sample 3, from "Danger at Donner Pass"
California Dreadfuls #2: Danger at Donner Pass, is a survival-horror story of a brother and sister stranded in the woods near Donner Lake. This chapter takes place the morning after the two kids found themselves lost in the wilderness. In a dramatic car accident, the Martin, Carrie, and their dad fell down a hillside deep in the Sierras. Their Dad was pinned under the dashboard, but Martin saw that there was another car nearby with a driver still inside. They hoped to find help there...
Carrie and I crawled out of the broken back window of the minivan. Carrie looked up, for the first time, at the hill that the car fell down the night before. She stared for a while, examining the muddy path that our car slid down. She took off her glasses, cleaned them on her shirt, and looked back up before saying, “Whoa. How did we live?”
“Look at the car,” I said. We both looked at the minivan. It was dented and scraped and broken all over. It looked nothing like the car that we left Lake Tahoe in the night before.
“Go on, guys,” Dad said from inside the car. “I’m going to try and see if I can’t get my legs out. And see if the phone is working. Don’t forget a water bottle, in case the driver of the other car needs it.”
“Got it, Dad,” Carrie said. “We’ll be right back.”
I led Carrie around the hill to see the little red Bug at the bottom of the hill. “I think you’re right,” she said.
“There does look like someone is in there!”
“Hey!” I called. “Anyone there?”
“Can you hear us?” Carrie yelled. “He’s not moving,” she said to me. “He can’t hear us.”
We walked over to the car, slowly. Water was still dripping in huge drops from the pine trees around us. The only sound was the birds and the dripping water. The driver of the other car was absolutely still, probably still sleeping. I had no idea what time it was.
We got closer and looked up the hill. There was no muddy path that it slid down, like on the hill above our car. “How did it get here?” Carrie said. “If it didn’t fall down the hill? Wouldn’t it be great if there is another road nearby?”
“Maybe it’s a camper!” I said. “He could have spent the night in his car when the rain started coming down so hard last night!”
We were getting excited and we were running faster over the rocks and branches toward the car. As we got closer, I saw that the little car was filled with flowers. Big, tall, yellow flowers like little sunflowers.
“Why do you think he has the car filled with flowers?” I said to Carrie.
We got to the car and stopped just a few feet away. “Hey,” Carrie yelled. “Hey in there, are you okay?”
“Wake up!” I yelled. “We need help! Dad is stuck in our car! We had an accident!”
We waited a second, but the man or woman or whoever that was in the car just sat there, not moving, leaning against the car door, his red hair pressed against the window. Carrie finally walked up and grabbed the door handle and pulled the door open.
We both screamed.
The man fell out of the car and onto the ground right in front of us. We looked down and saw that he was dead and had been dead for years. His face was a skeleton face—just deep, dark circles where his eyes used to be; two narrow holes where he should have a nose; a grizzled red beard circled his teeth, and another patch of hair fell off of his skull when he rested fully on the ground. His clothes were rags and we could see bones and dried, dark skin in the holes of his shirt.
The flowers in the car were weeds that had grown up through the floor of the car over the years.
I never thought that I would hear screams as loud as the ones we had made the night before as the car fell down the hill into the forest. But Carrie and I screamed and screamed, falling down backwards at the sight of the dead man on the ground. We scrambled backwards, our legs pushing us back as fast as we could go until our backs were resting against a tree trunk.
“Oh my god!” I yelled. “No! No! No!”
“How long has he been here?”
“Carrie,” I said. “He’s been here forever, and he’s never been found! No one is going to find us! No one knows where we are!”
Sample 1, from "The Ghosts of San Francisco Bay"
After about 20 minutes of walking on this new path, we start to hear something new. Off in the distance, somewhere behind the fog, I can hear the sound of crashing waves. It’s a comforting sound, too. Even though I live in San Francisco and I see the ocean every day, I don’t always hear it. I may smell it just about every day when the wind is right, and I really smell the depths of the ocean when I walk by Fishermen’s Warf, but I’m often above the ocean, with a view of buildings set against the Pacific way down below. Being so close to it and having the waves be the loudest noises around us is a very rare occurrence for me. For just a moment, I stop being worried about where this joke is taking us and I start imagining sitting above the ocean with the fog just clearing enough for a good, rich sunset.
We walk silently for a good long while, and I become aware of a cliff off to our left. The trees have cleared somewhat and I can see part of the way up a huge hill to our right. There are scattered groves of trees on it and the tall golden grass that California is known for.
Suddenly, we walk into a small patch of trees. The trees aren’t like the trees that we’ve been walking through all afternoon. Instead of tall pines and redwoods and wind-blow cypress, they’re skinny white trees that I haven’t seen before. The bark is white and papery, kind of like the eucalyptus that I’m used to seeing, but also more firm.
“What are these trees?” I say to Ji. “Something about them is totally out of place.”
“Yes,” says Ji. “I noticed that, too. I don’t think that they exactly belong on the west coast of California. At least, they’re not anywhere else where I’ve been. We’re almost where we need to be, and it’s not going to be sundown for a couple of hours. Do you mind if we rest here for a while?”
I shake my head. “No, that’s a good idea. Let’s have a drink and sit down for a few minutes. How much further is it?”
“Not much. We need to be able to see these trees from where we’re going.”
My mind is racing with a million questions, but I decide not to ask any of them. Ji is a joker when he wants to be. He hasn’t given me any sign at all that he’s joking, but I know that at any minute, he could turn around and change his whole attitude. And then, next thing you know, we’ll be at his parents’ campsite. So I don’t ask all of those burning questions that my mind is just begging to ask.
