[A fictional short story & collaborative project with C. Willison of ImagesByCW]
The two of them stared at the odd creature for several minutes; jostling the twig to prod it into wriggling its octopus-like tendrils, and then watching it go dormant. Preston finally touched one of the tendrils gingerly. No reaction. He plucked the leaf that it was on, and dropped it into the palm of his hand. The creature finally reacted – by trying to burrow into the skin of his hand! He yelped, and dropped the twig.
“You pansy, pick it up!”
Sammie picked up the creature, and promptly dropped it again, jumping back in shock.
“Stupid thing stung me!”
Sammie stomped on the branch defiantly, and in a very un-ladylike display, spat on it.
“We need a jar if we’re going to take one of those things with us,” said Preston.
Sammie was annoyed, and not very talkative.
“Ya figure we can find one lying around somewhere in the ghost town?”
“Don’t be silly – nothing valuable left there,” said Sammie curtly, while sucking on her injured fingers.
Preston felt something gently brush against his shoulder, and jumped. Just a dead leaf falling from the tree; a tree whose branches suddenly seemed so much more ominous. He gazed up at stout branches towering over them, swaying gently in the breeze. Here and there a brown leaf, its life sucked out of it, would come fluttering to the ground. How many more of those things were there in this tree? Dozens? Hundreds? He tapped Sammie gingerly on the shoulder.
“I reckon there’s more a those things up there; what say we slide back from the tree a piece.”
Sammie glared at the branches overhead for a moment; reluctant to admit defeat, then backed away from the tree.
“Alright, let’s go home and see if we can’t find something to catch one of those things in.”
Preston would glance cautiously back at the trees from time to time as they made their way back to the railroad tracks, while Sammie, still grumpy about being stung, seemed unconcerned. Neither of the two spoke much as they plodded along the old rail bed, and then cut across to Milton’s Creek. Shadows were deepening throughout the woods as the two of them waded across the creek again, and direct sun for them to dry off was scarce. By the time they reached the trailhead and had to part ways, the town clock was striking 4 in the distance.
“Don’t suppose we could make it back there today,” said Preston.
“Supposed to rain tomorrow. But lemme get a couple jars, and some candle stumps for next time. Ya wanna meet up again before supper?”
“Alright. See ya in a few hours, Sammie.”
The one thing they hadn’t planned on was being caught. Sammie was apprehended and forced to complete her chores, while Preston had to suffer a stern admonishment for swimming in the creek without permission. It was almost dusk by the time Sammie tried to sneak out again. She had a much easier time sneaking to Preston’s house than the other way around. Sammie had two siblings that were both keenly observant, and annoyingly nosy. A visit from Preston rarely went unnoticed. This time, however she couldn’t escape undetected, and was put to work cutting herbs for the family’s supper. It would be a another day before she could speak to Preston again, which she really did want to do, despite giving him the silent treatment on their way home.
* * *
Preston awoke the next morning feeling not at all well. It was not just the dreary rain and unseasonably cool temperature, and it went beyond the scolding he had received last night. No, this seemed to be a real illness, complete with a fever and cough. He certainly didn’t ever like being ill, but at least if it occurred prior to an exam at school, it served a purpose. His father had left early for work that day, so he had the house to himself; pity he couldn’t take full advantage of it. He had a modest list of chores to do, and Mrs. Shelby from next door had been instructed to keep an eye on him, so he clearly couldn’t sneak out to visit Sammie as he so desperately wanted to do.
What angered him most though, was not having that odd creature in a glass jar where he could examine it. His father’s study had a nice magnifying glass and a full set of encyclopedias. He wanted to figure out what that strange creature was, yet he only had his memory go on. Was he finally onto a mystery; an adventure like he had so yearned for? Spotting an infestation of odd bugs was certainly not on the same level as a lost treasure, or stowing away on an undersea boat, but some great adventures started out small. He finished his morning porridge, washed out his bowl, and put an extra sweater on. He had one of those unpleasant illness that just couldn’t make up its mind whether to give him a fever or the chills. He felt chilled now, but he knew he would be scolded starting the furnace for just himself.
* * *
Sammie was annoyed this morning. She had extra chores as punishment for running off with Preston yesterday, and not even anything interesting at that; today it was ironing the linens. She had a bit of a cough, which she tried to keep to herself; if her mom caught wind of it, it might be several days before she could go outside again. There was a red welt on her right ring finger where that stupid bug had stung her, but it didn’t hurt much.
Sammie was a diligent worker, and by noon had ironed what seemed like a mountain of linens. She was supposed to beat out all the rugs in the house as well, but the rain had intervened to save her from that tedious task. She might still be able to sneak over to Preston’s place before his father got home to plan their next escapade if Micah would cooperate. Her older sister had a sort of gentleman caller that would come by at rather odd hours; and for some reason Micah had reacted rather strangely when she asked her what they were doing. Sammie kept Micah’s comings and goings to herself, and Micah proved remarkably thankful for this. But no matter, she was done with her chores, and had a good chance of getting to Preston before nightfall.
* * *
Preston had made progress on his own list of chores that day, but he really wanted to prepare for their next outing. He vowed not to be caught without a proper specimen jar again. He poked through the credenza and the kitchen cupboard, and quickly decided that any of those jars would surely be missed, so he ventured into the basement. Sunlight on this overcast, dreary day filtered gently in through the narrow basement windows; further blocked by the tall shelves and stacked crates. There were a few cobwebs, as any proper basement should have, and the coal bin had been recently filled in preparation for the coming winter, but otherwise nobody had been down here in a couple weeks. When he was younger, Preston had been afraid to come down here alone, for fear of ghosts or monsters, but this had changed as he matured to excitement; wanting to find a ghost or a monster. Finally it changed to disappointment that even on the gloomiest day he had never found one. Now the basement served only as a dull but useful cache old parts that were unlikely to be missed. Preston coughed, shivered, and went to work. There were certainly enough old tins, boxes, and jars, but he wanted one that was small enough to easily stick in a pocket or knapsack. He at last found an empty jar of Spanish olives; a small, narrow jar with a tight-fitting lid. He felt chilled, and a little dizzy as he ascended the staircase back to the kitchen. His vision grayed as he reached the top, and he had to clutch the heavy brass doorknob to steady himself. What was wrong with him? He hadn’t felt this ill in years.
…to be continued
The Miltonville Mine Mystery is a creative collaborative project between David and Claudia Willison. I think you can tell who does what. Although actually we share a little of everything in this story. Stick around and see where the story goes!