could hear him, he hoped.

“Candy!!” he screamed again, and he did get an answer, but it was not the answer he had expected. A raptor, maybe a hawk or an eagle, squawked out its call to him, and this time it was much louder. He looked all around at the treetops, but there was no winged shadow that he could see, especially that night. “Candy!!” he cried once more, and the bird screeched again in answer. Very loudly and very close by, and then thunder began to rumble above his head and the trunk shook violently as if the bird had landed on the very tree he was holding on to. He tilted his head back and his hair dipped into the water as he looked straight up in the air. He squinted and strained to see what was above him. Through the limbs and leaves, he saw the wings of a great bird blocking the sky, and he caught the glimmer of its eyes looking down at him. He was directly beneath the enormous bird when the tree rumbled like thunder, and one very important thought came to his mind.

“I hope it doesn’t have to poop right now.”

**********

Candy took a chance and waded into the waters of the forest, always moving in the direction of the shore where she knew the boat was tied up. With the rising of the waters, some of the weeds and brush that would have blocked her vision were submerged, and in the near distance, she could see the boat floating on the river. If she let go of the limb that she was holding onto, she knew she would only have one chance to get to the boat. With everything that was happening on the island, she thought she had to take that chance. In her heart, she believed that the choices were very limited. She could try to get to the boat and actually succeed. She could try to get to the boat and drown. Or she could stay here on the island and get swallowed whole by a giant winged snake.

“Go for the boat then,” she told herself and wrapped the box up in her shirt so she wouldn’t lose it. Then she started swimming for the boat. She had watched the speed of the flood waters, and she had timed her strokes so that she could get there and let the current push her into the boat. She swam as hard as she could crossways with the current, and when she was lined up to be dragged alongside of the boat, she changed over to treading water. That night, she was lucky because the flooding water did push her right into the boat, and she grabbed the sides to pull herself in. There wasn’t enough weight in the boat, and it tilted dangerously over to one side and almost capsized. But she quickly rolled to the middle and the boat tilted so that her body was laying horizontal with the water. The boat had taken on a significant amount of water in the bottom, and she couldn’t rest for long before the boat would gather even more water from the heavy rains and sink.

“This sucks,” she said out loud, not caring if anyone heard it, and she started bailing water out with her hands. It wasn’t very efficient, but it was all she had to do the job and she worked at it long enough to get it to a manageable level. As she sat for a moment with her arms on either side of the boat, she heard thunder rumble in the forest, and when a bolt of lightning flashed, she thought she saw the outline of a bird in the top of an oak tree in the distance. “I must be dreamin’ ‘cause that thing is huge,” she said to herself. Another flash of lightning lit up the night, and when she looked up the hill at the Newberry Mansion, she also saw the snake slithering out across the yard, looking for someone. “I hope Luke got out. We gotta fix this,” she told herself.

**********

Dick spotted the Uktena slithering out of the front door of the house as he came around the lower side of the grassy field. He ducked his head and kept moving, but every once in a while, he would glance back to watch the lighted rings which were spaced along the entire length of the snake’s belly. The serpent was moving away from the house and himself, and for that he was glad. Because of this, Dick was able to run around the perimeter of the house without being seen, and quietly, he snuck up onto the back porch and tried to look through the windows. There were cobwebs and dust spots collected on the panes, but when he wiped them away, he still could not see inside. He held the axe in his hands, and he considered the possibilities of what he could do with it and whether or not he should do it.

“The snake’s gone for now, so here goes,” he said to himself, and he reared back with the axe and brought it down across the window with a mighty heave. He closed his eyes to protect them when the blade struck the glass, but he was surprised to find that the glass withstood the blow. “Didn’t think they had bulletproof glass in the old days,” he reckoned, and he tried the same thing again with the same result. He rested the blade on the porch, and carefully he felt the surface of the glass for cracks with his fingertips, but there was nothing to find. Deciding his attempts were useless, he stepped over to the door moldings, and he aimed for the middle section of the edging where the brass lock was inserted into the wood. He swung the axe into the molding and the old wood split easily where the blade dug into the fibers. Whatever powers had protected the windows hadn’t seen fit to brace the wood at least, and twenty well-aimed chops later, he had dug the bolt completely out of the wall, letting the door open inside with ease.

“That’s more like it,” he remarked, and he pushed the door inward. Musty air was sucked out of the house, and he gripped the axe in both hands and entered the shadows.

**********

Luke saw the glowing rings on the side of the serpent as it came down the hill and into the water. It was coming for him, and with the ring on his finger, there was nowhere that he could hide from it in the dark. He let go of the tree with the ring hand and quickly submerged it beneath the water, leaving him to hold onto the tree in the flood with only one hand. He had to do it to remain hidden, but he knew it was a serious risk to his health. The waters twisted his body around so that he was looking in the direction of the Uktena as it swam out into the Neuse, and Luke became deathly afraid that his life would soon come to a horrifying end. There seemed to be no end to his praying that night, and this time he prayed with his eyes open. He had no idea what it was like to die, but the serpent was swimming within twenty yards of him and he believed that death could be an event that he would experience soon.

