This is the 28th installment of the book I am currently writing. It is Sci-Fi/Adventure for young adult. It is not part of the Oz Chronicle series. It will be out in paperback soon Click on the “Lost Days Book” category on the right to read from the beginning. Or you can click here
The next day I was sick. At least that’s what I told my mom. I knew going to school would be a waste. Between, J-Rob’s story about Uncle Crew, the camera, and the three thugs who broke into his room, I would have been a useless zombie at school. Mom wasn’t happy about leaving me at home. She still felt guilty about moving in with granddaddy and Nana Taffy. Leaving me with them was just one more thing she was asking them to do for her because she couldn’t keep her husband. They assured her that they didn’t mind. They were both retired and had nothing better to do. Nana Taffy planned on pumping me full of soup and granddaddy was sure ice cream would do the trick. The last thing they wanted was mom worrying about being a bad mother because she was leaving her sick daughter with two crotchety old folks.
“We saw you through plenty of sniffles and lady pains,” Nana Taffy said. “It will be good to get a chance to do it again with our granddaughter.”
I looked at mom confused. “Lady pains?”
Mom’s eyes rolled back and she shook her head. “Don’t ask.”
With more coaxing from Nana Taffy and me, mom left for work, and I was relieved when she did. The longer I was in her presence, the stronger the urge grew to tell her about last night. Keeping it too myself was tearing me up inside. It was a huge secret. I actually found Mrs. Starling’s camera in Uncle Crew’s office. I believe that’s what people refer to as the smoking gun.
As soon as Nana Taffy left me alone in my room, I got the camera from under my bed and clicked it on. I quickly went to the menu and found the picture count – 102 images. I exhaled. I was actually afraid of what I might find. But it was too important for me not to look. I quickly went through the first half dozen or so images that I had already seen and found one I hadn’t seen. It was one of J-Rob stooped down next to a creek bed. Again, he had no idea his picture was being taken. He was looking off camera to his right, talking to someone. I clicked to the next image, J-Rob in the same position. He was talking in the direction of a tree. I saw a figure standing in the shadow of the trees, large, dark… I shook my head. “Not what you’re thinking,” I whispered. Not possible. It was the shadows of the trees playing tricks on me.
I clicked through ten more images with the same shadowy figures in the background. Uncle Crew was in some of the pictures. J-Rob was in others. There were a few with both of them in the picture. There were a series of pictures of owls. They were really very beautiful birds. The way Mrs. Starling took the pictures, I could see that she really loved them.
With a dozen pictures to go, the scenery changed. She had taken a picture of a black nondescript sedan parked near some picnic tables. I can’t explain it, but it looked sinister. It didn’t fit. She was trying to say something with this picture. I clicked to the next picture. It was the license plate of the black sedan. She was definitely trying to say something. “Bad guys,” I whispered and pictured the three guys in my uncle’s room. I grabbed a pen and pad from the nightstand and wrote down the number.
The last three images were the most disturbing. They were blurry. The previous pictures had been taken with care and with the skill of someone who took a lot of pictures, someone who took pride in her talent. The last three were chaotic and fuzzy. The stars in the sky looked like streaks of light painted on a black canvas. One of the pictures was taken below a platform. There may have been the dark figure of a person looking down from the platform, but it was really impossible to be sure. The very last picture actually made me scream. It was Elizabeth Starling’s bruised and bloodied chin. I only knew it was her because of a few strands of strawberry blond hair that fell into the frame. It was almost as if she took a picture of herself after she had been beaten.
By noon I was going stir crazy hanging out in my room. Nana Taffy had stuck her head in a few times. Thankfully I had heard her coming and jumped in bed just before she’d opened the door. Granddaddy even knocked and entered once. That was the worst. I felt so guilty about not saying anything about the men breaking into Uncle Crew’s room the night before that I think I managed to make myself really sick when he checked in on me. I was a terrible granddaughter.
I was looking out the window staring at the garage, reliving the night before. The camera and its pictures were never far from my thoughts. The stress of keeping it a secret was becoming too much to bear. I turned in a huff and snuck out of my room. I had to do something… anything. I tiptoed down the steps, through the kitchen, and once again found myself standing at the door to Uncle Crew’s FROG. I knocked, lightly at first. Then I summoned up the courage and knocked louder. Uncle Crew opened the door, and didn’t seem all that surprised to see me.
“C’mon,” he said.
I did, but only two steps, enough to close the door behind me.
“You still got the camera?” he asked avoiding eye contact with me.
My chin dropped, and I tried to regain the muscle control in my jaw so I could talk.
“You left the drawer to the filing cabinet open,” he said.
“What camera?” I asked, trying to act as innocent and uninformed as I possibly could.
“Elizabeth Starling’s camera. I had it in my filing cabinet. It’s gone. I-I-I figured you took it.” He looked mortified by his stutter.
“I don’t… and what are doing with it anyway? Isn’t that evidence or something?”
“You didn’t take it?” He allowed himself to look me in the eyes, but only for a fleeting moment.
“No, how could I? I don’t have a key to your filing cabinet?”
He smirked. “How did you know my filing cabinet was locked?”
I tried to hide my face. I was thinking hard, trying to come up with a reasonable response, and I was sure my face was contorted and twisted as I searched my brain. “Guessed,” I said. “That’s what people do with filing cabinets, right? Lock them?”
