Borrasca

borrasca 1It’s a long story, but one you’ve never heard before. This story is about a place that dwells on the mountain; a place where bad things happen. And you may think you know about the bad things, you may decide you have it all figured out but you don’t. Because the truth is worse than monsters or men.

At first I was upset when they told me we were moving to some little town out in the Ozarks. I remember staring at my dinner plate while I listened to my sister throw a temper tantrum unbefitting of a 14 year old honors student. She cried, she pleaded, and then she cursed at my parents. She threw a bowl at my dad and told him it was all his fault. Mom told Whitney to calm down but she stormed off, slamming every door in the house on the way to her room.

I secretly blamed my dad as well. I’d heard the whispers too, my dad had done something wrong, something bad and the sheriff’s department had reassigned him to some little out of the way county to save face. My parents didn’t want me to know that, but I did.

I was nine so it didn’t take me too long to warm to the idea of a change; it was like an adventure. New house! New school! New friends! Whitney, of course, felt the opposite. Moving to a new school at her age is hard, moving away from her new boyfriend, however, was even harder. While the rest of us packed up our things and said our goodbyes, Whitney sulked and cried and threatened to run away from home. But a month later when we pulled up to our new house in Drisking, Missouri she was sitting right next me texting viciously on her phone.

Thankfully, we moved over the summer and I had months of free time to explore the town. When Dad started his new job at the sheriff’s office, Mom drove us around the city commenting on this and that. The city was much, much smaller than St. Louis but also a lot nicer. There were no ‘bad’ areas and the entire town looked like something you’d see on a post card. Drisking was built in a mountain valley surrounded by healthy forest land with walking trails and crystal clear lakes. I was 9, it was summer and this was heaven.

We’d only been living in Drisking a week or so when our next door neighbors came to introduce themselves: Mr. and Mrs. Landy and their 10 year old son Kyle. While our parents talked and drank mimosas, I watched the Landy’s lanky, red-headed son hung out in the doorway, shyly eyeing the PS2 in the living room.

“Uh, do you play?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Not really.”

“Do you wanna? I just got Tekken 4.”

“Um…” Kyle glanced at his mom, who had just been handed her third mimosa. “Yeah. Sure.”

And that afternoon, with the ease and simplicity of our age, Kyle and I became best friends. We spent the cool summer mornings outside exploring the Ozarks and the hot afternoons in my living room playing the PS2. He introduced me to the only other kid in the neighborhood our age: a skinny, quiet girl named Kimber Destaro. She was shy but friendly and always up for anything. Kimber kept up with us so well that she quickly became the third wheel on our tricycle.

With my dad at work all the time, my mom consumed with her new friendships and my sister locked in her room all day, the summer was ours to take and take it we did. Kyle and Kimber showed me where all the best hiking trails were, which lakes were the best (and most accessible by bike), and where the best stores were in town. By the time the first day of school rolled around in September I knew I was home.

On the last Saturday before school started, Kyle and Kimber told me they were going to take me somewhere special, somewhere we hadn’t been yet – the Triple Tree.

“What’s a ‘triple tree’?” I asked.

“It’s a totally awesome, totally huge treehouse out in the woods.” Kyle said excitedly.

“Pfft, whatever, Kyle. Come on, you guys, if there was a freakin’ treehouse you would have showed it to me already.”

“Na-uh, we wouldn’t’ve,” Kyle shook his head. “There’s a ceremony for first-timers and everything.”

Kimber nodded eagerly in agreement, her dark orange curls bouncing off of her tiny shoulders. “Yep, it’s true Sam. If you enter the treehouse without the proper ceremony you’ll disappear and then you’ll die.”

My face fell. Now I knew they were making fun of me. “That’s a lie! You guys are lying to me!”

“No we’re not!” Kimber insisted.

“Yeah, we’ll show you! We just have to get a knife for the ceremony and we’ll go.”

“What? Why do you need a knife? Is it a blood ceremony?” I whispered.

“No way!” Kimber promised. “You just say some words and carve your name into the Triple Tree.”

“Yup, it takes like one minute.” Kyle agreed.

“And it’s a really cool treehouse?” I asked.

“Oh yeah.” Kyle promised.

“Okay, I guess I’ll do it then.”

Kyle insisted on using the same knife he used during his own ceremony but we paid a price to get it. Mrs. Landy just happened to be home with her youngest son Parker and despite Kyle’s many objections his mother insisted he take his six year old brother with him.

“Mom, we’re going to the treehouse, it’s only for older kids. Parker can’t go!”