“Llllluuuuuukkkkkeee!!” the Uktena hissed at him, and its tongue flicked out of its mouth so that it could sense him. The glowing yellow diamond on its head shown bright and the brilliant green and yellow of its eyes flicked on vividly when it saw him on the surface of the water. Luke then realized that it was too late; he had been spotted despite his every effort, and the serpent darted its head forward at him to strike. With its mouth wide open and fangs bared, the serpent struck with great speed, and Luke let go of the tree and dove beneath the river’s surface just in time. The serpent narrowly missed him, and with his head below the surface and his body washed away by the flood waters, it searched and searched but couldn’t find him. Luke stayed under water for a count of ten before he bothered trying to surface again, and when he popped his head out for air, he saw the snake’s tail wrapped around the tree he had been holding and its head was bobbing in and out of the water, trying to find him. To survive for a few more minutes, he had done the right thing, but the Uktena was intelligent, and it quickly turned its attention to him downstream. When its eyes caught his in a glance, it let go of the oak tree and slithered down the river toward him. Luke dove beneath the surface again, and he swam downward until he reached the bottom of the river where he could grab onto something and hold on. He snatched what felt like a limb from an old log, and he tried to hold onto it with both hands, but the moss and algae made it slippery. Within an instant, he had lost his hold, and the river’s current towed him hopelessly into an eddy where he circled helplessly under the water. He tried to swim upward several times to get out of the pull of the vortex, but the water dragged him down to the bottom each time. Slowly his lungs began to ache with the strain, and he looked up at the night sky through the murk and was afraid to let go of the last bit of air that he had. A few more seconds passed, and he saw the faint outlines of two people in the water above him, and oddly enough, neither one seemed to be affected by the river’s currents. The figures appeared to be almost transparent, and one of the faces seemed to have the outlines of his mother’s face. The other face, if he wasn’t seeing things, appeared to be Matchstick’s. The two translucent figures reached their hands down for Luke to grab onto, but he couldn’t reach them, so he let his feet touch the bottom and he thrust himself upward with one giant heave. The two figures grabbed his hands, and they pulled him out of the vortex and nearly threw his whole body out of the water. He splashed and bobbed around on top of the river trying to catch his breath, and he looked everywhere for his saviors, but they were nowhere to be found. Had he really seen his mother and his best friend? It seemed ridiculous on the face of it, but it hadn’t been long ago that he had been speaking with a little girl who had been dead for at least two hundred years. It was possible that they had been real, but they were nowhere to be found. The serpent though was a different story. It heard him splashing on the surface, and the giant snake swam toward him again with renewed determination.

Luke sighed to himself. He couldn’t even enjoy one moment of salvation from drowning, and he was already in danger again. At that moment, he despaired and wished that he had never made the trip to camp this year. He should have put his foot down and told his dad that he wasn’t going, though he knew his father wouldn’t let him out of it. The trip had been planned long before his mother had passed away, and his father was big on sticking to plans. And also, more importantly, his father was big on not listening to Luke. Luke shook his head, and because there were more important things to do than changing the past, he let his frustration with his father go for the time being. There was a giant snake hunting him, and he needed to pay attention to surviving the rest of the night. The yellow diamond grew large as the Uktena drew near, and Luke decided not to duck and hide under the water anymore. He was tired, he was caught hopelessly adrift in the Neuse River, and he wanted this nightmare to end. The great snake opened its jaws wide over his head, poised ready to strike, and then it laughed at him from above.

“Useless boy, you are nothing but a quick meal,” the Uktena said to him, and instinctively Luke held his hands up over his face. It wasn’t much protection, but such things can’t be helped in times of desperate trouble. The serpent opened its jaws wide to swallow him whole, and that’s when he heard the screech of the giant bird over the thunderous sounds of the wind and rain. The Uktena must have sensed the coming of the bird as well, and its head flipped around to look up into the night sky. The serpent hissed, and there was the downward force of great giant wings pushing air into Luke’s face. Then suddenly the snake was picked up out of the water, and when Luke squinted to see what was going on, he saw enormous talons wrapped around the body of the snake as it was lifted into the air. The snake struck at the breast of the bird with its fangs, seemingly to no avail, and the bird circled ever higher into the air. Luke grabbed a nearby rock, and he held onto it so that he could watch the battle from the middle of the river. Soon, massive lightning strikes lit the night air in a brilliant display, and Luke saw the bird peck the snake’s head with its curved beak while the snake struck and missed. After countless strikes by the Uktena, the giant bird became weakened, and it dropped the snake from its talons. Luke heard the snake laughing with pleasure at its escape, but as it fell toward the Neuse, he watched as a lightning bolt struck again seemingly in slow motion, backlighting the giant nameless bird in midair in all its glory. The bolt of electricity flowed from the ground upward, moving from point to point to point as if it was connecting all of the dots in the sky, and then it crossed the same coordinates in space as the Uktena. The bolt then passed through the serpent and went onward to flow into the bird where it ended. The lights went out in the night sky, and the serpent splashed into the river, burnt to a crisp. The Uktena’s body floated on the surface for a moment, and it appeared like a twisted lifeless log which drifted with the stream. Luke let out an exhale of relief because, if nothing else, the treacherous serpent had been electrocuted and would never bother him again.

So he thought.

He watched the giant snake’s body float by lifelessly, and then he looked at the ring on his finger that had grown perilously dim. To him, the lighted ring was the best indicator of the serpent’s condition he believed there could ever be, but when he saw the ring’s light begin to ramp in intensity, he felt a cold chill run through his body. Luke looked up from his hand to the Uktena, and he saw the crispy bacon-like outer skin crack and crumble. The snake began to writhe and gyrate beneath the outer shell as if it sought to shed its burnt veneer, and the blackened scales shattered and collapsed into the murky waters of the river. The diamond on its head glowed brightly, and the snake hissed its displeasure at the great bird that hovered in the stormy wind.

**********

Candy watched the snake swim out to the trees, and she wondered what it was doing by striking the water. She hadn’t seen Luke swim out, and with the storm beating down so hard, she hadn’t heard him call her name either. One thing was for sure, she was deathly afraid that the snake was going to see her and come after her in the boat. She had been able to wade out to the boat before the flooding really became life-threatening, but over the last few minutes, the waters had risen rapidly and she thought she would drown if she got out of the boat.

