by Cheska Lynn
He awakens in darkness, his left hand immersed in a pool of sticky, cool liquid. His head pounds, his mouth is brackish and gritty, and his cheek is pressed against a metal surface. The air is stale, tinged with salt and a trace of cinnamon, like the pies his mother bakes on his birthdays because he hates cake. He lifts his head and focuses on the dust floating in a streak of light, coming from where? Below a window? A crack in the wall? He blinks; the light is gone.
* * *
“You’re up early,” Travis said as Parker slipped into her skirt, the tight gray one that curved over her ass, making it impossible for him to look anywhere else. He grinned like a naughty child caught with chocolate around his mouth before dinner.
“Couldn’t sleep.” Her fingers lingered on the skirt’s zipper. “Don’t forget the tickets. They go on sale today at ten.”
“I know.” He dragged his hand down his face.
“Isn’t your interview at nine-thirty?”
She slid her fingers through the handle of the glass mug on the dresser and took a sip of the macerated vegetables she drank every morning. “I thought I’d get there early. It’s down to me and Tara for this fellowship.”
He stretched into a yawn, tossing the covers back and rolling onto what had become her side of the bed since they started dating last year, when he was still a student, too. “Don’t worry. You’re gonna nail it; then to celebrate.” He fanned an outstretched arm over the bed and winked.
She laughed as she slipped a fleck of diamond into her ear. He loved her full-bodied laugh; the kind of laugh that drew attention from across a room. The kind of laugh that belonged to a much larger person, like a truck driver.
“You are such an idiot,” she said.
“How about I take you for a late breakfast after?”
“You’ll be at work.”
“I can go home sick.”
“I have plans. Remember?”
He swung his legs over the side of the bed.
“Oh, right. Your treasure hunt.”
Parker rolled her eyes. “Geocaching.”
He wasn’t much for nature, preferring instead to sit in a ball park rather than an actual park. She hadn’t asked him to participate in this, however, and he wasn’t sure how to feel about that—if she’d finally gotten a clue or if she’d just given up.
Parker popped her head out of the bathroom with a mascara wand in one hand and the tube in the other.
“I swear you never listen to me.”
“What was that?” he teased, grabbing her wrist, tugging lightly until she kissed him.
“You need to brush your teeth, and I need to get out and do something. I’ve either been stuck inside the library studying for exams or sitting in interviews.” She picked up her portfolio with one hand and her purse with the other. “I could use a little adventure.”
* * *
It’s dark, but he’s sure his eyes are open. There’s a faint glow beside him, but how far is it? Ten feet? Fifty? He drags his fingers over his forehead. It’s slick. Sweat, probably. It’s uncomfortably hot in here; wherever here is.
“Fuck,” he says aloud. His voice hangs in the thick, confined air.
He tries to push up off the floor, but a sharp pain rushes through his neck and back into his head.
He was driving. From work? No, it’s early. Saturday? Where’s Parker? Was she with him?
He knows a thing or two about neck injuries after several years of club and college rugby. He keeps his face pressed to the ground and slowly straightens his legs behind him.
“Hey!” he yells out. His voice is weak and half suffocated by the metal below him. “Hey, anyone out there?”
Travis rubs his thumb over his fingers. They’re gritty. What is that? Sand?
He grunts in pain and manages to roll onto his back and pull his legs up. They’re not broken. He wipes his hand across the back of his neck. The skin is sore, the muscles tender to his light touch.
He turns on his hip and pushes against the wall behind him. It’s corrugated metal; his hands dip into large grooves. He tries to pull himself up, but his sweaty palms give out and slide down the wall. He waves them up over his head, making sure the ceiling isn’t low. They swish through air. He hauls himself up, stands, and walks like a blind man toward what he hopes is a door.
* * *
Travis closed the door and tossed his keys on the kitchen counter next to the pile of mail Parker brought in every day. She had her laptop propped against her knees as she reclined into the papasan, a chair she insisted he buy for her before she would agree to move in. She hated his furniture. Of the worn leather couch his dad handed down to him when he graduated and moved into a nicer apartment, she’d said she doesn’t sit on things that once had a face. Of the smattering of kitchen chairs, they were too hard. Of the recliner, it was threadbare.
The apartment wasn’t small, but it was an adjustment fitting her and everything that came with her into it.
