The Haunting of Wildwood Farm
© 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.
Chapter Fifteen: The Tangled Web
You'll be happy to know that the threat of further hauntings did not deter the Wildwood Gang, plus Ben, from planning their Saturday evening excursion to Kent Cottage. Sure, a mama ghost tormented by her offspring's tragic circumstances would likely be far more angrier, scarier, and downright vicious than a ghost who was merely looking for its missing head. And even if it was the ghost of Mrs. Nichols that was launching people out of the attic window like javelins, the mantel was on the first floor, and the kids wouldn't have to contend with her. Unless she came downstairs. But they preferred not to dwell on that.
Anyway, Ben took care of the planning and equipment list, things that Drew would normally have done, and Sofie and Ethan helped gather those items on the equipment list, and Jeff pretty much took it easy because his job required no pre-planning responsibilities. He only had to make sure that, come Saturday night, his father's olfactory for trouble was distracted elsewhere.
In the meantime, he passed the hours playing video games in his kid-cave in the basement. It was a cozy little lounge area that his father had renovated two years ago, featuring a sofa, a couple of gaming chairs, plenty of bookshelf storage for games and consoles, and a fifty-inch television. For most kids, they would never leave this place. But a member of the Wildwood Gang preferred the great outdoors, and while video games and comic books were great, Jeff was starting to miss Drew.
There had not been a single Drew sighting on Thursday, and by the time Jeff got home from school on Friday, he still had not spoken a word to his friend. So Jeff retreated to the kid-cave to play video games, but he grew tired of that and decided to read instead. But as fate would have it, Jeff had barely gotten through two pages of his comic book when his mother alerted him that Drew was waiting for him outside.
Jeff dropped the comic on the floor and shot up the stairs, then ran down the hall and exploded onto the front porch. He saw Drew sitting on his bike at the base of the stairs with a somber look on his face. They stared at one another for a few moments, waiting for the other to speak, and when nothing was said, Jeff offered up a friendly 'hey.' Drew responded with a 'hey,' and then they were silent again.
"Where've you been?" Jeff asked.
"Busy," Drew replied curtly.
"Why haven't you been on the bus?"
"Don't worry about it."
Once again, they silently stared at one another.
"I have something important to tell you," Jeff said.
"Later," Drew said. "We have to take a road trip."
"You'll find out when we get there." Drew waited for Jeff to move from his spot, but Jeff didn't budge. "Are you coming or what?"
Reluctantly, Jeff descended the stairs and went out back to retrieve his bike, and then he and Drew were on their way to wherever. Drew led the way and rode fast, and Jeff had to work double-time to keep up. They took the back roads into downtown and banked onto Main Street, past the common and the pizza joint, and past the fire station and the antiques store (which, btw, was insanely overpriced).
They rode past the big white church that sat opposite the old town tavern, which had been converted into a private residence some time ago, and then turned left at the refurbished police station. About a hundred yards down on the right, they stopped at their destination: the Mystic Point Public Library.
Jeff looked at Drew incredulously. "Seriously, Drew? The library? You realize they have books in there, right?"
"Nobody likes a wiseguy, Markham. Besides, sarcasm isn't your thing. Stick to the boy scout routine."
"Whatever, Drew. What are we doing here?"
"Unraveling a tangled web," Drew said with a smirk. "C'mon."
They chained their bikes to the rack and walked up the column-lined stairs into the library. They pushed through the French doors into the main hall and were immediately overwhelmed by an adrenaline shot's worth of English.
To the left was the children's section. Shelf after shelf of children's classics, and not-so-classics, snaked around the walls, encompassing a play area of comfy reading chairs and activity tables.
To the right was the reference section. Encyclopedias and other reference books were neatly stacked on shelves, appearing as if they had never been touched. And you know what? They probably hadn't been touched, in about twenty years. Seriously, what kid is going to use an encyclopedia when he or she can copy and paste right out of Wikipedia? (author's note: don't do that, though. The literary elite will tell you it's not a scholarly source.)
