Susannah led them to the corner of the library, where there was a section of carpet they could pull up from the floor. Underneath was a trapdoor. Prosper, Billy, and Ruben all grabbed the handle and slowly lifted it up. "Alright," Ruben said, squinting down into the hole. "A ladder, leading into darkness unknown."
"The tunnels," Susannah said. "Please be careful."
"We know," Billy said. "We will be."
Prosper frowned. "Y'know, going in there might get us lost," he said. "How are we gonna get back to the town itself? Do you know your way around down there?"
He directed the last question towards Susannah, who hesitated before answering. "A little bit," she said. "But… I normally stay in the library. I don't know how much help I can be…"
"Is there anything dangerous to you down there?" Ruben asked. "If there is, I don't wanna make you come with us, but we're gonna be super lost otherwise."
Susannah nodded, slowly. "I'll – I'll help you," she said. "You'll be in more danger if you get lost."
One by one, the three living humans and one ghost descended the ladder. Prosper turned on his phone's flashlight again and Ruben closed the trapdoor behind them. They were in a small room with rocky walls and only one exit; they walked out and found themselves in a short hallway.
Susannah looked around. "I think we should go that way," she said, pointing to the nearest end of the hall. "If we go that way, and then turn… I think there's an exit just outside town."
"Cool," said Billy. "Hopefully our car won't get towed."
"I think we'll be fine," Prosper said. "I don't think there was a time limit in the parking lot."
They walked down the tunnel and took the turn. Susannah quietly directed them to the next hall, much longer than the first, and they walked in silence for a few moments.
Ruben sneezed. "It's dusty down here," he said. "Are you sure anyone still uses these tunnels?"
"I don't know," Susannah said. "I didn't think so… but I heard those people talking, and the tunnels are important. I don't know why anyone would be in this town if not for the tunnels."
"Feels kind of like a ghost town," Billy said. "Not, like, a town with ghosts in it, though I guess that's true, but like, a town no one goes to anymore. A dying town."
Susannah nodded. "People have been leaving for years now, and no one new is moving in. There's a lot of empty houses…"
She trailed off. Prosper noticed her eyes falling on another ladder leading to a trapdoor above them.
They stopped walking. "That the way out?" Billy asked.
"No," Susannah said. "Just… I don't know where it leads."
"Why not?" Ruben said. "I mean, you're a ghost, which I guess is bad 'cause you're dead, but you can go wherever you want now, can't you? If I were a ghost, I'd explore everywhere."
Susannah flinched. "Shut it, Ruben," Billy snapped. "You're upsetting her."
"It's fine," Susannah said. "I'm just… scared. I stay in the library. There's… there's a few other people who know me there, and they know I'm a ghost, so it's safe."
"Can people hurt ghosts?" Prosper asked. "Or do you just not know, and don't want to find out?"
"Um, it's that."
"Makes sense," Ruben said. "Let's keep going."
They walked for nearly half an hour, according to Prosper's phone. Though his legs were tired and he was getting hungrier by the minute, no one complained. Even Ruben stayed quiet.
Finally, they reached a ladder Susannah identified as the way out. Prosper climbed up and pushed on the trapdoor above him. "Something's blocking it," he said. "I can move it a little, but… Ruben, you're the strongest, you try."
Ruben climbed up and pulled the door open, sending a cascade of grit and dry leaves on top of him. "Oh," Prosper said while Ruben sputtered. "You pull it. Sorry, Ruben."
Through the trapdoor, they found themselves in a wooden shack with sunlight shining through the boards. One by one, they climbed out and stood around the ladder, looking around. It was barely tall enough to stand in, and reminded Prosper of a kid's clubhouse. When he tried to open the door, it fell of its hinges and crashed to the ground.
"Okay," he said.
Billy rubbed her nose. "Let's get out of here before the whole thing comes down," she said.
Once outside, Susannah cleared her throat. "I'm going back to the library," she said. "Um, if I don't see you again…"
"You probably will," Prosper said. "I mean, just 'cause we're gonna be around here for a while."
"Just be safe," Susannah said. "I'll – I'll help any way I can, but… I'm going now."
She turned and walked back towards the town. As Prosper, Billy, and Ruben watched, her body faded and disappeared.
"Alright," Ruben said, "she's a real ghost."
"We've established that already," said Billy.
"Yeah, but… it's a lot! I mean, most people don't think ghosts are real at all! Prosper didn't!"
"Let's get food," Prosper said before Ruben could continue. "Not in this town, though. Let's get back on the highway."
"Cool," said Billy. "How long is it gonna take to get to our car?"
It took another half hour of walking in the heat. By the time they reached the parking lot, the sun was setting, and the three of them were covered in sweat. Billy groaned and slumped against the car, only to jump back up with a yelp when she felt the hot surface.
Prosper opened the door and turned the car on. "AC's working again," he said, fiddling with the controls. "I don't know what made it stop before, but at least it's working now."
