The Mutilators Club
Copyright © by Parker Sheaffer
Two boys stretched out on the floor of their tree house, silently reading the latest Spiderman comics. At the same moment each became aware of a stimulating aroma carried aloft on the soft, summer breeze; delectable molecules that tickled their noses and gave them notice of a forthcoming pleasure: freshly baked cookies.
They looked at each other and smiled. Just as they sat up a voice called to them from below, "Mark, are you boys ready for a snack?"
Both boys looked down through the trap door in the floor and smiled at the stout, red haired woman below.
"Yeah, thanks Mom," said Mark, the equally red haired boy. Their green eyes and smattering of freckles left no doubt about their relationship.
Beside the opening there sat a basket with a strong cord tied to the handle. Mark lowered it quickly to retrieve the treats.
"Yeah, thanks Mrs. Harris, those look great," said Jeff as his grinning face peered down at her through the opening.
She grinned back and sat the plate in the basket. "Oh, and I saw Eli coming up the walk. He should be here in a minute or two."
'This is so perfect,' thought Mark, 'No school, cookies and Spiderman in a tree house with my best friend. I love being ten years old.'
The cookies were big and soft and still warm. The chocolate chips were gooey and messy, but one of the best things about jeans is that you can wipe your dirty hands on them.
By the time Eli climbed the rope ladder Mark and Jeff had gobbled down two cookies each.
"You got here just in time. We were gonna eat the whole plate," Jeff said with a laugh.
"Oh, sweet," said Eli as he bit into one. "We'd better save some for Alex. Here, I brought some sodas." He took off his backpack and handed it to Mark. "They're still cold."
As the three of them snacked they could hear Alex whistling his way across the yard.
"Hey, somebody toss down the basket, I got something," he called up.
Eli kicked the basket through the opening in the floor and Alex jumped back as it nearly hit him.
"Hey, watch it," he said.
He quickly secured his bundle and said, "Okay, haul it up".
It's nearly impossible to climb a rope ladder without using both hands so the basket was their way of delivering all sorts of things that were too cumbersome to carry.
Once everyone was settled in with cookies and sodas Mark said, "Okay, I call this meeting of the Mutilators Club to order."
'Mutilators' was the name of the club that week. It changed often as each boy thought of an even better or tougher sounding name. This one came from an old movie, The Mutilator, that Alex's brother had given him. It was about a crazy guy who murdered his son's friends and it gave them all nightmares for a week. Alex's mom was furious when she found out about it, but the gang decided that it was still a cool name.
In previous weeks the boys had called themselves The Dare Devils, The Marauders and The Wizards. Mutilators sounded much tougher. When Mark's dad built them the tree house it immediately became their headquarters.
Mark, Alex, Jeff and Eli had been best friends since the first grade. Now they were all ten years old and the only members of their private club. It was Jeff's idea to make it a 'boys only' club, no girls allowed, but the others happily agreed to the rule.
Once their old business was out of the way and dues had been collected Jeff made his treasurer's report.
"Okay, we now have almost ten dollars. We need to start thinking of what we're gonna spend it on. I vote for comic books."
"I vote for some model cars," Mark offered.
"Let's save it for the fair this fall," said Jeff.
"Let's have a party," was Alex's idea.
"Okay, I say we think about it for a couple of days and write down our ideas and we'll discuss it at the next meeting," Mark told them.
Everyone agreed and since, as usual, there was no real business to discuss they decided to have another cookie.
"So, what's in the sack, Alex?" asked Jeff.
"Something fun. You're gonna love this; my sister gave it to me. It's a Ouija board," Alex said with a smile.
"What's a weegee board?"
"Come on, you know, it lets you talk to dead people."
"No way," said Mark.
"Yeah, right," Jeff scoffed.
"My sister said that her and her friends talked to Michael Jackson one night," Alex insisted.
"How does it work?"
Alex took out the Ouija board and sat it in the middle of the card table, which along with four folding chairs was the tree house's only furniture. Mark put the empty cookie plate back in the basket and the boys gathered around to watch. It was a mysterious looking board with rows of old fashioned numbers and letters and spooky pictures. The words Yes, No, and Good-bye were printed along the sides. In the middle he placed a heart shaped device, a pointer or planchette, that sat on three felt padded legs.
Alex directed them all to sit and said, "Now, you sit real quiet and put the pointer on the board and two people put the tips of their fingers on the pointer, like this. You gotta barely touch it and then you ask questions and it moves around the board. It can go to YES, or NO or it can spell out words. Let's try it. Jeff, since you're sitting on that side you and me will start. Okay, is Jeff a jackass?"
The pointer zoomed to the word YES.
"Hey, you did that, I felt it. Does Alex have a brain in his head?"
The pointer zoomed across the board to NO.
The boys were laughing and cutting up.
Alex laughed a little less than the others because Jeff's last remark had struck home. He knew that he wasn't very smart. He tried, but his grades were almost always C's and D's and he worried that his friends made fun of him behind his back. Even though he was a nice looking boy, blond, blue-eyed and lean, and could run really fast he still had self-esteem issues. Alex believed that his friends really liked him, but he never felt good enough, smart enough to deserve their friendship.
Then Eli said, "You know, we should take this up to Hell House and try it there."
The other boys grew silent and stared at him as if he had suddenly gone crazy.
The house was really known as Hill House, a very large, three-story farm house that was built before the Civil War. Despite its age the house was in pretty good shape, but it had not been modernized since the 1950's and needed a lot of work so it had stood empty for the past ten years.
Most towns probably have a place like it, the empty, creepy looking house that automatically gets a reputation for being haunted. It's usually teenagers who make up the stories to try and frighten each other or their younger siblings. In any house as old as Hill House there is bound to have been several deaths due to natural causes. People died much more easily one hundred years ago from simple injuries and diseases or even from old age, but local legend had it that there had been some gruesome murders in Hell House.
The Mutilators Club had never been inside it, not because they were scared or anything. No, of course not.
"Dude, our parents would kill us if they found out we were messing around in there," said Mark.
"Chicken. Come on, it'll be fun and if we're gonna contact dead people, that would be the place. You know what they say, that people's bodies were found hanging from the stairs with their heads cut off."
"Aw, I don't believe stuff like that. Those guys were just trying to scare us. Besides, how can they be hanging with their heads cut off? I mean, the rope would just slip off," Alex scoffed.
"Then let's do it. Now." Eli dared them.
"Why not? I'll run home and get Dad's flashlight. It'll be fun."
"How can we even get in?" asked Mark.
"Jason Finch said that the basement window is always unlocked."
A few minutes later the quartet of friends began the hike through the woods that led up to the house. The road to the main gate and driveway was situated in a busy neighborhood and there was too much chance of being seen that way so the teenagers who went to the house always used the back way, through the trees.
Jeff was feeling pretty nervous. He wasn't really an adventurous type and hated the idea of getting into trouble. "Still," he thought, "it could be worse. At least it's not dark."
They were moving through the shadowy woods at a slow pace and Eli whispered, "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!"