“Heck, it’s rainin’ so hard, I might just drown in the boat,” she said to herself, but she didn’t let it dampen her mood any more than the storm was already doing it for her. What did dampen her mood was that the giant serpent let go of the tree and was now swimming free downstream in the river. She was scared that the serpent had spotted her in the boat and that it was coming to get her. But, as luck would have it, the Uktena swam past her, and it seemed to be preoccupied with something else in the water. She didn’t know what or who, but she had a feeling that it was Luke. Somehow he had gotten into the swollen banks of the Neuse, and the serpent was probably trying to eat him. She didn’t see him floating around since it was so dark, however, and she hoped that she was wrong about him. She hoped he was still in the Newberry Mansion, still alive and helping to save the others from the Uktena.

The glowing rings on the sides of the serpent got further and further away from her, and then, lightning struck in the sky. It was at that moment, she saw the strangest thing she had ever seen take place. The giant bird that was in the top of the oak tree must have seen the snake, too, and it must have thought that the giant reptile was a meal because the bird swooped down and snatched the Uktena with its claws and lifted it out of the water. The fight was on then, and she watched the Uktena and bird wrestling in midair. One second, the snake would snap at the bird with its mouth wide open, and the bird would dodge and peck the snake in the next. It didn’t take long for the bird’s advantage to evaporate with the wind, and it looked like the Uktena was going to win the skirmish. When Candy saw the bolt of lightning hit the snake and roast the worm in the sky, her lower jaw dropped in awe of the moment. The crisp body of the snake hit the water, but the bird kept flapping its wings in the air, as if nothing at all had happened to it. Time passed, and the bird still hovered beneath the clouds, and she lowered her head down into the body of the boat, trying to hide from the giant raptor. Whatever the bird was going to do afterward, she didn’t want to be next.

**********

Dick ran down the long hallway until he found the great room where the dual staircases were located at the front of the house. Glowing in the night, there were three distinct outlines of nearly transparent children standing with the people he had come to search out: Deputy Riggs, Luke’s father Andy, Angela, and Willie. Dick froze at first sight of the ghosts, and when they looked over at him, chills went up and down his spine. Then one of young ghosts walked over to him and took him by the hand in his fright, and it seemed to him that he could actually feel the little girl’s touch.

“You can see me?” she asked him, and he nodded silently, afraid to say anything to the little girl for fear that she might answer him. “Before, it would have been impossible, but with the Uktena gone, we may yet have a chance at the afterlife.” Dick didn’t comprehend what she was talking about, but he listened. He had come too far and through too much to run out screaming into the night in fear. It was the first time he had met a ghost, and he wasn’t going to let it get the best of him. After all, he was one of the biggest bullies at his school. “Why should I let a little girl scare me anyway?” he thought.

“There’s no time to waste,” the little girl told him, and she pointed up the stairs. “The storm is here, and you have to get the others to safety up the stairs,” she instructed him. Though she appeared young and immature, he believed what she was saying. It was her eyes that convinced him; they were old and wizened with age, and he trusted what she was saying to him. He looked at the others, the living, and he rolled his eyes at them. Deputy Riggs, Luke’s dad Andy, Angela, and Willie were all still hanging out in the front entry room, mesmerized and hallucinating in an imagined world of centuries ago. He didn’t know any of them very well; they were not his type of people, but he didn’t think he could stand by and watch anyone else die that night. Starting with Angela, he took her by the arm, and he coaxed her into ascending one of the stairways to the upper story of the house. Then he picked a bedroom in the hallway, and he forced the door open with his shoulder and his axe. He convinced Angela to sit down on the bed, and he walked around to the other side of the bed and looked out the glass of the one window in the outer wall. He had never seen a storm as bad as Hurricane Abigail was. The flood waters had risen nearly to the porch, and he knew that he had to get the other three people up into the second story before they were drowned. He went out into the hallway and then down the stairs, and when he looked over the balcony, he could see the reflection on the ripples of water that was amassing on the floorboards of the great room. He knew he only had minutes left before the entire first floor was under water. Oddly enough, the son of the strangler wanted to save everyone that was there in the house from drowning, including the ghosts, but he would have to focus on saving the living. His eyes passed over the spirits of the children who looked up at him from the room below. Their eyes were haunted, and sadness showed through the despondent outlines of their faces, but he knew that nothing further could be done for them to make their situation in death any better. When he reached the bottom of the stairs, he grabbed Luke’s father Andy by the arm and guided him up the stairs as the house filled with water. He was out of time, and he knew it. The ghosts would have to take care of themselves, as, no doubt, they had been doing for the last couple of hundred years. The living had to be his primary concern.

**********

Luke was completely terrified as he held onto the rock in the rushing river, and at the same time, he was in awe of the melee of giants he was watching ringside. The fact that the giant bird had experienced no injuries whatsoever from the direct strike of lightning was a miracle. Not to mention, there was the Uktena’s miraculous recovery from being burned to a crisp in front of his eyes. It was an awesome sight to behold, but unless one of the monsters rolled over and gave up, Luke wondered if the epic battle between colossuses would ever meet a true end.

To make things worse, the river waters were rising rapidly, and he only had a little piece of the rock left to hold onto above the water’s surface. He was becoming exhausted from the effort of fighting the current, and if something didn’t happen soon, he believed that he was going to drown. He closed his eyes one last time, and he admitted to God above that he couldn’t do this alone and that he needed help.

