Chapter Three - Ghosts and Miner Leaguers

“It’s been a week, surely they have figured out what happened to all of those dogs?” Janice Welsh whispered almost into her merlot as she cast a suspicious glance at her best friend and long-time drinking partner, Cathy Duncan. “I mean, all those dogs up and run away, only half are ever found, and nearly half of those were dead? That does not sound like a freak accident or coincidence to me.” Each word slurring into the next as she began tipping the remainder of the bottle into her still half-full glass.

Cathy cast a brief glance out of her kitchen window into her backyard to ensure her son Bradley was still playing catch with Michael, then another over Janice’s left shoulder into an empty hallway. “Bobby said they’ve been investigating some stuff down at the station, but they have no leads.” Cathy’s words were punctuated by raised eyebrows, conveying her shared suspicion.

Janice watched as Cathy rose from her stool at the kitchen island, wine glass in hand, to start the oven for dinner. The two families had had Sunday dinner together every week since Michael and Bradley met in the first grade. While Phil and Cathy’s husband, Derek, drank beers and played with tools in the garage, the boys played in the yard, and August excitedly chased the Duncan’s cat, Luna, the two women sat in the kitchen drinking wine.

“Damn thing,” Cathy sighed. She gestured to the flashing oven clock, “Everything in this house is always on the fritz.” She adjusted the time and set the temperature, and she returned to her stool and their previous conversation. “So, what do you think it was? Do you think it really was a dognapping spree, like Bobby thinks? I think the ‘low flying airplane’ theory is out at this point.”

Janice laughed nervously, her eyes stern, determined. “Michael is being so strong about it, but August is still a mess about Chase dying.” Janice covered her face and began to sob at the thought of her distraught daughter.

Cathy began soothingly, “There really isn’t anything we can do about it now, honey. And August is going to be fine, she is just a little girl. Get her something to distract her, and she’ll forget all about the dog.” She leaned forward to rub her friend’s back, then stood again and returned with a plate of cheese and crackers. As Janice smiled and helped herself, Cathy added, “See, I told you.”

Outside, Bradley and Michael were playing a halfhearted game of catch as they too attempted to reason with the odd disappearances looming over the town.

“So, I think it’s ghosts. I mean, it is the only thing that makes any sense,” Michael proclaimed as he tossed the football back to Bradley. “Why else would twenty-seven dogs all run away from home at the same time? Plus, Mrs. Phillips said that their dog started going crazy and scratching at their front door around the same time Chase ran away.” Pausing to run after a dropped ball, he shouted, “It has to all be connected!”

“You know, there were a bunch of accidents at the Quarry back in the day!” Bradley shouted back, as he too ran to retrieve a missed ball. “But, why would the ghost of a miner hate dogs?” The two boys ran back toward the center of the yard and huddled, hands on their knees, excited to scheme.

“Okay, so there is no way our parents would believe a ghost story.” Bradley observed as Michael nodded in agreement. The two were eager for any sort of mystery. “That means, whatever this is, it’s up to us to solve it. We’ve got to tell the guild tonight when we get online.”

“Smart, that way we can weigh all of the evidence.” Michael began wondering if there was anything about ghosts attacking dogs on Wikipedia. “I will search for possessed dogs - stuff like that. You could look into haunted mine shafts.” The two agreed, and excitedly ran toward the house. Bursting into the kitchen with an enthusiasm neither of their mothers were prepared for, the two boys shouted, “Call us when dinner’s ready!” and raced off toward Bradley’s room to begin researching.

***************

Later that night, stepping into his room for the first time that day, Michael cast an unconscious glance toward the worn dog-bed that lay at the foot of his own. Memories of Chase began to swell like a heavy rain cloud in his mind. Michael reminisced about how Chase’s snoring muddled the dialogue in video games and movies, distracted from homework, and helped him sleep soundly through the night.

Closing the door and crossing the room, Michael picked up a his favorite orange blanket, his large headset, and fell into the plush armchair facing his computer. Dog hair clung to the blanket, the chair, his pants, and with each fiber Michael discovered he became more determined to see this mystery through to the end.

