Every July, while the country is watching firework shows and wearing red, white, and blue, the small town of Elmwood prepares to celebrate Sprout Day — July 5th. The day in 1776 that Elmer Wood planted the symbolic seed that would sprout the town of Elmwood.
But this year, S.P.I.R.I.T. kid, Matt Romero, learned that the history of his town may not be what it seems. In fact, there may be something much darker behind it.
“It’s an honor to once again serve as the Mayor of Elmwood during this Sprout Day celebration,” said Mayor Gifford, who had to stand on a milk crate to reach the microphone. “Yesterday, we celebrated the birth of our nation. Today, we celebrate the birth of Elmwood!”
People in the crowd cheered. The high school band played the national anthem. Kids cried to be put on their dad’s shoulders. Vendors dragged around shopping carts screaming: “Popcorn! Getcha popcorn, cotton candy, and funnel cake here!” The weather was perfect. Hot and humid, but otherwise sunny and cloudless. Everyone in town was lined up on Main Street, ready to celebrate Sprout Day.
Ten-year-old Matt Romero was there, too, standing with his dad who was taking pictures with one of his fancy cameras for the town website. Matt wore his favorite blue Hammerheads baseball cap and held his trusted tape recorder in his hands. He was trying to write a story for the online version of his school newspaper, The Park Bark, which his teacher let the students update during the summer. Everyone already knew the story of the town’s founder, Elmer Wood, so he needed to find something else — and fast.
“Elmer Wood!” Mayor Gifford started after the national anthem, telling the town history like a teacher would tell a story to a class of kindergarteners. “He was on his way to Philadelphia to join his friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to be the 57th signer of the Declaration of Independence. But disaster struck! His mighty horse Peter got sick with a bad case of diaharea. Elmer was forced to camp. Days went by, and Elmer soon realized he was too late. On July 5th, while sitting on a rock in the woods, Elmer had a vision! A vision of a small, prosperous town. When Peter was better, Elmer returned home a determined man. And Elmwood, was born!”
The crowd erupted in cheers and applause. Even Matt’s dad let his camera swing to his side so he could clap.
The end of the speech marked the start of the Sprout Day parade down Main Street. Matt watched members of the Order of Wandering Salamanders smile and march by, each in their strange green and black po-ca-dot sports coats. Next came A.C.E. — the Astronomy Club of Elmwood — led by Matt’s friend Hans Smit and another kid named Amir Ali. They marched like astronauts that had just returned home from space, wearing matching blue NASA flight jackets and large fighter pilot sunglasses. They carried a banner with cutouts of stars and planets on it. They were the only members of the club, Matt knew.
“I’ve got an interview with the mayor,” bragged Kathy Cho, a reporter for the Wally Waterston Elementary School newspaper, The Wally Recorder.
“Good for you,” Matt shot back. He didn’t like Kathy. They first met at a town hall meeting — Matt’s first assignment for The Park Bark. Since then Kathy has done nothing but brag about her big stories. Matt didn’t have an interview with the Mayor. He didn’t have an interview with anyone, actually.
What am I going to write about? He wondered.
“Is your dad your photographer now?” Kathy asked, looking over at Mr. Romero hanging upside down from a garbage can to take a funny picture of Hans and Amir. Matt just shook his head.
“What do you want, Kathy?” Matt said abruptly, hoping she’d go away.
Kathy gave him a sly smirk indicating she got what she came for. “Just to wish you luck on your summer story. I hear the town is giving five thousand dollars to the school newspaper that shows the most promise this year.” Kathy waltzed away as she finished.
Matt had heard about that too. But the small staff at The Park Bark wasn’t coming up with any great articles.
“NONSENSE!” Shouted an old man in a white shirtsleeve shirt with yellow pit stains under his arms. Matt nearly jumped out of his clothes as the old man yelled from behind him. The old man had a rough-looking white stubble and a bright orange hat with the word ELMFRAUD stitched across the front.
“Get out of here!” Screamed someone from the crowd.
“Leave us alone crazy old man!” shouted another, who threw popcorn at him but missed.
“It’s all a lie! Elmer was a fraud!” The old man continued to yell.
