The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

X Marks the Spot

Brendan had to do a report—a stupid, boring report—on Our Town’s Local History. At the public library, the librarian helped him find the numbers for two books that might help. Up some stairs, past some sleeping people, to a distant line of shelves where he was perfectly alone, Brendan found them.

One book was depressingly thick with tiny print and no pictures; the other was a pamphlet, with washed-out color photos, called “Richfield: A SPACE AGE Town!” Pretty sure he was doomed, he pulled them out anyway.

In the empty space behind those books, lying on its side, was another book, a much older book, bound in soft, peeling leather, with gilt letters on the spine: The Lost Treasure of Richfield. 

Now that was more like it.

treasuremapAs he tucked this third book under his arm, he saw something was sticking out of the back. Yeah: stitched in after the last page was a folded—well, it was too soft and thick for paper, maybe like deerskin?

It was a map: hills, creeks, rivers. At the top it said “The Treasure Route followed by Hill & Monk in 1803.” And near the center was a big, circled X.

Which, obviously, marks the spot.

But before Brendan noticed any of that, he saw that someone had scrawled in giant letters across the map. DON’T GO, it said, in some kind of reddish-brown ink.

If a treasure map says DON’T GO in giant letters . . . well, you either really shouldn’t go, or you really kind of have to.

Brendan snapped the book shut and ran down the stairs.

As she was checking him out, the librarian gave him an odd look. “Thought you were just getting two books,” she said.

“I found this other one,” he said. “Might be something good in it.” Acting casual. Not that there’s a treasure map or anything.

“You probably know this, since you’re writing a report,” said the librarian, her eyes on the books as she scanned them. “But Hill and Monk didn’t come here to found a town. They came here looking for treasure.”

“Oh yeah, I think our teacher said,” said Brendan, trying to sound bored.

“And they never found it. That’s the thing.” The librarian handed Brendan his stack of books. “In fact, what actually happened . . .” She frowned. “Wait, what’s this in the back—?“

“Sorry, gotta go,” said Brendan, twisting quickly away, books under his arm. His decision was made now: you kinda have to go.

So after dinner, he filled a backpack with expedition gear: compass, flashlight, trowel from his mom’s gardening box. He printed out a Google map of Richfield and laid it over the old map, using the river on both maps as a guide.

Finally he made a careful X on the street map with a fluorescent green marker. The X was maybe three miles from his house, at the edge of some kind of green space where there weren’t a lot of streets.

“What are you doing?”

Maika, leaning against the door. A year younger: smart, athletic, and nosy. A pain.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

But she was already inside. “This map is like a million years old.”

“It’s just for a stupid history report,” he said, trying to pull the book from her hands. But it was too late.

“Lost treasure?” She leaned over, looking at the X-marked Google map. “You’re going treasure hunting. Did you pack food?” She stuck her face in his backpack. Maika ran track and was always thinking about food.

“You’re not invited,” said Brendan.

“Oh, come ON, though!”

“Nope,” he said. “And do NOT follow me.”

At first it almost felt like Maika knowing spoiled it, somehow. But in the warm early evening, riding his bike past a neighbor’s yard that smelled like roses, he started feeling better. Idly, only sort-of-kind-of half-believing, he pictured a pile of gold and silver, cups and candlesticks and jewelry that would shine even in the dark. Draped around the gold stuff would be strings of pearls and diamonds, and tucked in the cracks would be big rubies and emeralds and also the blue kind, whatever those were they called.

A half hour later, Brendan stopped his bike and leaned on one foot, a little uncertain. The map had led him to a neighborhood under construction—though it looked like whoever was building this neighborhood had given up halfway through. All the houses were half-built, roofless and sometimes wall-less, and the bare wood was weathered by rain and sun.

The X was on a creek, and he didn’t see a creek. But the map and the compass said this house was it.

It was the largest of all the houses, and even had part of a roof, which had mostly collapsed. Crows sat in the empty windows, watching the sun sink away.

A little nervous now, Brendan locked his bike and went inside. His sneakers made no sound on the bare concrete; he could hear a crow ruffle its wings and re-settle. Following his plan, he was looking for a basement door—because treasure has to be buried, right? —and he found one.

The basement echoed with dripping water. Bad pipes? In the muggy blackness, Brendan switched on his flashlight to look for the source of the sound.

And he found it. One cement wall was cracked open, chunks of concrete spilled around it. On the other side of the crack was some sort of long cavern. The sound of bubbling water was an underground stream.

Brendan slipped through the crack in the wall, letting the flashlight lead him down a stony path beside the stream. For a while there was no sound except the burbling water and his own breathing. The air smelled of slime and rotting things.

A rock shifted under his left foot, and he stumbled.

“Beware,” said the rock in a low voice.

Brendan stopped. Had he heard something? He ran his flashlight along the ground. Nothing but river rocks.

“Go back,” whispered another rock. “I tried to go back, too late, too late.”

If Brendan had heard this—if it had sounded like anything but hiss of the bubbling water—he might have been unnerved enough to stop his treasure hunt; he might have run back to his bike and ridden home as fast as he could. But he didn’t hear, because his flashlight had caught something else, something just ahead of him, across a sharp bend in the creek.

Something that shone with gold and silver and every jewel color in the world.