“I want to live,” he said, and he held onto the rock tightly while the last bit of stone was submerged by the flood. Luke opened his eyes just in time to see a giant talon closing over his body, and he panicked and let go of the rock. The giant raptor beat its wings and hovered over the surface of the water, and it took him in one claw and flew off into the sky against the tropical storm force winds. Luke squirmed to get out of the bird’s clutches, but it didn’t seem to do him any good. He couldn’t break its grip on him, and his face was pointing down at the river below. His fear of heights wasn’t doing him any favors either, and he gritted his teeth to keep from screaming. The Uktena was swimming upstream, following them. Both creatures were fighting against nature, one was flying against the wind and the other against the water, and the Uktena was matching the bird’s speed. Then the giant snake’s head darted up out of the water toward the sky, and its mouth closed on the bird’s other talon, and the weight of the serpent’s body pulled the bird down from the heavens. The bird let out a squawk of surprise, and it loosened its hold on Luke while it descended toward the river. Luke didn’t want to be held by the bird, but he didn’t want to plunge into the water either, and so he threw two arms around one of the bird’s toes and held on for dear life. His feet swung down and touched the jaw of the Uktena, and the snake’s eye slit looked over at him and poison dripped down its lusting fangs into the bird’s bony feet. Luke scrambled to climb up into the bird’s other claw, and then he wondered why he wasn’t angry at the serpent for all of the trouble it had caused him. It may have been a terrible time to want revenge, but he began to come to the realization that he was not going to make it out of this night alive. The bird was still falling from the sky, little by little, and he would only have a few more seconds to act before they were all in the river where the Uktena would have the advantage. Unless, of course, another bolt of lightning struck the bird, serpent, and himself, in which case, he would certainly be cooked. He needed to act before anything else went wrong.

**********

Candy watched the breathtaking battle between the giant snake and giant bird, and as anyone would imagine, she was completely captivated, up until the point when the growing depth of the water began to exceed the length of the rope that held the boat to the submerged shore.

“Oh, no,” she mumbled to herself worriedly, and she reached over the side and started pulling on the rope to stretch it, which was an utterly impossible task. She didn’t have a knife to cut it with either, and the boat began to tip slightly to one side as the water level kept going up with the heavy rains. It was too early in the storm’s life for her to hope that the water would begin receding soon. In fact, there wouldn’t be any relief in sight until the runoff from the creeks feeding the river crested, and that could be as much as a day away. She was looking at the boat as it tilted, pressing one hand against each side of the boat to steady herself, and she knew that there was no way she was going to be able to stop it from flipping and dumping her into the powerful current of the Neuse River. Then one side of the boat leaned dangerously over until the water started pouring in over the edge, and Candy panicked and grabbed the seat in front of her to hold onto with both hands. The boat flipped upside down in the river, but she had a tight hold on the seat, and a patch of air was trapped with her beneath the hull. She held on as tight as she could, fighting the pull of the water’s current, and soon the end of the boat that was tied with the rope began to point downward. The other end of the boat rose with the water level, and the bubble of air that she was breathing plopped out from underneath the boat and water rushed in.

**********

Dick shoved Andy up the stairs, and when they made the last step onto the landing, Dick left him there and started back down the steps to get the next person. He was in a hurry then; the water had already collected high enough to cover Deputy Riggs’ waist. Still, the older man was under the Uktena’s spell and seemed unfazed by the prospect of drowning. Dick hadn’t seen how the serpent had mesmerized everyone in the house, and he had no understanding of how powerful its words had been in shaping their thoughts. The spell that the serpent had put them under had blinded them to everything going on around them and would be the death of them if there had not been someone there to intervene. Dick was that someone, even though it wasn’t in his nature nor his upbringing to help others with no strings attached. Something had changed in him after Matchstick had drowned, but he would never admit it to anyone if they asked.

When he got to the bottom of the stairs, he quickly waded out into the water, and he chose Deputy Riggs first over Willie, who was a rival and a bully like himself. Dick tugged the older man through the morass by the arm and then he pushed him up the stairs to the next floor. It wasn’t easy to move the old man, and the water continued to rise behind them as they went. Once Dick had gotten him to the second floor, he looked down to see how Willie was faring. The water had reached his chin and was rising an inch for every count of ten. He looked down the steps to see that the bottom seven treads were completely submerged under water, and Dick started to doubt that even being on the second floor was going to be enough to save them. Even so, there was Willie, still in the way of danger, and his mouth would be under water by the time he reached the water again. Dick let go of Deputy Riggs and ran down a couple of the steps and then jumped feet first over the side of the rails into the water below. It had been risky, but the water broke his momentum enough so that his ankles weren’t injured from the sudden stop at the bottom. The water was deep enough to swim in by then, and Dick started across the great room to get Willie. Willie’s nose was under water, and bubbles came up in front of his face. That was a bad sign.

**********

Luke had a tight hold on the bird’s toe, and he swung one arm around it and threw his foot out to swipe at the Uktena’s head. The bottom of his foot smashed into the snake’s open eye, and his shoe sank deep into the wet mass of fat, muscle, and blood vessels with a squishing sound. The snake hissed and let go of the bird’s foot, and Luke felt the tug of the Uktena’s weight pull his leg until his shoe finally let go from his own foot. The snake splashed into the water below, taking his shoe with it, and Luke swung his feet wildly and dangled helplessly in the air from the bird’s foot. Before he lost his grip on the bird and fell into the water, the bird flew further on upstream, closer to where the edge of the island was located. Luke managed to get one leg curled around one of the bird’s other toes, and he held on nervously for as long as he could. He didn’t have to wait long as the bird’s wings beat downward to slow the momentum, and Luke was lowered slowly down into the water by the tip of a familiar boat that protruded out of the water’s surface.

“It’s the boat that Candy and I rowed over!” Luke yelled, and then he saw Candy’s face poking out from beneath the safety of the boat. “Candy?!” he yelled, and her eyes were as big as saucers when she saw the bird’s giant foot holding him above the water.

“I’m tryin’ not to drown, but the river’s almost swallowed this thing!” she yelled. “And what the heck are you doin’ with that bird?!”

“I don’t know,” he told her honestly. “But the snake’s coming for us, and we have to hurry,” he insisted and held out his hand for her to take.

“No,” she said, and he looked as if he was hurt. “Listen. It’s not what you think,” she continued and held out the wooden box with one hand while she held onto the boat with the other. “You have to put that ring back in the box.” Luke had one free hand that wasn’t hanging onto the bird, and he reached out to take it. Before he could get it though, Candy ducked her head underneath the water and disappeared.