He passed behind her, dropped his computer bag against the island in the kitchen and headed into the bedroom to lose the tie and jacket—an unfortunate side effect of a financial sector job. He reached for the light switch in the closet, smacking into something hard and wiry, setting off a symphony of jangling.
“I guess you found my treasure box,” Parker called out from the other room.
With the light finally on, he discovered the noisy culprit—a small metal box of old-fashioned keys.
“What is this?” he yelled out, but she was already standing directly behind him.
“That’s my signature. The whole box for ten bucks at an antique shop.”
He shook out his still sore hand. “Why are they bright blue?”
She tilted her head back and forth without actually popping her neck and pressed a foot against the wall behind her. “Spray paint. It’s a pretty awesome signature, right?” She shrugged. “Anyway, you have to have something unique to leave behind.”
He ran his hand up her arm until it reached the ends of her wavy, blonde hair. “So, are we going out or staying in?”
She sucked her bottom lip into her mouth and grinned. “In.”
“In the mood?”
She rested her head against the closet wall, and despite his lips grazing her ear, his hand travelling the small of her back and the obvious discomfort pressing against his slacks, she said, “I’m kind of into this riddle, so maybe later?”
* * *
He slides his hand along the wall, taking careful steps until he reaches a corner. He walks heel to toe around the perimeter, keeping his left hand on the wall at all times. He counts his steps, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. He counts the corners, one, two, three. He reaches the end. Thirty-five, maybe forty by eight? He listens carefully. His is the only breath he hears. He exhales in relief. He’s bleeding. It’s wet around the sorest spot on his head, but it’s starting to clot. The bump is concave; he needs to stay awake.
In a vain attempt at good fortune, or to wake himself from this nightmare, he yells, “Parker?”
* * *
“To Parker!” Travis shouted over his raised beer.
“To Parker!” the small group echoed as the necks of their bottles clanked together.
The patio was full, the music was low and the breeze was hot.
“Another year of studentdom, but at least this time someone else is paying for it,” she said, a wide grin on her face.
Travis was happy that she got the fellowship, but he was happier that it would keep her busy, busy with things other than treasure hunting and her other new hobby—harping. Harping on him about his meat consumption, his sleeping habits on weekends and the gym shorts he leaves on the floor.
“What the fuck is Lindsay wearing?” Andy said.
Parker scrunched her face, inching her sunglasses back up her nose while adjusting the strap of her top behind her neck. Travis waved her over.
“I can’t tell if those are last night’s clothes or a deliberate choice,” Parker said, examining the tall girl in black, patent heels and a blue, bubble-skirted strapless dress with bright purple bra straps sprouting out over the top. “I guess she’s reaching for some ineffable look.”
Andy shook his head. “No way. She’s weird, but she’s totally eff-able.”
Parker laughed. “Congratulations, Andy, your penis has finally swallowed your brain.”
“It smells like nutmeg or something out here,” Lindsay said as she reached across the table to dip a tortilla chip into the salsa.
“That’s a cigar.” Parker pulled her sunglasses from her head to shade her eyes from the dropping sun. “Big Kahuna over there is smoking one. Should we go for pitchers this time?”
“Two pitchers, coming up,” Travis said, dipping low to kiss Parker on the cheek. “Hey, call Ben, will yah? See if he’s on his way.”
She winced. “I forgot my cell. Gimme yours?”
“I’m shocked,” he said in a deadpan voice. He pulled his phone from his back pocket and offered it to her. “If you wanted a real challenge, someone should map coordinates to your phone.”
He pinballed through the tables to the bar inside, where it was less crowded. As he exited with the pitchers in hand, the broad man in the Hawaiian shirt caught the door for him with his foot.
“Thanks man,” Travis said.
The man nodded through an exhale of smoke.
* * *
Travis makes a conscious effort to slow his breath, to listen. Seagulls. Wind. He’s on the island. He came here to find Parker. He is sick in the pit of his stomach. Did he see her car? Is she in here? He pats his back pocket. His phone is gone, but he pulls out a scrap of paper. It’s too dark to read.
* * *
He peered over her shoulder and read aloud from the screen, “Endings, 1800s: Vhan Fredericka captured, a refuge for Barbary pirates in Algiers bombed, Vincenzo Gambi, Jean Lafitte. What does all that mean?”
Parker stretched her legs and scrunched her face. “It’s a code to find the latitude.”
“For?” he asked.