“I don’t care if you’re going to see an Exorcist movie marathon, you’re taking your brother with you. I need a break, Kyle, can’t you understand that? And I’m sure your friends won’t mind.” She flashed Kimber and me a challenging look. “Right?”

“No, not at all,” Kimber said and I nodded in agreement.

Kyle made a loud, dramatic sigh and called his brother. “Parker, put your shoes on, we’re leaving now!”

I’d met the youngest Landy several times before and found that he was as unlike his older brother in looks as in disposition. Where Kyle was a wild, excitable fireball with hair to match, I found Parker to be an anxious, fidgety boy with small eyes and dark brown hair.

We got on our bikes and made our way to a lesser known hiking trail a few miles away. I’d asked before where the trail led when we’d ridden across it several weeks before and Kyle had given me the underwhelming answer of “nowhere interesting”.

We pulled up to trail head and leaned our bikes against the wooden sign post which read “West Rim Prescott Ore Trail”.

“Why are so many trails around here named Prescott?” I asked. “Is this Prescott Mountain or something?”

Kimber laughed. “No, dummy, it’s because of the Prescott’s. You know, the family that lives in the mansion up on Fairmont. Mr. Prescott and his son Jimmy own like half the businesses in town.”

More than half,” Kyle agreed.

“Which ones? Does he own the Game Stop?” The only store in Drisking I really cared about.

“I don’t know about that one,” Kyle wound a lock around the 4 bikes and clicked the bar into place, then spun the numbers on the dial. “But like the hardware store, the pharmacy, Gliton’s on 2nd and the newspaper.”

“Did they start this town?” I asked.

“Nah, mining started the town. I think they-“

“I want to go home.” Parker had been so quiet I’d completely forgotten he was there.

“You can’t go home,” Kyle rolled his eyes. “Mom said I had to bring you. Now come on, it’s only like a two mile walk.”

“I wanna take my bike.” Parker answered.

“Too bad, we’re going off trail.”

“I don’t wanna go. I’ll stay with the bikes.”

“Don’t be such a wussy.”

“I’m not!“

“Kyle, be nice!” Kimber hissed. “He’s only 5.”

“I’m 6!” Parker objected.

“I’m sorry, 6. You’re 6.” Kimber smiled at him.

“Alright fine, he can hold your hand if he wants. But he’s coming.” Kyle turned and started up the trail.

Parker face fell into an undignified frown but when the charming Kimber stuck her hand out and wiggled her fingers at him, he took it.

Kyle was right, it wasn’t a long walk – only a half mile down the trail and then another half mile hike on a well tread path up the mountain. It was a steep climb though, and by the time we got to the treehouse, I was winded.

“What do you think?” Kyle asked, excitedly.

“It’s…” I studied the tree as I caught my breath. “It’s pretty awesome,” I smiled. And it was. They hadn’t lied, the treehouse was the biggest I’d ever seen. It had multiple rooms and there were actual curtains in the windows. A sign above the door said “Ambercot Fort” and a rope ladder hung below the threshold, missing several planks.

“I’m going up first!” Yelled Parker, but Kimber caught his arm.

“You have to do the ceremony first or you’ll disappear.” She reminded him.

“That’d be fine with me,” Kyle grumbled.

I was eager to get into the fort myself.

“Give me the knife.” I held out my hand. Kyle smiled and dug the switchblade out of his pocket.

“There’s some space in the back to carve your name.”

I opened up the knife walked around the tree looking for an empty spot. They were so many names on the tree that I had to crunch down and look near the bottom since I couldn’t reach any higher. I spotted both Kyle and Kimber’s carvings on the tree and I finally found a spot I liked near the latter. I bit my tongue and carved Sam W. into a blank piece of bark underneath someone named Paul S. Parker went next but had so much trouble with the knife that Kyle had to do it for him.

“Alright, let’s go,” I ran over to the rope ladder.

“Wait!” Kyle yelled. “You have to say the words first.”

“Oh yeah. Okay what are they?”

Kimber sang them out. “Underneath the Triple Tree there is a man who waits for me and should I go or should I stay my fate’s the same either way.”

“That’s…creepy.” I said. “What does it mean?”

Kimber shrugged. “No one knows anymore, it’s just tradition.”

“Okay, can you say it one more time, slower?”

Once Parker and I had recited the poem we were ready to go. I climbed the rope ladder first and took stock of my new surroundings. The treehouse was more or less empty, just a dirty rug here and there and some trash: old soda cans, beer cans and fast food wrappers.

I went room to room – four in total – and found nothing of real interest until the last one. An old mattress lay in the corner and piles of musty, ripped clothing scattered the floor.

“Did a hobo live here?” I asked.

“Nah, this room has been like this for as long as I can remember.” Kyle said from the doorway behind me.

“It smells gross.” I said.

Kimber walked up to the threshold but refused to go any further. “It’s not the smell that freaks me out – it’s that.” She pointed up to the ceiling and I raised my eyes to read what was written there.

Road to the Gates of Hell Mile Marker 1

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“It’s just older kids being dicks,” Kyle said. “Come on, I’ll show you the best part of the treehouse.”

We walked back into the first room and Parker looked up at us and smiled, pointing down to what he’d clumsily carved into the wooden floor.

“Fart,” Kyle read. “That’s hilarious, Parker.” He rolled his eyes but his little brother didn’t pick up on the sarcasm and smiled proudly.

Kimber sat down on the floor next to Parker and I sat on his other side. Kyle took the knife from his brother and then walked across the room and wedged the blade between two planks of the wooded wall. He pushed and the board gave, opening up a small, secret compartment in the wall. Kyle took something out and pushed the plank back in until it was flush with the others.

“Check it out.” He turned around and proudly held up two cans of Miller Lite beer.

“Whoa!” I said.

“Ewww, warm beer? That’s gross. How did you even know it was there?” Kimber asked.

“Phil Saunders told me.”

“Are we gonna drink it?” I asked.

“Hell yeah we’re gonna drink it!”

Kyle came and sat down in our circle, popped open the first beer and offered it to Kimber. She eyed it like he was trying to hand her a dirty diaper.

“Come on, Kimmy.”

“Don’t call me that!” She yelled at him and then reluctantly took the open beer. She smelled it and made a face, then pinched her nose and took a small swig. Kimber shuddered. “That was even grosser than I imagined.”

“I don’t want any! I’ll tell mom!” Parker said quickly as the beer passed in front of him to me.

“Good, ‘cause you ain’t getting any,” Kyle promised. “And you won’t tell mom shit.”

I put on my best poker face and took a long, deep swallow of the warm beer before I had the chance to smell it. It was a poor decision and when I wretched, the foul yellow liquid went all over my shirt.

“Aww man, now I’m gonna smell like beer.”

We spent the next hour and a half drinking the two cans of Miller Lite and after awhile the taste grew more tolerable. I couldn’t tell if I was becoming a man or actually getting drunk. I hoped it was the former. When the last drop of the last beer was consumed we spent 20 minutes trying to determine if we were drunk. Kyle assured us that he was wasted while Kimber wasn’t sure. I didn’t think I was, but I failed all of our drunk tests.

Kimber was in the middle of reciting the alphabet backwards when a loud, metallic grinding suddenly pierced the calm mountain air like a gunshot. Kimber stopped talking and we spent a few minutes staring at each other, waiting for the noise to end. Parker curled into Kimber and put his hands over his ears. After what seemed like ten whole minutes the sound ended as suddenly as it had begun.

“What was that?” I asked and Parker mumbled something into Kimber’s sweatshirt.

“Do you guys know?” I tried again.

Kimber stared at her feet as she crossed and uncrossed them.

“Well?”

“It’s nothing,” Kyle answered finally. “We hear it sometimes in town; it’s not a big deal. It’s just louder up here.”

“But what’s making that sound?”

“Borrasca.” Kimber whispered without taking her eyes off her feet.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Not who, where.” Kyle answered. “It’s a place.”

“Another town?”

“No, it’s just a place in the woods.”

“Oh.”

“Bad things happen there,” Kimber said more to herself that me.

“Like what?”

“Bad things.” Kimber repeated.

“Yeah, don’t ever try to find it, dude.” Kyle said behind me. “Or bad things will happen to you, too.”

“But like, what bad things?” I turned around. Kyle shrugged and Kimber stood up and walked over to the rope ladder.

“We’d better go. I have to get home to my mom,” she said.

We climbed down the ladder one by one and then started the walk back to the trail head in an unfamiliar silence. I was dying of curiosity about Borrasca but couldn’t decide if and what to ask about it.

“So, who lives there?”

“Where?” Kyle asked.

“Borrasca.”

“The Skinned Men,” Parker answered.

“Pfft,” Kyle laughed. “Only babies believe that.”

“Like men who are skinned? Like their skin is gone?” I asked excitedly.

“Yeah, that’s what some kids say. Most of us stop believing in that, though, when we turn double digits.” Kyle said.

I looked back at Kimber who was still nine like me but she was staring down the trail, ignoring us. That seemed to be the end of the conversation and by the time we reached our bikes the awkwardness was gone and we were giggling trying to decide if we were too drunk to bike home.

School started two days later and I’d completely forgotten about Borrasca. When my dad pulled up to the curb to drop me off that morning he locked the doors before I could get out.

“Not so fast,” he laughed. “As your father I get the privilege of giving you a hug and telling you to have a good first day of school.”

“But Dad, I gotta go meet Kyle by the flag before first bell!”

“And you will, but give me a hug first. In a few years you’ll be driving yourself to school, let me be your dad while I still can.”

“Fine.” I said, exacerbated, and leaned over to give my dad a quick hug.

“Thank you. Now go meet your friend. Your mom will be waiting here to pick you up at 3:40.”

“I know, Dad. Why can’t I take the bus like Whitney?”

“When you’re 12, you can take the bus.” He smiled and unlocked the doors. “Until then, I get to drop you off in the mornings. If you think it’d make you look cooler you can ride in the back seat behind the cage.”

“Dad…just don’t.” I threw open the door of his cruiser before he could say anything more and ran as he laughed behind me.

Kyle was already waiting for me at the flag pole and he’d found Kimber, too. “Dude, you almost missed the bell!” He yelled when he saw me.

“I know, sorry.”

“Whose class are you in?” Kimber asked. She was wearing a red sweater and leggings with frogs on them. Her curly orange hair was brushed into ringlets and her lips were pink and shiny. She’d never looked prettier and I was surprised to realize I’d never really seen Kimber as a girl.

“Ah, Mr. Diamond’s.”

“Me too!” She said cheerfully.

“Lucky,” Kyle scoffed. “I’m in Mrs. Tverdy’s. Only two 4th grade teachers and I get the crappy one.”

Kimber grimaced. “Yeah, my mom had her when she was a kid.”

“What’s wrong with her? What did she say?”

“Just that she’s strict and gives out homework on the weekends.”

“On the weekends? Fuck!”

“Excuse me, Mr. Landy?” I immediately recognized the tall man that had suddenly appeared behind the white-faced Kyle.

“So-Sorry, sir. I meant ‘dang’.”

Kimber giggled.

“I’m sure you did.” He nodded.

“Hi, Sheriff Clery.” Even though I’d only met him a few times I liked my dad’s boss and he liked me.

“Well hello, Sammy, are you excited for your first day?” Sheriff Clery crossed his arms in front of him and widened his stance imposingly, but gave me a wide smile.

“Yes sir!” I said. And then added lamely, “What are you doing here?”

“I’m giving a presentation to the 5th and 6th grades about safety when walking to and from school.”

“Yeah, he gives it every year.” Kyle muttered.

“Cool,” I smiled.

Sheriff Clery nodded at me and then turned and walked away. I looked around, confused. “Where’s Kimber?”

“She took off. She is annoyingly on time to everything.” And as if to illustrate his point, the bell rang. We both ran up the stairs and inside.

I walked into class and saw that Kimber had saved me a spot next to her at the back. Mr. Diamond, a short, round man of 40 or so nodded at me when I came in.

“Mr. Walker, I presume?”

“Um, yeah, that’s me.” I mumbled as I rushed past him to the desk next to Kimber.

“Welcome to Drisking Elementary. And for the rest of you, welcome back. Go Grizzlies!”

The class echoed a reluctant and subdued “go grizzlies”.

Kimber introduced me to other kids in the class throughout the morning. Most of them were nice, if sort of underwhelmed by me. They said their hellos and asked where I was from and the conversations usually ended with an unimpressed “okay.”

A group of girls who sat near the front, snuck looks at us all morning and snickered. I asked Kimber who they were and she just shrugged. During our second break they came up and talked to me.

“Are you friends with Kimber Destaro?” A tall, dark-haired girl asked me.

“Yeah,” I answered and looked over at Kimber. She was watching me with worried eyes.

“Are you related to her?”

“No.”

“I didn’t think so because you don’t have orange hair.” I didn’t know what to say to that.

“You don’t have to be friends with her, you know,” said the second girl with the oddly round face.

“I wanna be friends with her.”

A third girl behind the other two snorted. She had pretty auburn hair and a rude, upturned nose.

“Well, if you do you’re going to be in the ugly kid group,” the first girl warned. “And once you’re in that group you can’t leave it ever.”

“Better than the bitch group.” I said. Rude Nose and Round Face gasped but Dark Hair smiled.

“We’ll see,” she said and the three returned to their corner of the room. I sat back down next to Kimber feeling like a badass. It was the first time I’d ever used a swear word in front of anybody other than Kyle.

“What did they say to you?” Kimber asked, nervously.