Matt stared in disbelief. “Don’t listen to him,” his father said, walking over. “He needs some help. Hey, want a snow cone?”
Matt shook his head. “I have to go finish my article,” he said, even though he had nothing to write about.
Matt slipped away from his dad and snaked through the crowd. “Elmer was a fraud?” Matt couldn’t shake what the old man had said. The word on his hat even said ELMFRAUD. Matt wondered what the old man meant. To find out, he decided to follow him. The old man left the crowded street and headed toward Elm Park, the historic site of the Wood Family Farm and the cabin home of Elmer Wood.
This could be the story I need, Matt thought, following the old man into the park. But Matt quickly lost him. He searched everywhere, but the thick elm trees that covered the park made it difficult to see anything. He could hear the marching band coming down the parade route, and the accordions of the local polka dance troupe blared between the homes.
“WHY ARE YOU FOLLOWING ME!” the old man shouted, jumping out from behind a tree, sending Matt jumping back in terror.
Matt was stunned the old man was able to sneak up on him like that. “I…I…I wanted to learn more about what you said,” Matt said hastily.
The old man looked at him suspicious. “Why?” He asked sternly, crossing his arms.
Matt thought the old man smelt like a wet dog up close. “I’ve never heard anyone call Elmer Wood a fraud before,” Matt answered truthfully. “Why would you say that?”
The old man gave Matt a hard look. “You really want to know?”
Matt pulled out his tape recorder. “I’m a reporter for the Park Elementary Park Bark newspaper,” Matt said nervously. “I’d like to write your story.”
The old man peered strangely at the tape recorder as if it was some alien device. He then walked to a bench and sat down. Matt slowly sat on the opposite end, careful not to sit too close and get overwhelmed by the old man’s awful body odor.
“Everyone knows that Elmer Wood was a lazy doo-doo brain,” the old man said. “It was his brothers and their kids that kept this farm alive while he was off in Philadelphia NOT becoming friends with Thomas Jefferson. In fact, he was working for a British tea company. And he sided with them over the colonists!”
Matt never heard this version of the story before. “How do you know?”
“I’m a historian!” The old man exclaimed. “I used to manage the town museum until…until I learned the truth! When Elmer came back to the farm in 1773, it was because he was scared! The Boston Tea Party had just happened and the Revolution had begun. He came back here to hide. He was 70 years old, incredibly fat and lazy, and was a burden. His two brothers, Levi and Cyrus, died in an freak accident just weeks after he came home. The family thought Elmer was cursed. No one wanted him! So to stay on the family’s good side, he made up this story that he was helping the patriots. He pretended to write letters to Benjamin Franklin and others. Then, news got out that big things were happening in Philadelphia. The family was suspicious as to why Elmer wasn’t there. So he decided to go. Or so he made people believe.”
“What did he do then?” Matt asked.
The old man shrugged. “He came back a couple of weeks later. Said his horse got sick and he didn’t make it. But he was different. Not sure why, though. That’s what we need to find out! He wasn’t lazy or stupid anymore. And listen kid, I’m 82 years old. You don’t get smarter after 70! It’s usually the other way around.”
The old man then turned to look at the small wooden cabin in the middle of the park. It stood next to the largest and oldest elm tree in Elmwood. Elmer Wood lived there until he died in 1820. “He lived there all by himself,” the old man said. “Died at 117 years old. People back then barely lived half that long. Make sense of that!”
Matt stared at the small cabin too. The wood siding was peeling back. The windows were cloudy. The front door was barely six-feet tall and red — bright red.
“Maybe you can find out kid.” The old man got up, but before he walked away said, “I hope you can tell the story better than me one day.”
The old man ambled away as Matt stared at the cabin. Then Matt suddenly realized he didn’t get the old man’s name. “Wait!” But by the time he turned around the old man was gone. He’s sneaky for an old guy, Matt thought.
Matt turned his attention back to the cabin. It was weird that Elmer Wood lived so long. Is it true he was fat, lazy, and stupid? Matt wondered.
As Matt started back to the parade, he suddenly caught a glimpse of something strange in one of the cloudy cabin windows. It looked like two large green eyes were peering out at him. Matt felt a shiver down his back as he stared at the window, locking eyes with whatever it was. But then, just as quickly as the green eyes appeared, they vanished.
