tw: mentions of murder, child death, rape, religious trauma, and light gore
It hadn't been too scary in the daytime. But Josie couldn't deny that it had sent shivers down her spine.
Tait had thrown up, so she was at least faring better than him.
"What is this place?" Josie peered into a room without a door, stunned to find beds in three neat rows.
"A residential school." Tait had spat the words like they were poison. "A torture chamber. Hell." He listed like they were adjectives of each other.
There were three rooms of beds, each room holding about thirty beds for a total of ninety. There were three classrooms set up the same way. Josie discovered a stick of chalk in a teacher's desk that crumbled when exposed to air.
With every room discovered, Tait grew angrier. He looked ready to burn the place down with just his lighter and a stick.
Finally, they found the head teacher's bedroom. Under the pillow, they found a book.
It was a mix of charter and diary, names and dates and comments about how well or how poorly they were doing. Quite a few names had the word “unsaved” next to them. It didn’t take a genius to know what that meant.
Tait touched it and began to cry.
Josie put her arm around his shoulders as he gasped for air.
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"You don't get it," he choked out. This- all of it!" He shook her off and threw the book against the wall. "My people were murdered here!" He shouted, running his hands through his hair. "Kill the Indian, save the child," he quoted mockingly. "No. Just kill them. Every day they were tortured and killed for doing nothing more than speaking their own language, for using their own names, for existing!" He screamed, and a window shattered. He sank to his knees, hands in his hair as the sun set behind the hills.
Tait saw them first.
A little girl in the doorway, dressed in a brown child's dress, her hair chopped short and tied into two braids. She stood in the doorway, watching them.
Tait looked at her and carefully stretched a hand out. "It's ok," he whispered, trying out his native Shoshoni to see if she would respond.
She didn't say anything. Just turned around and began to walk away.
"Wait!" Tait scrambled after her, Josie swiftly on his heels.
The little girl led them to the chapel. In each pew sat another child. The oldest among them couldn't have been more than fifteen.
There were at least a hundred of them, Josie figured with a quick scan as she and Tait were led to the front.
For a long moment, there was silence.
Then the little girl began to speak.
“They will die of deadly diseases, they will not be lamented or buried; they will be as dung on the surface of the ground and come to an end by sword and famine, and their carcasses will become food for the birds of the sky and for the beasts of the earth,” she recited.
Jeremiah 16:4, Josie automatically recounted in her mind.
"His body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance." A second voice, male or female, Josie couldn't tell.
“The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”
Josie's brow knit together as the spirits simply repeated the three Scriptures over and over again until a realization hit her like a truck.
"They weren't buried properly," she said aloud.
"They need us to find their bodies," Tait murmured. "To send them home."
Tait and Josie looked at each other and then at the book in Tait's hands.
It was going to be a long night.
Standing in the Mojave Desert in the middle of the night to hold a flashlight so a boy she had known for a week could start to dig up a mass grave to help lay to rest the spirits of children murdered in a residential school was not how Josie ever pictured her junior year of high school going. Yet, here she stood, watching Tait jab the shovel around.
She leaned back and popped her neck, lifting the flashlight by accident.
"Josie!" Tait grunted in frustration. "Light!"
But Josie didn't respond.
"Tait..." Josie's breath had caught in her throat. "Who is that?"
Tait popped his head up to look over the side of the hole, one hand still wrapped around the shovel. He inhaled sharply and reached out, grabbing her ankle.
Josie was too scared to even react.
The man was tall. Dirty brown hair touched his shoulders from under the brim of his equally dirty cowboy hat. The lower half of his weather beaten face was covered by a bandanna that Josie thought must have been red once. He had a musket slung over his left shoulder, and a rusted canteen on his hip. Everything about him was worn and dirty and horrifyingly familiar. He looked like every picture she had ever seen of settlers in her history book ever. In his right hand was a pristine Bible, with gilded edges, and silver letters across the front. As Josie looked at it, it began to bleed.
"Josie," Tait whispered. "Very slowly, I need you to reach into my bag and find the white sage bundle. It’s wrapped in yellow twine, you can't miss it."
"It's pitch black out here!" Josie hissed, even as she very slowly knelt down, keeping her flashlight on the man - spirit. Thing. - and began to search by touch for the requested item. Her fingers quickly found the plain sage, and, right next to it, the white sage.
"Use the lighter in your pocket and singe the edges to start burning it."
It took her four tries to light it.
"Now throw it at him."
"What?!" She whipped her head around to hiss at him and before she could register the change, the man was looming over them, his bandanna pulled down to reveal a gaping maw, his lower jaw rotting away. Josie could see maggots and black teeth. The stench made her gag and drop the sage.
Tait grabbed the bundle and hoisted himself out of the grave and thrust the still smoking herbs into the mouth. Then he grabbed Josie's hand, his bag, and started running.
They didn't stop until they were back to the abandoned residential school. Josie doubled over and choked up bile. Her thighs itched and burned from the chafe that was forming under her dress. The front of it was cold and wet from where she had fallen into a clay deposit.
"What-the-hell-was that?!" She choked out, almost falling over as she straightened up.
Tait didn't look at her and Josie saw why. The girl was back. Her braids were partially unraveled now, her clothes torn to reveal a traditional deerskin smock beneath. With her were the other children. Some of them were almost entirely re-dressed in their real clothes, their hair longer, some braided, some loose. The older ones were in a loose circle around the younger ones, still protecting them.
"We were so close," Tait promised, tears in his eyes.
Once more, Josie was reminded of how important this was to Tait. This wasn't just about helping restless spirits. This was about helping his people. Bringing them home to be properly laid to rest as they deserved, as they should have been. As the church, as her ancestors, had denied them. Had killed them.
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"He was there. The Preaching Man."
Several of them began to scream, causing Josie to clamp her hands around her ears. The screams grew louder until a clap of lightning revealed the ghosts gone. Thunder shook the building not a moment later. Josie felt a trickle of blood leak out of her ear.
"...Tait..." Josie reached out and put a hand on her friend's shoulder. "Who was that man?"
Tait didn't respond just yet, instead heading to the nearest classroom and sitting down, once more fiddling with the arrowhead from his pocket. Josie sat next to him, patiently waiting.
Finally, he looked up and rasped, "He was Manifest Destiny. The Last Prophet. The Tragedy. Every horror of the Trail of Tears and the residential schools and the smallpox blankets and the rape and the slaughter and-" he took in a shuddering breath as tears streaked down his cheeks. "He was born of all of it. Of America's expansion West. Everything they did to my people. Everything they did to each other. He is the spirit of Manifest Destiny. Not a golden being of divine command, not a benevolent explorer. He is evil."
Josie sat back in her chair as Tait broke down crying, his tears soaking into the warped and aged wood of the desk. Outside, unseen by them, stood the man.