Monday, September 13, 5:30 a.m.

There was a moment not long ago when I thought: This is it. I'm dead.

I think about that night all the time and I feel the same fear I felt then. It happened two weeks ago, but 14 days and nights of remembering have left me more afraid and uncertain than ever.

Which I guess means it isn't over yet. Something tells me it may never truly be over.

Last night was the first time I slept in my own room since everything happened. I'd gotten in the habit of waking in the hospital to the sound of a nurse's shuffling feet, the dry chalk-dust smell of her skin, and the soft shaking of my shoulder.

The doctor will visit you in a moment. He'll want you awake. Can you sit up for me, Ryan?

There was no nurse or doctor or chalky smell this morning, only the early train crawling through town to wake me at half past five. But in my waking mind, it wasn't a train I heard. It was something more menacing, trying to sneak past in the early dawn, glancing down the dead-end streets, hunting.

I was scared - and then I was relieved - because my overactive imagination had settled back into its natural resting state of fear and paranoia.

In other words, I was back home in Skeleton Creek.

Usually when the morning train wakes me up, I go straight to my desk and start writing before the rest of the town starts to stir. But this morning - after shaking the idea that something was stalking me - I had a sudden urge to leap from my bed and jump on board the train. It was a feeling I didn't expect and hadn't the slightest chance of acting on. But still, I wondered where the feeling had come from.

Now, I've rested this journal on a TV tray with its legs torn off, propped myself up in bed on a couple of pillows, and have started doing the one thing I can still do that has always made me feel better.

I have begun to write about that night and all that comes after.

Monday, September 13, 6:03 a.m.

I need to take breaks. It still hurts to write. Physically, mentally, emotionally - it seems like every part of me is broken in one way or another. But I have to start doing this again. Two weeks in the hospital without a journal left me starving for words.

I have kept a lot of journals, but this one is especially important for two reasons. Reason number one: I'm not writing this for myself. I'm putting these words down for someone else to find, which is something I never do. Reason number two: I have a strong feeling this will be the last journal I ever write.

My name, in case someone finds this and cares to know who wrote it, is Ryan. I'm almost old enough to drive. (Although this would require access to a car, which I lack). I'm told that I'm tall for my age but need to gain weight or there's no hope of making the varsity cut next year. I have a great hope that I will remain thin.

I can imagine what this morning would have been like before the accident. I would be getting ready for the hour-long bus ride to school. I would have so much to say to Sarah. An hour next to her was always time well-spent. We had so much in common, which kept us from going completely crazy in a town populated by just under seven hundred people.

I'm really going to miss those conversations with Sarah. I wonder if I'll get lonely. The truth is I don't even know if I'm allowed to mention her name. But I can't stop. I am a writer. This is what I do. My teachers, parents, even Sarah - they all say I write too much, that I'm obsessive about it. But then, in the same breath, they can't help but mention that I'm gifted. Like when Mrs. Garvey told me I understand words and their usage in the same way a prodigy on the piano understands notes and sounds. But I have a much simpler answer, and I'm pretty sure I'm more right than my teacher is: I have written a lot, every day, every year, for many years in a row.

Practice makes perfect.

I think my favorite writers are those who admitted while they were still alive that they couldn't live without writing. John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost - guys who put writing up there in the same category as air and water. Write or die trying. That kind of thinking agrees with me.

Because here I am. Write or die trying.

If I turn back the pages in all the journals I've written, I basically find two things: scary stories of my own creation and the recording of strange occurrences in Skeleton Creek. I can't say for certain why this is so, other than to fall back on the old adage that a writer writes what he knows, and I have known fear all my life.

I don't think I'm a coward - I wouldn't be in the position I'm in now if I was a coward - but I am the sort of person who overanalyzes, worries, frets. When I hear a noise scratching under the bed - either real or imagined - I stare at the ceiling for hours and wonder what it might be that's trying to claw its way out. (I picture it with fangs, long boney fingers, and bulging red eyes.) For a person who worries like I do and has a vivid imagination to match, Skeleton Creek is the wrong sort of place to endure childhood.