Ji pulls out a couple of canteens from his pack and we sit and look at this grove of strange, out of place trees. The one in front of me has a name carved into it: Matthew Summers. Then, I notice that another one right next to it has a name: Martha Reynolds. I point this out to Ji.
“Look at the one you’re sitting on, Martin Ramirez. And over there is Jane Robinson. I noticed that, too. I figure that one day, a class took a field trip here and they each picked their favorite tree. Carved their names.”
Then I notice something else. At the bottom of the tree that says Matthew Summer, there is something else written. I have to move some dead leaves out of the way to make out what it is. “It says, ‘1974.’ Do the others have the same thing written?”
Ji and I crawl around pushing brush out of the way with our hands and calling out what it is that we see at the bases of the trees.
“This one says 1980.”
“I’ve got a 2001.”
“Here’s the oldest one yet, 1962!”
“1959, over here! Look, they get older the deeper you go.”
We spend more time looking at the names and years than we spent resting. We are pretty deep into the grove of trees when Ji says, “Horatio James here has 1897 written on the bottom of his tree. That’s before the quake!”
We look at each other. We look past Horatio Alder’s tree and see how much deeper the grove goes. “How far back do you think it goes?” I ask.
“What do you think they mean?” Ji ask.
Suddenly, it is as if the sky gets darker, the fog gets denser, and I get the feeling that a thousand ants are crawling up my back. “Have you noticed that we haven’t heard one bird sing since we came into these trees? Not a bug or a rustle?”
“It’s like,” Ji said slowly, “a graveyard.”
I look at him and make a quick laugh, hoping he would laugh, but he is pale.
“It’s not a graveyard, Ji! People don’t get buried under trees. It’s some kind of a prank or some art project or something.”
“No, An. Maybe not graves, but markers. Like the markers on that cut redwood back on the trail. A record of something.”
“Let’s get back to our stuff!” I almost yell this. Then, as if we have planned it, we both start running through the woods. Mixed in with our footsteps, we hear our breathing, and somewhere in both of our heads, we feel like someone is chasing us. When we get to our packs, we don’t even slow down. We just reach our arms out and catch them and keep on running down the path to the other side of the woods. With that dreadful feeling of being chased still ringing in our minds.
Sample 2, from "The Ghosts of San Francisco Bay"
As we sit after eating, Ji hands me a book that has a big bookmark hanging out of it. “It’s about explorers,” he says. “There were people living here, of course, at the time that Sir Francis Drake came here in 1579. But he was the first that we know of who came by ship.”
I start reading the entry about Drake and his ship, The Golden Hind. It said that after failing in the slave trade, he became a privateer. “What’s a privateer, exactly?” I ask Ji, who I know has read the book.
“It’s a pirate, basically,” Ji says. “You can see that he went around the tip of South Africa with three ships, but only one of them made it to California. One turned back and the other disappeared.”
“Wow,” I say. “He sounds like a pretty terrible person. Slavery and piracy?”
“Yeah. He made a fortune plundering treasure from Spanish ships. And just think, that ship that disappeared was full of gold and silver, too.”
I read on a little and saw how he landed in California right around where we were camping, and claimed the land for England. Then he set off to cross the Pacific and returned all the way to England with a fortune in stolen treasure.
“That’s not all,” Ji says. “There are stories that he left some people behind here. Some people think that he was able to save some of the people and treasure from the missing ship and that the reason they landed here was not only to get more supplies, but to drop off extra crew and treasure, since they were too heavy to make it all the way across the ocean.”
“Ji,” I say. “Do you think you’ve found evidence that this is where they landed?”
“I think I’ve found more than that, An.”
Ji laughed out loud. “No, An. It’s not that. Though, I suppose that there could be some around here. And wouldn’t that be exciting?”
We don’t get that clear, red and gold sunset that I was dreaming of. Instead, in the thick of the fog, the light gets dimmer and dimmer. Sometime after the sun went down, the fog lifts into a cloudy marine layer above our heads, but the full moon shines through in an opening. We can see the white tree trunks lit by the moon to one side and the ocean illuminated on the other, far below us.
“I was out here two nights ago,” Ji says. “We aren’t too far from the campsite, you know. And I had come out to watch the sunset. I took Mom’s phone with me and promised to find my way back immediately after the sun went down over the ocean. And then, I saw it.”
Then, as if on cue, we see lights coming up coast. The lights get closer and closer and what we see is a huge sailing ship with two masts. It flew flags all over, white with a red cross on them. The top sails also had this same red cross. It didn’t make a sound and it stopped in the water just across from the Wicked Trees.
I turned to Ji. “What is it? One of those tall ships that comes to the San Francisco Bay every summer to give tourists a look at the old ships?”
“I thought that at first,” Ji whispers to me. “But watch.”
A huge rowboat loaded with people departs from the bigger ship. It makes its way silently across the water and lands. One man gets out and stands on the shore. It looks like others in the row boat are pointing guns at him. The rowboat takes off, back to the ship, and the man stands on the shore and watches as it goes.
“This is exactly what I saw the other night!” Ji says. “It’s like watching a movie over again.”
“Look, they left something else with him, too,” I say.
“Yes,” Ji says. “Look with these.”
Ji hands me some binoculars and I see that the man is standing next to a small chest of some kind and a plant growing out of a wooden crate. I turn my binoculars to the ship in the ocean and I see words painted on the sign. I read them out loud, “The Golden Hind.”
“The Golden Hind,” Ji repeats. “The name of Sir Francis Drake’s ship. But keep watching. Here comes the best part.”
The ships pulls up a huge anchor and it turns away from the coast. As it starts to leave, it fades out, becoming see-through, then it completely disappears.
I turn to Ji. “Did I just see what I think I saw?”
“I’m afraid so, An,” he says. “It’s a ghost ship. For sure.”