Matt carefully approached the window and peered inside. Nothing was there. Just old furniture. He slowly turned the knob to the red door, let it creak open, and stepped inside. It was dark. Sunlight barely poured through the cloudy windows. The cabin smelt like wet cardboard. He knew he wasn’t allowed inside the cabin unless there was a tour, but he couldn’t shake what the old man had said about Elmer Wood.
The cabin was filled with dusty furniture. There were three rooms. A main living area with a simple stone fireplace, a wooden table and bench, and a painting of some elm trees. Another room had just a small desk with a half melted candle and a quill pen resting in a holder. The last room was the bedroom, which was roped off. Visitors weren’t allowed inside, according to the cabin caretaker, Mrs. Stine. The bedroom had a short, simple bed with a yellow blanket and one pillow. A large brown rug covered most of the wooden floor. And there was a rusty old toilet bucket in the corner.
Walking through the old cabin, Matt suddenly felt very alone. The front door remained open. He could see outside and down the street to the crowd of people watching the parade. Matt kept his tape recorder on. He liked to keep it on to record whatever sounds he could. He especially enjoyed recording quiet places.
Matt slipped under the rope into Elmer Woods’ old bedroom. The furniture looked weak and cheaply built. The large, brown rug deadened his footsteps. Matt looked around until a long, loud creaking sound sent his heart jumping in his chest. It sounded like someone was walking on the wood floor. “Who’s there?” he called out. He turned around but no one was there.
A moment later, Matt heard another creaking sound echo around him. He spun in a circle to see what was coming, but nothing. This time he wondered if the sound was coming from inside the cabin — or under it.
Matt peered down at the rug. He slowly crouched, his right hand shaking holding his tape recorder. He could still hear a slight creaking sound, like it was coming from under him. And it also sounded like something was tapping. He grabbed the edge of the rug and started to lift it. He felt sweat run down his forehead. As Matt lifted the rug past his foot someone suddenly yelled into the cabin causing him to fall on his back! He heard his name being shouted from the other end of the cabin!
“Matt! Matt! You in here?”
Matt calmed down the second he recognized the voice. It was his dad, carrying two snow cones. Matt lifted himself up and immediately realized he had lost his tape recorder. He frantically started searching.
“Lose something?” His dad asked, his lips covered in blue snow cone syrup.
“My tap recorder!” Matt exclaimed. “I need it.” Matt and his dad looked all over for more than ten minutes, but couldn’t find it anywhere.
“Listen kiddo. We’ll come back tomorrow,” Matt’s dad said, with melted blue snow cone on his fingers. “Mrs. Stine will be here and she can help you look.”
Matt wanted to cry. My interview is gone! He said to himself angrily. For a second he thought about Kathy Cho smiling in delight as she interviewed Mayor Gifford.
That night Matt couldn’t sleep. He thought about what the old man had said. The green eyes in the window. The creaking floorboards of the cabin. That strange tapping sound. The next morning he scarfed down his bowl of cereal, jumped on us bike, and headed to Elm Park.
“Hi Matt!” waved his friend Agnes, who was helping her mother do some gardening on the front lawn as he sped by.
When Matt arrived at the cabin in Elm Park, he dropped his bike, and rushed to the door. It was locked! He noticed a small sign tapped to it.
“On vacation. Please come back next week.”
“No!” Matt shouted. “The door was open yesterday.”
Matt shook the handle several times but the door didn’t budge. He bowed his head in defeat and to his surprise, sitting next to his right sneaker was his tape recorder. Matt picked it up. It was a digital tape recorder and so Matt could tell how long it was on for. It turned off just after midnight, he noticed. But the battery wasn’t dead, which was strange. Why did it turn off?
Matt sat down on the same bench he shared with the old man. He plugged in his headphones and fast forwarded to the last few minutes of his recording. There was nothing but silence for several seconds. Then, he heard what sounded like a door creaking open. As he listened, his body shivered in horror. Goosebumps crawled up and down his body. He couldn’t speak. He turned around and once again glimpsed green eyes in the window. Then, like last time, they vanished.
Here’s what Matt heard. Listen closely: