[Collaborative Project with C. Willison of ImagesByCW]
As his father’s clattering alarm clock fell silent Preston hesitated, trying to think of another way to his room. He quickly realized that the window to his room was shut, and the only way was straight up the stairs. He took a deep breath, and marched up the stairs and down the hall as quietly as he could. The door to his room was thankfully squeak-free; he ducked inside and shut it behind him. It was a good couple of minutes before he heard the rustling of his father preparing for work. He placed his newly acquired specimens in a drawer, and undressed for some much needed sleep.
He was exhausted, and still in shock from the night’s adventures. Seeing Sammie injured like that was tough. He hoped she’d be ok – he’d check on her tomorrow and if she wasn’t well vowed to push her to see the doctor; Sammie could be stubborn about such things. He laid in bed, staring out his window, trying to make sense of the evening. He’d examine parasite specimens he had acquired and compare them against the various books in his father’s study tomorrow. Perhaps he could even visit the library in the next town over. Would that give them some answers? And more importantly, would Sammie be ok? Too many mysteries for one night. He was so wrapped up in the problems, that he wasn’t aware when he finally crashed into a deep slumber.
The late morning sun shone in Preston’s face, jarring him back to consciousness. Was it all just a nightmare? He only had to stand up for his answer – his legs and back ached from the prior night’s adventures, and there was a painful welt on mud-stained right leg. Like most youths his age, he shuttered at the thought of an unnecessary bath, but desperate times called for desperate measures. He was groggy, and cleaning himself and his clothes took far longer than he wanted, but he was in his Father’s study with the specimens just as the clock struck noon.
After the painful stings he and Sammie had received, he was careful to handle the odd creatures with a set of forceps from his frog-dissecting days. Under the large magnifying glass he could see a rough surface with a pattern of veins like that of a leaf. Was it a plant? After a half hour of leafing through a biology reference book, the answer was a firm “maybe”. After a maddening three hours of study, he was even more confused than when he started. The creatures seemed part plant, part insect and part fungus. The creature he removed from Sammie’s back was colored differently than the one from the tree, but they otherwise seemed to be the same species. Sammie… How was she doing? He was supposed to stay home, but a glance next door revealed that Mrs. Shelby was inside, and might not notice him making a break for it.
The sticky, humid air was far from refreshing, and in the afternoon sun the shadows were too short for lurking, but he had to risk it. Someone would most likely notice him, and in a small town, word did get around, but at least he would know how Sammie was doing. As he turned the corner to her street, he caught a glimpse of a compact, jet-black carriage pulling away from her house. It could only be Doc Jenkins carriage. Her family had called him in so soon? There must be something serious. His heartbeat quickened as he approached the front door. Micah answered the door. As tall as Sammie was, Micah was taller still. Unlike Sammie’s wild, unkempt locks, her sister usually wore her slightly darker hair up, in an elegant bun. But today it was down; neatly brushed, and flowing almost down to her waist, over the contours of her long purple dress. It was hard to believe she was only three years older than Sammie. Standing in the doorway she looked all grown up and lady-like.
“Hello Preston. I’m sorry, but Sammie has been taken ill, so she can’t see anyone right now.”
“She is? Is it serious? I thought I saw the Doc’s little carriage out front,” said Preston.
“She’ll be fine. Doc Jenkins said she was running a fever, and was having an allergic reaction to some insect stings. Why don’t you come back in a couple days.”
Sammie had the only bedroom on the first floor of their family’s vermillion trimmed, two-story house. Micah and Theodore had bedrooms on the second floor as they were older. Or possibly as teenagers were a greater risk of sneaking out. Regardless of the reason, it suited Sammie and Preston just fine. Sammie’s room was not much larger than a jam cupboard, and had but a single sash window, that was thankfully open. Preston peer in. Sammie was in bed sleeping. There was a wet towel on her forehead, and a small basin of water on a side-table next to her bed.
“Hey Sammie, howya doin? You ok?” he whispered.
Sammie mumbled incoherently for a few moments before waking.
“Hey Preston, you lunkhead, what are you doing here during the day. Yer gunna get caught.”
“I’ll be quick. I saw the doc’s buggy. You ok?”
Sammie groaned and stretched. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just a little hot. Mom’s making an awful fuss over nothing.” the compress on her forehead fell to the floor.
Preston reached through the window but the fallen cloth was well out of reach. He pulled himself up in an attempt to climb through the window, but Sammie stopped him.
“Are you crazy? You know what’ll happen if Ma catches you here?”
Sammie remembered all too vividly the consequences for Micah. “Really, I’m fine. Now go; I thought I heard Ma.”
* * *
Preston couldn’t get to sleep that evening. Sammie seemed ok for now, but he was worried. The strange parasites he couldn’t make heads or tails of; they were part plant, part insect, and totally alien. The Doc had examined her, so he would have surely noticed anything Preston had missed that night at the barber shop. But if the bugs really were unknown, what then? The last piece of the puzzle; the strangest of all, were the sounds in his head. They had to be connected to the parasites somehow – two mysteries in a town this small and dull just wasn’t possible. He couldn’t make sense of them, yet somehow there seemed to be an intelligence to them. Last night was the second time he had experienced the sounds, and they were clearer and less chaotic than the first. And they grew stronger the closer he was to the old mine. Could that be the source of the bugs? He vowed that night that if Sammie didn’t recover by tomorrow, that he would go out to the old mine alone if he had to.
Sammie’s burning fever abated ever so slightly in the cool evening air. Half of her body was in pain, the other half tingled; too numb to feel pain. She thought about Preston; his thick headed quest for adventure. Usually she was pushing him; she was the one getting them both into trouble. Of course that meant she was also there to get him out of trouble too. Something bothered her about his visit. Preston had seemed unusually focused and determined; Sammie had to get better soon, lest Preston try something foolish on his own.
The strange sounds in Preston’s head were changing, warping into voices, yet voices in a language he couldn’t understand. He wandered through the eerie tunnels, dimly lit by glimmers of green and golden light. The voices were now stronger than ever. He collapsed to his knees; unable to block them out, yet this time he felt no pain. He was lost in a subterranean labyrinth, confused, but somehow driven to push on. He stood up again; stumbling further, to a fork in the tunnel, yet he knew which passage to take. The voices, mumbling, incoherent, yet somehow familiar. His mind was in a haze, but with every twist and turn he would gain a brief glimpse of clarity. Where was he? The cavern was strangely familiar yet he couldn’t remember how or why. He couldn’t remember anything. A passage leading further down; why did he take it? He emerged on a ledge overlooking a cavern with a massive pool of inky black water; still and silent as death. He could sense some… thing in the middle of the pool, powerful and patient as time itself. His heart raced… his knees grew weak, his feet heavy. A bright, cold light surged through his brain. He tried to scream, but his lungs were paralyzed; he tipped sideways, falling in slow motion. Down, down, down, until finally hitting his head on something cold, smooth, and wooden. He awoke in a panic on the floor of his bedroom, dripping in sweat. He pushed himself to his knees, and tried to catch his breath. His head was pulsing in pain, his bed linens were torn from his bed and strewn on the floor. His memory of the dream melted away, as he tried to grasp at the images he had seen. He sat up, and focused. The answer had to be in the mine.
…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!