Treasure Hunt

Submitted into Contest #143 in response to: Set your story in the woods or on a campground. ... view prompt


Crime Transgender Western

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

I didn’t think we’d find the treasure, but I agreed to the trip because he was my dad. 

The prospect of finding money did excite me. Of course it did: I was a barista, twenty-five years old, and living with three roommates. But I had no real expectations. I figured that if the obsessive retirees crowding the forums hadn’t found the thing yet, then my dad and I were pretty shit outta luck. 

No, what I wanted when I agreed to the trip was just to spend time with him. Dad had grown increasingly alien to me over the years, especially since I’d moved out, and I guess a part of me still hoped I could fix him.

Dad had always been into conspiracy theories. One of my first memories in life was watching a tape of the first moon landing with him. I must’ve been in kindergarten or first grade at that point because we still had our huge boxy 90s TV set and the brown couch. In the memory, there was always a gradually-cooling bowl of Kraft mac ’n‘ cheese on my lap. The noodles had gotten burnt somehow and had stuck together in a big mass like a beehive at the center. This was important because Mom–who was working that afternoon at the hospital, the same one where she still worked as a nurse–would never have let it get like that. But to this day, I still like it best when noodles get all stuck together like that, the way my dad made it for me that time.

As I’d eaten, my dad had sat then and talked to me, raising his voice slightly over the sound of Neil Armstrong’s. Neil Armstrong’s voice had been scratchy, recorded over a headset and played back from a million miles and forty years away, but my dad’s had been right next to me. My dad had sat for an hour or two with his arm around me and explained the images on the television: “See that flag, Joey? See how that flag is waving there? Now, did you know there’s no air on the moon?”

I’d admired him so much then. I’d accepted his ideas with question. But there came a point in growing up when I realized that the world outside our little condo did not in fact align with the picture of it that my dad had painted for me. I came to understand that my dad had been wrong about an awful lot of things, and at that point, he started to seem crazy to me. Out-of-touch. Even volatile, at times. Maybe it was whatever pills Alex Jones had been selling him, or maybe whatever drugs he’d been doing in his youth had fried his brain, or maybe he was going senile, or maybe he was just plain stupid.

Regardless, there had come a point in our relationship in which I’d needed to escape him–him and all of his shouting and ranting and throwing things–so I’d packed my bags up and left without a plan. I’d deleted all of my social media, settled in another state, built a tolerable and often pleasant life there, and now I saw my parents only on holidays. That seemed sensible to me.

That in and of itself was the second reason I’d accompanied him. The thought of letting my crazy father head out alone in the Grand Canyon on some wild goose chase was unacceptable. I’d politely but firmly refused his offer of a “vacation” the moment he’d extended it, but the thought of him being hauled into some station on trespassing charges had haunted me that night. At three AM, I’d written back to rescind my revocation. Count me in. His thumbs-up emoji had appeared within seconds.

And I had to admit, the whole thing was kind of fun. I’d been doing research since he’d sent over the details. I’d gotten caught up on everything the forum armchair sleuths had to say, copied their conflicting ideas out into a big spreadsheet, and combed through its entirety until I’d narrowed down the spots I thought we should hit in our five-day adventure. I’d begun sending my dad near-daily emails on our proposed plan of action, and he’d seemed impressed by my investigation. His own, in spite of his enthusiasm for this sort of thing, still seemed to be lacking in any real structure outside of the constant stream of his YouTube suggestions.

The hunt was based on what its creator called a map, although it was unlike any map I’d ever seen. It was a constellation of points: little dots which the various forum users had managed to pin to specific spots in Utah’s well-known Bryce Canyon. I agreed with them on this location, although that the map’s creator–a geocaching enthusiast with the handle “skippy1978”–had only ever confirmed that the treasure he’d hidden was worth about $100,000, that the map would indeed lead you to its location if used properly, and that (importantly) the treasure was hidden beneath something white. 

And that was it. There would be no more clues. skippy1978 was dead, actually. Terminal cancer. He’d taken the few months he’d had left to put all of his money into gold and hide it somewhere in Bryce Canyon. An eccentric thing to do, but not a bad one if he’d wanted to leave a legacy to his community: the weird old men like my father who spent way too much time watching The Mystery of Oak Island.

Weird, certainly. On the flight out to Utah, Dad fell asleep with his shoes off and his feet up on the seat in front of him. I tried to apologize to the woman sitting there and to swat my crazy father’s feet off her shoulders, but she wouldn’t even look at me, and my dad smacked my hands away in his sleep, muttering something about personal space.