“For my next geo—”
“Okay,” he said, cutting her off. He threw his hands up. “Fuck!” he said, setting his beer on the counter after it sloshed all over his arm.
“At least I get out once in a while.”
“I have a job, Parker.”
“You can be such a shit sometimes,” she said. She closed her laptop and gently placed it on the floor.
They’d never fought like this before, and he didn’t know how she’d react: if she’d run out the door, yell back or lock herself in the bathroom.
“It’s been a shit day,” he conceded. “What about the longitude?”
Her eyes were skeptical, but she answered, “I have to figure out the latitude first.”
“So what, you Google that stuff to figure it out?”
“I guess so. They’re not usually this vague. I suppose, since this is the last in the series, they’re making it harder.”
“So do you get some big prize at the end?” he asked, placing a hand on her shoulder.
She leaned back. “Nope. It’s like all the others. You take something and you leave something. I’ve never taken anything, though. I just leave my keys.”
“Okay, so what do other people leave?” he asked, indulging her.
“Little stuff like magnets, or bouncy balls. Sometimes people leave more personal things like postcards if they’re from far away. And then there’s always a log. You put your handle on it and date and stuff so that people can see who all’s been there. There’s like a point system to it, too.”
“So how many points do you have?”
She shrugged. “I don’t keep track. But at the top of each log it tells you how many points the find is.”
She came to life when she talked about this. She still smiled at him, but she didn’t smile for him anymore.
“Look, I’m sorry I blew up. I just miss you,” he said.
“We always have next Friday night.”
“What concert?” he asked through a toothy grin.
She pressed her lips together.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll have you to The Warehouse by seven in time for a drink before the opener.”
* * *
He drags his tongue over the roof of his mouth. An ice cold beer would be so good right now. He tried the latch again, but it didn’t budge. Something was jamming it from the outside. He would have to venture into the middle of the enclosure, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what he’d find. He focuses on the glow again; if it’s his flashlight, it must be up against something. He slides his feet across the ground as if he were skiing until he reaches it. One, two, three. He crouches down, jaw clenched, and places his hand on top of the warm metal of the rod. Rounds of light polish the opposite wall as he lifts it. He rolls his shoulders back, releasing some tension and points the light down in the direction of the obstruction.
* * *
She dragged the strap of her bra back up her shoulder. “That totally sucked. I have dried beer all the way down my leg, and my shorts are still soaked,” she said, pushing the door with such force that it snapped back at the hinges.
“I’m sorry. That jerk beside me was completely drunk. He practically body-checked me. You could have washed it off in the bathroom.”
“Right,” she called back behind her as she flip-flopped her way to the crosswalk. “Like I want to wait in line for thirty minutes to shove my way into a crowded public restroom that probably has a floor stickier than me.”
He clenched his jaw, trying to hold back his rising irritation with her ingratitude after he risked a reprimand procuring the tickets because—according to Parker—he had to be on the computer at precisely 9:58 to log in so when those tickets went on sale at exactly 10:00 a.m., he would be ready to select the seats and speed-type his vital information before the corner screen clock timed down to zero zero zero zero and he lost the tickets and his mind—all of which made him ten minutes late to a team meeting, pissing off his boss and making him look like an undependable slacker.
“This whole night has been a total disaster,” she said, and gripped the hem of her shorts to tug them away from her skin.
She stopped at the next intersection, but she wasn’t waiting for him to catch up. She was reading something on her phone. The phone she couldn’t stop checking every ten minutes during the concert that four months ago she couldn’t stop talking about. The phone that was more interesting than her boyfriend. The phone that he wanted to drop off the top of the nearest, tallest building.
When he finally caught up, he waited for a group of fellow concert-goers to pass before scoffing. “Do you have any idea what I had to go through to get these tickets? You could at least pretend like you had a good time.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Travis. If I’d known that clicking a few buttons would scar you this badly, I would have gotten them myself!” And all that without once glancing up from the bright glow of her screen.
As he fumbled for his keys, she exhaled with such force that he was surprised she wasn’t knocked backwards. He didn’t want to make a scene in front of the parking lot attendant, who was obviously on break, smoking a cigar a few feet away, so he kept his mouth shut.
“It stinks out here,” she said before throwing herself into a fit of coughs. “Will you please open the door already?”
“Unbelievable.” He stared out of the windshield into the maze of gray, cement walls.
