Treasure

I wrote this short story for Lynn this Valentines day. I know that was several weeks back, but it only struck me this week to share it with you all. Enjoy!

~~~

A pox upon Saint Valentine! The holiday has caused more harm than good ever since its creation. Alas, I have no statistics to support my claim, but as the drizzly February day dawns, little doubt remains that most adults find the day as loathsome as I. 

Misery gnaws at my bones.

Melodramatic? Strewth, I have a right to be! I grit my teeth, angry at everything and nothing, but my ire soon dies away, along with the last dregs of my energy. I stumble out of bed and into the kitchen, sliding on my thick glasses, and trip over my cat. He is a large, long-haired black creature, forever underfoot. 

I fall into my antique globe, “Fustilarian!” The poor animal thinks that is his name, for all the times I call him that. 

Allow me to grant a brief linguistic explanation. I majored in Shakespeare, so disregard my ‘fies’ and ‘verilies.’ And yes, it is a viable major. What practical purpose does it serve? Besides hoping that doing so earned me the right to meet The Bard in the afterlife, I do not know what I was expecting. But for now, I write plays, half of which get rejected, and direct productions for a local community theater. 

Shunting aside a pile of melancholy Russian novels, I climb my kitchen step stool and reach for my sacred cabinet —the chocolate stash. Shuffling past chocolate bars, baking cocoa, chocolate chips, chocolate milk powder, and double chocolate chip cookies, I snatch a hot cocoa packet, and unceremoniously dump its contents into my ready cup of coffee.

I am gulping the searing liquid when I hear my video call’s distant ringtone. The sound jolts my spine like electricity. 

Only one person video calls me.

Frantically, I dash around my apartment, sloshing coffee, and stumbling over Fustilarian in the search for my blasted phone. It is not in my dress pocket from the day before, laptop bag, on the nightstand, or under my pillow. Eureka! I find it underneath a used towel and scramble to answer.

And there he is—handsomely rugged in his green camouflage uniform. The picture catches and lags, and the tumultuous background looks to be the inside of a C-130 transport plane. His unit must be heading out on a mission. 

My eyes prickle at the sight of him.

Daniel’s haggard face lights up, “Aubrey!” 

I glimpse my short brown curls in the lower-right corner of the image. Overnight, my unruly locks had approached afro heights. I smooth them hurriedly then cup the base of my phone and shout, “I thought you couldn’t call until Thursday?”

“What?” He yells back, then gestures around him, “Poor sig—al.”

I swallow and nod. “I love you,” I mouth slowly. Daniel replies with the ASL hand sign. 

“I’ve—surprise—you!” He says.

What? My heart drops to my toes, then rockets into my skull, “What?!” 

Could it be? No, it couldn’t; he isn’t due back for another month and a half. But what if…?

“No, not—at,” Daniel’s expression falls, betraying the creeping depression I suspected has been haunting him these past few weeks.

Damnation! Of course not. It had been stupid to hope.

“Clair—we plan—you’ll love—.” He grins, wanly, knowing I am only catching half his words, “Check—mail—ox.”

The connection is so terrible it’s almost worse than not seeing him at all. Bitterness swells in my throat. His original orders scheduled him back two months ago. We should be together now, safe, but his deployment was extended. 

I twist the bronze ring on my left hand, force a smile, and nod.

Daniel points off-camera, “Have—go. Email—oon?”

I nod again and hang up. I will not cry. I will not cry.

Instead, I stare numbly at the Raphaelite reproduction hanging on my wall until Fustilarian’s yowls disrupt my reverie. Yet, even as I feed him, I cannot stop thinking how seeing Daniel should make me happy. I continuously look forward to our rare phone calls, but when they do come, I am left feeling lonelier than before, more aware of how severely I miss him.

I try to shake my melancholy and recall what Daniel had said. A surprise. Check mailbox. I open my inbox on my phone, expecting a chintzy e-card or tickets to a second-rate concert, but there’s nothing from him or my sister, Claire. I had thought it had been strange, him using the ‘mailbox.’ Had he meant the literal mailbox? 

Daniel knows I love old-fashioned ways of doing things. Had Daniel handwritten me for Valentine’s? What a darling duck!

I slip on my dressing gown, scamper out my front door, and down the steps to the mail slot. Wedged in my unit’s door is a little mauve envelope, hand-delivered, not posted.

Retrieving it, I see the front bears my name in curling cursive letters I recognize as my sister’s handiwork. The inside note reads:

I’m sorry to not be with you this day.

I’m sorry we’re not yet wed,

But I hope this special journey through time

Will make you smile in my stead.