I know my writing has changed in the past year. The two kinds of writing - the made-up scary stories and the documenting of events in Skeleton Creek - have slowly become one. I don't have to make up stories any longer, because I'm more certain than ever that the very town I live in is haunted.

This is the truth.

And the truth, I've learned, can kill you.


I'm tired now. So tired.

I have to put this down.

Even if I can't stop thinking about it.



Monday, September 13, 2:00 p.m.


I have to be careful to keep this hidden.

I have to make sure nobody sees me writing in it.

They're curious enough as it is.

They're watching me enough as it is.

I'm a captive, really. I'm imprisoned in my own room.

I have no idea how much they know.

I don't even know how much I know.

I have so many questions, and no way to answer them.

There is something about having been gone for two weeks in a row that helps me see Skeleton Creek with fresh eyes. I have a new idea of what someone from the outside might think if they drove into my isolated hometown where it sits alone at the bottom of the mountains.

I like to act on these thoughts and write them down as if they are occurring. It's a curious habit I can't seem to break. Maybe things are safer when I think of them as fiction.

If I imagine myself as a person arriving in Skeleton Creek for the first time it goes something like this:

The sun has barely risen when a car door opens and a man stands at the curb looking out into the forest beyond the edge of town. There is a gray fog that hangs thick and sticky in the trees, unwilling to leave, hiding something diabolical in the woods. He gets back in his car and locks the doors, glancing down side streets through dusty windows. He wonders what has brought this little town to its knees. The place is not dead: it is not even dying for certain. Instead, the driver thinks to himself, this place has been forgotten. And he senses something else. There are secrets buried here that are best left alone.

It is then that the car turns sharply and leaves in the direction from which it came, the driver confident that the growing light of day will not shake the unforeseen dread he feels about the town at the bottom of the mountain.

The driver would not know exactly what it was that scared him off, but I know. Sarah knows, too. We know there's something wrong with this place, and more importantly, we know we're getting too close to whatever it is.

Someone's coming.



Monday, September 13, 4:30 p.m.


When did our search begin?

If I could get to my old journals, I might be able to figure out the exact date. But they're hidden, and there's no way for me to get to them in my present state. Not without help. And the only person who could help me - Sarah - isn't here anymore.

I guess our searching began with a question she asked me last summer.

"Why Skeleton Creek?"

"You mean the name?"

"Yes, the name. Why call a town Skeleton Creek? Nobody wants to visit a place with a name like that. It's bad for tourism."

"Maybe the people who named it didn't want any visitors."

"Don't you think its weird no one wants to talk about it? It's like they're hiding something."

"You're just looking for a reason to go snooping around with your camera."

"There's something to it. A name like that has to come from somewhere."

I remember thinking there was a story hidden within what she'd said, and that I'd wanted to be the one to write the story. I had visions of everyone in Skeleton Creek applauding my efforts to uncover the past. The fantasy of creating something important appealed to me.

We began our quest at the local library, a gloomy twelve-by-twelve-foot room at Elm and Main, open on Mondays and Wednesdays. It was also open on New Year's Day, Christmas Day, and Easter Sunday, because according to Gladys Morgan, our prehistoric and very unhappy town librarian, "Nobody comes in on those days and the library is deathly quiet, as a library should be."

Gladys Morgan is not a friendly woman. She stares at each person she encounters in precisely the same way: as if everyone in town has just kicked her cat across the room. She has skin like crumpled newspaper. Her lower lip has lost its spring and hangs heavy over her chin. There is an alarming overbite.

I remember the day we walked into the library, the little bell tinkling at our entry.

The room smelled musty, and I wasn't certain if it came from the old books or from the woman who guarded them. Sarah peppered Gladys with questions as I ran my fingers along the spines of the most boring books I'd ever seen, until at last Miss Morgan put her hand up and spoke.

"This town wasn't called Skeleton Creek until 1959."

She reached beneath her desk, which had sat decaying in the same spot for a hundred years, and pulled out a wooden milk crate. Inside were newspapers, torn and yellowed.

