It was the kind of beautiful early spring day Anushka Starling lived for.
The cloudless sapphire sky was warmed by a buttery sun, the air a perfect mix of warm with crisp right-after-winter undertones. The breeze felt cool against Anya’s tan skin. The birds piped their songs, perched in the trees exploding with the shades of emerald leaves and bubblegum blossoms.
Anya exhaled, smiling, biting the end of her pencil as she glanced around. Middle schoolers milled around, enjoying their break before the last period by breathing in the spring air. High schoolers were already out of school by 2:30, laughing and talking as they grabbed their bags and disappeared down the sidewalk.
Anushka was your average smart fourteen-year-old, meaning she had a free block until 3 pm, then her last period, Music, ‘till 4. She sat outside of the school, on a bench dedicated to Cass M. Brookfield, soaking in the sunlight and fragrant fumes of the flowers decorating the schoolyard.
“Alright,” Anya whispered to herself. “Thirty minutes. What should I do with thirty minutes?“
Every day she had a free block—Wednesdays and Fridays—she brought her pink leather notebook and sharpened pencil outside to write. Write short stories she’d later type up and publish on Writey, sketch her surroundings, and most of the time, pen poems.
Today she was feeling...haiku.
The first couple modern haiku came easy to her. She wrote one about this particular moment:
dancing in the cool breeze
And one about snow:
flurries of white gleam
dancing through the darkness
And finally, one about rain:
onyx clouds swarm
electricity laces the sky
rain lashes down
But then she was stumped.
Stupid writer’s block.
Footsteps on cement broke her concentration as she peered at the blank lined page. Anya looked up, her shoulder-length glittering gold-brown hair getting tangled in her mouth at a sudden gust of wind. She smiled. “Hey, Callista!”
Her outgoing best friend grinned back, her mass of curly brown hair getting fluffier in the slight breeze. Callista had fair skin, dazzling bright green eyes, and only wore the same color clothes at any given time. Today Callista sported blue: she had on a baby blue tank top, jeans, and flip flops. “Can I join you?”
“Duh,” Anya said. “What’s with the shoes?”
Callista plopped down on the bench next to her. “This was my only other blue pair and I wanted to spice things up. Whatcha doin’?” she asked, leaning over and peering at Anya’s notebook.
Anya laughed, gently pushing her away. “No peeking! And, uh, just some haiku. But I’m kinda stuck. Any ideas?”
“Yeah, it's probably hard to keep writing haiku if you have a Haiku Count of two-thousand-something,” Cal mused. Anya giggled. “And, hmmm...Okay, how about you write another haiku about night?”
“Sure.” Anya scribbled something down, reusing lines from previous night poems. “Done! Wanna hear it?” Callista nodded. Anya cleared her throat:
“dome dripping with jewels
diamonds imbedded in a
shattered coal night sky.”
Callista clapped. “Ooh! Pretty!”
Suddenly Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’ belted through the air, a little louder than Anya would’ve liked. Her cheeks tinged pink as some surrounding kids stared at her. She needed to start turning down the volume so her ringtone wouldn't attract such attention every time Anya got a call. “Sorry,” she mumbled, grabbing her phone and clicking decline without even looking at the number.
“It’s fine,” Cal replied. “I’ve got to go anyway. See ya next period!” Callista walked away, leaving Anya and her silenced phone.
Moments later, what was probably the same person called back again when Anya was in the middle of penning a tanka. Anushka peered at the number.
Who would be calling her at 2:53 on a Friday?
Anya put her notebook away and cautiously picked up. “Hello?”
“Is this Anushka Grace Starling?” the vaguely female voice on the other end said. Anya paled. How did they know her full name?
“Um, yeah. Who are you?”
“This is Malia J. Davis of the Freeman Inheritance Agency. I’m here to tell you about a large sum of money left in your name by Mychal Ramirez.”
Woah! An inheritance for Anya? And it was large?
Anya shook her head to herself. Slow down. She didn’t even know who Mychal Ramirez was. Some distant relative she had never known in her life and was now giving her money?
“I think you have the wrong number,” Anya said.
The lady tut-tut-ed. “Mmm, but you’re Anushka Grace Starling, aren’t you?”