These clues set before lead through

years of memories to treasure.

But remember, life’s the journey we take,

The moments we’ve created together.

Your first clue leads to the feet of the second,

Beneath the Saint of Light,

Where ghosts of white-clad children bathe,

And good fortune leads to first sight.

The squeezing grip on my heart softens. Daniel has made me a treasure hunt —well, with enormous help from my poet sister. Together, they’ve given me a better reason to get dressed than I have had in a long time.

My heeled Oxfords resound on the pale stone floor of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, and I remove my slouch hat out of respect. On either side of me white Corinthian columns rise stories high to a pure white ceiling. Long, thin stained-glass windows depict vibrant Biblical scenes. Altogether, the hall is so lofty and holy it’s like stepping into a part of heaven. 

I wander between aisles of dark wooden pews, alone save for the lady arranging flowers at the front and a solitary man praying. I gaze ahead at the dome, ringed with cerulean windows and capped with paintings of angels under which lies the altar where my infant cousin was christened last year. Where ghosts of white-clad children bathe. 

It was then that Daniel and I first met. I grin at the thought of our families introducing us, how happy and awkward we had been when they left us alone to talk, like children who had just discovered their new best friend. We had remained there, talking in the glittering light long after the Cathedral became an empty echoing hall, where good fortune had led to first sight.

Turning aside, I face the nave, deliberating. I believe my quarry is past this next pointed arch. Yes, here she is, a stained-glass window depicting Saint Lucia holding a glowing torch. Though I am not Catholic, I have always found the patron of light both ethereal and romantic. I glance at my note: Beneath the Saint of Light.

Glancing down, I see on the ledge beneath Lucia’s feet the second purple envelope. 

Where man doth lie, and falsify

But none doth mind, truly.

Where we find glee at the question to be

‘cause its poser doth ask it unduly.

With a smile, I am off. 

At the end of ten minute car ride, I’m walking the pavement in front of Bridgton Theater. It’s an old building with crumbling mortar and time-worn posters, but its frontispiece belies the grandeur of past generations. 

The theater is built on the craft of lying, but it is for this the audience comes.

Not long after Daniel and I met, he asked me out. We were not yet intimately acquainted, but he was aware of my love of Shakespeare. It would have been a difficult detail to miss. Some women post duck-face selfies on their social media; I quote the sixteenth-century playwright. So clever Daniel bought tickets for Bridgton’s production of Hamlet, but he neglected to read the reviews. 

It was awful. 

The actors missed cues, erroneously placed the emphasis, mumbled or overdramatized their lines. The stage crew neglected props, missed scene changes, and made errors in lighting, spotlighting background characters, while Hamlet monologued in semi-darkness. It was so terrible, tragedy birthed comedy, and it was all we could do to stifle our snorts of laughter. 

We had a marvelous time.

Replaying the disaster makes me chuckle and feel warm inside, despite the winter chill whipping my woolen skirt around my legs. 

Now that I’m here, I am unsure what to do. The doors are locked, and it’s dark inside. But there is no doubt this is where the clue leads. Here we certainly found glee over the question ‘to be.’ I pace the sidewalk a few minutes, checking the window and door gaps for a glimpse of purple stationary. I must appear insane to passersby, or criminal. I return to study the front of the theater, and decide to examine the posters. It seems as though new ones are pasted right over the old, which is tacky on close inspection. I check the edges of one, two, three of them, without luck. But on the fourth, I see a separation between layers of poster and pry them apart a little. Taped between the signs is my purple note.

Where th’ King of the Iron throne did sit,

Where tales of old are sold,

Where you said yes to this dimwit,

And we rolled in pages bold.

I laugh out loud right here on the street and wonder if Daniel had imagined the sight when he contrived his joke.

Across the street, a bunch-backed toad of a man plops out of his car and waddles toward me, jangling a ring of keys, “What are you doin’, vandalizing my signs? Git!”

“There is no more faith in thee than a stewed prune!” I shout behind me merrily as I run down the street.