“They said you’re too pretty to be near them and that you make them look gross so we have to stay away from them.”

“Liar,” Kimber answered, but I could tell she was smiling.

We met Kyle in the cafeteria at lunch and he had nothing but bad things to say about his morning. Mrs. Tverdy was old and mean and she made everyone come up and say something about themselves even though the class only had 14 kids and they all knew each other. When the bell rang for recess I went to throw my lunch away with Kyle and I bumped into a kid I hadn’t seen before.

“Hey, are you Sam Walker?” The kid asked.

“Yeah.”

“Oh. Your sister is dating my brother.”

“Oh man!” Kyle laughed. “Your sister is dating a Whitiger!”

“Shut up, Kyle.” The kid grumbled.

“She’s gonna be Whitney Whitiger!”

As funny as it was I couldn’t help but be a little surprised. Not that I’d been paying attention but I’d only seen Whitney out of her room once over the summer.

“Um, where did she meet him?” I asked the Whitiger kid.

“I dunno. Probably at his job.”

“His job where?”

“He works at Drisking Water.”

It didn’t make any sense to me but I shrugged it off. I did remember my mom giving Whitney some menial tasks like getting the car washed and setting up some utilities to get her out of the house. Maybe she met him once and they started dating over text. Teenagers were weird.

The rest of the school week followed much like the first. We were well into the first month when I heard someone mention the Skinned Men again. We were out on the playground and Kyle and I were trying to start a fire with two large wood chips. I’d just given myself a splinter when the distant sound of metal grinding on metal flooded over the playground, silencing every one of us.

“Borrasca,” I said in awe.

“Yep,” said Phil Saunders. “The Skinned Men kill again.”

“Hey, Kyle said only babies believed in Skinned Men!” I threw an accusatory look at Kyle.

“They do! Phil is just stupid.”

“Am not! Ask Danielle, she’s seem then.” Phil scanned the playground and then yelled at a blonde girl talking to Rude Nose. “Hey Danielle come here!”

The blonde girl rolled her eyes but came skipping over anyway. “What do you want? I told you Kayla doesn’t like you, Phillip.”

“No, tell them about the Skinned Men.” Phil gestured to the air around us which was filled with the metallic scraping coming down from the mountain.

You tell them.”

“No, you saw them so you tell them.”

I didn’t see them, Paige saw them.”

“Oh.” Phil said and an uncomfortable silence descended.

“You guys are weird,” Danielle said before flipping her hair in our faces and leaving.

“Who’s Paige?” I asked when she’d gone.

“Her sister,” Phil said.

“Paige disappeared when we were like 5.” Kyle said.

“After she saw the Skinned Men,” Phil added.

The sounds from the mountain abruptly ended and the subdued atmosphere of the playground disappeared with it. When the bell rang Kyle lined up in his class line and since Phil was in my class I made sure I was behind him. The teachers began to count us off.

“Hey, what else do you know about Borrasca?” I whispered to him.

“My brother said that’s where people go when they disappear. To Borrasca.”

“What happens to them there?”

“Bad things,” he said, and then shushed me when I asked him what that meant.

The year dragged on and it wasn’t until Christmas break that I heard the machine at Borrasca again. It was December and there was a thick blanket of snow on the ground which only served to amplify the noise from the mountain. I sat in my room listening to it for a few minutes trying to decide what was happening in the place that bad things happen. I saw my dad’s cruiser pull up out the window and went down stairs to greet him. As I passed my sister’s door I heard her giggling in that annoying, teenage girl way and I cringed. I hoped Kimber never got like that.

“Dad!” I skidded on the landing just as he opened the door. My dad stomped the snow off his boots and threw open his arms.

“Sammy! How many years has it been?” He joked.

It was true I hadn’t seen much of my dad lately since he was working so much. Doing what, I didn’t know since this was the quietest, lamest town ever. Mom thought the Sheriff was grooming dad for his job since Clery was so old and Dad never really agreed or disagreed with her. He’d only been at the department seven months, after all, and he doubted people in the county would vote for him.

“Hey Dad, do you hear that? That like machine-sounding noise?”

“Yep! I hear it in town every now and then.”

“Do you know what it is?”

“I asked the Sheriff about it and he told me the noise comes from private property up in the Ozarks.”

“Is the property called Borrasca?” I asked quickly.

“I have no idea. Borrasca? Where’d you hear that?”

I shrugged. “Kids at my school.”

“Well, it’s nothing to worry about, Sammy, probably just some logging equipment.”

“But is the place called Borrasca? Like have you heard that name before?”