“Well, yes,” Anya confirmed again, “but—”
“By the final will and testimony of Mychal Ramirez, he has left you—”
“I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHO THAT GUY IS!” Anya burst. The other end fell silent. “Sorry. I’m just really confused. Do I know a Mychal Ramirez?”
The lady chuckled. “Of course not. He’s been buried for two-hundred years.”
“Mychal Ramirez is your paternal great-great-great-great, great-great-great grandfather. His wealth is estimated to be 1.4 million in gold and gems.”
Anya’s jaw dropped. “All that‘ left for me?”
“Well, technically, ‘the tenth female born in the Ramirez bloodline after Mychal Ramirez’s death when she reaches five-thousand-two-hundred days of age’, but, yes. That will be your inheritance if you find and collect it.”
This was all too much to process. “Find?”
“Yes. In order to collect the inheritance, you must climb up the East side of Mount Varisha. A cave at around ten-hundred-feet, marked with a carved X, should hold a chest of this wealth. No one may accompany you. You may keep the chest once you find it. There should be an explanation in the chest. This is all Freeman Inheritance Agencies knows about this matter. Have a nice day.”
But the line was already dead.
Anya’s mind was overflowing. She was writing haiku and now she had almost a million and a half dollars waiting for her. But on Mount Varisha?! She was just supposed to climb a frickin’ mountain? With no one to help her?
But she could do this. I mean, this inheritance had been waiting for 200 years. How hard could it be to climb 1000 feet? Besides, Castilla lived right by the Eastern side of Mount Varisha. Anya could wait one extra bus stop after school and climb then.
She had a plan.
Music class, then millions.
As soon as the bell rang, Anya grabbed her bag and dashed out of the school. The last class on any Friday passed slower than a snail to a cheetah, but this particular day, it was impossible for Anya to focus on choruses and lyric patterns.
“Woah, woah, slow down!”
Anya whirled around. It was Callista, panting as she caught up to Anya. The two walked out of the school doors. “Geez. What’s the rush?”
Anushka bit her lip. “Uh...it’s a surprise. You’ll see later. But for now, I’m taking our bus to the end of the line.”
“Noice, a play date!” Callista beamed. The girls arrived at the bench Anya had been sitting on an hour ago. Their bus was always the last to pull up in the parking lot.
Anya laughed. “Kinda. I’m going to ditch you as soon as we get to your bus stop. But then I’ll come back. And I’ll take you to the mall.” Callista loved shopping, and with that money, there was no budget limit.
Cal raised an eyebrow. “Why’re’ya acting sus?”
Callista just loved murdering the English language. “No reason,” Anya said casually. YES, THIS IS A VERY BIG REASON! her mind screamed back. You—me—we? keep acting like this is a done deal, how we’ll be rich in two hours, but climbing alone could result in injuries. Or death. Or—
JUST SHUT UP! Anya thought back furiously.
Bus 617 pulled up. The doors opened with a screech. Anya and Callista hopped on, followed by a bunch of other kids.
Bus stops passed, and 617 slowly made its way through the mildly populated place where the school was located, through the city next door, past Anya’s stop, and finally to the rolling countryside by the Creeco Mountains. Anya, Callista, and some emo kid near the back were the only people on the bus.
The teens got off one by one. “Have a nice Friday,” the bus driver said. “You too,” Anya and Cal echoed, hopping off the bus.
Anya scanned her surroundings. She knew this place from going to Callista’s place. A long rode winded through the farms, houses scattered around the open land. The mountain range loomed behind one side.
Anya spotted the tallest mountain, right behind Callista’s house: Mount Varisha. Her always-on mind quickly penned a haiku for this occasion:
framed by an azure canvas
She shoved her backpack into Callista’s arms, slipping her phone into her pocket and pulling on her hoodies. “I’ve got to go now, m’kay?”
“Don’t follow me,” Anya pressed. “Seriously, don’t follow me.”
Cal nodded. “Okay. But—”
“You’re the best! See ya soon! Bye!”
Anushka took off through the fields.
Mountain climbing wasn’t as hard as Anya thought. (At least, 1000 feet.)
But it was definitely as tiring as she suspected.