“Candy!” he yelled out, and that was when the snake’s mouth closed around himself and the bird’s foot.

**********

Dick wasn’t an expert swimmer, but he could get across the room quick enough to get Willie before he drowned. There was enough light from the ghosts that he could still see features in the room, and he swam to where the last of the bubbles percolated into Willie’s hair. Willie’s head tilted back and his face floated up above the water, and that’s when Dick noticed that the teenager hadn’t lost all of the youthful fat from his body and had some buoyancy left in him. He swam behind him and interwove the crease in his own elbow around Willie’s arm and neck, and he swam with him to the stairs. There was a weak current from the water that pushed him to the far staircase, and Dick dragged the loose body over to the first available step above the water line. It took all of his strength to get Willie’s bulk onto the steps head first, and the water was still rising. There were ten more steps to go with a boy whose lungs were full of water, and Dick had to make a decision quickly. There were three ways he could go. He could leave Willie where he was and let the waters take him. That was the easiest for him, and with every moment of delay, the water rose another inch higher. Next, he could try to revive Willie right there where he was on the steps, but that didn’t seem like the best alternative because of time.

“Time.” He shook his head. The longer Willie was without air, the worse off he would be, if he could even be revived.

The third choice was that he could drag him up the steps and resuscitate him later, but he didn’t think he had that much strength left in him to do that. Plus, if the water rose above the second floor, he didn’t know how he was going to save the rest of the zombified people.

He looked down at the water slowly coming up the steps like a murderous wet vapor filling all of the spaces in the Newberry Mansion, and he glanced over at Willie’s sleeping face. He knew what he had to do. He reached down and put his hands around Willie’s throat like his father had shown him so many years ago, and he hesitated. But there was no time left for hesitation. Dick opened Willie’s jaws, and he bent over and blew air directly into Willie’s mouth, filling up his cheeks. Just like his father had taught him once upon a time. Nothing happened. Then he got down in the water, and he rolled Willie over and pressed his back to compress his lungs. A stream of water came out of Willie’s mouth, and Dick rolled him onto his back, pinched his nose, and blew air into his lips again. And again, and again. Then he rolled him over like an oversized doll and beat his back.

The water rose higher, and when only Willie’s head was out of the water, Dick pinched his nose again and blew into his mouth. Willie suddenly convulsed and threw up a mouthful of river water, and when the stars had stopped flashing in front of his eyes, he saw Dick standing over him.

“You saved me,” he said, and then his eyebrows furrowed. “Don’t ever get your lips near me again,” he said and wiped his mouth with his wet sleeve and spit to get the taste of another boy’s breath out of his mouth.

**********

Candy’s hand was still above the water, and Luke snatched the box out of her hand while he could. Then the snake’s awful maw closed over the bird’s foot and his own body. It was dark and wet and slimy inside the serpent’s mouth, and he felt the creature’s tongue rubbing against his back. Then, even from inside the mouth of the snake, he heard the bird protest and shriek. Thunder rumbled, and a pulse of lightning struck the snake again, and Luke felt the tingle of electricity go up his arms, but he was okay. He didn’t let go of the bird’s talons when the electricity numbed the nerves of his arms, and he felt his neck jerk back when the bird yanked its foot out of the snake’s mouth. He also felt a slight sting in his bicep as he was drawn out of the snake’s mouth, and when he looked down at his arm, he saw where one of the fangs had scratched his skin. Despite all of his troubles, he had been bitten by the poisonous snake, and there was nothing that he could do about it.

“You know what it feels like to be afraid of the thunder . . . ,” he remembered his mother telling him when she had explained what the word brave meant. He had the ring on a finger on one hand, and he had the wooden box in the other.

“Well, there is one thing I can try to do before the poison kills me,” Luke told himself, and he tried pulling on the ring again, and this time, it came off in his hand. He couldn’t understand why it chose to come off then, but he believed maybe it had something to do with the Uktena’s venom that was coursing through his veins. Perhaps the ring would come off of him now that he was dying. Or quite possibly Lady Abigail’s fury had not allowed the ring to be removed from his finger, but since the Uktena had swallowed her bones, the spell may have been lifted. Whatever the cause, he did not know the reason, and probably never would. He proceeded to take the loose ring in his hand, and he stuck it inside the wooden box that had been made for it and closed the lid. Nothing special happened that he noticed at first, and the bird took him high into the sky where he could see everything going on in the Neuse River from a distance. He was scared to look down, but when he did, he saw the charred body of the Uktena floating downstream, and he knew that within a few minutes the serpent would shed the burnt skin and start its attack again.

Except that wasn’t what happened at all. Instead, the serpent’s body crumbled into dust on the surface of the water, and the dust mingled with the water until it merged as one with the angry river and disappeared entirely. Luke glanced at the wooden box, and he understood that whatever had become of the Uktena was largely due to the wooden box. He started feeling dizzy, and the box seemed to separate into two pieces and then come back together, a trick of his failing vision. Luke’s head suddenly felt like it was on fire with pain, and he sensed himself scream in agony. The last few things he saw before he blacked out were almost dreamlike. He remembered being set down on a corner of the roof of the Newberry Mansion by the giant bird. He could hear and feel the power of the tropical storm, and he saw the bird’s beak hovering just above his face. He felt the scratchy sensation of the bird’s tongue licking his wound, and then everything went black.