The basement window, as promised, was not locked and slid open easily. Eli slipped in and opened the door for the others to enter. The two spookiest parts of any house are usually the attic and the basement, and this basement was no exception. A very old rusting furnace stood in one corner while pieces of junk, broken chairs and crates gathered dust in the center of the room. One wall was covered with cobwebbed shelves that held dust covered Mason jars, their contents indiscernible through the layers of grime. The beam of the flashlight across the room showed them a couple of old doors, one barely hanging on its hinges.
Their goal though was the wooden stairs that led up to the main floor. Walking carefully in case a step should break they made their way slowly upward.
The door at the top of the stairs creaked loudly and the boys paused nervously as the sound echoed through the empty house, amplified by the stillness and their fear. There was a bit of light that found its way through the gap in the curtains covering the windows, but they were all glad that they had a flashlight. It created a small island of comfort in the gloomy darkness.
"Where are we going?" Mark whispered.
"Let's use that table over there," Eli whispered back, pointing to a small table in the center of the room.
"Dude, why are you guys whispering?" Alex laughed.
They took the board from the sack and opened it on the table top.
Eli said, "This time Mark and me will do it."
They lightly touched their fingers to the planchette. Mark's hands trembled and he hoped that the others didn't notice. Eli said, "Are there any spirits in this house?"
At first nothing happened, then the pointer slowly slid to YES. Everyone inhaled deeply.
"Are you a friendly spirit?"
"Can you tell us your name?"
The pointer began to move. E-L-I.
Jeff said, "Oh, come on Eli. You can do better than that."
"I'm not doing it. Mark, are you doing it?"
"I'm not doing it," Mark said breathlessly.
The pointer continued to move to the letter H, then E.
They all silently mouthed the letters as it went to the L, then the P, M, E.
"Help me?" Eli asked. He and Mark let go of the pointer and gasped as it suddenly lurched. With no one touching it the device began to slide back and forth across the board, zigzagging from one side to the other and picking up speed with each pass.
Jeff screamed, "Holy Moly!!"
"Let's get outta here!" screamed Alex as he ran to the front door and yanked at the knob, but it was locked.
"This way," called Jeff, who had the flashlight.
In a split second they were racing down the cellar steps, trying to hurry while not falling down. They flew out the basement door and left it standing wide open and didn't stop running until they reached the bottom of the hill. Any previous thoughts of a stealthy adventure were abandoned as blind panic gripped them and they made a huge racket as they tripped and stumbled through the crackly woods. Gasping for breath the boys finally staggered to a stop, their hearts pounding rapidly in their young chests.
"What the heck was that?"
"I don't know. It had to be a ghost."
"A ghost named Eli."
"Too bad it wasn't Casper."
"Me, too. Wow, dude. That was scary."
Back at the tree house the four of them calmed down and tried to put on a brave front.
"There has to be an explanation for that. Maybe it was the wind," said Alex.
Jeff disagreed. "That was no wind, dude. That was a ghost."
"Are there really ghosts, do you think?" asked Mark.
"I do now. Oh, no!" Alex exclaimed.
"I forgot the Ouija board."
"Well, it's too late now. That sucker's gone," Mark told him.
"No, we have to go get it. It's my sister's and it's got her name on it. If somebody finds it she will get in trouble."
"Oh no, my backpack! Dudes, I left my back pack up there," Eli said with alarm.
Mark told him, "Well, I'm not going back in that house."
"I don't want to either, but I have to. Come on; go with me, you guys."
"Maybe we should get my older brother to go with us," Alex suggested.
"Nah, he wouldn't believe us if we told him what we saw and he'll think we're a bunch of chickens. Besides, he might tell on us," Eli said.
Alex sighed and said, "I say we go back and run in and grab the stuff quick, then get the heck out of there. Okay?"
With great reluctance they finally all agreed to return, which said a lot for the depth of their friendship. This time the hike up through the woods took even longer than before. Their feet felt heavier and the trees seemed more gloomy and threatening. No one felt like joking now.
The basement door was still standing open, and after a bit of hesitation the boys went back inside and stealthily ascended to the main floor. They paused again at the top of the stairs before stepping into the parlor. The backpack and the board game were still where they had left them, but the planchette was on the floor, several feet from the table. It looked as if it had been thrown there. They gathered up their things and looked around for a minute as if expecting something to happen. When nothing did they breathed a sigh of relief and turned to leave.
Standing in the basement door, blocking their way, was the misty figure of a young boy dressed in old style clothing. He stood silently, watching them, looking at each of them in turn. He seemed to be about their age with longish hair parted in the center and there was something about his posture and his eyes that gave the impression that he was feeling cautious, maybe a little frightened.
Mark's knees felt weak and he thought he might pee in his pants.
"A-are-are you E-Eli?" he managed to stammer.
The ghost gave a slight nod.
"A-are you going to hurt us?"
The boy looked sad and vanished.
Jeff was so frightened he was nearly in tears, but when Eli said, "Let's go" he forced his legs to move and they proceeded carefully but hurriedly back down the stairs and fled once more.
No one had anything to say for a while. Instead of returning to the tree house they each went home to think about what had happened. It had been an overwhelming experience for them, but one that they could never share with their families because no one would have believed a word of it.
Eli especially knew better than to mention it to his mom or stepdad. It was the sort of thing that was sure to get him another beating. Eli had a reputation with his friends as a joker, an easy going boy with a good sense of humor. He behaved entirely differently at home. The slightest misstep could set the man off and cause him to take off his belt, so Eli usually kept out of sight and kept his mouth closed.
He was looking up ghosts on the internet and didn't hear his mom call him to supper until she knocked on his door and told him again. She sounded a bit aggravated.
"Oh, no," he thought.
His stepfather, Earl, gave him a cold glare as he sat down at the table.
"The food is getting cold. When your mother calls you I expect you to answer, you damn little idiot."
"Yes sir, sorry, sir."
"Stupid moron. We both work hard all day long while you screw around with your little friends doing nothing and you don't appreciate nothing."
"I think we need to have a little talk after supper," the man said, touching his belt buckle to indicate what he meant.
The food was flavorless in Eli's mouth, but he chewed carefully and slowly, keeping his head down as the man continued to berate him all through the meal.
Jeff was alone in his room trying to read "Ender's Game", his favorite sci-fi story, but he couldn't stop thinking about the ghost. Who was he? He didn't seem mean or dangerous. Why were they all so scared of it? Was it just because people are scared of death that they were scared of the dead too? The ghost had been trying to communicate with them. It had, and Jeff wondered if he would do it again. Could he conquer his own fear and go back in that house? His curiosity kept growing and he wondered if they could find out who the boy had been and how he had died. What did he want?
Glancing at the mirror over the dresser, Jeff saw himself lying on the bed, his dark hair and slightly pointed nose somehow gave him a slightly feminine look. While he often wished he was more handsome, he was unaware that other people found him very attractive.
'It's funny,' thought Jeff, 'Ghost Eli was actually kind of cute.'
Of course, he wouldn't tell the gang that he found a ghost to be cute, at least not a boy ghost. He had never told any of them that he was gay. They sure wouldn't want to hang out with him if they ever found out so it remained his big, terrible secret.
"King Me! What's up with you tonight, Alex? You seem distracted. That's the third dumb move you've made," his mom asked as she jumped two men.
Alex couldn't concentrate on the checkerboard because of all the other things on his mind.