Racing the quarter-mile through the grass to the foot of the mountain had stolen Anya’s breath—not, like, the mountain was beautiful, but in the way that she was exhausted. Well, the rocky skyscraper was gorgeous, but it was hard to admire over Anya’s ragged breaths.
The beginning of the climb was easy. Anya started up the worn hiking trail, shivering as the wind picked up. Her parents would be wondering where she was.
Then the trail got steeper, and steeper. Anya had to use handholds. She shivered, the temperature reaching 50° 500 feet up. Anya was tracking her progress using her phone, to make sure she went straight up the mountain, exactly 1000 feet.
But then the path changed.
And things got infinitely more complicated.
The trail split into two paths going left and right, but Anya’s phone told her she needed to keep going straight. That was much more of a slope than before. She really needed to climb.
This is crazy, Anya thought to herself. I’m climbing up a mountain, alone, on a Friday evening after school, to collect an old inheritance from a relative I didn’t know existed.
I can do this.
She clambered up the rocks, fighting through the harsh cold wind. Pebbles flew into her face as she hauled herself up the rocky mountainside.
Anushka pulled herself up onto a flat platform naturally on the mountain. She struggled to her feet then glanced around. The warm aura of spring had disappeared a while ago. Beneath her stretched a rocky slope, then the shimmering green of the fields. She took a look at her phone.
1000 feet exactly.
The cave should be here.
Anya gulped and turned around.
Carved into the wall of graphite-hued stone was a giant cave. Maybe ten feet tall, she couldn’t see the end of the taunting hole in the mountainside. Darkness clouded the details near the end of the cave. Or was it the end of the cave? She shouldn’t tell.
And right there—next to the cave entrance—was a little symbol engraved in the stone:
This was it. The cave carrying her ancient inheritance.
Anya cast a longing look back at the sweet-smelling cornfields, then took a cautious step into the cave.
rock woven with darkness
essence of nightmares
Anya’s phone provided little help in the cave.
The darkness of the cave obscured any details. All Anya saw was rough walls and the silt beneath her feet, the onyx clouding her surroundings, briefly revealing them, then disappearing behind her again as she walked through the tunnel.
She wondered how long the cave was as she ducked under another low-hanging ceiling. She didn’t see a stalagmite on the floor before she tripped over it.
“Ah!” Anya cried, tumbling to the floor. She crashed into the hard floor, rolling to avoid yet another stalagmite. She groaned, pushing herself back up.
Endless darkness, endless tripping, and still no chest.
She ate her words a moment later.
Anya took another step into the dark tunnel, and the walls instantly receded. She was in a cavern, and a huge one at that—in front of her sprawled a shallow pit of a ground, stalagmites spiking up from the floor and stalactites hanging from the ceiling. Fifty feet in front of her, across the half-intact floor, was a giant stalagmite with a flattish top. And sitting on that was a brown blob, too far away to see the details.
In a cave marked by an X.
Up on a mountain.
This was it.
Anya took a deep breath, crouched down, and gently slid down to the new floor. She made her way towards the cavern, slipping through stalagmites as she wished her phone light was brighter.
Then she was there.
At the looks-like-a-chest.
Anya reached up and cautiously picked up the box. Ew. It was wood was moist and squishy. 200 years had not been good to the wood. She was amazed the box was somewhat intact. She held it to her chest, examining it. Her inheritance box looked like your stereotypical pirate chest: faux gold lining the angles of the wood. Engraved on the top, lettering everything she hoped for, was:
𝔉𝔬𝔯 𝔱𝔥𝔢 ℜ𝔞𝔪𝔦𝔯𝔢𝔷 𝔣𝔢𝔪𝔞𝔩𝔢
𝔒𝔯 𝔭𝔢𝔯𝔥𝔞𝔭𝔰 𝔞𝔫𝔬𝔱𝔥𝔢𝔯 𝔩𝔞𝔰𝔱 𝔫𝔞𝔪𝔢
𝔚𝔥𝔬 𝔮𝔲𝔞𝔩𝔦𝔣𝔦𝔢𝔰 𝔣𝔬𝔯 𝔱𝔥𝔦𝔰 𝔦𝔫𝔥𝔢𝔯𝔦𝔱𝔞𝔫𝔠𝔢
ℜ𝔢𝔪𝔢𝔪𝔟𝔢𝔯 𝔐𝔶𝔠𝔥𝔞𝔩 ℜ𝔞𝔪𝔦𝔯𝔢𝔷
𝔄𝔰 𝔶𝔬𝔲 𝔠𝔩𝔞𝔦𝔪 𝔱𝔥𝔦𝔰 𝔭𝔯𝔦𝔷𝔢
“Thanks, great-great-great-great, great-great-great grandfather Mychal,” Anya whispered. She tucked the box under her sweatshirt so it would be easier to keep safe.