"You're not the first to ask about the past, so I'll advise you like I've done the rest."

She glanced past dark curtains to the street outside and shoved the box across the desk, leaving a streak where dust had been lifted. She had a peculiar, superstitious look on her face.

"Read them if you want, but let it go after that. Beyond these you'll only stir up trouble."

Gladys took a white cloth from her pocket and removed her wire-rimmed glasses, wiping them with wrinkled hands and casting shadows across the peeling wallpaper behind her.

"I'll make a note you've checked those out. Have them back on Monday or it's a dollar a day."

The town librarian clammed up after that, as if someone had been eavesdropping and she'd said as much as she was allowed to. But Gladys Morgan had given us a beginning, a thread to grab hold of. It would lead us to trouble of a kind we hadn't anticipated.



Monday, September 13, 6:40 p.m.


I stopped there for a while because all of this has made me think of Sarah.

I wonder if she were here whether she'd be telling what happened the same way. Not writing it down - "Not my thing," she always said. But I wonder if she would remember things differently.

I look back, I see warning signs.

Sarah looks back, she sees invitations.

I miss her.

I blame her.

I'm scared for her.

I'm scared of her. Not a lot. But some.

It was wrong of me to write "I blame her."

It's not like she tricked me into anything.

I went along willingly.

I was the one who put my life on the line. Even if I didn't realize I was doing it.

I guess what I'm saying is that none of this would have happened if Sarah hadn't been around.

Now -

I do miss her.

And I do blame her.

And I'm sure her story would be different than mine.

But where was I? Oh, yeah - we began reading through the stack of newspapers. From 1947 to 1958, there had been a monthly paper for the 1200 residents. The paper had an uninspiring name - The Linkford Bi-Weekly - but it told us what our town had once been called. Linkford. It had a nice ring to it, or so I thought at the time.

The title of the paper became more interesting in 1959 when it was renamed The Skeleton Creek Irregular. (This was an appropriate name, for we could only find a handful of papers dated between 1959 and 1975, when the publisher fled to Reno, Nevada and took the printing press with him.)

Linkford sat alone on a long, empty road at the bottom of a forested mountain in the western state of Oregon. It surprised us to discover that an official from New York Gold and Silver Company had suggested the town name be changed to Skeleton Creek. Actually, we were fairly dumbstruck that anyone from New York would take an interest in our town at all.

"Why in the world would a big city mining company want to change the name of the town?" I remember asking Sarah.

"It's that monstrous machine in the woods," she answered. "The dredge. I bet that has something to do with it. They probably owned it."

The dredge. Already, we were headed toward the dredge. I'll bet Sarah was planning things in her mind way back then.

Not knowing the consequences.

Just thinking about the mystery.

We pieced together the small bits of information we could gather from those who would talk (hardly anyone) and the newspapers we'd been given (less than thirty in all, none complete editions). We had gone as far as creepy old Gladys Morgan said we should go, and yet we kept pulling on the thread we'd taken hold of.

Of course, I was less enthusiastic than Sarah at first, knowing that if our parents discovered what we were doing, they would demand that we stop prying into other people's business. Privacy has long been the religion of our town.

But Sarah can be persuasive, especially when she finds something she wants to record on film. She could be consumed by filmmaking in the same way that I am with writing. Our creative obsessions seem to draw us together like magnets, and I had a hard time pulling away when she was determined to drag me along.

And so we kept digging.


Of course, I know where all of this is going.

I just have to get it down on paper.

One last time.



Monday, September 13, 8:30 p.m.


Remember.

I have to try to remember all the details. They could still be important.

It feels like midnight: It's only 8:30.

How did this happen to me?

Stop, Ryan. Go back.

Remember.

Even if you know how it's going to feel.

Even if you don't have any of the answers.


There were small announcements in four of the newspapers that alluded to something called The Crossbones. They were cryptic ads in nature, containing a series of symbols and brief text that seemed to have no meaning. One such message read as follows: The floor and 7th, four past the nine on door number two. Crossbones.Who in their right mind could decipher such nonsense? Certainly not us.

