a burning meteor a heart with flower petals surrounding it

Gold Towns

Chapter Three

They didn't make much progress. Prosper, Billy, and Ruben flipped through book after book of poorly-preserved newspaper articles until the hour grew late, their eyes started to droop, and all the lights in the library flickered off.

Ruben dropped his book with a thunk on the table. "Uh oh," he said.

Prosper groaned and stood up. "The library must be closing," he said, stretching his arms over his head. "Do you think they'll let us take these out?"

Billy shook her head. "Let's just go," she said. She closed her book and got up to put it away, Ruben following suit.

Prosper watched the two of them, feeling his body ache from sitting for so long. "Yeah," he said with a sigh, "yeah. They probably won't let us. At least they'll still be here tomorrow."

"How're we gonna sleep?" Ruben asked. "You think there's gonna be a hotel here?"

"We can sleep in the car for one night," Prosper said. "I mean, it'll suck, but tomorrow we can find a hotel nearby, and then we can stay there while we investigate. For tonight… yeah, the car is fine."

Billy didn't say anything while they all walked to the door. She reached it first and pulled on the handle. It didn't open.

"Oh, great," she said. "We're locked in."

"Excuse me?" Ruben exclaimed. He joined Billy and added his strength to hers. They tugged and rattled the door, but it stayed firmly locked.

"They can't have been gone long," Prosper said. "Whoever locked it, I mean." He knocked hard on the door. "Hello? Anyone? We're, uh, still in here!"

"Didn't get any notice you were closing!" Ruben called out. "I'm pretty sure this is on you for not making that clear! Or, uh, showing up at all!"

Prosper frowned. "That's right," he said. "We haven't seen anyone else in here. Just Susannah."

Billy groaned. "This sucks!" she shouted. "I wanted to get something to eat! What are we gonna do now?"

She kicked the door, accomplishing nothing.

"I guess we're stuck here," Ruben said.

"No," Prosper said firmly. "Let's find another way out."

The library was contained to a single, large room. They tried the locked door by their seats, still locked, and found no other doors. "This is a fire hazard," Ruben said. "What are we supposed to do if the place burns down?"

"The library isn't going to burn down, Ruben," Billy said.

"I know, but what if it did? We'd be stuck in here! That's what I mean by a fire hazard!"

They walked the perimeter of the room twice and found no additional doors. The front door was still locked. No one had come for them. Prosper felt his stomach growl.

Billy slumped into a chair. "What are we gonna do?" she said, echoing her earlier statement. "Will we be stuck here all night?"

"You know," Ruben said, "are we sure Susannah ever left?"

Prosper couldn't suppress a sharp breath, but he kept his demeanor calm and shrugged. "She disappeared," he said, trying to sound casual. "It definitely looked like she left."

"But we don't know, right? I mean…" Ruben frowned. "I'm not saying she's, like, a ghost –"

"Because ghosts aren't real," Prosper said.

"Yeah, I'm just saying, whatever she is… what if she's still here? And we can ask her for help?"

"I don't think," Billy started.

Ruben turned away from her and took a few running steps into the center of the library. "Hey, Susannah!" he called. "We're stuck in the library! If you, uh, let us out, we can leave you alone!"

Prosper grit his teeth. "We don't know anything about Susannah," he said. "We don't even know if she's a real person! What if she's the one who trapped us here?"

"You might be right," said Billy. "Which is scary to think about, but… she did know something about Goldie. Probably, anyway. And there's this whole 'gold town' thing."

"It's got to be related," Prosper said. "The gold towns, Goldie, and the Golden Land she and my dad –"

"The Golden Land?"

Prosper started at the voice and whipped around to face Susannah. "What are you doing here?" he blurted out before she could say anything. The next moment, he collected himself and demanded, "What do you know about my sister?"

"I don't," Susannah said softly. "I heard about her, that's all. I'm sorry."

She looked solid. Prosper wondered if he could reach a hand out and touch her, or if he would pass right through. A hologram, he thought. Not a ghost. Never a ghost.

Ruben jogged over. "Hi!" he said brightly. "You really freaked us out, disappearing like that – how'd you do it?"

Susannah looked down, gripping the fabric of her dress. "I don't want to talk about it," she whispered.

"Okay," said Billy, standing up. "What do you want to talk about?"

Susannah shook her head. Hot anger flared in Prosper's chest. "Tell me what you know about my sister!" he shouted. "She's missing and I need to find her! You know something, right? You have to know!"

"Whoa, whoa!" Ruben moved between him and Susannah. "Calm down! She hasn't done anything bad, she just disappeared and freaked us out! You've got social anxiety, right, Susannah?"

Susannah stared at him with wide eyes. "What?"

"Yeah, I thought so."

"We don't know anything about her!" Prosper snapped. "I want to hear it from her."

Ruben scrunched up his face and opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Susannah cleared her throat. "You're right," she said. "I… I'm just scared, and I don't know much. The gold towns were really bad, when they happened. I don't want to be hurt again."

"Is someone threatening you?" Billy said. "'Cause if we're gonna be in danger, we should probably know about it."

Susannah shook her head. "Most people don't know I'm here," she said. "I, um… I don't know."

Prosper took a deep breath. "My sister," he said. "Goldie. You said you heard about her."