Chapter 20

*

Luke heard voices, and he wanted to open his eyes, but his body wouldn’t let him. Though he couldn’t see who it was that was talking, he could hear them just fine, and he knew that it was Angela and Candy who were talking about him, as if he were not there. When he was finally able to open his eyes, he saw that he was in a hospital room. Things were very white and very sterile in appearance, and he guessed that was a good thing. No one wanted to stay in a hospital that was dirty, though being unconscious had taken the ability to decide his own fate out of his hands. It was clean nonetheless, and he didn’t understand why he was there, and he wanted to get up and move around. With his eyes still open, he followed the intravenous tube where it was attached in his arm all the way up to the saline bag hanging from the hook, and he guessed that he had been out for quite a while. He also noticed the purple gash on his other arm where the snake had bitten him, and he remembered the final battle when he was trapped inside the giant snake’s mouth. He stared at the cut, and he would have thought the gash would have been more of a curved line, but instead, it was shaped like a lightning bolt that had been tattooed into his arm. He hoped that the scarring would go away when he healed, but it seemed the smallest of his worries when he recalled the whole reason he had been fighting the Uktena in the first place. He licked his dry lips, and he tried to speak, but all that came out was a high pitched groan. The two young ladies heard him, and they looked down at him, one on each side of the bed.

“How are you feeling?” Angela asked, and she combed his bangs away from his eyes with her hand. Luke saw Candy’s jaw set as if she was gritting her teeth. He wasn’t sure what she was getting angry about, but she did look like she was bottling up a little bit of jealousy. He was too young to be able to tell, and it didn’t make any sense to him, but he was in no shape to worry about that either. He simply wanted his voice back, and so he tried clearing his throat. Then when he was ready, he spoke the question that was burning in his mind.

“What happened?” he mumbled more clearly this time, and both young ladies looked at him and smiled. Candy took his hand in her own, and she squeezed it.

“You did it,” she simply said, and he knew what she meant, though he still wasn’t sure how. Then she explained to him all that she had learned from Abigail’s ghost and how that once he had placed the ring back into the wooden box and closed it up, the Uktena had disappeared altogether.

“That doesn’t . . . ,” he started, and the soreness in his throat kept him from finishing. Angela helped him with a small cup of water, and once he had swallowed, he finished. “That doesn’t explain the giant bird,” he said, and Candy then described how the bird had him in one claw and how it used the other to pull the boat free from the rope that held it to the submerged bank of the Neuse River. Candy had held onto the boat as it was lifted, and the bird carried them to the rooftop of the Newberry Mansion. Then the bird flew up into the sky, squawked one last time before a bolt of lightning struck, and when the brightness of the flash cleared, the bird was gone. Luke looked confused when she finished telling the story, and she laughed.

“No one believes me either,” she continued, but she didn’t seem the least bit concerned with what anyone thought. Luke then craned his neck around to look outside the hospital room door, and there was a sheriff’s deputy standing guard by the door. Both ladies saw where he was looking, and Angela grunted under her breath.

“Yeah, we told them all we knew, but they want to hear what you have to say, especially about the knot on Deputy Harrelson’s head. And also the patrol car that they say ended up in the river somehow.”

There was that. Luke closed his eyes and went back to sleep for a little while longer, and whenever he opened his eyes, his friends were gone. In their place, there stood an older gentleman in plain clothes with a bushy mustache, a sheriff’s badge on his shirt, and a sheriff’s hat in his hands.

“Ah, everybody’s hero is awake,” he said to Luke with a smile that was half hidden by the long hairs on his upper lip. Luke could see the twinkle in the old man’s eye, and even if he was in trouble for all that had happened, his face was trustworthy. “Let me introduce myself . . . ,” he started to say.

“You’re Sheriff Elliott,” Luke finished for him in a half-whisper. His throat felt a little better, but he still had a squeaky voice. He cleared his throat and tried to finish what he had meant to say. “Sorry about everything.”

“Oh, you must mean about Deputy Harrelson’s headache?”

“And the patrol car.”

“Yes. The patrol car, too. Well, son, you’ve got nothin’ to worry about,” Elliott reassured him. “That boy Dick Berry took the blame for the whole thing. Said he hit Harrelson over the head and then took everyone out for a spin. Can’t say I didn’t expect anything different from the strangler’s son . . . ,” Elliott continued with the same sarcasm that everyone seemed to have when it came to the Berrys.

“Don’t call him that. He can’t help who his parents are. Nobody can,” Luke scolded the sheriff, but instead of getting angry and indignant with Luke, Elliott smiled again.

“Eh, you’re probably right. He’s just a kid, and that idiot Harrelson gets too melodramatic sometimes. Takes the ‘Protect’ part of his job too serious and forgets the other part, ‘. . . and Serve’. He shouldn’t have handcuffed you all in the first place,” Elliott trailed off, and then he winked at Luke. “That’s what I get for hiring in-laws, I reckon. Anyways, I wanted to see how you were doin’ and tell you thank you for makin’ sure the four people over on the island got rescued, includin’ one of my deputies. Hell of a flood last night, it was. Five hundred year event, the insurance people said, and there’d’ve been more than one drownin’ if you hadn’t acted like you did. We can replace a patrol car, and heck, we lost three more durin’ the storm anyhow. What matters is that you kids stuck your necks out and saved some other people,” he said and fidgeted with his hat in his hands. “What I’m tryin’ to say is . . . it’s good to meet a hero,” Elliott said and pointed his finger over to the back corner of the room where Luke couldn’t get his head around to see very well. “This man wants to talk to you, but before I leave, just remember one thing: don’t take anymore patrol cars. Ya hear?” he finished with a bushy smile. Then he put his cowboy sheriff hat back on his head and went out the door with a two-finger wave. Luke forced himself up on his elbows, and he looked around to the corner of the room where a man sat slouched in a wooden chair. He couldn’t see his face because of the oversized fedora on his head, but he could feel his eyes on him and he knew he was being watched.

“Hello?” Luke said, and the man straightened up in the chair and rubbed his fuzzy white chin with his fingers. Luke was struck by how white the man’s hands and face were, almost like he had albino skin, except the skin looked like a coating of white fur instead. “Who are you?” he asked hesitantly. He couldn’t see his entire face beneath the hat, but he could see the glint of green reflecting from his eyes.