Aside from the reference books there were Asgardian-sized research tables and a whole mess of computers. And, looking around, that's about it. Oh, and the windows were big. Like floor to ceiling windows. It was cool.
Splitting the left and right wings of the main hall was a large checkout and service desk. There was at least one person manning it at all times, whose primary job was to tell you to be quiet. Secondary responsibilities included helping you find something.
Beyond the desk was a wide hall that led to a multi-level superstructure crammed with aisles upon aisles of books from every genre or subgenre you could possibly want. I won't bore you with all the layout details. It's a library. I'm sure you've been in one.
Jeff hung back while Drew approached the service desk and chatted with the librarian. She listened carefully to Drew's request and nodded and smiled and nodded again, and then pointed over his shoulder to a wall behind Jeff. Drew thanked the librarian and walked back toward his friend, instructing him to follow as he entered a stairwell to the right of the French doors.
"Where are we going?" Jeff said as they followed the winding staircase into the basement.
"You'll see," Drew said, peering out of the stairwell and turning left into what appeared to be a maze of catacombs. They followed the main hallway to a second hallway on the left and then followed that to the end.
"This place looks like a dungeon," Jeff noted. "Where are you taking me?"
"Right here," Drew said, turning left into a large rectangular room that looked about as plain as a ham sandwich with nothing on it. There was a sign plaque posted to the right of the door that read 'Archives,' and inside the room, they saw shelves lining all four walls. Each shelf was stacked with clear plastic bins, and each bin was labeled with the name of a periodical and the year of publication.
"Newspaper archives?" Jeff inquired. "What are we looking for?"
"The Sun," Drew said, scanning the bin labels. "First or second week of June, two years ago."
"Yeah. The Tournament of Champions."
The boys searched the shelves, and thanks to a well-organized filing system, were able to quickly locate a bin of newspapers covering the desired range of dates. Together they hoisted the bin from the shelf and placed it down on one of the rectangular tables in the middle of the room and began rifling through the papers for early June dates.
Drew pulled out a stack of about a dozen newspapers and gave half to Jeff, and then they sat down at the table and went page by page, looking for any coverage of the Tournament of Champions.
"Any reason why we couldn't do this online?" Jeff asked.
"I tried that," Drew replied. "Didn't find what I was looking for."
"And what was that?"
"A picture of what?"
"A team photo of the tournament winners."
"And how do you know it's in the newspaper?"
"Because The Sun does an article on the tournament each year," Drew said, "and the winners get their picture in the paper."
"And you know this how?"
Drew glared at him for a moment. "You're questioning my sports knowledge?"
Jeff shrugged and put his nose back in the newspaper. There was no point in answering Drew's question, because Jeff knew that questioning Drew's knowledge of sports was like questioning Papa Gino's knowledge of pizza. You just didn't do it.
They continued to peruse the newspapers, repeatedly licking their fingers so the pages turned easier, and it wasn't long before they could taste the exotic flavor of stale newsprint.
"This research stuff is Sofie's thing," Jeff sighed.
Drew carefully scanned through the headlines of the sports section. "She can't be trusted with this."
Jeff looked up from his paper. "Why not?"
Drew did not respond. Something of interest had caught his eye, so he skipped ahead a few pages until he found the article in question. His eyes locked on something in the center of the page, and a few moments later, a small grin slowly materialized at the corner of his mouth. Then he flipped the paper around and placed it on the desk so Jeff could take a gander.
Jeff leaned forward and noticed an article on the Tournament of Champions, and a color team photo of the champs occupied a quarter of the page. He scanned through the first paragraph for all the pertinent details.
"Pinehurst wins the soccer tournament," he read aloud. "So?"
"Look closer," Drew said, pointing to the photo.
Jeff studied the photo carefully, but didn't see any red flags. He looked at Drew and shook his head, so Drew directed his attention to one player in particular. Again, Jeff studied the photo, and soon realized that the player of interest looked a lot like Ben. This data was confirmed by the roster names printed beneath the photo.
"It's Ben," Jeff said.
Drew leaned back in his chair. "Exactly."
Jeff paused, unable to connect with Drew's thought process. "I don't understand. What's the big deal? We know he won the tournament. Sofie told us at the orchard."
"Sure. I know," Drew said. "I just needed confirmation."
"You thought she was lying?"
"No. Not Sofie."
"That, my friend, I'm about to explain."
"Well hold on a second," Jeff said. "Explain something else to me first. You've been acting really strange lately. Where have you been all week?"
"I've been with my Dad."
"Don't worry about it."
"What about lunch and recess?"
"I was in the art room."
"Don't worry about it."
"Is that all you can say?" Jeff growled. "Don't worry about it?"
"No. I could say mind your own business. But that would be rude. Now do you want to hear my big theory or not?"
Jeff sighed. "Sure."
"Good. Now pay attention. This gets a little tricky." He leaned forward and put his elbows on the table. "I always thought there was something weird about Ben. Something about him I didn't like."
"You sure it doesn't have anything to do with Sofie?"
"What? No! This has nothing to do with her. This is about Ben and Damien."
"Ben and Damien?"
"Yeah. Stuff was said at the orchard that didn't fit. I couldn't figure it out until I saw this photo."
"What about it?"
"Well," Drew said, "I think it's safe to say that Damien didn't know Ben. He asked him where he was from, and Ben said Westbridge. And that was all fine and everything, but when I chose Ethan over Ben, certain people questioned that."
"I think everyone questioned that."
"Whatever. Sofie said that his soccer team won the Tournament of Champions, and he scored the winning goal, or something like that. And Damien questioned my decision, wondering why I would leave Ben on the bench, considering his team had upset Castleton. And I thought that was kind of weird."
"Thought what was weird?"
"How would Damien know that?" Drew said. "How would he know that Ben's team beat Castleton?"
"Well, I don't know. Maybe he read it in the paper, like we just did."
"But there's more to it than that," Drew said. "For starters, we both know that Damien is not a sports guy. He's a gamer and a vlogger. He couldn't pick Tom Brady out of lineup. So how would he know that Ben's team beat Castleton when he doesn't even know which team Ben played for?"
"He played for Westbridge."
"No he didn't, because Westbridge doesn't have a soccer program. There's not enough kids, so they have the option to play for a different town. There's like three or four to choose from."
"He could've read about it in the paper," Jeff said, "or heard about it from someone."
"Sure, that's a possibility. He might've heard about last June's tournament and maybe he still remembers details about it. But Pinehurst didn't win last year's tournament. It was two years ago. And when Sofie mentioned the tournament, she didn't say what year."
"Yeah, that's true, I guess."
"And if I said to you, who won the World Series two years ago, what would you say?"
Jeff thought about it for a moment. "Um. I think it was…"
"You're not sure, are you?" Drew said after a good thirty or forty seconds had elapsed. Jeff shook his head. "And that's the World Series," Drew continued. "So you expect me to believe that a gamer and vlogger who knows next to nothing about sports can rattle off the finalists for a kids' soccer tournament from two year ago? I think not!"
"Okay," Jeff said after a short interlude. "You have a point. So what's the explanation?"
"Damien would have to know which team Ben played for to know they beat Castleton. And if he knew which team Ben played for, then he must've known Ben, and if so, why did he claim not to know him? Because they do know each other! And they're pretending not to. Which means they're up to something!"
Jeff nodded, thinking long and hard about Drew's conspiracy theory. "Or maybe," Jeff suggested, "Damien misspoke and this is all a big misunderstanding."
Drew clenched his jaw and stared a hole right through Jeff's soul. "I like my explanation better. Anyway, that's all I have to say about this." He folded up the newspaper in front of him and slumped back in his chair. "You said you had something important to tell me?"
© Copyright 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.