* * *
He wakes up with the flashlight in his hand. He has no watch, no cell phone, no sun, no sense of time. But hours have passed. The siding around him grows cooler.
Parker isn’t coming. She’ll never know. She’ll go back home, search for her cell phone that’s in his car, wait for him to get back. Maybe she’ll go over to Andy’s; see if he’s there. They’ll find his car before they locate his body. It could have been her in here. It could have been her. He bows his head and prays, “Please, God…”
* * *
“Jesus Christ, Park. Shut that thing off,” he yelled into his pillow over the robotic beeping of the alarm. The clock was flashing 6:37. Any time any alarm was set to anything seven, Parker was behind it. “Seven is my number,” she’d told him once.
He rolled over to nudge her but felt only crumpled sheets. On her pillow, a scrap of notebook paper ornamented with her familiar, purple scrawl: Couldn’t sleep. Went to find the last cache. Call me when you get up. PS it’s 6:30 in case I get a flat or am abducted, ha ha PPS I’m still mad at you.
He rolled over to go back to sleep, but it wasn’t happening. It was too late to take a pill and too early to get out of bed, so he reached for his phone on the floor.
With his right eye still shut tight, he called her.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” he said out loud as the phone rang from somewhere in the room.
He rolled out of bed, grabbed her phone from the dresser and dashed to the front door in case she was still outside at her car, which she always parked on the street instead of the garage. She didn’t like walking through there alone at night because, as she related to him, she often saw a big guy lurking behind cars at the opposite end, smoking, and one night he’d called out to her, asking if she had a light. She didn’t care that he probably lived in the building; he creeped her out.
He came back in and noticed her laptop was open on the kitchen counter. He opened her email and scanned the subjects.
He opened the first in the thread, a forward from Lindsay.
Endings 1800s: Vhan Fredericka captured, a refuge for Barbary pirates in Algiers bombed, Vincenzo Gambi, Jean Lafitte.
He opened her reply.
+29° 16′ 19.23″
He scrolled through the next in the series:
Simon says…Decode this to find the red box — Beginnings 1900s: Where On Earth Is Carmen San Diego (TV), Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap” in London (Play), Dick Tracy (Comic), Some Like it Hot (Movie).
“Years,” he muttered. “That’s easy enough.”
He searched the internet for each of the phrases, jotted down the numbers and mapped the coordinates—some random field on the island according to the satellite picture. He would be there in an hour if he sped.
He smiled to himself, knowing she’d be impressed when he showed up at her geocache spot. If he hurried, he’d only be a few minutes behind her on the road. He grabbed a Dr. Pepper on his way out the door.
* * *
He remembers the drive, pulling up to the coordinates, leaning against his car while he sipped his watery drink, anticipating her black Mini. He hadn’t expected to miss her. Maybe he arrived first. Maybe she’d tried the door when he was passed out. Maybe she was with whoever had done this to him. She must have made a stop; maybe she needed gas, too. Maybe she changed her mind. Maybe she went to the gym instead. Maybe she was still pissed about last night and drove home to her parents. Maybe she really did get a flat. Maybe she saw his car, turned around and went back.
* * *
He pulled up beside the tractor unit of a big rig that was parked on the grass behind a stilted, waterfront house. To his right was an overgrown field, empty, save a rusted-out sink and a couple of ancient, small appliances that were by now probably repurposed animal domiciles, but there was a larger structure further back. An old cargo train car or maybe some kind of trailer? It was burnished red, bearing a single, black X in the upper right-hand corner.
“How original,” he muttered as he brushed his hand over his hair.
The island was quiet except for the seagulls and the waves slipping to shore. Dawn was breaking, but he grabbed the Maglite out of his trunk to guide his feet through the pitted field. He was near the small island airport. The roar of a single prop engine streaked overhead before it dipped down and disappeared on the nearby airstrip. He headed in the direction of the lone structure in the field, figuring the box must be in there or near there.
* * *
Travis realizes that he’s going to die in this container before someone finds him. He pulls off his shirt and wads it up between his head and the hard metal. He grips the flashlight. He thinks about Parker, about how he first met her. She was sitting on the grass in the quad, even though it was still damp with morning dew. He was on his way to the engineering building for an early-morning exam.