On the first night in our hotel room, I got out of the shower to find that he’d stretched just a single sock over the smoke alarm and was now sitting in his boxers–and left sock–in bed, smoking weed out of a Grateful Dead-themed bong. I scurried back to the bathroom to grab the shower cap and fitted it over the alarm before he could wake the whole building.

“You worry too much,” he scolded, smoke spewing out the side of his mouth.

“Dad,” I said, “Can you turn the TV down, please?”

“Thought you’d take longer showers if you’re trying to be a girl now,” he grumbled by way of response, and the pundits on TV went on shouting.

I had strange dreams that night, and by five-thirty the next morning, I found myself in the hotel lobby with a huge black coffee and my laptop. I was pouring over our spreadsheets again, the familiar worms of anxiety and excitement wriggling in my stomach. We were here. And who knew? Maybe we would find something. I’d nailed down a spot to search that day that I felt pretty confident in, and when I’d run it by Dad over email a week before, he’d sent back his official thumbs-up in approval. 

But by the time he and I were convening that morning over a continental breakfast of cold eggs and tiny cereals, he was shaking his head.

“Not there,” he said, his mustache diffusing grits into his apple juice. “I wanna try Broke Horse.”

“Broke Horse Creek?” I said. “I thought we’d agreed–”

“Saw a special last night,” he said. “I got a hunch.”

I knew there was no point in arguing. Arguing would just piss us both off. And wasn’t the whole point of this to try to have some fun with my dad? 

Still, I couldn’t squash down my feelings of annoyance. When the time came, I followed him to the shuttle bus that would take us to the trail, but I was glowering the whole time at the back of his tan, lined neck under the too-tight strap of his baseball cap. Having had some time to fester in silence, I was beyond bitter. I’d spent not just hours but whole days planning this for us, shelled out a not-insignificant amount of money for a barista to get here, and now here he was–

“You’re not even appreciating the scenery,” Dad admonished me as the bus thumped over the dusty road. A baby was crying up front, and the whole vehicle smelled like warm lettuce. “You’re just on that damn phone.”

I was, to be fair, on that damn phone. I’d been trying to find a signal to pull up our spreadsheets, but it looked like I was shit out of luck. I’d had no reception since the hotel’s WiFi.

“Sorry,” I said, allowing a twinge of annoyance to creep into my voice, but I did put the phone away and start attempting to appreciate the scenery.

It truly was beautiful. Red pillars of rock, like silent statues with no faces, rose up on either side of the bus as it drove up deeper into the canyon. Weird trees huddled up together in little groves in the distance or bowed their leafy heads to us as we passed, the dust rising from the bus’s wheels sparkling with little bits of mica. It didn’t, in that moment, feel like a stretch to consider buried treasure on the horizon.

The bus let us off at one of the very brown-and-yellow welcome centers that most trailheads seem to have: seventies-style glass-and-wood alcoves and vending machines. Evergreen trees surrounded the structure, shading it from the rocky landscape we’d seen while driving.

The minute his boots touched the dry, hard-packed dirt, Dad started marching away from the place without a word. I followed him into the trees.

The air smelled like an attic–like Christmas and dust–but was even more silent. I could’ve closed my eyes and still followed Dad by the sound of his boots. That unsettled me. I always got nervous during silences with him. Any silence between us was sure to be filled soon with his shouting and my embarrassing tears. Dad loved me, and I loved him, but he did not approve of me. He hadn’t approved of me since the minute he’d seen me get knocked down on the line on the first Saturday morning football practice of my first grade career. It wasn’t so much the knocking down (which was normal) as it was the crying (which was less so) and the refusing to get back up again (which was entirely unacceptable). 

Things had spiraled downwards since that early cliche. By now, I had shoulder-length hair and wore nail polish to gatherings that included my grandparents. The shame of his failures–or what he thought of as failures–seemed unbearable to him. I felt enough guilt to let him keep calling me Joey, although that wasn’t my name anymore. My name was Maddie, and Joseph was my dad’s name. In his mind, I must’ve left him alone: a singular Joseph.

The trees cleared for a moment, and we were thrust back into the hot, alien landscape of before. The red, orange, and purple rocks reared up on all sides like frozen campfires, and the lonely whistle of wind through those dribble-castle pillars felt overwhelming after the silence of the trees. I caught myself imagining that we’d been thrust into some office worker’s screensaver, the sudden intensity of the landscape too much for my mind to comprehend.

The path was still very clear–the part that hikers like us walked every day was a darker brown than the orange of the more untouched land, and was surrounded with a well-placed rock every few inches–but almost the minute that we came out of the trees, Dad left it.

“Dad,” I said, stopping, “I don’t know if we should do that.”

“Do what?” he asked, and kept going. I knew he expected me to follow.