“My name probably isn’t all that important,” the stranger said, and he crossed one leg over the other and rested his palms on one knee. A fear grew in Luke’s heart, and the stranger saw it on his face. “There’s nothing for you to worry about where I’m concerned, kid,” he added, but Luke’s mood didn’t change. “All right, for gosh sakes. The name’s Shakespeare, but my friends call me Crush,” he said and took off his hat. If he hadn’t been frightened before, then what Luke saw beneath the hat alarmed him and brought a thousand more questions to his mind, but Crush held up a finger with one hand to slow him down before he got overexcited. “I was born with these ears, among other things,” he said with a pause, and pointed at his cat-like ears. “We can’t always help our circumstances, can we?”

Luke shook his head no.

“Rather than joining a circus and riding a unicycle for a living, I got a job doing something I like. I’m a detective, of sorts, but I only look into special cases. Yours just happens to fall into that category,” Crush explained. “Especially that big snake that every one of these people keeps talking about to the deputies. You people have the authorities scared, and they don’t quite know what to make of the stories they’re hearing. Me? I believe you,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders, as if he had heard a few worse tales in his day.

“What about ghosts? Do you believe in those?”

Crush nodded his head and stood up. Then he carried his chair over by Luke’s bed, and he sat back until he looked relaxed, which hardly seemed likely on the solid oak chair. “I’ve met a few in my time, and I expect I’ll meet a few more before I retire. You can tell me your story, and I promise I won’t laugh. Besides, it’ll be good for me to hear a tale from a real hero like yourself, and don’t sell yourself short either. I’ve already talked to Dick and Candy, and I know that if you hadn’t fixed the problem, I would have been called in to resolve it. Trust me, there would have been more deaths than one if it had gone that far.”

Luke felt a chill go up his spine with that last sentence. The one death Crush was referring to just happened to have been his best friend, and the wound was still too fresh for him to talk about. He would tell Crush his story, but when it came to the part where they lost the patrol car on the bridge, he would pass over that as quickly as he could because he didn’t think he could tell that part without tearing up. He didn’t want to appear weak in front of a government agent, especially one that he had just met. And so Luke told him all that had happened, and Crush listened carefully and took notes on a small pad. When he finished, Luke drank some more water and had to try to get up to use the restroom. Crush put his hat back on and called a nurse in to help Luke get to the bathroom with the IV in tow, and then the detective sat back down in the corner of the room and waited. When Luke came back out, he stood there in the middle of the room, and his eyes were drawn to the bag of personal items that sat on the floor next to the bed. He knew that the wooden box had to be inside, and he considered what he should do with it now that his adventure was nearly over. Should he give it to Crush? It seemed like that was the right thing to do, and he walked over to the bag with the IV rolling beside him and knelt down to dig around inside of it. He found what he was looking for, and he lifted the box out and held it in his hand. Someone had placed a band of tape around the lid to keep it closed, and that was probably Candy since she had filled him in about the significance of the wooden box to the ring that lay inside. If he just dared to open it, the Uktena might escape once again and tear this hospital apart. He couldn’t let that happen, and he couldn’t bear the thought of keeping it for himself either.

“What’s the matter, kid? Is that the box you were telling me about?” Crush asked. Luke nodded silently, and he held the box out to Crush, and the detective leaned away from him in his chair. “You’re offering it to me, huh? You think that I can take care of it?”

“I think I can’t take care of it, and I think it’s caused enough trouble around here. It’s time for it to be gone,” Luke explained and sat it in Crush’s open hand.

“You know it’ll never truly be gone, Luke, but I can make sure it’s put away somewhere safe,” Crush said and stuck the box in a briefcase he had sitting on the floor behind his chair. “I drove down from the DC area, and I’ll have to be heading back soon. Now, do you have any more questions for me before I go?”

Luke sat back on the hospital bed and thought about it for a minute. “Yes. Is Area 51 real?”

Without hesitation, Crush answered. “Yes, of course it’s real,” he said, but he failed to give any more details.

“Is Hitler dead?”

Crush stared at him with a smile. “Oh, yeah. The war’s over, kid. I don’t mind answering those types of questions, if I know the answers, but I’m not really a history buff. Do you have any relevant questions for me in regards to your current situation?”

“You’re not going to fry our brains and make us forget everything we saw, are you?”

Crush slapped his knee. “Nope. I’m afraid you’re stuck with your memories. So except for that IV, you’re a free man.”

“Okay, I guess that’s all I can think of right now,” Luke said.

“That’s good, because I thought you were going to ask me for the meaning of life. I haven’t figured that out for myself yet, so I wouldn’t know what to tell you.” Then Crush got his things together, placed his notes into the briefcase along with the wooden box, and he saluted Luke as he got ready to leave. “See ya later, kid.”

Luke saluted him back with a hint of a smile. “I hope not too soon though.”

“You catch on quick, kid. When you get out of college, and you better go to college, give me a call if you’re interested in a job,” he said and handed Luke a business card.

‘The Department of Adventures and Mysteries – a division of the Secret Service, Department of the Treasury’ was the heading on the card, and Crush’s name and phone number were typed in below.

“Thanks. I’ll call you if I’m bored,” Luke replied, and Crush winked and walked out the door.

Level three complete.

Epilogue

*

Luke sat on the edge of a chair in his bedroom, and he looked out the window. It had been three weeks since Hurricane Abigail had hit, three weeks since his best friend had drowned in the Neuse River. He had gotten out of the hospital in time for the memorial service, and his stepdad had taken him. When it was over, Matchstick’s parents had barely spoken to Luke, and he wondered if things would ever be okay between them. He couldn’t blame them for the way they must have felt. After his mother’s death, he had felt the same way towards Andy. But since the storm, things seemed to have improved at home. They didn’t have long personal conversations, no cum-by-yah moments or anything like that, but they did seem to have boundaries that he and his father acknowledged. Luke didn’t have to eat grits if he didn’t want to, and he could stay out as late as he wanted without his father worrying about his whereabouts. It was good.