"Yes," Susannah said. "In the tunnels. They said someone was looking for the Golden Land, but… I don't know what that is."

"The tunnels?" Ruben said. "You mean the ones under the gas station?"

"The what?"

"Let's sit down," Billy said. "All of us. Susannah, you're gonna have to tell us everything you know about gold towns, 'cause we don't know anything, and we really need to find out."

They went back to the table they had searched through newspapers on and sat down. Prosper turned his phone's flashlight on and placed it light-up in the center. "Okay," he said. "Now we can talk."

Susannah sat. Her hands trembled. Prosper stared at her with a frown.

"Dude," Ruben said, "you're freaking her out."

"She freaks me out," Prosper said. "This whole situation freaks me out. I want answers, okay?"

"It's fine," Susannah said softly. "I don't know you, but… if you're looking for your sister, you deserve answers. I'm sorry I don't have all of them, but I'll tell you what I know."

Prosper waited for her to continue. Susannah took a deep breath.

"A long time ago," she said, "there were a lot of people looking for gold. They, um, mostly looked in rivers, I think, but some people mined? I'm not sure. I'm sorry."

"It's alright," Ruben said before Prosper could snap again. "Keep going."

Susannah nodded. "One day, while they were mining, someone found a bunch of tunnels undeground that they couldn't figure out. They brought in other miners, geologists, and a lot of other people, and no one knew where they came from, but there was a lot of gold in them. The person who discovered it wanted to keep the gold for themself, and…" She shuddered. "They were murdered."

Ruben gasped. "Is that what you meant by gold towns being dangerous?"

Billy elbowed him. "Keep talking," she said to Susannah. "How do gold towns come into this?"

"The gold towns formed where the tunnels were closest to the surface," Susannah said. "There's thirteen of them, I think, but I've only been to this one."

"We found something in the tunnels!" Ruben said. "It was this one was number six!"

Susannah recoiled. "You've been in the tunnels? Why?"

"Someone…" Billy glanced at Prosper and only continued when he nodded. "Someone knew about Goldie," she said. "Or at least, knew that Prosper had a sister. We followed him into the gas station and found some stairs leading into the tunnels. They didn't look natural, though. They had, like, walls and stuff."

"Um…" Susannah took another breath. "it's been decades. People did a lot of work in the tunnels, made them better to live in. But… you shouldn't go in them. It's really dangerous."

"They didn't look dangerous when we were down there," Prosper said. "They mostly looked empty."

"The deeper you go, the worse they get." Susannah frowned. "But this isn't what you wanted to talk about."

"It's not," said Prosper. "Tell me about Goldie."

"It's not much," Susannah said. "Some people came to the library a few weeks ago, and they were talking about… well, they called it 'business,' but I knew it was about the gold towns. I listened in. They said… one of them was looking for something, and it would be a lot easier now that Goldie had moved on. That's all I know. I'm sorry."

Susannah was right; it really wasn't much. Prosper took a breath and thought about what he had learned. Goldie had moved on. To another town? Had she given upon finding the Golden Land? What did it mean?"

"Okay," he said. "Thank you. I think that's all we need to know."

"Wait!" Ruben said loudly. "I have a question! How did you disappear like that?"

Susannah jerked her head back. "I – I shouldn't –"

"I don't really want to talk about why she disappeared," Prosper said sharply.

"Thank you, I think," said Susannah.

Ruben looked at Prosper with his brow furrowed. "I know you have problems with ghosts," he said, "and I know you say they're not real, but if they were real, that wouldn't mean your dad actually saw –"

"Don't tell me what it means," Prosper snapped. "You weren't there! You don't know if Goldie's alive or not! None of us do! If ghosts are real, it means that what my dad said might be true, and I'm not taking that chance!"

"She's not dead!"

Prosper jerked his head back to Susannah.

The girl took a deep breath and her face hardened. When she spoke again, it was with little of the nervous stuttering she had before.

"She's not dead," she repeated, "and – and it's true that I can be sure, but I think I know. If she died, she would be trapped here with everyone else, just like I am."

Ruben gasped. "So you are –"

"Yes. I'm a ghost. That's how I disappeared."

Billy put a hand on Prosper's shoulder. Prosper himself struggled to come up with a reaction. "A ghost," he said. "Ghosts are real… but Goldie is alive?"

Susannah nodded. "If she was involved in the gold towns, then I would've seen her, and I would know if she were dead. She's alive. I promise."

Silence fell over them. Prosper's eyes welled up with tears. He wiped them away, sniffed, and waited for the emotion to pass before speaking again.

"I'm sorry for yelling at you," he said.

"It's okay," said Susannah. "I – I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner…"

"It's probably good you didn't. I might've freaked out at you." Prosper smiled. "But it's fine. Don't worry about it."

Susannah managed a smile.

"This is all well and good," Billy said, "but we're still trapped in the library, and we need to find a way out, because I'm not spending the whole night in here. Susannah, do you know any way out?"

"There's a passage to the tunnels, but…" Susannah shrank in on herself, her confidence gone. "I told you, it's dangerous in the tunnels. I don't want anyone else to get hurt."

Prosper's stomach protested at the idea of going much longer without food. "I don't think we have much of a choice," he said. "Show us where it is."

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