The campus was barely awake, but she was sitting, sylph-like, in a bright blue sundress with her blonde hair piled on top of her head, wearing a ridiculously oversized pair of white headphones, her hands splayed behind her and her toes waving to what he assumed was the beat of whatever she was listening to. He would bump into her again about three weeks later as she exited the library, carrying an armful of novels, one of which was “The Road”—he noticed because she dropped it on his foot and he picked it up. It was one of his favorites, he’d told her, and two days after they met for coffee—she didn’t take cream or sugar, he took both—had drinks that night—she drank Blue Moon because blue was her favorite color, and it didn’t matter to him that her words were illogical because she was light and her laugh was heavy and she was the only girl in a fifty foot radius who didn’t have tattoos or piercings (except her ears) and didn’t flock with the coterie of hipsters or pretend that she was so unique she didn’t fit in.
She didn’t care that he drove a shitty Stanza with stained seats, that he didn’t have cup holders for his Dr. Pepper, or that his garage apartment had window units and his roommate was a pervert. She was vegan, but didn’t make a fuss that he had a leather couch; she would sit on his kitchen counter, which was fine with him because he liked her from that angle. He remembers the first time they had sex—hesitant. The second time—drunk. And the last time—distracted. The times in between, when it had been exciting, passionate even, are a blur.
He tries to pinpoint when their relationship went from effortless fun to work: the month, the week, the day, the moment. He thinks about when his dad told him that Parker was a nice girl, but that there was no reason for him, at his age, to box himself in. Then he thinks about the day he brought Jenny Hunter home when he was seventeen, and when she was talking to his mom, his dad pressed a condom into his hand.
Then he thinks about Parker again, about how she always scrunches up her nose and says ew if she kissed him after he’d eaten meat of any kind, dragging out the word like a child. He thinks about how thin she is from lack of eating anything substantial but how she still has a slight double chin, which he knows she hates, and which he only noticed because once morning she was sitting in front of the floor-length mirror in her dorm room complaining about it as she dropped her chin to her chest to underscore the extra skin.
Then he thinks about his future—one without the constant nagging and the idiotic games—and he screams.
* * *
He pinched his chin between his thumb and forefinger and stared at the cargo door. It was ajar enough to slip his drink inside to free up one hand, but he’d need to get a purchase on it before he could slide it open. He set the flashlight on the ground, which was patchy with sun parched grass, sand and the butt of a half-smoked cigar that still smoldered. He pressed his heel into it; the last thing he needed was to get caught in a grass fire. He examined the frame. He wedged his foot between the door and the jamb and used his shoulder to slide it back.
A warm breeze glided across his shoulders as he reached down for the flashlight. Something caught his arm; he propelled forward and hit the ground with force. The clatter of the flashlight against the metal floor filled the space and was followed by silence.
* * *
He aims the flashlight into the center of the room before sweeping it throughout the space to make sure nothing else is lurking, no traps to step into. The red plastic case—the size of a tool box—is squarely in the center of the room. Beside it, his Styrofoam cup of soda. He picks it up carefully and sucks down the remainder.
He turns his attention back to the box and the task at hand.
“I swear to God,” he says aloud, “if there’s a head in here…”
His fingers rest on the metal tabs that will release the top. It’s rectangular, not quite large enough for a head, so he takes a deep breath, conscious that he’s using up oxygen with every inhalation. He pushes the lid back, picks up the flashlight and aims it into the box.
His brow furrows. He rocks forward, fully onto the balls of his feet.
He loses grip on the flashlight. It falls, catching the side of the plastic box on its way down, tipping it over, and sending a thundering clatter through the room as something clips him, stinging his shin. The ground rocks beneath him, and he presses his palms to the sandy floor to make sure he’s not falling.
“Help!” he cries.
He throws his body into the far end of the container. Once, twice, three times and screams, “Get me the fuck outta here!”
The flashlight rolls behind him. Its light skitters across the floor and bounces off the sides. He trips on the plastic box as he makes a grab for it, ignoring the searing pain in his shoulder.
He picks up the flashlight and tips the light to the ground to get his bearings. In the center of the spotlight is an electric blue, scroll-top key.
Cheska Avery Lynn is a writer and co-founding managing editor at The Flexible Persona, an audio literary journal. She is a graduate of Hollins University and holds a master’s degree from the University of North Texas. She is an expert baker of pumpkin pecan pie, loves yoga, Banangrams, and is in the process of editing her first novel. She resides in Houston, Texas.