"Aw, Mom. You know I'm just a dummy."
"Hush, you are not. I don't know why you keep insisting that you're not smart. You play games too well to be dumb. You beat me most of the time and your dad won't even play with us anymore because he never wins."
"I wish my teacher thought I was smart. She never gives me good grades."
"You just have poor study habits sometimes, sweetheart. Besides, if you were studying something more interesting I'll bet you would do better. You like English okay and your grades are pretty good there."
"I guess. I think I'll go to bed."
Lying in bed and staring at the ceiling Alex turned his thoughts back to the ghost. It had been real, he was sure of that, and they could see right through him. There was no one faking anything like in the movies. He remembered watching an old movie called "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" with a funny guy who shook a lot. That just turned out be some people trying to scare other people away from an old house. It wasn't really haunted at all.
But this one was. Hell House was really haunted. What if this wasn't the only ghost in there? What if the stories were true and people had been murdered in there? Would they have ghosts too, and would they be mean ones?
It was scary to think about, but the idea also awakened in Alex a curiosity to know more. He decided to try and find out something about Hell House, its history and, hopefully, who had died there. But that would have to wait until tomorrow. He turned over and snuggled into his pillow and slept.
Mark had been the most scared of the four boys. He cursed himself for being such a coward and fervently wished that he was bigger and braver. His small stature made him a natural target for the bullies at school and it was only his friendship with Alex, Eli and Jeff that kept him relatively safe there. He tried to make sure that at least one of them was nearby at all times so the bullies wouldn't try anything.
He had nearly peed his pants both times that day at Hell House. When that pointer started moving he had been certain it was Eli moving it, until it moved on its own. Then he had found himself gripped with a sense of blind terror, unable to move or think until Alex yelled for them to run and then he almost broke a boy shaped hole through the front door. The race down the cellar steps seemed to take an eternity.
He hadn't been that scared since the first grade when Charles Borgman, the fourth grader, had pushed him down, sat on his chest and pinched and hit him while calling him names. The ring of taunting children who laughed and pointed made him want to disappear and die that day. Instead he had cried and wet his pants. It was a traumatic episode that still scarred him.
Mark couldn't believe it when the others decided to return to the house. It took every bit of nerve he could muster to get his feet to walk back up that hill. Then they saw a ghost, a real ghost. There was no way he was ever going back in there again. No way. He did however spend some time on the internet that night.
Mark's tree house was a pretty nice one with four rustic walls and a roof. There was no glass in the widows but at least the roof didn't leak. Instead of a door there was an opening in the floor with a rope ladder that was attached at the base of the big oak which supported the structure. There wasn't room for much furniture, but it didn't matter. It was plenty big enough for four boys.
Mark was straightening some of the model cars and planes on one of the shelves. The models made the place look nicer and he was proud of how well they had turned out. Models were his favorite hobby. He then tidied up the comic book collection that they had all contributed to and quickly swept the place. Selecting a comic that he had not read too many times he sat down to wait for his friends, who were later than usual. He didn't know that they were busy with other things at that time.
Alex asked his mom, "How can you find out about stuff?"
"Stuff? Like what?"
"Oh, just stuff. Like, well, say you wanted to find out about stuff from the past, what would do?"
"I guess the first place I would look is on the internet."
"Would they have stuff about stuff that happened around here?"
"Maybe, but if not then there is always the library. What 'stuff' exactly are you looking for? Is it a school project?"
"Mom, school's out, in case you didn't notice."
"Oh, I noticed, Mr. Smarty Pants. If you don't want to tell me what you're up to then you don't have to."
Alex searched on the internet for any mention of Hell House. He found articles about their town but nothing that was helpful so he searched for Hill House and found only one mention of it. That article mentioned that the house was also known as the Hammond House so Alex followed the search there where he learned that it was built in 1840 and was one of the oldest remaining houses in the state. Unfortunately, it was a brief mention so it wasn't very helpful. He asked his mom if she would take him to the library.
"Of course I will, sweetie. How about if we go after lunch? I have to run some errands anyway so you can go to the grocery store with me and pick out what you want for dinner this weekend, and I could use your muscles to carry the groceries."
After wasting several minutes at the library searching the stacks, Alex finally asked the librarian for some help. She was a young woman with a friendly face and she was happy to answer his questions.
"The Hammond House? Oh yes, I love that old place. Let's see, I think we should start with some books that describe the history of our town and see if any of them mention the house. Right over here, yes, this section is where I would start. Look first in the appendix to see if Hammond House is there. You can use this table over here. Good luck."
Alex found three books that talked briefly of the Hammond family, some of the first settlers in the area. His eyes spotted something that made him tingle with goose bumps and evoked a soft 'ooooh' from him; one of the children was named Eli.
"Darn," he thought, "there isn't enough here about him. What happened to him?"
He told the librarian that his search was only partly successful.
"I wish I knew more about Eli Hammond," he told her. "I think he must have died young."
"In that case there might be something in our microfilm files. We keep old newspapers on microfilm and a few of them date back more than a hundred years."
There wasn't time that day to look through the microfilm files, he had to help his mom, but at home that evening he tried searching the internet again for Eli Hammond and this time he had more luck. A genealogical page listed an Eli Hammond being born in 1855. There was nothing about his death.
Jeff's search for answers took him in a different direction, to the local historical society. He wandered in to the small, wood frame building, a block or so from City Hall, and stood for a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light. The air smelled of musty books and oiled wood. His feet creaked on the old floor boards and caught the attention of an elderly man who was sitting at a desk in the adjoining room. The man had been nodding off in the stillness of the morning when he heard the sound of a patron and was surprised to see that it was a small boy.
"Good morning, young man. What can I help you with today? I'm afraid I'm not in the market if you're selling anything."
"Hi, I'm not selling nothing. I'm looking for some information about Hell, I mean Hill, House."
"Heh, heh, so they still call it Hell House, do they? They called it that when I was a kid, too. I guess you want to know if it's really haunted, don't you?"
"Uh, no sir. I know it's haunted. What I want to know about is who died there."
"Now, you don't really believe in ghosts, do you?"
"I didn't before yesterday. Now I do, one anyway. Do you have any books about who used to live there a long time ago?"
The old man was pleased to have such a young person interested in history. Most of the people who came in were older folks, teachers and such, but even those were rather scarce these days. It was refreshing to chat with an intelligent and curious boy for a change. He led Jeff to a corner of the room where a couple of shelves held an untidy assortment of books. Some were large and others small and some of them looked to be quite old.
Jeff asked, "Have you read all of these books?"
"Most of them, son. Most of them. I'm afraid my memory isn't what it used to be, though. Hmmm, let's see. There is one good record about the Hammond family. Let's take a look. You know, there's bound to be a lot of people who died there. People died at home in those days, young ones and old ones too. They didn't go off to hospitals to die, or nursing homes. Yes, this book lists the early members of the Hammond family. As you can see, there are a lot of them. I'm afraid it doesn't say where they died though."
"Does it say anything about Eli Hammond?"
"Yes it does, born in 1855 and, well, it doesn't say when he died. Eli Hammond, Eli Hammond, that rings a bell. Now what was it? Oh, was he the boy who disappeared? What book was it now?"