The other two took their seats. "I have reception!" Ruben announced. "I'm looking up our food options right now!"
"Can you connect your GPS to the bluetooth? Or maybe move to the front? I don't want to drive with you yelling directions in the back."
After some trial and error, the GPS was connected and they were on their way. Prosper glanced in the rear view mirror at the town behind them, then focused on driving safely.
They drove a few miles down the highway before they arrived at a slightly more populated town with a diner. Prosper pulled into the parking lot and noted the other cars.. "Maybe we won't be the only ones in there," Ruben remarked as they got out.
"There were other people in Granite Village," Billy said. "I mean, only like, two, but…"
The diner had more than two people in it. The waiter led them through the bustling restaurant to their table before rushing off to greet the next guests. Prosper, Billy, and Ruben took their seats and picked up the menus.
"They have buffalo wings here!" Ruben exclaimed.
"We should talk about our next steps," Prosper said.
"We should order food," Billy said, "and forget about the gold towns for like, an hour."
Prosper's first instinct was to snap at her, but he restrained himself. Billy didn't look happy, and whatever the problem was, getting angry at her would only make it worse. He kept quiet.
None of them spoke much. Ruben read the room and refrained from more than a few comments about the menu options. Prosper kept glancing at Billy, trying to think of something to say, and quickly looking away when she noticed him. The waiter came back, they ordered their food, and sat there surrounded by the clamor of conversations around them. Finally, Prosper couldn't take it anymore.
"Billy, are you okay?" he asked.
Billy looked up. "I dunno," she said. "I just feel bad. It's probably depression."
Prosper shook his head. "It can't just be that," he said. "I… this whole trip was my idea. I took you away from your family, and –"
"It was my choice to come, Prosper," Billy said sharply. "You didn't take me away from anyone. I chose to leave. This isn't what I expected, but that's not your fault."
"It kind of feels like it is," Prosper said.
"Well, it's not. If I need to go back, I'll get you to drop me off at a bus station, but for now, I'm fine. Okay?"
Prosper's gut twisted. "Okay," he said.
Their food arrived shortly afterwards.
Midway through eating, Prosper remembered they had reception and took out his phone, searching the internet for gold towns and any other relevant terms he could think of. He didn't find anything useful. "Damn," he muttered.
"Is something wrong?" Ruben asked.
"What? No, not really." Prosper's eyes flicked to Billy, and he lowered his voice. "I'm trying to look up gold towns. I can't find anything, though."
"Huh," Ruben said. "You know search results are based off your browsing history, right?"
"What? I don't think that's relevant. It's not like it would hide all the info just because I searched… I dunno, what would I have searched to make it do that?"
"We didn't find anything at the library, either," Billy said. "They must keep it really secret."
"I guess," Prosper said. "But who's they? Who wants to keep it a secret? We know someone does, obviously, but we don't know who."
"Do you think it's just 'cause they want the gold?" Ruben said. "I mean, gold's not as valuable as it used to be, I'm pretty sure. I guess you could still get rich off of a lot of it…"
Prosper nodded. "That can't be it," he said. "There's got to be something more – but let's talk about that later."
No one around them seemed like they were listening in, but Prosper didn't want to take any chances. Ruben got the hint and focused on his food again. Billy did the same. Prosper tried to eat, but he had no appetite. It was a struggle to finish the food, and he had to force himself to take the last few bites.
By the time he was done, Billy and Ruben had already cleaned their plates. "Are you okay?" Ruben asked. "You're not really eating."
"I literally just ate all my food," Prosper said.
"Yeah, but slowly."
Prosper shook his head. "I'll be fine," he said. "I'll pay for our food. We should find a hotel."
"I'll look one up." Ruben already had his phone out and was typing rapidly with his thumbs. Prosper managed a smile. He looked to Billy, but she had her head down.
They decided to get a double room, with Prosper and Ruben sharing a bed. Ruben agreed to pay for one night with Prosper promising he would pay for all the future nights. "Unless something happens," he said. "I mean, I don't think I'll run out of money, but…"
Ruben shrugged. "I get it. I'll pay if something comes up, but be careful – you're the one paying for gas."
"The car gets…" Prosper wasn't really sure how good twenty miles a gallon was. "…okay mileage. But yeah, thanks."
They checked in and dragged their bags to their room. "These are small beds," Ruben said, dropping his stuff. "Who gets first dibs on the bathroom?"
Prosper looked at Billy, who cracked a smile. "I'll take it if you don't," she said.
"You can have it," Prosper said. "I can change out here."
"Excuse me?" said Ruben.
Prosper ignored him and took off his shirt as Billy went into the bathroom. Ruben groaned and threw himself face-down on one of the beds. "Chill," Prosper said. "It's not like you're gonna see me naked. I'll keep my shorts on."
"That's not the point," Ruben said, his voice muffled. "It feels like you're bragging."
"Bragging? About what?"
