Content Warning: Mentions of death
It was the first day of summer and the young man made his way down the street, doing his best to avoid the students who were on a short reprieve from school. It was a foul day, and just as the man glanced up, the sky opened, releasing angry buckets of rain. All around him people were scurrying inside, trying to avoid getting drenched. But the man didn’t care. He continued moving forward, walking with hunched shoulders and his head down. If you hadn’t seen him walking like this before the storm it would be easy to assume that his wet clothes were weighing him down. The truth was, he had been walking like this for months, struggling under the burden of his misery. If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all. The saying popped into his head, and he tried to recall the origin of it. A song, perhaps?
He soon grew numb to the chill of the unrelenting rain, just as he had grown numb to everything else. As he rounded the corner to his house, he tripped over a cardboard box someone left on the sidewalk. He heard the sound of an object skidding across the ground, and when he looked up, he saw that it was a notebook. It had managed to avoid getting wet by landing under the awning of a nearby corner store. Curiosity got the better of him, and he hurried over to pick it up.
The notebook was black, and small enough to fit in his jacket pocket. He opened it, expecting to see the pages lined with words, but only the first page had any writing. It was covered with a mixture of letters, numbers, and symbols. The longer he stared at it, the less sense it made. As he tried to turn the page, a folded-up piece of paper fell out from a pocket in the back of the notebook. Unfolding it, he was intrigued to find an unfamiliar map. He headed up the front steps of his townhouse, making sure the raindrops didn’t smear any of the ink. As soon as he took off his wet shoes and jacket, he sat down at the kitchen table and flattened out the map. Mindlessly, he reached for a bowl of fruit and struggled to understand what he was seeing . . .
. . . It was about a year later by the time he made his first breakthrough. He had discovered $20,000 written in green in the upper left portion of the map. The number had been designed to blend in with the green of the mountains, which covered most of the page. There was no doubt that this was some type of treasure map. He knew the start of the map led to a mountain range about thirty minutes away, but he hadn’t figured out where to go after that. He considered utilizing a trial-and-error method, but the mountain range was almost 50 miles wide. It was obvious that he was not going to be able to find the money unless he deciphered the rest of the map. . .
. . . In the coming years the man fell into a routine. The first three weekends of the month he remained at home with the map on one side of him and every reference book he could find on the other side. He spent all weekend trying to match the letters and numbers written in the notebook to a location that could be found on the map. He created mathematical equations, charted celestial coordinates, anything he could think of. On the last weekend of each month, he returned to the mountains, eager to test his new hypotheses. Although none of his solutions were ever correct, he hoped all his wrong answers were bringing him closer to the right one.
He continued this routine for several years. On the fourth Saturday and Sunday of every month he got into his car with the map, the notebook, and a backpack of essentials, and spent five to six hours hiking the mountains with methodical precision. Halfway through the day he would find a large rock and sit down to eat his homemade lunch. He loved looking out at the landscape and reveling in its beauty. He had begun to appreciate such beautiful sights, even in his everyday life. An early morning sunrise on his way to work, or a rainbow after the skies had drenched the city with rain; these were all things he used to take for granted before. The misery that used to surround and suffocate him was becoming just a distant memory.
On the days that he went searching the mountains he would return to his car once the sun started to set. He’d get back onto the highway and arrive home before sundown. He never strayed from that schedule – not until one Saturday at the end of April…
. . . It was the fourth Saturday of the month, and the man was getting ready to leave his house. The phone rang, startling him, and he answered it with one hand while gathering all his belongings into his backpack with the other. Many years later, he could still remember that call. It was a salesman wanting to know if he was happy with his cable service. He had been so distracted by the phone, he forgot to put his lunch in the backpack. By the time he realized this, he was already pulling off the highway and was afraid that if he doubled back, it would be a waste of sunlight. Instead, he resigned himself to cutting his trip an hour short so he could get home and have an early dinner.
He had every intention of eating dinner at home, but when he returned to his car at the end of the day, he could barely hear the roar of the engine over the rumbling of his stomach. Before he got onto the highway, he saw a sign for a 24-hour dinner. He took a left down a little side street and parked under the sign that read “Dixie’s Diner.”