The man fingered several volumes before selecting a thin book with a tattered green cover.
"Yes, this is it; there is a reprint of an old newspaper article from back in the Civil War period. Yes, it says that fleeing Rebels, returning home after the war, attacked the town and stole food and clothes and they robbed the bank. They holed up briefly at the Hammond House. It was only the father and son living there. Three brothers were off fighting; one was killed at Vicksburg, that was Aaron. The other two returned home to find their father dead and their brother Eli missing. For some reason he disappeared and was never seen again. Some say the Rebels killed him, some say he ran off and had an accident. No one knows for sure. "
"Wow, can I borrow that book?"
"No, I'm afraid not. We only lend to members, but for a dollar I will Xerox the article for you."
"That would be great. Thanks, mister."
"I guess you must think that this Eli is haunting Hill House now?"
"Well, you be careful and stay out of that place. I don't believe in ghosts but that house has a bad reputation."
Jeff was excited by the new information and couldn't wait to share it with the other Mutilators. He called Mark when he got home and said that they should have a meeting.
All four boys had been trying to uncover more of the mystery. After Alex and Jeff shared their information, Mark said that he had learned from his grandmother that the Hammond family had a lot of financial trouble after the war. They had been the richest people in the county and then they were poor like everyone else and even had to sell their big house and move away.
"That was probably because of the bank robbery. I'll bet the Rebels got all their money," Alex said.
Eli was the last to arrive. The three other boys watched as he slowly climbed the ladder. Usually he scampered right up but when he moved carefully like this they knew it meant that he had taken another beating. They gave each other a knowing look that seemed to say, "someday we're gonna have to do something about this". They wouldn't embarrass their friend by talking about it right then.
Eli had some interesting news.
"I'm descended from the Hammonds. They were my real dad's family through his grandmother. Mom told me last night.
You know, I think we should go back up there and try to talk to the ghost."
"Are you nuts?" said Mark.
"Don't you want to know? Aren't you curious?"
Alex said, "Well, he didn't try to hurt us, and he did look real sad. Maybe we should go back."
"What if he's not the only ghost there? What if there's evil ghosts?" Mark asked.
"Well, I hope there's not, but I really want to know. Come on, I don't want to go alone. Remember, we're the Mutilators," Eli reminded them.
"Okay, I'll go, but I hope we don't end up being the Mutilated," Alex joked.
"Me too, I'll go," said Jeff.
"Aw, okay. When? Not at night time, though," said Mark, giving in.
"How about tomorrow? Can we get the Ouija board again?"
"Okay and we should all bring flashlights this time," Jeff suggested.
"Yeah, and crosses and Holy water," Mark said, seriously.
"Dude, that's for vampires, not ghosts."
"Whatever, I want to have something though."
"How about your fastest sneakers?"
"Yeah, and a dry pair of pants for when you pee in those."
The next afternoon they met back at the tree house to prepare. Each of them had a large flashlight except for Mark who had brought a battery powered camping lantern.
"It puts out a lot of light. Wait 'til you see."
Together they made their way back through the trees and up the hill. The cellar door was closed tightly, indicating that someone had been there after their last adventure in fleeing. The window was locked, too, so they went around the house looking for another entrance. The ground sloped upward as it encircled the house so the first floor windows were within reach, even for boys their size. The second one was unlocked and made a loud noise as the ancient wood frame slid upward a few inches. It was just enough for Mark to squeeze through, so the others helped him up to it.
Once inside Mark was able to push the window up a little farther and helped the others to climb inside. The first thing Mark did was to turn on his lantern. He nervously looked around. They were in what must have been a dining room. The furniture was all gone but there were built-in shelves on the wall that probably had once held dishes. Also there was an old chandelier hanging in the center of the room above where the table must have sat. Through the door he could see the small table in the room where they had seen the ghost. They all left footprints in the dust as they made their way back to that table.
Silently they set up the board, each boy shining his flashlight beam around the room, illuminating peeling wallpaper and cobwebs, looking for spooks and mostly hoping they wouldn't see any. Eli said that he and Mark should do the board. Since they had made it work before they must be the most spiritually sensitive, although Eli called it 'ghost friendly'.
"Are there any spirits here today?" asked Eli.
After a few moments the pointer began to move. It went to YES and stopped.
Everyone held their breath.
"Are you Eli?"
"What do you want, Eli?"
"Help you how, Eli?"
The pointer didn't move. They kept staring at it but it remained motionless.
"Eli, are you still there?"
Jeff said, "Uh, guys, look."
They turned and there was the same preternatural apparition that they had seen before, this time standing right behind Mark. Ghost Eli still had the same sad look on his face as before. No one spoke, they just stared unbelievingly, excitement and fear causing their hearts to pound. Three flashlights shone on the ghost and he seemed to flinch. The strong light made him harder to see so Alex said, "There's too much light for him. Let's shine our lights on the floor." It helped make him more visible.
Finally Eli said, "How can we help you?"
The dead boy raised his arm and pointed to the basement door.
"Do you want us to leave?"
The ghost shook his head slightly and continued to point to the cellar.
"You want us to go down to the cellar?" asked Alex.
The ghost began to slowly move, drifting toward the open door that led down into the darkness. Then, like before, he just vanished.
"What should we do?"
"I guess we have to go back down there. Somebody bring the Ouija board," Eli said.
Since Mark had the strongest light they let him lead the way with his bright lantern chasing away the shadows.
"I'm going to make sure this door and window are unlocked, in case we need to scram in a hurry," said Jeff. He turned the lock on the door and the latch on the window sash.
"Should we set up the board?"
"I guess so; we'll have to do it on the floor."
"Let's look around first. What's in those rooms over there?"
They walked shoulder to shoulder across the wide, dusty floor to where two rooms lay. On one the door was solidly closed while the one beside it hung only by the upper hinge. The closed door seemed to be locked so they turned their attention to the other one. Sliding it aside just enough to get by, they explored the seemingly empty room.
Whatever purpose the room once served was now forgotten. One lone electrical socket dangled from a wire in the center of the room, its broken bulb looking like an upside down tulip. The electricity had been shut off to the house for years anyway. It only took a moment to determine that there were no clues there so they tried the other door again. It was either locked or swollen shut and none of their efforts could budge it.
"Let's try the board again."
"Wait, I saw something," said Jeff, pointing at the wall.
Over by the furnace there was a flicker, then another, then the ghost was there floating a foot above the floor and looking at them. He pointed to something by the duct.
Jeff said, "Mark, go see what it is."
"You got the lantern."
Not wanting to seem like a total coward the trembling boy walked toward the ghost. A few hesitant steps later he said, "Dudes, it's a key." He pulled a long, black key from the nail it was hanging on.
"What do you think it's for?"
Alex said, "It's gotta be for this locked room. Let's see."
Sure enough, the key turned stubbornly in the old lock and they heard a click as it snapped into place. Alex turned the knob and pushed on the door. This time it opened, but the rusty hinges sounded like a cat screeching.
The four of them crowded into the now unlocked room and shone their lights all around. To their disappointment it was empty. The only thing in the room was more shelves against one of the walls. Actually, they saw that there was something else, as well. Eli was there hovering in the corner.
"What is it Eli? What do you want?"
There was no response. The ghost boy looked even sadder.
"Can't you talk?"
"He doesn't have any vocal cords or lungs. He can't talk," said Alex.
From upstairs there came the loud sound of something falling on the floor. The mighty crash echoed through the cellar and the boys grabbed their stuff and made a dash for the outside door.
They stopped once they were in the woods and Mark said, "You know, every time we go in there we wind up running back out."
"Yeah, but what made that noise?"
"There must have been somebody else upstairs."
"Or another ghost."
Back at the tree house they settled down and Jeff said, "What do you think the ghost was trying to tell us down there in that room?"
Alex said, "What if he was trying to show us where he died?"
Jeff said, "Hey, yeah. I'll bet that's it. But so what if he died in the basement?"
Alex asked "Do you think that's where he's buried?"
"Whoa. I'm not digging up some dead kid. Besides, that floor is old bricks. It would take a lot of work to get through it."
"Yeah, right. We'll have to go back and try to figure it out," said Mark.
"I thought you were scared of that place, Mark," said Jeff.
"I am, but I have to know. We can figure it out, I know we can."
"But, somebody else might be going in there too; whoever made that noise."
Eli said, "I think we should go at night. That way we can see if somebody is there because they'll have a light on. And I think we ought to have a séance and try to see if Eli can talk to us."
"I saw it in a movie. You sit around with a candle and hold hands. Then the spirit talks through one us."
"What, he goes in one of us and makes us talk? I don't know, Eli. That's weird stuff," said Alex, sounding very worried.
"Well, it'll probably be me since we have the same name and we are related."
"I don't want to go back in there right now, though. Let's wait for a couple of days, okay? I just don't want to right now," said Jeff.
"That sounds good. The weekend is coming up so why don't we say we're having a sleepover at Mark's house and Mark can say he's sleeping over at Jeff's house? Then we can slip up there as soon as it gets dark."
"The only thing wrong with that plan," Jeff said, "is where will we really spend the night? If we all show up at Mark's house when he's supposed to be staying with me, they'll know that something's up."
Alex said, "Okay, how about if we just say we want to camp out here in the tree house. It'll be a lot of fun. We can bring our sleeping bags and stuff, and if we fold up this table and the chairs we'll have plenty of room."
"Wow, great idea. I've always wanted to sleep up here anyway," said Mark.
Mark was at the mall, looking at books about ghosts in the bookstore, when someone bumped him from behind and knocked him into the magazine rack.
"Hey," he said and turned. Roscoe Slone and Tom Farley stood smirking at him.
"Watch where you're going, squirt," said Roscoe.
"Yeah dumb ass, get out of our way," sneered Tom.
They were two of the older kids who liked to bother him at school, two that he usually tried to avoid. For some reason he didn't feel quite so afraid of them at that moment. Perhaps it was because they were not nearly as scary as a ghost.
Mark was getting ready to respond with a wisecrack when a salesclerk turned and said, "There will be no trouble in this store. You two, out. I've told you before; now go before I call security."
Mark smiled as the two trouble makers slunk away.
Friday night rolled around and the boys all had permission from their parents to camp out except for Eli. He hadn't bothered to ask because he knew that his stepfather wouldn't let him do it. Earl would come home drunk anyway so when he passed out Eli figured he would just slip out of the window and try to get back in the morning before he woke up.
His mom wasn't home, and that was odd. There was no dinner on the table so Eli made a sandwich from the refrigerator. He thought about asking his stepfather where she was but figured it would just provoke Earl into another unexplainable fit of rage. Instead he went to bed early after setting his alarm for ten pm.
The house was quiet when he woke up so he eased the window open and pushed the screen off. Once outside he replaced the screen and then took off for the tree house.
Fortunately for the boys the moon was nearly full so they didn't need their flashlights until they got into the woods. There the darkness was almost as impenetrable as it would be in the cellar and even though they didn't want to draw attention to themselves they had to turn on a bit of light to keep from stumbling over branches and roots. In silent agreement they stopped before trying to enter the cellar door. They were about to do something extremely scary: go into a dark haunted house and confront a real ghost, and they were naturally frightened.
Finally Mark said, "Well, let's do this," and pushed open the window.
The room didn't look much different at night than it had in the day, only darker, but somehow the gloom seemed much heavier, denser, and they all trembled a little as they set about their task.
They went into the back room where they had last seen the dead boy. Eli still had the key in his pocket but it wasn't needed. They had left so quickly on their last visit they forgot to lock the door. Eli directed them to sit down in a circle on the floor around the Ouija board. Alex brought out a candle in a glass jar and Jeff lit it and sat it on the board. They held hands and Eli said, "We call upon the spirit Eli to come…"
"Wait, look," said Alex, pointing at the candle.
"What is it," asked Mark.
"The flame, it's moving. See, like something's blowing it."
"So, there's a breeze coming from that direction. There must be an opening behind the shelves. Let's see if we can move them."
Everyone lit his flashlight or lantern and held them near as they examined the wooden shelves more closely. They were very old and were practically falling apart, yet the wood was still quite heavy. It took all four of them tugging at the corner to shift it out a couple of feet, but that was enough to let them see the opening to a small tunnel. It was less than three feet high and about as wide and as they held the candle in front of it they saw the flame gutter and almost go out.
Mark knelt with the lantern and tried to peer inside.
"There's a bunch of rocks in there, like it caved in or something."
"Where do you think it goes?"
Alex felt very nervous." I don't think we can find out tonight, but I'll bet this is what Eli wanted us to find. That's why he kept hanging out here. Look, I don't like it here in the night time. It feels wrong. Why don't we go and come back tomorrow. Maybe we can pull some of the rocks out and see if it opens up."
Eli's stepfather, Earl, was a cruel man. Something was twisted inside him and had been since he was a boy. He had been one of those disturbed children who liked to torture small animals, he liked watching kittens drown and he loved shooting birds with his air rifle. It was fun for him to bully and beat other kids. Now that he was an adult he had to keep those sadistic desires in check so that he could hold down a job, fit into society and make himself seem to others like a normal person. Lately though he had been drinking more and doing drugs again. He was losing his grip, his control. It felt good to have a brat like Eli for a stepson, a boy he could slap around whenever the mood hit him.
Whenever the kid wasn't around he still had his wife. She didn't take a beating as easily as the kid though. She could put up more of a fight.
Lately Earl had been having memory lapses and it worried him more than a little. He had begun to think that maybe he should stop using drugs for a while, stop drinking. He couldn't remember anything about the previous day, for example.
He awoke that Saturday morning with another of those blinding headaches and shouted for his wife to bring him some coffee. There was no answer and that just made him angry so he staggered into the kitchen, but she wasn't there. "Where the hell is that lousy woman?" he thought.
It was when he was filling the coffee pot that he saw the dried blood caked under his fingernails. Snatches of memory drifted up from his subconscious, scenes of a violent and drunken rage. What had he done? The previous day was just a blur.
Earl went back to bed and didn't wake up until later that morning when he heard Eli leaving the house. The front door screen slammed and Earl thought, "That little bastard. I'll teach him to sneak out and leave me when I'm sick in bed." He crawled into his trousers and shoes and went after him. He saw Eli meet up with his friends.