Three blocks to the east, sandwiched between a cafe and a stationery shop, lies my destination: a narrow bookstore. Its window displays are adorned with richly bound volumes in gilt covers: first editions, bestsellers of centuries past, and classics for all ages, seasoned with book dust and time. The doorbell ting-a-lings as I step inside, and the bookstore greets me like a cinnamon-scented friend. I have always felt there is something warm and comforting bound up in volumes of old knowledge. Around me tall shelves jumble together higglety-pigglety, and precarious stacks of tomes rise at every turn, piling to the ceiling. Where tales of old are sold.

I shake my head amiably at the disorganization. The first time Daniel and I came here the shop was hosting a book signing for a venerable sci-fi/fantasy author. Daniel was as eager as a schoolboy on Christmas to get his favorite paperback signed. But the shop was not of an adequate shape or size to accommodate the attending crowd. Chaos reigned in the cramped, sweaty space as staff members tried in vain to control and direct traffic to and from the “King of the Iron throne.” The author had been livid. After hours of listening to endless complaints, Daniel got his battered book signed with a gruff, ‘I’d hate to see how you treat books you dislike.’ 

Daniel had just laughed.

As I pass the counter, I greet the cashier, and she waves back. I am loosely familiar with all the employees now. Daniel and I had become frequent visitors, despite our first bad impression. We have spent many an hour perusing these stacks and reading scrunched together in the armchair tucked far in the back of the shop. I suspect this is where the next clue will be hidden, so I wend my way through the maze of shelves, skirting a few patrons before arriving at the dilapidated old chair and giving it a thorough search. Alack, I come up empty, except for a gum wrapper, three pennies, and flattened granola bar. 

I sit to think, but instead of contemplating where else to look, my mind wanders to the most momentous time I sat in this chair. A little over six months ago, I had just finished Tess of the D’Urbervilles and may or may not have been on the verge of tears. But Daniel, lacking perception, thought it was the perfect time to drop to one knee and propose. At first, I was so shocked, I shook my head in disbelief, which understandably upset him. He stuttered and fumbled with the ring, unsure what to do. Finally, reality dawned bright and clear, and I said yes. Yes, yes, yes! Relief swept him like a tidal wave, and he picked me up in a spin. My heels knocked over a stack of books, but we hardly noticed. We kissed then and went on kissing until a patron complained, and a staff member awkwardly asked us to stop. Where I said yes to my dimwit, and we rolled in pages bold.

I flush, reliving my embarrassment, and yet I had felt brave too. Giddy. Excited. Shocked. Shy. Elated. Terrified. A colossal mess of wonderfully confusing emotions had bubbled like a love potion in a witch’s cauldron. The happy memory fades, and the loss of his presence slaps me anew.

A mom and her son mosey around a corner toward me, and I stand, reminding myself of my purpose here. Where should I look? I check inside the copy of the book Daniel had signed, then Tess. Next, I try Middle Eastern travel guides; that’s where he is stationed. Nothing. I am about to give up and text Claire for a clue when I remember something Daniel told me last week. 

Evidently, he had considered proposing to me at a Boston Red Sox’s game, but Claire caught wind of this scheme and talked him out of it. Bless her. He was endearingly clueless sometimes. The idea of me, in my Oxford shoes, a sweater with elbow patches, and thick glasses on the kiss cam at a baseball game, is mortifying. I would have said no out of principle and had told him so over our video call. We had a good chuckle about that, though his laughter was more nervous relief than humor. 

I hurry to the sports area, a section I have never been in, and hold every Red Sox book open side down and riffle the pages, earning a dirty look from a nearby sports connoisseur. The next clue falls out of a copy chronicling the team’s history. I snatch it up.

Down with the British, we cry by moonlight,

But alas, and I had to leave you.

But hold ye tight to my promised return,

And my last clue shall not grieve you.

The only thing that will not grieve me would be if he returned now. But I remember his face as I had hoped that very thing and knew it couldn’t be, not yet. I could wait. I would have to. There had never been any question of doing otherwise. Daniel was my person.

With a melancholy air, I travel to the docks, where lines of half-frozen sightseers congregate to tour the three-masted ships in harbor. Guides in tri-cornered hats pontificate in ghastly English accents. Brass bells ring and babies wail among endless cries of ‘Down with the King!’ and ‘No taxation without representation!’ but a memory blurs the cacophony in my ears. As I lean on the cold black stanchion on the edge of the dock, I see an old sailing ship by starlight, quietly bobbing on the water. On its deck is a clothed table, lit candles, and a dinner for two. It’s quiet, save for the lapping of the waves and the murmur of the two seated closely together, their fingers entwined.

