[Collaborative Project with C. Willison of ImagesByCW]
Preston steadied himself on his hands and knees on the old rail bed. He hadn’t hurt himself falling, and his vision cleared a little as he gazed up at Sammie. But he clearly couldn’t concentrate on what he was doing with this in his head.
“You oaf, watch where you’re stepping,” scolded Sammie. “I really think we’ve gone too far, anyway.”
Preston stood up and shook his head, as if the humming could be cast off, the way a dog might shake after jumping in the creek.
“I… yeah, let’s go back.”
Sammie kept a close eye on the field to their left as they doubled back, and in just a few minutes had spied one of the skeletal door frames that marked the ghost town. They paused for a moment at the edge of the railway. A few wispy clouds drifted across the moon. Only the howl of a coyote was missing. Tonight was sure to be a grand adventure!
The voices in Preston’s head had quieted a bit, but he had no idea what they were, or where they came from. That troubled him. Not that wandering through a ghost town in the middle of the night trying to locate a sample of a strange parasite shouldn’t bother him to begin with. But he had to try to sort it out. The ghost town – could it be related to that? There were rumors that one of the old hermits practiced sorcery… and there was that terrible fire that had destroyed the place a few years back. Was he being possessed by a vengeful spirit? The wispy clouds drifted again across the moon, and then cleared, sharpening the shadow around a particularly sinister looking ruin. It must have been one of the more important buildings because it was built mostly of stone and a couple walls had survived the fire. What else might had survived the fire? Or maybe the question was, what didn’t survive the fire? And could he talk about this to Sammie without sounding crazy?
“Say Sammie, have you been hearing anything out here? A sort of humming?”
“Just the wind in the trees. Why? What do you hear?”
“Can’t really tell. Probably just some cicadas or something.” He paused to think a little.
“Do you believe in ghosts… or the stories they tell about the ghost town?”
That question made Sammie stop and turn sharply toward Preston. Preston was taken by surprise, and almost ran into her. She glared at him; her fists firmly pressed against her hips with a disapproving posture that even Preston’s father could rarely manage.
“Preston, you should know by now that you can’t scare me.”
“I… no… I wasn’t trying, really I just…”
This wasn’t going at all the way Preston had wanted. He glanced at the ground, trying to think of a way to salvage the conversation.
“Bwahaha,” yelled Sammie as she lunged at him. Preston flinched and stumbled backwards half a step, tripping and falling squarely on his behind.
“But I can scare you!”
Preston felt a weight lifted from his shoulders; she wasn’t really mad at him. However, she wasn’t done with him yet either. In addition to being easy to startle, Preston was also rather ticklish. Sammie pounced on him and took advantage of this. A minute or so later, Preston was panting from laughing so hard. And the voices in his head were completely gone. Sammie got to her feet, and extended her hand to help him back up.
“So where are we now?” asked Sammie.
They gazed at the field around them. They had passed through most of the ruins and had an unobstructed view of the woods at the edge of the open field, yet it wasn’t clear exactly which part of the woods they were looking for.
The trouble with trying to find a specific tree in the dark, is that they all tend to look the same. Preston’s little brass compass wasn’t much help. It was difficult to read by candlelight, and not very accurate in the vicinity of the old mine anyway. The funny thing about iron mines, is that they tend to be located near large concentrations of iron; quite troublesome for compass navigation.
“Say Sammie, I don’t think we are heading to the right side of the field. Not where we found that tree last time at least.” With the humming in Preston’s head gone, he was able to focus on their task at hand much better now. They scanned the treeline surrounding the field. “There’s a single tree sticking out from the woods over there. Didn’t we see something like that when we were here last time?”
“Yeah, I remember that; let’s take a look.” replied Sammie
They quickly crossed the few hundred yards of open field to the shadowy, yet somehow familiar looking tree.
“I think this is it,” said Preston.
Sammie jumped up and grabbed on to a low hanging branch to bring it within reach. It shook the tree, causing a shower of dried leaves to descend on them. Preston brushed them away from his shoulders nervously, but they didn’t seem to bother Sammie much.
“Preston, stop fidgeting and look at the leaves.”
Preston held his makeshift lantern close to one of the twigs; even in the dim candlelight he could see that the leaves were horribly disfigured.
“This is it – we found one!”
“Well cut off a piece to take with us; I can’t hold this branch forever.”
This presented a wee problem for Preston. He couldn’t hold the lantern, the twig, and cut it at the same time, and when he set the lantern on the ground it was too dim for him to see. Sammie had set her lantern down, and was holding onto the branch with both hands, so she couldn’t help either.
“Preston, what are you waiting for?”
“Hang on, Sammie, I’ve gotta do somthin with the lantern.”
He found a stubby twig that he could hang the lantern on, and went to work slicing off a few of the more disfigured twigs. He twirled one of them in the dim candlelight, and like clockwork two of the parasitic creatures began wriggling. The twig was still too large to fit into his specimen jar, so he pruned it down a little further.
Sammie’s arms were starting to ache.
“Preston, would you hurry up!”
“Okay, I’ve got it now,” he said, screwing the jar’s lid on.
A fresh breeze unleashed another shower of leaves from the tree’s upper branches – several of which made their way down the back of Sammie’s neck. She shrieked and let go of the branch, which catapulted Preston’s lantern a dozen yards in the distance, smashing it with a dull thud.
“Get it off me! The stupid thing’s stinging me!” she yelled.
It was not at all like Sammie to scream like that, and this alarmed Preston to no end. But Preston, in his haste to help her, managed to kick over and extinguish the other lantern, leaving the two of them in total darkness… under a shower of parasite infested leaves.
…to be continued
The Miltonville Mine Mystery is a creative collaborative project (a fictional short story with photo illustrations) 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!