She glanced around the cave. Wet, creepy, and definitely not a pleaser place to be. It was time to get out of here.
Anushka didn’t stop until she was at Callista’s house.
She picked through the stalagmites, made her way through the tunnel, carefully climbed down the mountain again (by now, the sky had dimmed to a graphite shade; her phone read 7:27), and raced through the field.
She stopped her sprint at her best friend’s house, her head between her squatting knees as she struggled to catch her breath. The warm lights of Callista’s home taunted her.
Callista’s facial expression was worth photographing when Anya rang the doorbell. “Anya…?” Callista’s green eyes stared at Anya, panting and damp and dirty and looking exhausted. And was that...a pirate’s chest she was carrying? “What is…” she vaguely gestured to Anya, which could mean anything from, What happened? to Why do you look like this? to What the heck are you carrying?
Anya flashed an out-of-breath smile. “Told *pant* you *pant* I’d be back *wheeze*.”
Callista beckoned for Anya to come inside. “You’ve got some explaining to do.”
“I do,” she agreed.
They went up to Callista’s room, soon briefly joined by Callista’s mom. After the usual “Do my eyes deceive me, or is that Anushka Starling?” from Mrs. Ceder, she brought the girls hot cocoa.
That’s when the explanation started.
Sipping her cocoa and deciding she would borrow Cal’s shower in a bit, Anya explained everything to Callista. The call, the cave, and the chest. Callista’s eyes got wider and wider.
“That’s so cool,” Cal said.
“Right?” Anya was still in shock.
“And, uh, now can we open the chest now?”
Anya laughed. “Let’s.”
She pried open the lid of the small chest. As soon as it opened, the lid detached from the box. She peered inside. It was a sheet of paper on top of something.
Anya plucked the decaying sheet off the contents of the box. Her eyes barely glazed over the revealed contents before looking at the paper. She had read the note before looking at her inheritance.
The note was...intriguing.
Dear unknown descendant,
You do not know me, nor ever will. But I hope this note finds you in a happy place, a place happier with this inheritance. I am you great-great-so-many-greats grandfather, Mychal.
My story is a long one, but I’ll sum it up for you. I was friends with the Princess of England. I was a troubled child and took advantage of my connections. I stole from the royal treasury because I believed the English Royals misused the money, paying people to go to war, disband peaceful protests, etc. The princess did not turn me in when she found out, just said I needed to return the money.
But see, I had already invested in my own company. So I ran from the palace. My company grew. By the time I was 30, I was a multi-millionaire. I donated most of my money, but also returned to the Royal Palace and paid back everything. The now-queen and I made up and our friendship flourished.
I write this letter on my deathbed. Wish me luck in the afterlife. Do great things with this money. It’s all that left of my fortune.
And sure enough, filling up the remainder of the chest were dozens of solid gold bars, sprinkled with gleaming diamonds and emeralds. Anya’s jaw dropped. Gosh. Was this...real?
She quickly explained the note to Callista, then the two gawked at the wealth for a full minute. “Not 1.4 million dollars, but still insane,” Anya whispered.
“What do you think you’ll do with it?” Callista asked.
“Donate it. Save it. Take us out for unlimited bubble tea. Maybe buy more poetry journals.”
Cal laughed, elbowing Anya. “Well, Mychal definitely doesn’t have to worry about you abusing all this.”
She laughed too, wishing this moment could last forever. Smiling with her best friend, drinking hot chocolate on a cold early spring night, endless possibilities awaiting her from the fruit of the last three hours.
Callista’s teasing of Anya faded into background noise as she did what she always did during significant moments: mentally pen a haiku to represent occasion.
sipping hot cocoa
uncovering old secrets