Dani Braker stared, eyes transfixed, pupils focused on the vintage road map atop her bed. The map’s edges, once crisp as the past, were soft and smudged, reflecting the fragility of time preserved on paper; the folds ripping where arthritic cello tape had lost its grip. Dani’s fingers probed the map in the same way she picked loose threads off her school blazer. Each motion cast new shadows across the spider work of lines. A touch forward. A slide back…
As a child, Dani loved to stand on a footstool and run her finger across the fluffy layer of dust atop her grandparent’s hardwood cabinetry, plowing fresh paths known only to her. The map gave her the same feeling, a sensation of lost places and dead ends.
The whites of her eyes glowed sallow in the bedroom light. Orange often signaled death, an unhealthy addiction to Cheetos—or in Dani’s case—the overenthusiastic application of fluorescent highlighter.
“Whoa, Old School.” Bestie Autumn Sommers backstepped, donning sunglasses before venturing back into Dani’s room. “Your mom didn’t mention you were going psycho—”
Dani stuck out her tongue. Really, Autumn? Dani lay on her stomach, soccer socks up, ankles crossed. Her teeth clenched a highlighter tighter than a swashbuckler holding a dagger. Her bite was better. Orthodontically speaking. And she had all her teeth. Markers, library books and index cards bobbled on the map, defiantly drifting through the normally homework-free zone.
Autumn dropped their geometry homework on Dani’s desk and piled on the bed, sending the flotsam into freefall. “What am I looking at? Your dad’s driving when he refuses to ask for directions?”
Dani laughed. Her right foot locked onto Autumn’s. “Dead ends. Ever wanted to explore beyond the end of the road?”
“Nope. I know what’s there.”
Dani raised an eyebrow.
“Serial killers. It’s a known fact. My mom’s a realtor. Remember?” Autumn mimicked Mrs. Sommer’s perky voice. “Don’t miss this fixer-upper on a creepy cul-de-sac. The cobwebby basement is dungeon ready. The garage? Big enough to hold all your pointy objects and farm implements. There’s even a his and hers chainsaw cabinet. Best of all, the kitchen overlooks a lush backyard. Perfect for planting pansies, peonies or Aunt Petunia.”
Autumn scrunched her nose. “What are we really looking for?”
“Extra credit.” Dani took Blackbeard’s Jersey Treasure off her nightstand. “We are hunting… for the ghost guarding pirate gold. He always appears beyond the end of a road. In 1717, Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, sailed up the Delaware River to bury his loot.” She pointed to a spot on the map. “And anchored here.”
“Why Burlington City?”
“A witches coven.” Dani showed Autumn a woodcut from the book. Four women with long dark hair and even darker robes stood around a steaming caldron.
“Blackbeard should’ve made a Target run first. They need it.”
Dani side-eyed Autumn. “Blackbeard wanted a magical musket ball. Whoever died would become a ghost and guard his treasure forever.”
The next picture showed a corpse. Autumn gulped.
“A Spaniard volunteered. He chose to wander the earth rather than rot in Hell.” Dani pointed to marks on her map. “Every year his ghost appears in a different place, dragging the chest. That’s why it’s never been found.”
Dani guided Autumn’s hand along the road map as smoothly as a planchette on a Ouija board. “According to my calculations, he’ll be at 666 Burnt Mill Road near Lawnside at midnight Friday.”
Dani and Autumn stared into an inky void.
“End of the road,” Autumn announced.
Dani checked the car’s GPS. “Kill the engine and lights.”
Autumn parked beneath the only lamppost they had seen for miles. It lit the gate to a fuel tank farm. The overhead light washed the car in a pale-yellow glow that stopped well short of the unbroken wilderness on her left. They were boxed in. The only escape—behind them.
“Doesn’t the ghost only come out at midnight?” Autumn asked. “It’s 7:30 p.m.”
“Eleven p.m. curfew,” Dani answered. “Told my dad we were catching a movie.”
An “O” formed on Autumn’s lips.
“Beep the horn and flash the lights three times,” Dani said.
“Flash mob!” Autumn shrieked.
Three deer stood frozen, grass dripping from their mouths like beard hair, before bolting away. Autumn panted. “Where did they come from?”
Dani didn’t answer.
“Cool, you’re on video.” Dani’s face glimmered. “Let me add spooky music.”
Autumn grabbed Dani’s phone. “You are NOT posting that.”
“Was that the wind?” Autumn’s teeth chattered.
Dani put a finger to her lips. The girls listened and waited. Leaves rustled. Insects chirped. Frogs croaked. Hours passed. A ghost did not.
“Honk again,” Dani repeated.
Woo-hoo, the forest replied.
“Time for Plan B.”
Autumn tugged Dani’s shirt. “We are not getting out.”
