“Lucy, I’m out [extended static] didn’t find the shack.” Gwen’s voice shook over the phone.
“Did you find anything?”
“Don’t come out [static].”
“The call is breaking up. What are you’re trying to say?” Lucy longed for clearer details. Chills permeated through her.
“Fly [static] home, don’t come here. Stay away, don’t waste [extended static] contact you in a few days.”
“Goddamn it, tell me what’s going on.” The call went silent. Lucy screamed. “Mother fucking reception.” Her heart pounded. Lucy slammed the phone down. The plastic rectangle bounced on the dirt, landing by a sun-baked shrub.
The young woman wished she wouldn’t have flown out a day after Gwen. She submitted to Gwen’s request for the later flight so there wouldn’t be any connection between their arrivals. Lucy regretted not being with her best friend for their adventure’s climax.
The sun trailed directly overhead casting shallow shadows. Lucy considered her limited options. She could remain inside the hotel’s comfort with a courtesy car to the airport home if she wanted. Dropping the shack’s investigation here became a real consideration. Doing so would mean a reprieve from the unrelenting heat, extra time with her son if David was generous and a chance to get ahead with a backlog of work she had neglected. No risk it, no biscuit. Lucy decided that finishing the quest made the most sense.
The rental sedan’s cool air offered a comfortable place from the scorching Arizona summer day. Each of her attempted phone calls failed to reach Gwen. Goddamn large open spaces without cell phone towers, she groaned. Say what they want about urban life but at least phones work in the city. Lucy secretly savored the beautiful, hilly landscape. The serene landscape brought people out this way, cell towers be damned. Her quiet mind drew up a fantasy in which she lived a quiet life among the rolling hills.
The GPS guided her deep into the backcountry. Lucy followed their clues to where the shack should be located. The trip offered her lengthy time for a mental backtrack of their clues. She hoped finding her friend's car would guide her steps to some answers.
The shack and its sapphire tablet had been long reported to contain instructions on achieving perfect enlightenment. The duo’s existence resurfaced through multiple articles and footnotes. The precise location hidden behind innuendo. Some believed the structure to be metaphorical. She recalled from memory: Here lies that which creates the path to peace. A rumor of darkness within light within the darkness. To find what's beyond the shack becomes a quagmire. A shining way to one's truth. Finding the shack offers a landmark, not the goal.
Lucy’s phone buzzed. Gwen. She pressed the green, digital circle. The call echoed within the sedan’s cabin.
“Oh my god, are you ok?” The words piled together.
“Hey, I don’t know [static] much time I have before [static] drops. Listen carefully. Tell [static] family I love [static] won’t be coming back. This [static] last call to [static]. I’ve decided [extended static] rid of our notes [static] about the shack.”
“Gwen, I’m on my way, hang on hun.”
“No, [static] isn’t [static]. Please, Lucy, go -” The call dropped.
“I need to know that you’re ok.” Her words trailed off.
Her foot pressed harder on the accelerator. Lucy longed to see Gwen one last time. She had given up on her son and her family. Lucy promised herself that she would confirm Gwen’s safety even if it meant her own life. The engine hummed as the young woman neared a dirt road indicated on the faltering GPS. She eased the car off the smooth pavement. Sounds of dirt crunching filled the quiet cabin as the wheels created dust clouds behind.
Lucy needed the shack as much as she needed to find Gwen. Their lives had become consumed by its mystique for the last several years. Lucy traded away her marriage, child’s custody and a coveted promotion opportunity for the enigma. The tablet called to her. Its few online drawings had blossomed her curiosity.
Lucy had spent her life stumbling from one crisis to another. Family drama. Career drama. Relationship drama. The sapphire tablet offered her the promise of serenity from all external distress. The chat forums indicated how its words would bring peace to the heaviest of souls, leaving only a trail of calm. Lucy longed to walk the trail. She understood how her intensive efforts appeared to others. Some didn’t hide their contempt. All you do is spend your time on this goose chase. Stop being selfish and focus on your family. The conversational memories further clouded her peace. Lucy believed if she came back with the stone jewel, she could prove them wrong and vindicate her efforts. She pressed the accelerator, hoping to cut time’s corners, passively realizing how speeding on a dirt road became an increased risk.
Lucy caught sight of a dark, oblong rectangle ahead of her. Gwen’s car, she guessed. Lucy’s pulse raced. This would be the moment to find her answers. She used every ounce of willpower to keep from pushing her right foot harder. Her phone’s reception bars faltered. The Blue Cattle Rental Car bumper sticker confirmed her hypothesis as she pulled in closer. Her car took a space next to the dust-coated rental.
Lucy shoved the door open. The unbridled heat took her breath away. Sweat adhered to her forehead. She closed the door. One of the few noises besides her footsteps. Lucy considered yelling for her friend. She reconsidered until clearly understanding why Gwen didn’t want her company. Her steps created light patterns in the sandy soil.