Those kids were up to something, Earl just knew it. He followed them to Hell House and watched them go inside. Earl knew his way around the old place; he had smoked crack up there with his pals on several occasions. He knew how to get in through a side door on the front porch so he went that way now.
An idea was forming in his sick mind. The kid was insured for twenty grand, so if he had an accident then Earl could collect and this old, dangerous house was just the place to have an accident. Kids were always falling down stairs and breaking their necks and if he had to get rid of those other three brats, it didn't matter to him. He would take a look to see what they were doing there in the middle of the day.
Earl paused at the bottom of the wide, curving staircase that led up to the second floor and listened. There was a loud thump from overhead and he thought, 'The little pricks have done got upstairs. Good, that makes it easier. Now, let me see what they're up to.'
He made his way up the steps as silently as he could, but the old wood creaked loudly under his feet. The odd noises continued from above so he figured that the boys must be unaware of his approach. Just as he placed his foot on the top landing he saw a boy standing with his back to him.
"That you, Mark? Come here, boy. Come on over here."
The boy turned, but it wasn't Mark. Earl gasped. The boy had no eyes, just dark holes where eyes should be. His face was wrinkled and dry, like a mummy and his mouth parted into a wide, leering grin. It wasn't until he began drifting across the floor that Earl realized that the boy was floating above the carpet. Earl wanted to scream but he couldn't breathe. He felt a horrible stabbing pain in his chest as his heart seized up. The ghost boy flew at him and Earl threw up his hands in horror and stepped backward, but his foot missed the step and he fell, tumbling down the long stairs. When he landed at the bottom his neck was twisted at an odd angle and the light faded from his eyes. The sound of his falling went unheard by the kids who were making their own noise in the cellar.
The shelves tumbled forward with a loud crash that made all of them cringe. Hopefully, no one had heard the noise and the boys waited for a few moments to see if they had roused any unwanted attention. When all was quiet they set about first moving the shattered wood out of the way.
"Watch out for nails; they'll be rusty," Alex said.
Soon the old planks had been moved aside and stacked against the opposite wall in a sloppy pile. Now they could begin excavating the tunnel. The first things to come out were a bunch of old bricks. They still had a lot of crumbly mortar stuck to them. Apparently they had been holding up some rough cut stones and a lot of dirt. As they removed the rubble they began to dislodge more dirt and it worried them.
"We don't want to have another cave-in. When we get a little further maybe we can use some of those boards to hold up the ceiling."
It didn't take too long to excavate the first ten feet or so of the tunnel, but then they hit a snag. There was a large boulder now blocking their progress. It was oblong and lay diagonally across the space so that it only left a small opening under it. They wedged planks over their heads so that dirt would stop falling on them while they examined their work.
Alex said, "I can feel a breeze coming from the other side of this big rock. That must mean that the tunnel comes out somewhere."
"Shine your flashlight in there. Can you see anything?"
"There's not much stuff on the other side. I think that part didn't cave in. It's hard to tell, but I see some stuff. It looks like it's all covered in dust, though. I wish I could get through this hole."
Mark looked at it and said, "I can. I can fit through it."
"Are you sure, Mark? It looks pretty tight."
"Let me try. Look, we've come this far, we can't give up now."
Mark peered into the darkness and shoved his lantern ahead of him through the narrow opening. Then he inched his way forward with his arms in front of him, wiggling his way along until his hips stopped him. Mark was small but he had a round little bottom and now it was keeping him from proceeding.
"Hey, I'm stuck. Push me."
"I think you should come back out."
"No, I'm almost there. Just push me."
They grabbed his feet and shoved him forward just enough. Mark was able to wriggle on into the space on the other side of the boulder. There was a lot more room on that side and he sat against the wall to catch his breath.
"Mark, are you alright?"
"Yeah, I'm good. Just give me a minute."
Unfortunately, he didn't have a minute. The pressure on the large rock had been too much and squeezing past it had caused the earth above it to start to move. There was a weird, rattling sound and dust began to fall on the three boys. They all reacted at once and fled the tunnel just in time before massive piles of dirt caused the old boards to fall and fill the space they had just evacuated.
"Oh god, Mark", Alex screamed.
"What are we going to do?" cried Jeff.
"We gotta get help. Come on, let's hurry. He could be dying in there."
They were all crying and filled with dread for Mark's safety as they fled down the hill. Their goal was Mark's house where they hoped his father would be home. To their relief, he was. They stormed into the house and all tried to talk at once.
It took a minute for Mark's father to understand what they were trying to say. He dialed 911 and soon had rescue people headed to the site.
Fighting back panic, Mark's father said, "You boys come with me. Show us exactly where he is."
Eli said, "We're real sorry, Mr. Farber. We didn't mean for nothing bad to happen."
"We'll talk about it later. That house is a dangerous place. Right now we have to concentrate on finding Mark."
Mark heard the tunnel collapse and thought that his friends had been buried alive. He cried out to them until he was hoarse and then broke down and sobbed. Nothing had fallen on his side of the boulder but dust had been blown in through the hole. Finally he collected himself enough to look around him. He was trapped and really scared.
Beside him in the tunnel was a small pile of bricks and dirt. He sat and stared at it for a few minutes while he tried to think of what to do. He noticed something odd about the rubble, an odd texture. It looked like fabric. Mark touched it and it was soft. Holding the lantern closer he saw that some old cloth was sticking out from between the bricks so he moved some of them aside to see better.
"Oh no, oh no. Oh god," he whispered when he lifted a brick and saw bones. Immediately he realized that this was a dead body. Surely it was Eli's, the ghost.
"Eli. Oh, Eli. You died down here in the dark, didn't you? This is what you wanted us to find, your body. Don't worry, Eli, we'll see that you get buried in a proper grave and that people will find out what happened to you. That is, if I ever get out of this tunnel."
Mark looked at the bones, recognizing that it was a hand. Then he saw that there was something under the hand. It was a box. He didn't want to touch the bones but he really wanted to see that box so he pushed a couple more bricks aside and began trying to pull the box toward him. It was really heavy and hard to move and as it inched toward him the bones came with it. It filled him with revulsion to touch them but Mark brushed the bones from the box and dragged it to him through the dust.
With trembling hands he lifted the lid to reveal a shiny treasure, coins; mostly gold ones. Even in the darkness they reflected the lantern light and glimmered almost magically. Mark's breath caught as he stared at the treasure. They were rich.
His attention was drawn from the box and the bones by a movement off to his left. The ghost of Eli was sitting a few feet away from him, staring at him.
"Eli! Dude, you scared me. Eli, I'm sorry you died down here. Is this what you wanted us to see?"
The ghost nodded.
"You were hiding your family's treasure from the soldiers, weren't you?"
The ghost nodded again.
His heart had stopped pounding and now Mark couldn't believe he was sitting casually talking to a ghost. "What, what about the treasure, Eli? Do you want it?"
Eli shook his head and pointed to the box, then to Mark.
"Thank you, Eli. Thank you a lot. Eli, is there a way out of here?"
Eli pointed down the tunnel. He looked at Mark for a moment, almost smiling, and then flickered and vanished.