Dani squirmed. “I gotta pee. And the book said walk twenty paces if the ghost doesn’t show.”
“See anything?” Autumn whispered. Dani stood along a tree line as black as the bottom of a witch’s kettle.
“Nope. Come. Hurry.”
Autumn emerged with pepper spray.
“We’re supposed to attract the ghost, not scare it away.” Dani began jumping up and down.
“Will that work?”
“No.” Bounce. “But I really…” Bounce. “…gotta go.”
Dani lumbered through the woods, snapping branches and crunching leaves. Elephants made less noise. Hoots came from above. Clicks from below.
Tap, tap, tap, tap.
Tap, tap, tap, tap.
Something was coming.
Dani started to run, but her watchband caught a prickly vine. It whipped back, just missing her face. Down she went limbo-style. “Ow!” Thorns scratched her legs and scraped her hands. Light from her phone danced across her face.
Eee-yow. A sound like a creaking door.
Dani rolled, burying the light beneath her body.
Bump, bump, bump. Her heart raced.
Tap, tap, tap, tap. Whatever was close. Dani folded into a fetal position. She closed her eyes and covered her ears.
Time passed. One eye opened. Then the other. She was alive. Her heart slowed. She uncovered her ears. The tapping was gone. She heard running water, a reminder her bladder was ready to burst. Dani turned her flashlight app on, rose slowly and walked toward the sound of water.
She reached a creek, squatted and screamed.
Glowing eyes stared at her from across the water. Big ears flapped and feet stomped. Eee-yow, the deer called before turning and disappearing into the darkness.
“Yeah, this one’s occupied,” she yelled.
Autumn watched a light bounce through the woods with more pep than the bounding ball in a sing-along-movie. Dani walked onto the road. Her jeans were dirty. Spiky seeds and leaves clung to her clothes. Autumn’s mouth opened. Dani cut her off. “Tripped.”
The girls hugged.
Autumn checked the car clock. “Time to go. Ghosted by a ghost.”
“Let’s come back tomorrow. I’ll tell my parents I’m staying with you. You say you’re staying with me. We’ll hang past midnight.”
“And afterwards?” Autumn asked.
“Walmart. Car camping in the parking lot. Three a.m. snacks!”
Headlights appeared in the rearview mirror.
“Serial killer!” Dani shouted. “Pepper spray!”
“Center console,” Autumn answered, turning the key. The engine coughed to life. Headlights popped on. Red and blue lights flashed on the other car.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Autumn said. The girls shrunk into their seats as quickly as deflating balloons.
A spotlight blasted through the windshield. Knuckles tapped the driver’s window. “Evening,” a police officer said. “Are you young ladies OK?” Autumn and Dani nodded. The officer aimed his flashlight—first at Autumn, then at Dani and finished with a sweep of the interior. “Drinking or doing drugs?” The girls shook their heads. “Don’t see any drug paraphernalia or bottles.” He sniffed. “Don’t smell anything.” He let out a loud breath. “What are you kids doing?”
“Ghost hunting?” Dani smiled sheepishly.
The officer shook his head. “Sitting in the dark is dangerous.” He tapped the car roof. “Go home and don’t come back.”
Autumn’s phone rang.
“See my watch?” Dani sounded panicked.
“Check the car.”
Autumn went outside. No watch. “We’ll search tomorrow. Maybe it came off when you fell.”
“God, I can’t lose it. My grandparents gave it to me.”
The Next Day
The woods looked different in daylight. The spacing between the trees was wide enough to drive an ATV through. The ground was flat, with a scattering of bushes, and a carpet of brown leaves.
Autumn opened the trunk. “Dad’s metal detector.” She put on her sunglasses and a Santa cap.
“What?” Autumn asked. “I want to show those deer who’s boss.”
“I don’t think they were reindeer.”
“Whatever. Where’d you go?”
Dani pointed to a shallow depression. “There, maybe?” Oaks lined both sides as neatly as utility poles. The girls followed the path. “It all looks the same,” Dani said. “I should’ve brought Schnitzel.”
“Your wiener dog?”
“He’d sniff it out.”
Autumn rolled her eyes. “The only thing he’s good at sniffing out is Vienna sausages.”
“Listen for a creek. And watch out for prickly bushes.”
“Lots of those,” Autumn said while flicking off burr seeds with her nails. The metal detector swung back and forth. Suddenly the needle spiked. “Got something.” Autumn cleared the ground with her canvas sneaker. A sweet odor filled her nostrils. She poked the pinpointer into the black compost.
Dani found a smooth chunk of wood and dug. Rusted metal rings appeared. A chain emerged, almost as dark as the dirt. “Pirate treasure?”