She followed two sets of footprints down an unmarked trail deeper into the backcountry. Who else is here? The sun's rays came at her with prejudice. Her green t-shirt began to darken at her armpits as she made the distance between herself and the temporary parking lot diminishing behind her. She longed for cold water. She looked back. No risk it, no biscuit, she repeated. A personal mantra to calm that deep want to run from the conclusion of their journey. I need to see her one more time, one more time to make sure.
Hints of the shack’s silhouette developed among a rocky outcropping, blending into the shadows. A smile developed across her drying lips. This is why no one could find you. Why did Gwen lie to me? Her heart raced. Lucy remembered how most online shack hunters misunderstood several key riddles, leading them to believe their goal resided in New Mexico. Gwen figured out a new interpretation. She had been their clue sleuth since partnering. They kept the success between each other. The shack’s presence against its background increased as her footsteps made loose tracks. Lucy fought against her increasing dehydration. A sunbathing rattlesnake watched her with a definitive rattle, warning her away.
The shack appeared as she imagined. Wide, wooden planks stacked on one another into an angled, planked roof. A dark, custom door in the middle. One window with twin closed shutters. The whole structure hidden within nature’s stone embrace, protecting it from overhead exposure and much of the elements. Lucy took out her phone. She snapped several pictures fighting against her shaking hands. Lucy activated the exterior illumination. Forty-nine percent battery offered her limited time for her phone’s external light. She reached for the weathered handle.
The archaic door eased open, aggravating the rusty hinges which groaned into the open air. Her heart pounded faster with fear and delight. Will the tablet be on a mantel, will there be clues inside? Lucy swung her camera light inside, revealing a sparse interior. A dust-covered table. A dust-covered chair. Random cooking materials untouched by time. A wooden floor littered with indigenous rodent tracks. She considered going inside. She looked down. The footsteps she had been following bypassed the entrance. Lucy backed away from the shack undeterred. The door shut with equal groaning. She searched the sandy dirt at her feet. Footstep memories worked their way around the shack’s perimeter to the shack’s right. She followed them between the wooden exterior and surrounding rocky interior. It’s a landmark, not the goal.
Lucy’s flashlight tracked the dusty imprints winding deeper inside the stone interior. A petite outcropping offered the outline of a cave’s entrance. Footsteps led inside. She eased between the rocks, entering into the cave. The path sloped gently downward. Water drips echoed in the near darkness. Lucy noted a sweet-sour smell around her. The phone’s light became her only guide. Distant, faint noises seized her attention. The ground felt slick under her gym shoes. Echoing sounds grew clearer. Muffled words. A conversation. Lucy strained to understand who accompanied Gwen. She hadn’t mentioned meeting with anyone else. Lucy moved cautiously through the cavern, guided by her light, the voices and a need to know more.
“Look, we need to get what we can and get out of here.” Gwen’s words rattled with concern.
“I came for the treasure, I leave with the treasure.” A female voice responded filled with insistence.
Treasure? Could they mean the tablet?
“If she shows up, this whole thing is blown.”
“You said she wasn’t going to show up.”
“No. I said that I told her not to come. This chick is relentless. She sacrificed her job, her kid and her marriage to find this. She’s likely on her way. We need to go before she gets here.”
“Get me access to the gold and we can split. Then you can make up whatever story you like.”
“If I had access we would be loading our packs by now.”
“Or you’re stalling for her and then it’s you two against me.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“Time is ticking, Gwen. Make your play.”
“Fine.” Her voice dropped in defeat.
Lucy edged closer. Rock grinding sounds resonated. She moved inwards. They'll need to pass me to leave. What will I do then? She crept along the worn path. Flickering orange whispers reflected off the stone ahead. Illumination originated from a room after a steep leftward corner. Lucy canceled the phone’s flashlight. She guided herself closer along the slippery wall.
"C'mon Gwen, let's do this already."
“Do you see me standing around with my thumb up my ass? This takes a minute.” Annoyance carried her words. Shuffling sounds grew clearer from the room.
“Ok, that should do it.” A loud rocky crunching noise startled Lucy.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” the stranger commented with jubilation. “Let’s load up and roll out.”
“Let’s just carry the chest. It, it will be faster.” Gwen offered her idea with confidence.
“Yeah, right, are you suddenly going to transform into the Hulk? Do you think we can carry this behemoth? This is why we have backpacks. Think, idiot.” Lucy took offense at her partner being insulted.
Flickering, orange light held residence against the natural wall. Lucy snuck up to the room's entrance corner. Her heart pounded as adrenaline spread through her body. Small metal noises filtered into her ear. Lucy peeked around the corner. Torchlight lit the right side of her face. The room held enough space for the two women, their digging tools and a massive, opened treasure chest near a deep gap in the wall. Gwen and her companion loaded handfuls of gold coins and shining, precious stones into leather backpacks sitting on the wet ground. Gold? Jewels? This was all about riches? Lucy furrowed her brows. She refreshed her options. Neither satisfied her. Staying meant a direct confrontation. Leaving meant no answers. She considered verbally ambushing them outside the cave. Anger crept up her back into a simmering rage. That lying bitch. No risk it, no biscuit.