“No,” whispered a third stone, its voice was half-erased by the eager crunch of Brendan’s shoes on pebbles. “Whatever you do, don’t step into the—“

Brendan stepped into the stream. It was cool and slimy and came up to his ankles. He took another step, and another. Now he was only a yard from a great wooden chest, a chest so full of treasure that golden plates and carved silver spilled out onto the ground. Strings of marble-sized jewels made little waterfalls of color.

It was almost his now, all of it. Unbelievable, that a treasure hunt he started mostly to avoid working on his report had brought him to the treasure chest of a cartoon dream. He tried to lift his foot to take that last step.

But somehow his feet would not move. He pulled again. He pulled a third time. Neither of his feet would move.

The backpack slipped off his shoulders as he struggled and twisted. Panic rose inside him.

Now a golden goblet spoke, and this time Brendan heard. Its voice was melancholy and warm, a oboe of a voice. As it spoke, Brendan could almost see a sad-eyed face in the goblet shape. “I followed the map,” he said. “I hunted treasure, and now I am the treasure.”

“I followed the map,” said a swirl of pearls in the shape of a woman’s hair. Her voice was a weary flute. “I wanted the jewels, and now I am the jewels.”

“I followed the map,” said a many-faceted sapphire the size of Brendan’s fist, in a cool alto. “I wanted to make my fortune, and now I am the fortune.”

Brendan twisted his body harder, as hard as he could. Every inch of him wanted to run, to flee. But too late: his feet remained as stubbornly heavy as iron.

Fro across the burbling water came a new voice, now, a voice made of silk and paper. “Welcome, treasure,” it said. “Welcome.”

Brendan flashed his light into the blackness beyond the treasure chest. “Who are you?” he said. His voice shook a little.

Something moved in the darkness, something tall and thin. The white part of its eyes flashed inside wet black rims. A dirty, greenish-yellow hand; a leg like a stick. The creature’s skin seemed stretched thin over nothing at all.

“I am the X,” said that papery man. He rustled as he moved.

“If you found the treasure first, you can just keep it,” Brendan said. His voice was clearly trembling now. “Just let me go, okay?”

The thin, dry creature laughed. “But you are the treasure,” he said. “You thought you were hunting for treasure, but you are the treasure, you yourself. And I think,” he said, moving to the bank of the stream, closer to Brendan, shading his eyes against the trembling flashlight, “I think you’ll make a fine silver broach. Perhaps a carved monkey, with tiny diamonds for eyes.”

The man stretched out a skinny, filthy hand, and Brendan fell backwards into the stream, trying to squirm away. The man moved closer. He put out one long finger with a long yellow nail, and lifted Brendan’s chin.

“Hey, STOP IT,” said a voice from behind Brendan. The papery creature leaped back to the bank. This was no voice from stone or silver. It was a voice Brendan knew very well.

“Maika!” he cried. And then: “Stay back!”

“What is that—what is that thing doing?” she called. Her voice echoed in the watery cavern. He heard her take a step forward.

“Maika, really, don’t! Don’t step in this creek. Don’t, don’t. There ’s some kind of —I don’t know, he can hold you in the water, and a rock told me not to step in”—realizing how crazy he sounded, not caring—“and, but it doesn’t matter, just don’t touch this creek, you’ll never come out?”

“Oh, but come on in,” said the silky-voiced paper man, who had recovered his confidence. “The water’s fine. Don’t you see all the treasures and jewels, little girl? Don’t you wish you were on this side of the creek, running the jewelry through your fingers, burying yourself in all this sweet carved gold and silver? Don’t you wish you were over here with me?”

“Yeah,” said Maika, “I do.”

Then she turned her back and walked away.

Brendan’s heart sank to see her go. For the first time, he actually felt like crying. But still, he was glad, through his own pain and fear, he was glad Maika was getting away, that she wouldn’t be caught here because of him.

“Leaving your brother?” called the paper man. “Cowardly and unsisterly! You are no jewel after all, and I’m—“ and he stopped.

The sound that stopped him had made Brendan, too, sit up in the water, ears alert.

It was the sound of pounding feet, track shoes against a stony path. “Maika!” said Brendan, whether in gratitude or warning he wasn’t sure.

The man’s shifting eyes grew large and fearful, and Brendan twisted around just in time to see Maika—his stubborn, nosy sister, who had taken a regional first in hurdles that spring, with a strong second in the long jump—to see Maika, as she sailed over the creek, two feet first, two feet planted right into the papery man’s chest.

In perfect silence, without even a cry, the papery man crumbled into dust beneath her feet.

“Maika!” Brendan shouted. Somehow his feet were his own again. He ran to her beside the great treasure chest, and they both looked down.

The treasure was softening and changing shape. And as they softened, each separate precious thing sang a long note of joy and relief. The many voices made a whole chorale in perfect harmony. Each object softened into a stream of color, silver and gold and pearl, emerald and ruby and sapphire, and the streams twined together as the voices twined.

And then the voices faded, and the colors faded, and they were gone, and the chest was empty.

Brendan and Maika walked back through the cavern together in silence. For no reason, as they walked they put their arms around each other’s shoulders, until they found their bikes, and rode home.

A few weeks later, before he returned that library book, Brendan ripped out the map and burned it.

Just in case.

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