Luke had also stopped by to see Candy a few times at her house since getting out of the hospital, and they had gone to see a movie together. It wasn’t like a date, he thought, but they had gotten to be close friends that summer, even with Dick watching him over his shoulder. Dick was still, well, a dick, but he wasn’t a bully to Luke anymore, and he had earned a lot of brownie points in town over the big rescue he had pulled off. Angela had been seen out with Dick a few times, and there were rumors that they were dating. Even Luke’s dad appreciated what Dick had done for him in the flood, and that made it a lot easier for Luke to visit Candy when he wanted. The situation for their family had improved, and no one was calling them the ‘strangler’s family’ any longer. They were just the Berrys, as it should have been.

Luke sat there alone at home looking out the second story window when the doorbell rang. His father was at work, and he was by himself that day, and he went downstairs to see who it was. He peeked through the hole, and he saw three men on the front porch, waiting for him to answer. The man in the middle was a younger gentleman in a suit with slicked back hair and a polished look, like a politician. The other two wore trench coats, and it was summer time in North Carolina, which meant they were either idiots or they had something to hide under the coats. The screen door was locked, and he didn’t think twice about opening the door for most people, but these guys gave him the creeps. The man in the middle rang the doorbell again and stood politely back from the door. It was possible that these men were investigators, and Luke thought that there was a chance they were with Crush. He didn’t want to miss the opportunity if that was the case, and so he opened the front door. When he did, the man with the slicked back hair gave a politician’s smile that stretched from ear to ear. The other men had their hands clasped behind their backs and never moved. The initial thought that these men were friends of Crush disappeared pretty quickly.

“Hello,” Luke said suspiciously. “Can I help you?”

The politician stepped forward, kept his grin, and offered his hand out for Luke to shake. The screen door was still closed and locked, and Luke had no intention of opening it to shake the stranger’s hand. After a moment’s hesitation, the man raised his hand to smooth back his hair when he realized that Luke wasn’t going to open the door for him, and he took in a long breath.

“Yes, I suppose you could. Are you Luke Green, the famous rescuer of a drowning girl?” he asked Luke. Luke supposed that everyone did believe that he had saved Candy from drowning, but he knew what had really happened that night. The giant bird, a thunderbird Candy had called it because of the lightning show that had danced across the sky that night, had actually done the rescuing. No one would have believed that story, except Crush, and he wasn’t going to go into the details with a perfect stranger. Or an imperfect one, as this man clearly was.

“Yes,” he answered simply. The politician smiled even wider, if that was possible.

“Let me introduce myself. My name is Richard Fromage with Neuse Development, and I am an admirer of your valiant efforts,” he said to Luke. So, this was the guy who was looking to close the campground. Luke began to slowly close the front door. The three men were creeping him out, and he was sorry that he had bothered to answer the doorbell. “No, wait,” Mr. Fromage said and held up his hand. “I am also a collector of precious items. I have heard that you may have come away that night of the storm with a certain wooden box. I would be interested in purchasing that item for a very good price, if you’re interested.”

Mr. Fromage didn’t beat around the bush, and neither did Luke. “I certainly would not be interested in selling it, if I still had it. A guy from the Department of the Treasury came by and picked it up from me.”

Mr. Fromage cleared his throat, and the two trench coats looked at each other silently. “What was his name, may I ask?”

“He said his name was Crush. Do you know him?”

“No, I don’t know him personally, but I have heard of him,” Fromage said. He then looked at Luke out of the corner of his eye. “Did he give you anything in return for it?”

“Just a business card,” Luke told him. “But if you’ve heard of him, you know where to find him. Have a nice day,” Luke said, and he closed the door and walked back upstairs to watch them in the front yard from the second floor window. The men didn’t linger. All three got into a black Cadillac and drove off.

Luke waited for a few minutes, watching to see what would happen, and to his content, they didn’t come back. Then when he went downstairs to the television, he flipped the antenna switch in the back for the Atari 2600, and he perused through the collection of games on the bookcase beside the huge cathode ray television. His finger landed on Asteroids, but he wasn’t in the mood for blasting rocks into pebbles. Space Invaders was below that, but he had played that one so many times with his mother that he didn’t think he could handle the memories that went along with playing it right then. The next one down was Haunted House, which he promptly took out of the stack and tossed into the trash can with a satisfying clunk. His finger moved past Chopper Command and Pitfall, followed by Combat, which he hated with a passion. Free with the system or not, he thought it sucked. Then his finger landed on Adventure, which was in the middle of the stack. If Matchstick had been there, it was the game he would have chosen. Luke considered it, pulled it out of the stack, and blew the dust off of the metal pin connectors within the cartridge. Today was a new day, a reset if you will, and he plugged it into the console and flipped the switch on. A few minutes later, he was lost in a dark maze, looking for the secret dot.

###

About the Author

Christopher D. Carter is an engineer by day, and transforms into a writer and artist by night. He lives with his wife and cats in central North Carolina.


Caught in the Neuse

Things aren't going so well for Luke Green these days. It's 1984, and he's a teenager just coming into his own when tragedy strikes his family. His mother was his closest parent, and she passes away suddenly, leaving him alone with his distant and closed-minded father at the beginning of a long hot summer. Luke goes to summer camp soon after, and to take pressure off his mind on the first day, he swims across the Neuse River to an island in the stream where he finds an old abandoned mansion. When he enters the front door, the most dangerous adventure of his life begins . . .

  • ISBN: 9781940451343
  • Author: Christopher D. Carter
  • Published: 2017-08-30 12:45:17
  • Words: 131001
Caught in the Neuse Caught in the Neuse