Staring impatiently at his monitor, awaiting the video call that would, in his mind, determine Chase’s fate, Michael began organizing evidence, arguments, and theories in his mind. The water droplet sound of the call’s ringer woke him from his plotting, and soon four faces filled his screen.

On the top left was Bradley, who had initiated the call. To his right was Katie Warren, with whom Michael had been close friends since Kindergarten. On the bottom left was Shaw Coleman, the newest addition to their group, referred to as the “guild apprentice”, and on the bottom right was Michael's own face. Fixated on his own square, Michael realized for the first time that he had been crying. Red eyed and weary, blanket draped over his head, he decided to break the silence before anyone mentioned his emotional state. He cleared his throat and addressed his fellow guildsmen (and woman).

“Good evening, Miner League,” He noticed a light break in his voice, and redoubled his efforts to sound official and confident, “We are gathered here this evening, because a foul plague of misfortune has befell our fair streets.” He allowed a pause for dramatic effect, cheeriness reentering his voice and color returning to his face. “What say you, do we aid our township in solving this mystery? All those opposed, speak now.”

Shifting in his seat a little, Shaw spoke first. “I’m not so comfortable taking on such a large quest this early, I need more experience first.” Their guild revolved around the same principles that governed any fantasy guild: loyalty, experience, and adventure. Shaw had only been with the Miner League long enough to achieve the first principal. The three companions met Shaw in the school library after he had overheard them discussing their favorite online MMORPG Dungeon Keeper. After hearty discussion about the game, and since Shaw was new in town and a fan of video games, they invited him to the Miner League.

The four had since gone on a variety of low-level quests to help advance Shaw’s character level in the game, but he had much catching up to do.   

“Shaw is right, he has only been in the group for a few weeks,” Katie spoke up for the first time that evening. Being the highest level member of the Miner League, her opinion carried weight. “Maybe we should discuss what all this would involve, so we can assign tasks based on experience?” The others murmured their agreement, and with that Bradley chimed in.

“So, Michael, what do we know? What’s going on?” Being in on the original plan, Bradley was fully aware of what was happening. He just liked giving Michael a boost.

“Last Friday, twenty-seven dogs ran away from home at roughly dinner time. Six of those dogs died, and only eight of the others came home. That leaves thirteen missing dogs.” Michael slowed himself, maintaining his composure. “Since then, the police have had no luck in determining why these dogs ran away, or where they were going.” He looked to each of the members of the Miner League in turn, assuring he had their full attention.

“This mission will be our largest yet, and will involve multiple smaller quests to complete. First, we need a map of Rockville, showing the home of each of the runaway dogs and other key locations.” Michael paused to allow the group to decide who best fit this task.

“Shaw should take that one,” Katie directed, wearing a studious expression under her orange knit cap. “It would familiarize him with the town, which is valuable experience.” As the others agreed, Katie continued, “So, what could have caused all of the dogs to run away at once?” This was the million dollar question, and she was answered with blank stares from the group.

Bradley spoke up, “It could be ghosts.” As Shaw and Katie’s eyes rolled, Michael struggled to conceal a wide grin. Smiling himself, Bradley continued, “I know, I know, but hear me out. Before quarry closed down, there were all sorts of accidents. There is a very large possibility that the town is haunted as a result.”

As some dismissing chatter erupted, Michael interjected, “I agree with Brad. I think while Shaw works on the map, we should start looking into the history of the town. Maybe there is something that could prove paranormal activity.” He eagerly looked to the others for agreement. Shaw and Bradley offered theirs.

“It is definitely worth looking into, but we should weigh all the options,” Katie stated, not one for chasing ghost stories. “Dogs respond to high pitch noises and small animals all of the time.”

“Like aliens!” Shaw excitedly offered.

“Not quite what I was thinking,” Katie laughed, “I was thinking more like a store alarm or a storm in the next county.” She paused briefly, and Michael was sure she had looked toward the bottom right-hand side of her screen. “How about this, I can look into natural disturbances while Michael and Bradley look into the ghost thing?”

Grateful, Michael agreed. “Good, then we all have our tasks. We’ll meet Monday at lunch and check in.” Saying goodnight, they each signed off. First Bradley, then Shaw, and finally Katie, leaving Michael relieved, eager, and exhausted. As he climbed into bed, he could not help but still miss the snoring.