Ruben pushed himself up on his side and gestured to his own chest. When Prosper still didn't say anything, he rolled his eyes. "Like, how I gotta wear bras and shit, and you don't," he said. "You know?"
Prosper stared at him, still shirtless. "Oh," he finally said. "I, uh… sorry."
"I think we're all having bad days," Ruben said. "Like, even without ghosts and gold towns, my dysphoria's acting up. You'll put a shirt on when you sleep, right?"
"Yeah, of course."
Prosper dropped his old shirt and dug in his bag for a new one. Once he was clothed again, he sat on the bed next to Ruben, keeping some distance between them. He heard the toilet flush from the bathroom. Proper opened his mouth to say something – maybe an apology, maybe an expression of gratitude, something, anything to express how this trip made him feel.
Goldie had been missing for almost two years, and Prosper was finally taking the first steps towards finding her.
Billy came out of the bathroom dressed for bed, and Ruben got up, grabbed his clothes, and took her place. Prosper didn't say anything.
"I'm going to bed," Billy said. "You mind if I turn the lights off?"
"Maybe wait until Ruben gets out," Prosper said. "Don't want him stumbling around, y'know?"
Prosper pulled the covers down and got into bed, facing the wall. He didn't notice Ruben was done in the bathroom until the covers shifted and he got into bed beside him. "I'm hitting the lights," Billy said. "Goodnight, guys."
"Goodnight," Ruben said.
Prosper closed his eyes.
When he sat up again, it was after eight hours of drifting in and out of sleep, every motion from Ruben and every noise from Billy pulling him back into the waking world. Prosper yawned and squinted at his phone. He had dreamed he was checking the time on his phone maybe four times, with wildly different results, but he felt awake enough that he figured the time was correct.
Ruben and Billy were still asleep, or at least, didn't want to wake up. Prosper got out of bed and slipped his shoes on. Time to take advantage of the complimentary breakfast.
The milk smelled funny, so Prosper put it back and ate dry cereal in the hotel lobby while browsing his phone. No sign his dad had tried to contact him. Good, that means he hadn't discovered his new number. Prosper had worked at his job for months to buy a phone and pay for the service with his own money, keeping it a secret from his dad. He left his old phone with the family plan in his room.
No news articles, no police reports – at least, not any released to the public. But it had only been one day. Maybe, 'cause they were all adults, there wouldn't be any missing person reports?
Prosper sighed and put his phone away to stare at his cereal. He still didn't feel hungry. He ate a few more spoonfuls before giving up and dumping the rest in the trash.
It was only then that he felt in his pocket for the keycard. "Goddammit," he said. "Forgot it… damn."
Hopefully Billy and Ruben would be awake by now. Prosper headed back to the room.
Eventually, after Prosper knocked a few times, Ruben answered the door, rubbing his eyes. "Is there breakfast?" he mumbled. "Do you know how late they're serving it?"
"I didn't check. Ten, maybe?"
"Cool," Ruben said. "I'm gonna get dressed."
Billy was still lying in bed, though not asleep – Prosper could see the light from her phone as she browsed social media. He figured she didn't want to talk, so he took out his own phone again while Ruben got changed in the bathroom.
She sat up when Ruben emerged dressed to go out. "We should leave," she said. "We're going back to Granite Village, right?"
Prosper hesitated. "Well, yeah," he said. "I mean… I don't know what else we can do."
"It's fine, dude," Ruben said. "I think we're both feeling better than yesterday." He glanced back at Billy, and when she nodded, he continued. "You wanna stop at the library, first? Talk to Susannah?"
"We can do that first, yeah. She can probably help us figure out where to go next."
"Can she?" Billy said. "She's just a kid."
"A ghost kid," Ruben added.
"Yeah, sure, she's been around longer than any of us have, but she's still a kid." Billy frowned. "And she's really scared, probably because this stuff killed her."
Prosper's breath caught in his throat. "We don't know what killed her," he said, but there was no conviction behind his words, and he knew Billy could tell.
"We don't know," she said, "but Susannah said that if Goldie was dead, she would be trapped there, too. That makes me think the way Susannah died, it had something to do with the gold towns."
Prosper sighed. "You're probably right," he said. "But she's the only one who knows the tunnels, even if it's just a little bit. If we're going to find Goldie, we need her help. Just… it doesn't have to be right away."
"I get it," said Ruben. "We can just talk to her for now. Like, be friendly, y'know?"
"Yeah," Prosper said, "yeah."
They packed up the little they took out of their bags and went downstairs, where they checked out without issue. Prosper scrolled through a list on his phone of other nearby hotels, of which there were few. They'd probably return to the same one that night.
After Billy and Ruben ate, the three piled their things and themselves in the car. "So we're going?" Ruben said.
Prosper sat there staring at the keys in his hand for a few moments, long enough for Billy to nudge him from the passenger's seat. "Dude," she said, "are you alright?"
"Yeah!" Prosper said, trying to force a cheeriness into his voice. "Yeah. Let's go."