“Go off the path.” 

He was further away now, and I needed to raise my voice slightly over the screaming of the wind. I clutched my backpack around my shoulders, feeling the air whistle dust against my cheeks.

“Aw now, don’t be a baby,” he called back.

“I’m not,” I said. “It causes erosion. Anyway, the forums said that the treasure–”

“Forums are wrong, son. If they knew anything, they’d’ve found it–” 

I caught, “–by now,” through context, but the rest was lost. His voice kept droning under the wind, but I couldn’t pick out any words. 

I wasn’t about to let my sixty-something-year-old dad march out into the desert alone. He’d twist an ankle, get lost, or even worse. So I followed him. Of course I did. In the purple shadow of the hills above us, I followed him, sweating, through that weird, moon-scape desert, watching the up-down bob of his backpack to make sure he didn’t stumble. 

We walked for about an hour. 

The excitement started to leak back into my chest. I caught myself staring at far-off patches of white, walking a little faster each time something caught my eye, only to realize that it was the sun shining off of a flake of mica or the picked-over bones of a white-tail deer. A few times, I took my phone from my pocket again to check whether my spreadsheets would load, but I always was met with the same bar up top: NO SERVICE. There was no human life out here, just the tail-ends of jackrabbits disappearing into their holes as we approached.

After maybe three miles or so, we found ourselves entering another copse of evergreens: weird, spindly, starved-looking things with flaky bark. I found myself grateful for the shade. We were able to easily continue because of the lack of underbrush: where anything but the trees did grow, all that was left were the gray, thorny branches of some single type of bush. It reached for Dad’s ankles more than once and made him stumble, but I caught him each time by the backpack, making no remark and touching no skin so as not to embarrass him. 

I began to hear the burbling of water, and realized that the trees must’ve led us to it. Broke Horse Creek? Maybe Dad’s famous Eagle Scout knowledge had taught him more than I’d given him credit for. I tried to picture the maps that I’d studied, but drew a blank as to where we could be. I was impressed, and made a note to tell him so whenever we got where we were going. 

Up ahead, the trees began to thin, and soon we found ourselves in a hollow: an empty patch in the small forest. Here, the red rock showed through the downy layer of evergreen needles underfoot. The creek we’d been looking for flowed through this weird meadow like a vein, its water rusty with minerals and dust, churning up a sickly froth where it fell a half-foot at a time down a waist-high falls. Surrounding the little river was a collection of abandoned car tires on which many hikers must’ve sat over the years, judging by the two or three burnout fire pits, their dead coals gray against the ground around them.

As we were approaching the river in silence, perhaps intending to cross, the strangest thing happened. From out of the trees on the opposite side came dad’s old friend Max.

For a moment, I didn’t recognize him. For another moment after that, I wondered if I were mistaken. I hadn’t seen Max since I was a kid, after all, not since he and Dad–both the long-haired type of hippies back then–had taken turns throwing me on the backs of their choppers on Sundays and driving up to the lake with the music blasting and with hot dogs in the cooler. What had happened to Max since then? I hadn’t thought about him in years.

But there he was. It was certainly him. Uncle Max. No mistaking the man who’d helped to raise me as much as my own father had, at least back when I’d been very young. I vaguely remembered now feeling a child-sized sense of grief and permanence when Dad had told me he’d moved out to… Utah. Here. 

Max’s hair was cropped short now, from what I could see under his baseball cap. He had no beard. He wore a holey old t-shirt and jeans and brown hiking boots and a backpack, just like my dad. Just like me, at the moment.

“Well, howdy, Joey,” he said loudly over the river, and his voice sounded sad.

“H-howdy!” I said back, perplexed to see him, but at least a little bit excited until I saw the gun.

It was one of those moments that’s so strange that your vision starts to strobe, as if the inside of your body can’t catch up to the speed of what’s happening outside of it. In these moments, the world becomes both very small and unintelligibly huge, and you come to understand your own mind as an axis around which something–the world, or at least your own understanding of it–is spinning. From the moment I saw the gun, I struggled to stay on my feet, but that struggle lasted only a moment.

“I love you, son,” said my dad’s voice from somewhere on my left. It stuck in his throat like a piece of gristle. I don’t know whether he said it before or after the sound erupted in my forehead. I know that immediately afterwards, the air was sucked from my lungs, back out into the hot world, by the force of the ground hitting my back.

The sun did not yet fit perfectly into the empty space overhead where the evergreens didn’t grow. It wasn’t yet noon, and so it hadn’t risen fully. It was still coming up, and so the shadows of the trees still covered that clearing of dusty red soil.

April 27, 2022 16:16

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