Lucy planted into the entrance, her front filling with flickering light. “What the fuck is this, Gwen?” Her words boiling with accusation. The two women jumped in surprise, coins spilling from their fingers against the uneven ground. “Why the fuck did you tell me to stay back?” Anger grew through her body. Her face turned beet red. A snarl crept onto her lips.
“Lucy.” Gwen stared as if seeing a ghost. The other woman looked on with wide eyes. “We found a treasure, something more valuable than the tablet.” A saleswoman’s smile offered a hard sell. Her eyes darted to her companion and back.
Lucy shifted her attention to the stranger. "Who the fuck are you?"
“I’m the reason you found this.” Her words rolled with pearls. “And there is enough for us all. So start stuffing your pockets and we can talk outside.” The woman resumed feeding her bag.
“No, we’re going to fucking talk now.” Lucy’s fists took form at her sides. This glorious moment she had dreamed of for so long, sullied by an outsider. Her body trembled as adrenaline renewed its surge.
"Look, bitch, we need to be back on the road before sunset. Otherwise, some local yokel is going to see our headlights and begin poking around.” The stranger looked up from her squatted position. “As you can clearly see, this is going to take a couple of trips. You found us. Great, now you can have your share. I have no beef with you. I'm sorry if your spiritual chest is actually a gold chest, but we can all make out like bandits if we do this right." She watched Lucy with concern through false bravado.
“Lucy, we need to do this now and talk later.” Gwen pleaded, her body trembling.
"Fuck all that, we're talking now." Lucy struggled to keep her thoughts clear. Years of dreaming of this perfect moment evaporated for nothing. This was supposed to be her and Gwen’s private celebration. Anger evolved into a full-running rage. She became a boiling volcano needing restitution. Logic dropped from her mind.
Lucy charged into the stout room with a deafening scream. Her fists swung like sledgehammers. The woman attempted to defend herself with fatigued arms. Her kneeling position in the room did nothing to help. Lucy struck the woman in the mouth knocking her downward. Blood sprayed. The woman's head hit the jagged ground with a placid thud. A new wound opened into a quickly growing maroon pool reflecting the torchlight. Gwen screamed. Her voice became its own assault on their ears. She never imagined Lucy being capable of such violence. The prone woman's eyes remained open as her last breaths exited. Lucy turned to Gwen. Her friend looked back with shocked terror.
“You… you… fucking killed her.” Gwen’s voice quaked. “You killed Allison.”
Lucy aggressively stepped over scattered digging equipment to her friend. Gwen knelt in place overcome with panic, her arms up in defense. Lucy grabbed her by the collar. She forced Gwen backward towards a nearby wall. Gwen tripped over a small rock. The momentum carried her into the unforgiving wall. She collided and fell forward to her knees. Lucy struck Gwen repeatedly through a placid attempt of self-preservation. Her face became a patchwork of bloody bruising. Gwen collapsed onto the stone ground. Lucy stood over her with battered fists.
“Gold and jewels?” Labored breath delayed her words. “You sold me out for money?”
“A crap ton of money.” Her breath escaped in jagged spurts. “I am so far in debt I can’t see straight.”
“Who’s the woman?”
"My cousin. She owed me a favor. I needed her help to sell everything." Gwen spat out blood. "I told her that if she helped me pawn off what we found, she could get a cut."
“Why? Why did you sell me out?”
"I needed to pay my bookies and begin over again. At least you have an ex and a kid to go back to. C'mon Lucy, there's no tablet. There likely never was. We've been chasing shadows until the last couple of months." Gwen wiped her bloody mouth. "We discovered a small note detailing enlightenment among a great treasure. At that point, all I wanted was the treasure." Lucy dropped her arms down to her sides. Hollow shock overtook her body. Wasted trip, wasted life, murder for nothing.
Gwen found her breath. “Let’s grab some loot, hide the body and pretend this never happened. No one has found this place in a hundred years and won’t for a hundred after we’re both dead.”
Gwen looked up from the ground. Her body and pride hurt too much to move. Lucy walked to the treasure chest. She closed the lid with an audible clunk. Her foot rested against the wooden back. Lucy pushed forward, knocking over the chest. Gold and jewels spilled out over the floor. Light sparkled across the scattered pile. Gwen moaned at the loose riches.
“Take your treasure and your dead cousin. I’m done with this.” Lucy walked past the mess. She glanced down. A dark blue corner stuck out from the shining pile. Lucy’s eyes widened. She reached for the curiosity. Both hands pulled out a large sapphire slab. I found the tablet. I found the tablet. All my problems will go away now. I can finally have peace. Gwen watched with wide eyes.
“We’re done. Don’t ever talk to me again.” Lucy cradled the prize to her chest. She strode to the cave’s exit. I can walk the trail of peace. She followed the cave out into the sun-painted day. Her path to the car filled with all the joy she could ever dream of. The sedan’s engine purred. The air conditioning took away the long walk’s fatigue. Lucy delighted in her plan to transcribe the etched words for the eternal peace she needed. The car turned off of the dirt road onto a more civilized path. Lucy beamed with happiness. The sapphire tablet maintaining its secrets in the passenger seat. Her long-sought prize to show the world that she was right.