“No, I have not heard that before.” Dad pulled his boots off and shrugged off his coat, looking toward the kitchen. I could tell I was losing him.

“Have you ever heard of the Skinned Men?” I asked quickly.

Skinned Men? Good god, Sam. Is your sister telling you these stories?”

“No.” But he wasn’t listening to me anymore.

“Whitney!” He yelled up the stairs.

“No, Dad, Whitney doesn’t even talk to me.” I repeated.

I heard a door creak open upstairs and Whitney peered over the railing, phone in hand and an annoyed look on her face

“Are you trying to scare your brother?” Dad demanded.

“Dad, no.” I said again.

Whitney shot me a betrayed look. “Ugh, seriously? As if I’d waste my time.”

“You aren’t telling him stories about ‘Skinned Men’?”

“No, Dad, I told you I heard it at school,” I said.

Whitney gestured to me as if to say ‘see?’

“Alright, well you kids need to start getting along. You’re family for Christ’s sake.” Whitney rolled her eyes and when Dad walked into the kitchen she stuck her tongue out at me.

“Real mature, Whitney!” I yelled up at her but she was already gone. “I’ll tell Dad about your boyfriend!”

Christmas came and went with surprising smoothness at our house. Whitney and I got everything we’d had on our lists, which was a first for us. The town may be smaller but Dad’s paychecks were clearly better.

I wore my new Ram’s parka on the first day back to school after Christmas break. Kyle fawned over it and Kimber showed off the blue pearl necklace her mom had gotten her for Christmas. Kyle and I feigned interest but did it poorly. Kimber knew, but just seemed happy we cared enough to fake it.

As we said goodbye to Kyle for the morning Kimber was suddenly slammed from the side. Kyle caught her before she fell and I spun around angrily to see Dark-Haired Girl – whose name I’d learned was Phoebe Dranger – laughing and walking away from us with Round-Face girl.

“You’re bad people who make poor life choices!” Kyle yelled at them. “When I’m your boss someday I’ll make you clean bathrooms!”

“Yeah, and if Kyle’s your boss, you know you messed up!” I added. Kyle and I high-fived and turned to Kimber but she wasn’t sharing in our victory – she was trying to hide the tears on her face.

“Don’t sweat those girls, Kimber, nobody likes them. People are just nice to them because they’re related to the Prescotts.” Kyle tried to give her an awkward pat on the back but Kimber turned away from him and ran in the opposite direction.

“I hate those girls. Like I really hate them.” I said.

“I know, they’re bitches.” Kyle answered, mouthing the last word as he looked over his shoulder for any lurking adults.

“Well, I’d better get to class and make sure they don’t try and talk to her again.”

“There’s an assembly this morning. No class until after lunch.”

“Seriously? That’s awesome! Do we have to sit by class?”

“Not usually but we better get there quick so we can get seats at the back.” Kyle said as we started walking.

“What’s the assembly for?” I asked.

“It’s either D.A.R.E. or the History Society presentation.”

“What’s D.A.R.E.?”

“You know, D.A.R.E.? As in ‘don’t you dare do drugs or you’re grounded until you’re dead’?”

“Oh. I hope it’s the history thing then.”

We found Kimber already in the auditorium. She had collected herself and saved us both seats at the back of the room. She waved us over just as the puffy, stern Mrs. Tverdy walked onto the stage.

“Hello 4th Grade students. This morning we have a special presentation for you from the Historic Preservation Society of Drisking. If you have questions during the course of the lecture, please raise your hand.”

“Like that’ll happen,” Kyle laughed.

“Now, I’d like to introduce to you Mr. Wyatt Dowding, Ms. Kathryn Scanlon and of course, Mr. James Prescott.”

“What! Jimmy Prescott and not his dad? That’s so weird!” Kimber whispered.

“Dude, Thomas Prescott has done this presentation every year for like 20 years,” Kyle said. “It’s definitely weird.”

“It’s not weird,” whispered Mike Sutton from behind us. He leaned forward. “Tom Prescott went crazy like a year ago. He didn’t do the presentation last year when my sister was here either.”

“I don’t like Jimmy Prescott,” Kimber shook her head. “He gives me the heeby-jeebies. His dad is so much nicer, he’s like a grandpa.”

The presentation was slow and boring. Mr. Dowding and Ms. Scanlon talked about the first settlers here: the Cherokee and the trail of tears. They talked about Alexander Drisking’s discovery of a motherlode of ore in the mountains and settling here with his family to mine and refine the iron. Then James Prescott took the stage from there to tell the story of his family’s early journey to the town and their role in the revitalization of Drisking itself in the late 50’s.

