Outside the back door was a dead bird. It wasn’t on the ground where you’d expect a dead bird to be, but tied to the end of a branch with string. Holding the branch was the same boy who’d waved to me on the hill and at the antique shop.
“Spare a few coins to bury the bird?” he asked. “Mercy to all creatures big and small.”
“You want money to bury a bird?”
“A nickel, a dime, whatever you can spare.”
I fished through my pockets. “All I’ve got is a quarter and I don’t want to part with it.”
“For a quarter I’ll let you watch. Take you to the secret burial place. No one’s ever seen it.”
I handed over the quarter. The boy’s name was Tucker and he was a little taller than me. I followed him down a twisty path that led to the bottom of the cliff and then along the rocky shore to a cave. Inside it was dark and cold. Tucker pulled a flashlight out of his pocket and the room filled with golden light. I saw butterflies had been painted all over the cave walls. Hundreds of them.
“Wow! That’s unbelievable!”
“Cool, isn’t it?” smiled Tucker.
“Who painted them?” I walked over to get a better look.
Tucker shrugged. “They were here when I discovered this cave. I asked around but no one knew for sure. A couple of people thought it might be old man Halley.”
“Mr. Halley? The guy in the wheelchair?”
“That’s him. He’s real interested in the Second World War – all those people who got killed. He once told my grandfather that children in concentration camps drew butterflies on the walls. So I figure it’s him. Who knows?”
Tucker handed me the branch with the dead bird hanging from it and pulled a flashlight out of his pocket. “Follow me.”
I’ve always felt creeped out in dark, closed spaces but I really wanted to see this secret burial place. As we got further into the cave it got warmer and warmer…too warm. Finally, we came to a narrow corridor. I followed Tucker through it into another chamber. A nervous, sick feeling bubbled up in the pit of my stomach.
“When the tide comes in this whole cave fills with water.” Tucker’s voice bounced off the walls.
I really wish he hadn’t said that. When I was five I went to my friend, Jesse Gordan’s birthday party. His family had a swimming pool and all the kids jumped off the diving board like it was nothing. Jesse’s cousin Crystal teased me because I was afraid, so Jesse said he’d go with me. We climbed up together and edged our way along the board. When I got to the very end and looked down, I froze. Then Jesse pushed me.
I didn’t have a heart attack or die like I thought I would - just went down under the water and came right back up coughing and gasping. Somebody pulled me over to the side and said I’d better stay in the shallow end with the babies. That’s a long way of telling you why I’m afraid of water.
“How much farther?” I asked.
At the end of the dark corridor we crouched down and went through a small opening. “This is it,” said Tucker, flashing the light around the walls of a second chamber.
“How’d you ever find this place?”
“I was on the shore throwing rocks when this bird flew by and went right into the cave. When I got inside it was dead. Just like that. Then I saw three other birds lying in the mud. I figured they probably flew in and smacked into the walls.”
“So you buried them?”
Tucker looked me straight in the eyes. “Everyone deserves a decent burial.”
He handed me the flashlight and knelt near a row of rocks about five or six inches apart. Untying the bird he laid it gently on the floor then began digging a hole with his hands. He piled the sand up to one side. When the hole was pretty deep he picked up the dead bird, tilted his head upwards and closed his eyes. Was he praying? For a bird?
Suddenly I felt something swirl around my feet. “Tucker…hurry up. Water’s coming in!”
Tucker didn’t move. It was back - that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
More water came in, swishing through the opening – which was looking really small. What if we couldn’t crawl back through it? What if the chamber filled up and we drowned? That’s when the real panic hit. “Tucker!”
He looked up at me with his pale eyes. “It’ll only take a minute.”
Water was pouring in fast. I could feel my legs shaking. I had to go, now. “Stay if you want. But I’m out of here!”
I ran over to the opening and bent down low to crawl through. A rush of cold water splashed in, soaking me. I lost my balance and fell. The flashlight slipped out of my hand and washed back into the cave. No way was I going for it.
I scrambled up, quickly crawled through the opening and made my way along the dark corridor, pressing my hand against the wall to guide me. The rough stone scraped my palm but I didn’t even feel it.
The water was nearly up to my knees now. As I waded through it my legs felt like they weighed a ton. The farther I went the more the water seemed to be pulling me down. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to walk through it. Finally, I got to the end of the corridor and entered the first chamber.
Light streamed in – I’d made it!
Outside the cave I gulped the salty air. Fog had rolled in but I could see enough to make my way over the boulders and down to the beach.
I found a big rock and sat down to catch my breath. Everything was calm and quiet. I watched the water roll into the mouth of the cave - it wasn’t very high at all. I suddenly felt really stupid. The coward from the city, afraid of a little water.
A beam of light swept across the sand. A few seconds later it swept around again. Then I figured out what it was – the lighthouse beam. I never thought they came on during the day but I guess sailors can’t see in fog either. As the beam went by again my eye caught something shining near my feet. I bent down and pushed away the sand. It was a watch, one of those old-fashioned ones attached to a chain. The glass covering the face was badly cracked but I held it to my ear anyway. No ticking sound. I looked at the face again – the watch had stopped at exactly 11:11. I knew my wish probably wouldn’t come true but I closed my eyes and shouted, “I WISH I WAS BRAVE!”
The sound of oars cutting through water made me open them again. I could barely see through the fog but when I squinted I could just make out the shape of a small boat…some kind of rowboat. It pulled up to the shore and a dark figure stepped out onto the beach. Then it turned toward me. I was looking at a skeleton covered in green slime and tattered rags.
And it was looking at me!
Excerpted from The Mysterious Mummer by L.M.Falcone. Copyright © 2003 by L.M.Falcone. Excerpted by permission of Kids Can Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.