As it turned out, there was no ‘Dixie’. The owner of the diner was a brunette named Mary, and she was the prettiest woman he had ever laid eyes on. It was a small establishment, and he was one of only two patrons that evening. Mary had personally served him, and while delivering his food she asked what had brought him out that way. Before he could stop himself, the man told her the whole story, showing her the notebook and map as proof. It had been so long since he had conversed like this with someone, he was nervous that he had forgotten how. But Mary listened attentively, leaning over to get a better view of the map. She slid into the booth across from him, getting up occasionally to refill a coffee or take an order.
By the time he finished his fourth coffee, he realized they had been talking for almost three hours. As he stood up to leave, Mary told him to stop in the next time he went to the mountains. It was an off-handed comment, and neither of them believed he actually would. But one month later, the man strode back into the diner and spent another several hours talking to the pretty brunette. After that, he ate there the last Saturday and Sunday of every month. Around 4 p.m., Mary would put a slice of meat loaf in the oven and pour a cup of black coffee, and within minutes the man would walk through the door. This continued for almost a year until one Saturday he built up the courage to ask Mary if she wanted to accompany him the next day.
They started their trip at 7:00 a.m. that Sunday. No treasure was found that day, but they discovered something even better. A friendship. Every fourth Sunday, Mary accompanied him on his mission. Somewhere along the line she began joining him on Saturdays as well. And slowly but surely the friendship they created turned into something more . . .
. . . He can still remember the day he proposed to Mary. They had doubled back on one of the paths, much to Mary’s confusion. She rotated the map in her hands, trying to figure out why they were back in the same spot they had been an hour ago. While Mary was distracted, the man took a few steps onto a boulder that was overlooking the mountain. By the time Mary looked up, the man was down on one knee, holding out a diamond ring that sparkled in the afternoon light. She had, of course, said yes and they married that spring. For the next 30 years they lived happily together, and continued their monthly adventures into the mountains . . .
. . . They never found any treasure, and eventually time caught up with them. Their bodies were getting weaker, and hiking became too difficult. Soon after that, Mary was diagnosed with cancer, and they focused all of their attention on her treatment. She put up a good fight but had succumb to her illness in the end.
A month after he laid her to rest, the man was determined to make one more trip to the mountains. His body wasn’t in the shape it used to be, so he resigned himself to walking the base of the mountains instead of hiking up them.
It was early evening when he turned to leave for the last time. The setting sun had cast the mountain in a golden haze. As he started to make his way back to his car, a sparkling light caught his eye. It was a chest, hidden inside a hollow log. Only the corner was visible, and if the light hadn’t caught it just right, he would have walked right past it. With hesitant but eager hands, the man lifted the chest and lowered himself onto the stump of what had once been a massive spruce tree. His wrinkled hands shook as he slowly opened the chest, the lid of which was reflecting the sun in such a way that it created a halo of light around the old man’s head.
Inside the chest was a mixture of gold coins and jewels. He expected to feel ecstatic upon finding the chest, but something had changed. It wasn’t about the money anymore. He wasn’t sure that it ever really was. Instead, it was about what that small notebook and map had given him. It had given him a purpose when he had none. It had given him motivation to wake up in the morning when he was running out of reasons to do so. And most importantly, it had given him Mary. There was no price that he could put on any of that
With one last look at the chest, the man gave a small smile and closed it. He rose shakily to his feet and placed the chest back in the log, pushing it back until only the corner was visible. On the long trek back to his car he got out the black notebook and began tearing out all the pages he had written on. When he finished only the first page had writing on it, just like when he first found it all those years ago.
On his way home, the man pulled over and grabbed a cardboard box that he saw lying in front of a dumpster. He placed the map into the back pocket of the little black notebook and put the notebook into the box. Then he put the box on the sidewalk underneath the awning of the corner store where he had found it so many years before. Satisfied, he returned home.
The day after he made his discovery, the doctors gave him the prognosis and the man chose to spend the rest of his time at home. A few weeks later he was in bed with the TV on. The last thing he saw before his eyes closed peacefully was a news story about a homeless man who came across a mysterious notebook.