The last part was the most interesting of it all and I found Jimmy Prescott to be infallibly charismatic and entertaining. I was so busy laughing at his jokes and hanging on his every word that by the end of his presentation I realized I’d actually learned quite a bit. So much so that I was interested enough to ask a question, which Kyle warned was committing social suicide.

Mr. Prescott scanned the room and answered a few other questions before he finally got to me at the back.

“Yes, you in the back.”

“Um, Mr. Prescott, why did the mines close? Like, what happened?” I asked.

“Very good question, young man. What did you say your name was?”

“Ah…Sam. Walker.”

“Ah, I believe I met your father the other day at the Sheriff’s office. Welcome to Drisking! As for your questions, most of the mines were closed in 1951 after a long period of unprofitability: the mountain had simply ran out of iron ore. The mills and refineries were abandoned and the town suffered for years. The miners and their families moved away, stores went out of business, schools closed and Drisking became a ghost town.

That would have been the end of it if it weren’t for stubborn families like mine who refused to leave. We refused to give up the town and after many, many years of hard work Drisking became the picturesque little haven in the Ozarks that it is today. I hope that answers your question.”

I sat back down and Kyle shook his head at me. “Bro…”

The assembly suffered through another fifteen minutes of awkward Q and A until Mrs. Tverdy finally cut us loose. We were released into the cafeteria to wait for the lunch lines to open. Kyle, Kimber and I sat in our usual corner.

“That was soooo boring,” Kyle whined. “When are they going to figure out that no one cares about Drisking’s history? Seriously, I fell asleep like three times.”

Kimber nudged me. “Sam seemed to care,” she teased.

“I just wanted to know about the mines. Mines are creepy, that’s all.”

“Yeah, but all our mines were blown up. You can’t go in them anymore.” Kyle said.

“Blown up?” I asked.

Kimber nodded. “Some kids died after going into the mines so the city set off some ‘controlled blasts to implode the caverns’, at least that’s what my mom said. They messed up, though, and I heard they blew up the water table or poisoned it or something.”

“What, how do you know that?” Kyle asked.

Kimber shrugged. “I heard my dad talking about it.”

“Did they use C4 or something?”

“I guess.”

“So like, we all drink the water so we all have C4 in our bodies and we could explode at any minute!” Kyle said excitedly.

“Do you think that’s what happened to all the missing people?” I asked him. “Just sitting there one day and BOOM!”

“Yeah, dude,” Kyle grabbed my shoulders. “And that’s where the Skinned Men come from.”

I made the international symbol of ‘mind blown’ and we laughed hysterically.

“You guys are dumb,” Kimber rolled her eyes but then she laughed when Kyle fell on the floor pretending he was exploding. I remember thinking in that moment that I was happy here in Drisking, Missouri with these two people. Happier than I’d ever been anywhere else.

It was the last truly happy moment I ever had. Less than an hour later Mr. Diamond’s phone rang and he exchanged a few quiet words with the person on the other end, his eyes flicking to and from my desk. It was hard to be surprised, then, when he hung up and asked me to come up to the front.

When I got there he told me my mom was waiting for me in the office and I was going home for the day. I traded a confused and worried look with Kimber and then packed up my backpack and went to the office. When I got there, my mom was crying.

We drove home in strained silence. I was too afraid to ask what was wrong. Mom parked the car a block from our house, which was blocked in by several police cars. When an explanation didn’t come I broke the silence myself.

“Is it dad?” I asked quietly, holding back tears.

“No, honey, Dad is fine,” she whispered.

“Then what happened?”

“Whitney never made it to school this morning,” her voice broke over my sister’s name.

“Oh, no Mom, I think she ditched!” I said quickly. “I saw her leave this morning and it was really early, like 6, and she was with her friends. Um, Pete Witiger and that kid Taylor!”

“We know about all that, Sam. But they made it to school and Whitney wasn’t with them. They said she wanted to stop by the Circle K near Drisking High so they left her there. And no one has seen her since.”

“Well…” My brain struggled to come up with an explanation. “Maybe she’s ditching.”

“No, honey.” My mom put the car back in drive and drove up to our house, parking behind a police cruiser. “The police, as well as your father, think that Whitney is with Jay.”

“But she has a new boyfriend here!”

“We found all her books on the floor of her room this morning and half her clothes gone along with some cash of your dad’s.”

“But-”

“Right now we think that she hitched a ride to St. Louis and that she’s with Jay. The Sheriff’s office is trying to contact the boy’s parents now.”

Whitney? Run away? Anyone who knew my sister knew she was prone to dramatics and empty threats. Plus, she was dating Chris Witiger’s older brother Pete. I was sure of it.

