Never—not in my wildest dreams—did I ever imagine that an innocent peek into an old church would change my life forever, turning me into the wild vagabond I am now. But it did.
My name is Elijah Creek, and I descended from the Creek Indians—at least I always hoped so. My dad’s family came from southern Georgia where the Creek nation lived. We didn’t know where mom came from. She was adopted. But since her hair and eyes are dark, I thought she might be Indian too.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t volunteered as a stagehand for the junior high play. We were doing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I wanted to be Injun Joe—I had the dark hair and eyes for the role—but I can’t act.
My cousin Robbie . . . now he could act. We were nothing alike, and I mean nothing. I lived in a log house next to Camp Mudjokivi, a nature camp my dad ran. Robbie lived in what everyone in town called The Castle. It was old and drafty and had a tower with mice—or worse—living in the walls. His parents had plans to make it into a bed-and-breakfast, but I hadn’t seen much progress. It looked more like Bates Motel from the movie Psycho.
Robbie was ready to turn fourteen, but could have passed for eleven. I called him Chunk. He called me Rail. He sings and acts; I draw a little. I’ve always liked the wild outdoors, while he’s an indoor person and likes studying history and stuff. So he’s not the coolest cube in the tray. But we got along.
That fall, Robbie had roped some of us into helping with costumes, set building, and the dangerous work of hanging lights, curtains, and backdrops. We’d been through our basements and attics, searching for curtains and costumes and backdrops, but with no luck.
Reece Elliston called me after an hour of searching and said, “No luck here. All our curtains are hanging in windows, and we don’t have any pioneer-type dresses.”
“We’re going to have to branch out,” I said. “Robbie had an idea that the old church may have some curtains. Want to check it out?”
“Sure. Can Mei come too?”
When Reece did anything, Mei wasn’t far behind. They were opposites too. Mei had dark eyes and short dark hair to Reece’s long blond hair and blue eyes. Mei was shy while Reece spoke her mind. I think they struck up a friendship because they were a little different from everyone else: Mei’s from Japan, and was still working on her English. Reece had this bone condition, and sometimes had to use a cane.
By the time all of us—Robbie and me, Reece and Mei—were done with dinners and homework and had met up on my porch, it was nearly dark. The days were getting shorter already.
The only reason I hadn’t explored the church was because it was condemned and Dad said no. But I hadn’t asked about it for a long time.
Old Pilgrim Church and the graveyard behind it sat on a grassy hill surrounded by an overgrown meadow and woods, west of Camp Mudjokivi where I lived. The camp hooked up with the Morgan farm to the east. To the north was a big scary hunk of land I named Telanoo, which sounds Indian, and is short for The Land No One Owns. Owl Woods, the camp’s nature preserve, bled over into Telanoo.
Mom was upstairs with the twins, so I asked my dad if we could investigate the old church, and first he said no, it could be dangerous. Then right in the middle of our conversation the phone rang and while he was talking I mouthed the words, “I’ll be careful,” as I backed out of the house. So he nodded and waved me off. I have lots of duties around camp, and Dad pretty much lets me have the run of the place because he knows I’m responsible.
The old church was locked. But one of the basement windows was broken so it wasn’t really like breaking in, though Reece said it was.
I kicked out the rest of the glass and checked for sharp edges where I’d be crawling through. Before going in I turned to Reece. “You don’t think God will strike me with lightning, do you?” I liked kidding Reece about her religion.
She grinned. But then she threw in, “You’ll probably be okay. Just don’t slash an artery on that broken glass.”
Reece—for all her sweetness—has an acid streak. And just when you least expect it, she’ll get a dig in. She seems fragile because of her looks—she’s small and sort of pale—but she’s not.
I dropped into the church basement. There was barely enough twilight coming in to see my way up the stairs. I reached out the broken window for Robbie’s flashlight. He was chickening out already. I could see it on his face.
“Forget it,” I said and sent him and the girls around to the front door. I’d been training myself to see better at night, but on my way through the basement and up the stairs I heard skittering noises from one of the dark corners: big sounds, not so different from the ones Robbie and I hear in the walls at The Castle. I couldn’t see what it was. Pretty creepy.