All of the advertisements came between the years of 1959 and 1963 and all appeared in The Skeleton Creek Irregular. Then, in 1964, they ceased altogether, as if they had never existed at all. But the same symbols could still be found in various places. One of the symbols - two bones tangled in barbed wire - could be seen above the door to the local bar, on a signpost at the edge of town, and again carved into a very old tree along a pathway into the woods. It made us wonder if the members of the Crossbones were still meeting. Who had been part of the society? What was its function? Were there still active members - and, if so, who were they?

Our trail dead-ended with the advertisements.

We searched relentlessly online for clues to our town's past. New York Gold and Silver was bankrupted over environmental lawsuits, and it seemed to vanish into thin air after 1985. But this didn't keep us from sneaking down the dark path into the woods to examine what was left behind.

Do I wish we'd never gone down that path?

Yes.

No.

I don't know.

It's too complicated.

Or is it? None of this would have happened if we'd stayed away from the dredge.

The dredge is a crucial part of the town's dreary past. It sits alone and unvisited in the deepest part of the dark woods. The dredge, we discovered, was a terrible machine. Its purpose was to find gold, and its method was grotesque. 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the dredge sat in a muddy lake of its own making. It dug deep into the earth and hauled gargantuan buckets of stone and debris into itself. Nothing escaped its relentless appetite. Everything went inside the dredge. Trees and boulders and dirt clods the size of my head were sifted and shaken with a near-deafening racket, and then it was all spit out behind in piles of rubble ten feet high. A tail of ruin - miles and miles in length - all so tiny bits of gold could be sifted out.

The trench that was left behind as the dredge marched forward formed the twenty-two-mile streambed that zigzags wildly along the edge of town and up into the low part of the mountain. The gutted earth filled with water, and the banks were strewn with whitewashed limbs that looked like broken bones.

The new waterway torn from earth and stone was called Skeleton Creek by a man in a suit from New York. Maybe it had been a joke, maybe not. Either way the name stuck. Soon after, the town took the name as well. It would seem that New York Gold and Silver held enough sway over Linkford to change the town name to whatever it wanted.

The greatest discovery - or the worst, depending on how you look at it - that Sarah and I made involved the untimely death of a workman on the dredge. There was only one mention of the incident in the newspaper, and nothing anywhere else. Old Joe Bush is what they called him, so I can only conclude that he was not a young man. Old Joe Bush had let his pant leg get caught in the gears, and the machinery of the dredge had pulled him through, crushing his leg bone into gravel. Then the dredge spit him out into the grimy water below. His leg was demolished, and under the deafening sound in the dark night, no one had heard him scream.

Old Joe Bush never emerged from the black lake below.


Monday, September 13, 10:00 p.m.


Okay. I think everyone is asleep now.

It's as safe as it's going to get.


Late last night, on my arrival home from the hospital, I was reunited with my computer. This may seem like a strange thing to write, but the already walloping power of a computer is magnified even more for people like me in a small, isolated town. It is the link to something not boring, not dull, not dreary. It has always been especially true in my case because Sarah is constantly making videos, posting them, and asking me to take notice.

One simple click - that's all it can take for your life to change.

Sometimes for the better.

Sometimes for the much worse.

But we don't think about that.

No, we just click.

There is a certain video she made fifteen days ago, a day before the accident. This video is like a road sign that says YOU'VE GONE TOO FAR. TURN BACK. I am afraid to look at it again, because I know that after I watch it, I'm going to have even more of a bewildering sense that my life has been broken into two parts -- everything that came before this video, and everything that would come after.

As much as I don't want to, I'm going to stop writing now. There is a safety in writing late into the night, but I can't put off watching it again. I have to see it once more, now that things have changed for the worse.

It might help me.

It might not.

But I have to do it.

I have to.

I'm afraid.

It's so simple. Just go to Sarah's name online. Sarahfincher.com. Enter the password (houseofusher). Then click return.

One click.

Do it, Ryan.

Do it.

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