“Do you really think I killed that woman?”
He surprised me with the question. By the looks of him, I think he surprised himself, too. “No,” I said quietly and with very little conviction.
He nervously took a step back. “I… it’s hard for me to deny something like that… it’s just the furthest thing from something that I would ever do… but if you need to hear me say it, I guess…” He was looking down at his hands, picking at his fingernails. “I didn’t do it.”
I instantly felt bad. It killed him to even have to stoop to denying it. “Did you know her?”
“Yes,” he said. “J-Rob and I were helping her.”
“With the owls?”
His face seemed to brighten. He stepped forward. “Yes. She was looking for proof that there were Short-eared owls in the area.”
“The feds are selling off some of the public lands. There’s a lot of debt.” He paced while he talked. “National forests and parks cost money. Developers are willing to pay big bucks for that land. The government sells off little pieces of it here and there and pays down the debt. Everyone’s happy. Except, little by little, we lose protected lands. Our national forests disappear.”
“The owls?” I asked.
“The Short-eared owl is an endangered species. If there’s proof they’re in an area… well, it doesn’t matter how much money the developers are willing to pony up, the federal government wouldn’t sell the land.”
I sat down at the kitchen table. “So this Bigfoot stuff…”
He sat down at the table with me and shrugged. “A hobby. It’s more for J-Rob than me. He gets excited by it. Gives him something to keep his mind from getting cluttered.”
“So, you don’t believe in it?”
He leaned in, rested his elbows on the table and clasped his fingers together. “I want to believe in it.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What does that mean?”
“That means I see things that aren’t there because I’m looking for them. That’s what people do. They see a mildew stain on a piece of tile and find the face of Jesus. Or they see a ghost when a passing car’s headlights shine through the window. People see what their minds tell them to see.”
“But the accident…” I stopped myself.
“What about it?” He asked with more than a hint of aggravation in his voice.
“Nothing… okay, promise not to be mad?”
He stroked his stubbly chin. “What about the accident?”
“J-Rob told me…”
He held up a hand to stop me. “He told you that I was rescued by Bigfoot, right?”
He shook his head and chuckled. “It’s true, as far as he knows. I made it up.”
“Bigfoot didn’t kill a bear?”
He chuckled harder. “Not to my knowledge.”
I joined him in a good laugh. I was relieved, but I wasn’t exactly sure why. “I still don’t understand something.”
His laughter trailed off and he said “What?”
“How did you survive for so long in the woods all by yourself?”
He sighed. “Not everybody is on the grid.”
“Sometimes people choose to live outside the watchful eye of big brother and society. Lucky for me, some of those people were within earshot of the crash. They took me, patched me up, and cared for me.”
“Really?” My shoulders dropped.
“Disappointed?” Uncle Crew asked.
“No, it makes sense,” I said. “Although, I have to admit the Bigfoot story was more interesting.”
He smiled. “The truth is very rarely interesting.”
I bit my lip and studied his face. He wasn’t who I thought he was. The man sitting across from the table from me was normal. He wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t a murderer. He was my uncle.
He caught me staring at him. “Is there something on your mind?”
I cleared my throat. “Some men broke into your room last night.”
His face turned serious, “What?”
I held back some tears and talked a million miles a minute. “I saw some men break into your room last night. I… I do have the camera, alright? I saw you leave last night and let myself into your room, and I found the camera. I heard these three guys coming up the stairs, so I crawled out the window and hid in the tree. You should really lock your door, by the way.”
He sensed that I was about to wail, and spoke in a cool, calm voice. “Take it easy. Nothing to get upset about. What did these three guys look like?”
“Couldn’t see them. I heard them say something about some guy named Teddy.”
“Teddy? I don’t know anyone named Teddy.” He turned and looked around the FROG. “They must have been looking for the camera.”
“Because they killed Mrs. Starling.”
I gulped. “What?”
“Well, somebody had to do it. Nothing else appears to be missing. They obviously didn’t want me to know they were here because the only thing that was out of place was the filing cabinet drawer you left open. Which means they didn’t break in to rob me. They broke in to find something.”
“The camera,” I said as I put the series of events together in my head.
“The camera,” Uncle Crew said.
“What should we do?”
Uncle Crew stood up and walked from one end of the kitchen to the other. He nervously tapped his thigh as he walked. He had no idea what to do either. “Nothing,” he finally said.
“We can’t do nothing,” I said looking at him curiously. “We should tell granddaddy… and the police. I could call Owen. His cousin could come over right away.” I went from vowing to myself that I wouldn’t tell anyone about the camera to wanting to tell the whole world.
“No,” he barked. He quickly gathered himself and spoke calmly. “I will take care of this. Bring me the camera, and I’ll get rid of it.”
“Get rid of it? But…”
“It’s not safe to have it here. J-Rob and I will take it out to the Little Grand Canyon tonight and live it where they found Mrs. Starling’s body. The police will find it and that will take care of that.”
“But your picture is on it,” I said. “The police will ask questions.”
He shrugged. “I’ll just tell them the truth. No big deal.” He sat down and looked at me intensely. “You have to promise me not to tell dad or your mom or anyone else.”
I nodded knowing full well it was a promise I wouldn’t be able to keep. When I did, I saw him do something I can’t recall ever seeing him do before. He smiled.