Mark crawled on down the tunnel with his lantern. About thirty feet ahead he felt a strengthening of the breeze and the air felt cooler, and more moist. The walls around him changed suddenly from brick to natural stone and the tunnel opened up some. He realized that he was in a cave. That meant that there was surely a way out, so he went back into the tunnel for the treasure box.
Because it was so heavy he had difficulty pushing it and crawling at the same time so he took off his belt and wrapped it around the box. That way he was able to drag the heavy load behind him until he once again reached the cave where he was able to stand up. The box was almost too heavy to carry but the floor sloped downward so he managed to stagger along with the weighty treasure.
The hard part was carrying both the box and the lantern. He tried putting the light on top of the box but the shadow made it impossible to see where he was putting his feet. Finally he sat down and looped his belt through the lantern handle and hung it around his neck. That way it lit his path and he could use both arms for the box. His previous panic and fear of being trapped had sapped a lot of Mark's strength and he really wanted to lie down and rest but his excitement at solving a mystery and his concern for the safety of his friends spurred him onward. As he walked he looked around. The cave was filled with deep, dark pockets of shadow that moved and shifted as his lantern passed by them. Were they branches off the main cave or just recesses? Exploration would have to wait for another day. At least the floor was fairly level and smooth so there was nothing to trip over. He remembered one day when he asked Eli what the difference was between a stalagmite and a stalactite Eli told him that stalagmite had an M in it. Mark chuckled at the memory of his friend's joke and hoped he and the others were safe.
It seemed like he had come a long way when he heard the sound of running water. His pace quickened and it was with great relief that he saw a bit of shimmering daylight ahead. The cave came to an end in a shallow pool of water but Mark could see daylight at the bottom of it just below the surface. It was his way out. He would have to wade into the cold water and crawl under the ledge to get out so he took off the lantern and left it behind and once again used his belt to tow the box behind him. Holding his breath, the boy prayed that it would not be too far and that the box of treasure wouldn't sink him. He was tired and his burden seemed to weigh more with each step he took.
A few feet later he emerged and his head popped up out of the stream and he saw that he was in Myers' Creek. Mark breathed deeply and gave a joyous shout. He was free.
Mark almost lost his footing on the rocky bottom but he clung tightly to his treasure and walked carefully across the creek. The water quickly became more shallow as he forded the stream. Once he reached the other bank he sank to his knees, exhausted and shaky. Looking back across the water he couldn't see any trace of the opening to the cave. It was no wonder no one had ever found it before, the way the bank curved down and the weeds grew so thickly.
Mark had come out on the opposite side of the hill from where his house was, but he knew the way home. He wasn't sure he could make it all the way with the gold so he reluctantly tucked the box up under a hollow log and piled dead leaves and stones on top to hide it.
Mark started to return to the old house to make sure his friends were okay but if they weren't then he would need help so he decided to go get his dad instead. His shoes squelched wetly and his jeans felt heavy as he trudged back to his house.
To his surprise, his dad wasn't home. Mark quickly changed clothes and ran almost all the way back up the hill to Hell House. The yard around the house was filled with people and trucks. There was an ambulance and a fire engine with their lights flashing. Men with tools were coming in and out of the cellar door, blocking him from entering. Mark's immediate thought was that his friends were trapped inside, that they were in serious trouble, so he started to cry.
He heard someone at the front of the house yelling for people to clear the way so he moved toward the side to see what was happening. Some men were rolling a gurney along the sidewalk and on it was a body covered with a sheet.
Mark tried to dodge past a policeman but he was stopped by the man.
"You can't go in there, son. There's been an accident."
"Who's hurt? Who is it?" he begged.
"We don't know yet, son. Now just go over there and wait. Stay out of the way."
Mark turned and shuffled across the grass. Suddenly he heard his name.
"Mark! Mark! Hey, it's Mark. He's okay, he's alive."
Jeff, Alex and Eli rushed to him and wrapped him tightly in a hug. Their faces were wet with tears as they nearly smothered him.
"Mark! My God, Mark, son. Oh, thank God you're alive," his father screamed at him. Everyone turned and stared.
As his father swept him up in his arms and sobbed a fireman came over and asked, "So this is the missing boy?"
"Yes, yes, this is my Mark."
The rescuers were sent home; the reporters took their pictures and were told that there would be statements and possibly interviews later. The police took Mark's father and the boys down to the station for a long talk. Their parents were called so they could sit in on the interviews. The only ones not there were Eli's mother and stepfather. Everyone was shocked to learn that it was Earl who had died in the house but no one was saddened by the news, especially Eli. He was only worried about his mom.
"She wasn't home last night or this morning. I don't know where she is. I'm scared that Earl might have hurt her or something," he told the policeman.
As they waited for their interviews the boys quickly conferred. They agreed that they shouldn't say anything at all about the ghost. Their story was that they were having a séance for fun and discovered the tunnel. It was the only time they had been in the house. Mark told the police that he had found some bones in the tunnel, old bones, and that he had found a way out through a cave but he wasn't certain he could find the exit again.
Convinced that the boys were not involved in Earl's death the police released them to their parents' care.
Mark's dad put his arm around Eli's shoulders and said, "You're coming home with us. We'll help you get your things from your house, but we want you to come with us until we find out where your mom is. Would you like that, Eli?"
"Oh yes! Please, yes I would, sir. Thank you, Mr. Farber," Eli gushed and hugged the man.
When they got home Mark said, "Dad, Mom, I have to talk to you. You too, Eli."
They settled down in the family room and Mark told them the entire tale. At first his parents were skeptical about the ghost, but both boys assured them that it was completely true and that they had all seen it, more than once. Mark told them about finding the body and the treasure.
"I hid it because I was afraid the police would take it away from us. I don't know what the right thing is to do but Eli, the ghost, Eli, I mean, said we could keep the money."
They talked about it some more before going off to retrieve the box. It was right where Mark hid it and he was happy to see that it was still safe. They marveled for a moment at the wealth inside; then they closed the box and took it home.
They stacked the money around on the table and found that underneath the coins was a letter. It had gotten wet in the creek and the ink had run a little but it was still legible. It was the will of the original Mr. Hammond. Looking it over carefully Mark's dad said that Mr. Hammond had left his property to his children and their children and their future descendants.
"Hey, that's you Eli. You're one of his descendants," Mark said excitedly.
His dad said, "If that's true Eli then we need to get a lawyer and figure this all out. I think we shouldn't say anything about the money until we know more. Doris, your cousin Bill is an attorney. Want to give him a call?"
"Yes, dear, but you know he's not the most honest lawyer in the phone book."
"I think, in this case, a slightly crooked lawyer might be just the thing."
"Dad, how much money do you think there is here?"
"Well, its value depends more on the age of the coins than on their face value."
"What do you mean?"
"Coin collectors, son. That gold coin says twenty dollars on it but I'll bet it's worth many thousand dollars to a collector. All of these coins are worth a fortune. We'll have to get an appraisal later when we know whose money it is."
The next morning Mark's mother said, "Mark, I was so busy yesterday with an emergency we had at work that I forgot to stop and get milk and eggs on the way home. I was going to fix omelets for breakfast. Would you mind running to the Quik-mart for me? I hate to disappoint your father."
"Sure, Mom. I'll be back in ten minutes."