We walked up the steps and into a house filled with stale coffee and quiet murmurs. I tried to remember if Whitney herself had ever actually confirmed she was dating Pete but I drew a blank. When we walked into the kitchen, I saw my father sitting at the table, staring at phone records, head in hand. He looked up when I came into the room and gave me a weak smile.

“Hey, buddy.”

“Dad, I have to tell you something.”

I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder and turned to look up at a solemn Sheriff Clery.

“Everything and anything you might know, son. No matter how trivial you think it is.”

I nodded and sat down at the table with my dad as my mom handed the big man a cup of coffee.

“Here you go, Sheriff,” she said, weakly.

“Please, Mrs. Walker, call me Killian.”

My mother nodded and retreated back into a darkened corner to talk quietly with Sheriff Clery’s wife, Grace.

“What do you know, Sam?” My dad asked as he rested his chin on his hands in a mock symbol of prayer, as though I may deliver him from his suffering.

“Well, just, I heard Whitney had a boyfriend, that guy Pete Witiger that she’s been hanging out with, and I saw them and Taylor Dranger leave this morning before me.”

“What time did they leave?” Asked the Sheriff.

“I don’t know…like before 6.”

He nodded. “That matches the statements of Taylor Dranger and the Witiger boy.” My father’s head sunk lower into his hands and I knew I’d let him down. “But,” I rushed, “I don’t think she went back to St. Louis because she was dating Pete and I don’t think she wanted to be with her boyfriend back home anymore.”

“I understand that, son, but a teenage girl’s mind is a complicated thing. My officers are trying to get ahold of the boyfriend’s family back in St. Louis.” Clery nodded to my father. “Now why don’t you head up to your room and let us work, Samuel.”

I looked up at him in surprise. “What? No I wanna stay down here. I can help.”

“No, son, there’s nothing more you can do here. You’ve been a good brother, now let us handle this.”

“But I can help!”

“You already have.”

“Dad!” I looked over at my dad with begging eyes.

“Go to your room, Sam.” He said quietly after a moment. I balked.

“Dad…”

“Now.”

I was so angry I did the only thing that I could of to make my rage known – I stomped upstairs, slammed the door and then sat on my bed in disbelief. The tears came then and I laid there feeling helpless, worthless and scared for my sister.

I thought about all the places Whitney could be. Was she scared? Was she alone? Was she…dead? When the sun began to set, I finally got out of bed and went to check my email. I was expecting lots of messages from Kimber and Kyle but there was only one.

did she go to the treehouse?

I sat staring at the computer screen for almost a minute, Kimber’s words from last fall echoed in my brain.

”If you enter the treehouse without the proper ceremony you’ll disappear and then you’ll die.”

I didn’t buy that Whitney had gone to Circle K that morning and I especially didn’t believe that she’d hitchhiked out of town. Nothing they were saying downstairs made any sense if you knew my sister – but maybe this did. Maybe she and her boyfriend went to the treehouse to make out or something and maybe he’d left her there. Maybe she’d gotten lost or maybe the Skinned Men had found her. That was the worst thought of all.

I didn’t need to sneak out because the police were too busy with my parents to care about me anyway. I snuck my bike out of the garage and rode the three miles to the West Rim Prescott Ore Trail. When I got there I saw two bikes already locked to the signpost and my two best friends sitting in the snow next to them.

“I knew you’d come,” Kyle said when I pulled my bike up and Kimber ran up to hug me.

“I’m so sorry, Sam.”

There was really nothing for me to say and they didn’t push. Kimber took my arm and we started up the trail. The silence between us was stretched, but comfortable. We trudged through the snow and all the while I searched for the telltale footprints of others but the snow was coming too fast. The hike up the mountain was harder and wetter than when we’d come in the fall and when Ambercot Fort finally came into view over the ridge it was a welcome sight. The sun was getting low and we hadn’t brought flashlights.

I fell as I ran up to the tree, calling my sister’s name to the quiet wild. Kyle was right behind me and leapt impressively onto the rope ladder, climbing quickly up the planks. I kept calling Whitney’s name, waiting for Kyle to yell that he’d found her or that there was at least some sign of her.

And then I heard Kimber quietly say my name from where she stood at the Triple Tree. I ran over and tried to follow her eyes to confirm what I already knew was there. And then I found it, freshly carved near the top.

Whitney W.

My breath froze in my chest and my vision blurred with unwelcome tears. And as the sun took its last desperate breath before plunging into the deep of the horizon, a deafening metallic whirl sang out from the wilderness and spilled down the mountainside.

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