By the time they got to the front door, I’d unbolted it from the inside. We lost most of the natural light in that few minutes, but we went prowling anyway. The girls stayed close to Robbie because he had the flashlight. Reece can’t afford to fall and break anything, so I warned them that the floor slanted down to the front stage. There was hardly anything inside except for a few rows of old fold-down seats. The place was musty smelling and a weird kind of cold, even though outside was warm and mellow.
“Usually there would be a velvet curtain in front of the baptistery,” whispered Reece, as we crept toward the stage, “and some short curtains in front of the choir loft. The railing is still there, but someone must have taken the curtains when the church closed. Let’s check downstairs. Sometimes churches use curtains as classroom dividers.”
We made our way to the stairs. “Don’t be afraid if you see a mouse, or a rat,” I cautioned. “I heard noises down there.”
Reece turned to Mei and whispered, “Mice, maybe. Daijoubu.”
“It is all right,” Mei said. She and Reece often swapped words. Reece would say it in Japanese, then Mei would say it in English, or vice versa, to learn each other’s language.
It’s amazing how quick it gets dark, once the sun drops into the woods.
I helped Reece down to the basement where there was nothing more than three squares of gray light coming through the windows—one minus all its glass—and Robbie’s flashlight.
“Hold it steady,” I told him. “You’re going to rattle all the life out of it.”
Something scratched at the floor behind us. Reece and Mei sucked in air.
Robbie whispered, “Let’s go.”
“Why are you whispering, silly?” I asked loudly, kicking at a piece of trash on the floor. “Let’s show those rats we’re here.” I was talking and kicking my way into being the brave one. My mind knew there was nothing to be afraid of, but my heart was thumping. “This was your idea anyway, Robbie. We’ll have one quick look around and be done.”
In a minute we were stuck together like one person with eight shuffling feet and four heads. Four pairs of eyes bugged out, trying to pick details out of the dark. We followed Robbie’s shaky flashlight beam around the room: just cement block walls oozing ground water, and three or four doors.
“Classrooms,” Reece whispered, nodding toward the doors.
I had just said that whispering was dumb. Obviously, she hadn’t taken my lead.
“Classrooms, yeah, I know,” I said, though as far as churches went, I really didn’t know the layout.
There was pretty much nothing downstairs, except for a rusty furnace at the far end, and what looked like a door behind it made of painted planks. Reece spotted the door too.
“Storage,” I guessed.
“Probably,” she said.
We all moved as a clump in that direction and watched the door for a minute. Robbie’s eyes were like glass marbles. I could tell he was more than ready to leave.
“Let’s look in there,” I said.
“It is okay?” Mei asked.
“It’s okay,” I said, and shook the others off. “If there are any curtains, I bet they’ll be in there.”
The door was swollen shut with dampness and age, but a few good yanks and we were suddenly looking into a low, pitch-black room with a dirt floor.
“It’s a crawl space,” I said.
Robbie moved the beam slowly around the wall. There were no shelves or boxes, only large hooks embedded in the stone walls.
“Hooks,” Robbie breathed.
I knew what he was thinking: torture chamber. But they were just for hanging stuff on.
On the left wall was a doorway, or rather a place broken open in the damp stones, big enough for someone to walk through. Robbie’s flashlight beam danced on that black hole. None of us wanted to go any farther. What was in there? I just had to know.
“Come on.” My voice had dropped into a whisper despite my best effort. We were in a clump again, moving toward the hole . . . through the hole . . . into a small, damp room. Robbie’s light dipped to the dirt floor. The girls gasped. My heart—which was already thumping at fifty miles a minute—jumped into my throat and lodged there. Along the far wall there was a mound of dirt, human size: rounded at the top, squarish at the bottom.
I could barely even breathe the words: “A grave.”
We were all frozen in place for a moment. What happened next would shove my heart back down into my chest and throw every muscle into superhuman speed and strength mode. From somewhere behind us came a sound soft as a whisper . . . scuff . . . scuff . . . scuff. . . . Immediately my mind whirled back to the minute before when I was practically yelling, and suddenly I wished I’d kept my big mouth shut. Somebody was out there and unless they were deaf, they knew exactly where we were: in a makeshift mausoleum with only one way out.