Autumn put the pinpointer down and helped. They dusted off the links, slowly tracing the path of the six-inch chain. One end was broken, the last loops bent and scratched as if pounded by a rock. The other end hooked onto a hinged metal ring, secured by a half moon shaped padlock, trapping a smooth brown stick.
Dani covered her mouth. “I think it’s human bone. Someone was chained up and murdered. Call 9-1-1!”
Two Weeks Later
Dani cupped Autumn’s ear. “How much trouble are we in? The police officer said never return.”
“Er… emergency,” Autumn answered.
Dani circled the conference room. Portraits of police officers grinned at her.
“What are you doing?” Autumn hissed.
“Checking whether the eyes are following us, like at the Haunted Mansion at Disney World. The cops are probably listening for a confession.”
“Confess to what? We reported a murder,” Autumn said.
Dani paced and pirouetted. “Did you tell anyone I peed in the stream? That’s public urination.”
“Gross. I didn’t overshare.”
Click. The door opened. A burly police officer entered. Two women followed. The Black woman wore lawyer’s clothes: a white silk blouse and tailored black pantsuit. The Asian woman sported a grey sweatshirt and faded jeans.
The policeman offered his hand. “Chief Daniel Cormaney.” He gestured towards the women. “Etta Stone from the Lawnside Historical Society, and Jade Chiu from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Please sit.”
The Chief opened a manila envelope. “I believe this watch belongs to you, Miss Braker.” He cleared his throat. “Crime scene investigators recovered it during the site survey. They confirmed the bone was human. We found three individuals—an adult male, an adult female and an adolescent child. The remains are not contemporary so it’s Dr. Chiu’s department.”
Chiu stared sternly at Dani and Autumn. “I understand you girls are working on a school project. This information is preliminary and confidential. The site must be preserved.” She waited until Dani and Autumn nodded. “DNA can’t identify race, but the ancestry points to West Africa.” Chiu placed pictures in front of the girls: the shackle they found, another shackle and a slave badge. “Based on DNA and these artifacts, we speculate the deceased were escaped slaves. Ms. Stone?”
Ms. Stone smiled. “Do you girls know the history of Lawnside?”
Dani and Autumn shook their heads.
“Abolitionists bought the land in 1840 to create a haven for freed and escaped slaves, as well as other Blacks. Lawnside was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. You do know about that?”
“Some,” Autumn said.
“The Underground Railroad was not a railroad, but a series of sanctuaries to help Southern slaves escape to the Northern states and Canada. The creek parallels a road to Lawnside. Dr. Chiu and I think a group was following the Railroad when some got too sick to travel. They probably stopped for a few days. Three never recovered. Sadly, we’ll never know the whole story unless we locate records. There’s no sign of foul play. They probably died from disease.”
Dr. Chiu cut in. “Bet you’re wondering why you’re here. Since you discovered the site, we’d like to express our gratitude by offering you positions as volunteer liaisons between the Penn Museum and the Historical Society. You’ll do fieldwork and file reports for the Historical Society.” The archeologist smiled. “If you do well, we’ll write college recommendations.”
Ms. Stone grinned mischievously. “We also have a special project.”
Three months later
Dani adjusted her headset. Her white polo and khakis still smelled new. “Dani / Staff Liaison” was embroidered in bright red thread on her shirt. No pin-on name tag like at the diner where she worked.
“We are stylin’, girl,” Autumn said.
The two friends stood inside a tent. Behind them, Dr. Chiu watched two graduate students working a newly gridded pit. “Nice job laying out those squares,” she said to Dani and Autumn. “Ready?”
The girls nodded and joined hands the way they did right before the first drop on the roller coaster at Morey’s Pier. They lifted the tent flap and walked out together.
“Hello, Christa McAuliffe Middle School,” Dani yelled. “I’m Dani Braker. This is Autumn Sommers. Are you ready to take the longest trip ever?”
“Yeah,” the students screamed.
“We’re going to travel 170 years back in time,” Autumn said. “You’ll see history being made. Penn archeologists are studying a gravesite. They want to know everything about the people who died here.”
Dani pulled out a set of silver shackles from her bag. The students gasped. Autumn held out her hands. Dani locked the shackles and held out her hands. Autumn mimicked Dani’s actions.
“The people you’ll learn about were slaves,” Dani continued. “We’ll be handcuffed the whole time to remind you of that—and of the great risks and courage they took to escape to freedom.”
“Green Group with Dani,” Autumn announced. “Gold Group on me.” She blew a conductor’s whistle. “All aboard the Underground Railroad.”
Parts of the story were inspired by local tales of the Atco Ghost, which appears on the website Weird NJ, among other places, and uses the alleged location and some details of the Atco Ghost as the setting for Dani and Autumn’s adventure.