We hadn’t made it halfway through dinner before Daniel got seasick and we had to disembark. His uncle managed the museum tours and had allowed him to use the ship for a special date. Though it hadn’t turned out as planned, it was pleasant sitting on a bench in front of the tea shop, where the breeze was cool with the beginnings of autumn, smelling of cinnamon and sea. I had thought the whole thing was just Daniel being spontaneous and romantic, but as we watched the moonrise between a forest of sails, I sensed something weighing his mind.

Finally, Daniel turned to me and cupped my face in his warm hand. ‘I have to go,’ he said, ‘My division has been called up.’ My heart had cracked, a jagged black fissure, followed by fear. ‘Will it be dangerous?’ I asked. Daniel had faced the bay and nodded.

Standing here alone, I brush a stray tear from my cheek before it has a chance to freeze and swallow. I find the bench we had sat on that night and quickly scan to see if an envelope has been slipped between its slats, but it hasn’t. I proceed to look underneath but only see used gum. There is a planter right next to the bench, and I riffle through the thick evergreen branches, soon finding my purple note in a plastic baggie to keep it dry. 

The day is wearing on, no doubt,

And you must be getting on.

You’ll find your treasure trove

In the woods with Little John.

I check the clock on my phone. Sure enough, my show’s first dress rehearsal begins in less than an hour. 

 I rush into the theater with notes, script, snacks, and beverage in hand, with but a minute to spare. My preparations and eagerness to be on time purloined my attention, so it is all cues, comments, and corrections on my mind as I gather my actors in the wing. Per my instructions, the troupe had arrived early and are already fully costumed with warm voices and limber bodies. The ready appearance of my merry men and ladies fair pleases me, and I tell them so. 

Your memory does not deceive you. There are no merry men in any Shakespeare plays. Alas, the Community Theatrical Society outvoted me. Instead of Othello, I was assigned Robin Hood. It would do. I am not averse to swashbuckling vigilantes in medieval Brittany. 

I recite my notes from the last rehearsal and follow with a rousing pep talk, before dismissing them to their starting places and making for the audience.

A quiet voice behind me calls, “Miss Aubrey?”

I pivot and see Little John, a tall, gangly youth, whose costume is padded to grant the illusion of a robust physique. His expression is sheepish as he holds out a small treasure chest, and says, “From Daniel.” 

I receive the parcel and unlock the lid with the elaborate brass key that rests in its lock. The inside is filled with a heap of dark chocolate truffles. Ah, my Daniel knows me well. I do not offer any to those around me, hoarding them like a greedy dragon with her treasure. 

The players find their places and the house lights dim. I know I should orient my mind to critique the play, but I am preoccupied gormandizing my confectionery, my head filled with thoughts of the day, the past, and Daniel. Always Daniel. 

I try not to worry about him, but that is impossible. He is irrefutably in harm’s way, and the truth is, one never knows what might happen until it does, and one’s dressed in black, standing in Arlington cemetery as twenty-one cannons sound in ears too numb to hear.

My bardic narrator finishes his introduction, and the curtains rise. Robin Hood gallavants onto the stage. But he is alone. The actor glances over his shoulder, calling, “Little John!” Still there is no sign of his companion, so he idiotically jogs in place. “Oh, Little John?” 

I roll my eyes at the debacle. Can we not make it through the first scene without a missed entrance? Where can Little John have got to? I am about to speak into my headset to the stage manager when the lights turn off—all of them.

Irritated, I reprimand my light tech, “Deryl, that is not an appropriate solution to a missed entran—” I pause. 

The spotlight has come on again.

And there he is.

Standing in the brilliant beam of light, travel-worn, with hat hair and a wrinkled uniform. But it’s him.

Daniel.

I let out a strangled cry, the one I have bottled since the day he shipped out. I clamber over the backs of red velvet seats, bashing my shins. Daniel drops from the stage and takes me into his arms. I am sobbing into his neck, holding him tight. 

My Daniel. 

My treasure. 

For now, he is safe. For now, he’s with me.

A more priceless prize there never will be.

The End

~~~

** For more short stories by me, check out the following:

Tatterdemalion – https://rb.gy/cifn1r

Vapor – https://rb.gy/kza5s9

Le Fleur – Pt. 1 https://rb.gy/d2o5q5 | Pt. 2 https://rb.gy/cyc2do

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s