Mark hopped on his bike and took off. The store was only a few blocks away and he rode quickly. When he came out of the store he saw Tom Farley standing by his bike.
"Get away from my bike, Tom."
"Or what, nerd? Gonna get your buddies to beat me up? You're not so tough without your backup, are you? I think this is my bike now."
Mark set down his bags and bunched up his fists. Enough was enough, and now he was getting angry at the constant abuse from this stupid jerk.
"Oh, gonna hit me?" sneered Tom.
Mark didn't say anything; he just socked Tom in the nose.
Tom punched him back and Mark leapt on him, knocking him to the ground. The two boys wrestled and punched each other for a couple of minutes until an adult customer came out and pulled Mark off the larger boy.
A few minutes later Mark's dad swabbed some peroxide on his young son's wounds while Mark tried to explain.
"They just won't leave me alone, Dad. I finally had enough. I wasn't going to just let him take my bike. Usually I'm too chicken to stand up to them, but I'm not scared anymore."
His dad told him, "Listen, son, it's not cowardice to avoid bullies, especially ones that are so much bigger than you. I just wish you had told me about it sooner so I could have done something. You shouldn't have had to be afraid like this."
"Yeah, Mark," said Eli, "We never thought you were a coward. Just because those guys are bigger than you doesn't make you a coward. They're the cowards because they wouldn't stand up to me and Jeff and Alex. I never told you this but we had a talk with them one day and let them know that if they didn't leave you alone we would kick their asses. Sorry Mr. Farber."
"Yeah," said Jeff, who had dropped by with Alex, "That's why they only bothered you when we weren't around."
"Thanks, guys. I was scared of them but I was more scared that you wouldn't want me for a friend if you knew what a chicken I was."
Alex said, "I think we should talk about this in the tree house. Are you feeling better now?"
"Yeah, thanks for fixing me up, Dad. We're gonna go now."
"Alright, I understand. You guys have private things to talk about and you don't need the old man around", he said with a laugh.
Back up in the tree house Alex said, "Dude, you are not a chicken. Look at how many times you went in that haunted house, especially when you knew there was a ghost in there. You were the one who crawled down that tunnel where there was a dead body and found the way out. You're one of the bravest guys I know."
"Yeah, you rock, Mark. We think you're great."
Alex said, "If anybody isn't worthy to be a Mutilator it's me. At least you're not stupid."
"Who's stupid?" asked Jeff.
"I am," Alex told him. "Look at my school grades. You guys always get what the teacher is saying and I don't. Look at how many times you have to help me with my homework. If it wasn't for you I would probably fail and have to be in fifth grade for the rest of my life."
Jeff was shaking his head in disbelief. "Dude, who was it that figured out why the ghost wanted us to go to the basement? Who was it that figured out that there was a tunnel, all because you saw the candle flame move? You're smart, real smart."
Mark said, "Yeah, Alex. I can't believe you think you're stupid. You're way smarter than me. Maybe you can't do some things because you think you can't do them. I mean, you don't have the confidence."
"I know what Mark means," Eli told him. "You get worried that you're gonna fail and so you can't concentrate on the answers. Nobody can think straight when they're scared. You don't have to worry about that with us because we know you're smart."
Alex wondered if what they were telling him was the truth. When he really thought about it he could see that in some ways that he did freeze up at test time and had terrible anxiety. Maybe if he could just relax more he could do better. Knowing that his friends didn't look down him brought him a lot of relief.
"Guys, since we're confessing to stuff, I guess I have to confess too."
They all looked at Jeff in wonder. What could the golden boy have on his mind?
"Go on, Jeff, it's alright," Eli told him.
In a broken voice Jeff managed to tell them, "I'm gay. There, I said it. I'm gay. I didn't want to be gay, but I am. Please don't hate me." He looked at his feet, unable to face his friends, and tears ran down his cheeks. They were quiet for a minute and then Mark, Alex and Eli stood and hugged him and told him not to cry.
Alex said, "I wondered sometimes. I saw the way you act around Joey Chatsworth whenever he sits at our table in the cafeteria at school. You were always really happy and kinda bubbly."
"Really?" said Mark, "I never noticed. But how do you know, Jeff? How do you know you're gay?"
"I just do. I've always known I was different. Sometimes I see a guy and I think 'he's real cute' and I think about how it would be to, well, kiss him."
"Kissing? Dude, I don't even want to kiss a girl. But, you know what, Jeff? I don't care if you're gay. You're still my friend," Mark told him.
Alex looked thoughtful and said, "You know, I have a gay uncle. We don't see him too much because he lives in New York but he's real nice. He told me one time that it was something he couldn't change, that he was born that way. We like you because of who you are, Jeff, and if you're gay then I guess we like you because you're gay. Does that make sense? It's a part of you and you wouldn't be the same without it."
Eli looked at Alex in admiration and said, "Wow, that makes a lot of sense. And I thought you were stupid, Alex. See, there's nothing dumb about you."
The next big shock for everyone was the discovery of Eli's mother's body in the trunk of their car out in the garage. She had been stabbed to death and the evidence showed that Earl had murdered her.
Eli felt numb. He thought he would be sadder, but somehow he wasn't really devastated by the news. His mom had never been a really strong or affectionate presence in his life and she had done little to protect him from Earl's wrath. He did feel sad that she had to die so young and unhappy.
A couple of weeks later the Mutilators had another meeting.
Jeff said, "The man at the historical society said that the tunnel and cave were probably part of the Underground Railroad that helped slaves to escape to the north. He said that there are a lot of caves like that in this area."
"Well, I'm glad they got Eli's bones out of there and buried with the rest of the Hammonds. It's too bad the tunnel is collapsed but they didn't have any trouble getting back in through the cave. They said that Eli's skull was cracked and that he probably died right away. I'm glad he didn't have to suffer down there in the dark. I'll bet his father told him to hide when the soldiers came and then closed the shelves back over the tunnel so they wouldn't find it. Just think, no one ever knew he was there. I really want to see that cave sometime," said Alex.
"Yeah," said Eli. "It would make a great club house, except for having to swim to get in it."
Mark turned serious and said, "Eli, I talked to Mom and Dad last night and they wanted me to ask you something. Would you consider letting them, I mean us, adopt you? You could be my brother."
Eli looked surprised and his eyes grew moist. "They would do that? Really?"
"Really. Really and truly. What do you say? Be my brother."
"Yeah, hell yeah. Thanks, brother," Eli gushed and threw his arms around Mark. Jeff and Alex joined in the group hug and they all had tears running down their cheeks.
Everything turned out well for them. Eli was shown to be the last surviving descendant of the Hammond family so the money was rightfully his and he divided it equally with his three friends, so they were all rich.
Mark and his parents continued with their plans to adopt Eli and they bought the old Hammond house. It was restored and turned into a high class bed and breakfast, something Mark's parents had always dreamed of. Now it was called the Farber House B and B. They made a success of it, even though guests now and then reported hearing odd sounds and seeing the ghost of a man lying at the foot of the stairs.
All four boys stood over the new grave of their friend. They were very pleased by what they'd had done. Eli Hammond had been laid to rest with his family and a large stone was placed on his grave that said, "Here lies Eli Hammond, a brave and generous boy".