It was my turn to dig again. I rolled my head from side to side in an attempt to loosen the muscles in my shoulders. I’d had many turns. Still, I’d uncovered nothing.
“Are you sure this is where he left it?” I asked, wiping my brow with the bottom of my t-shirt.
“That’s what his letter said.”
I hefted my shovel again and got back to work.
“I know we’re friends and all,” I told Zeke, tossing dirt over my shoulder. “But we’ve been out here for hours. I’m starting to question just how important this relationship of ours is to me.”
He was quiet. All I heard was the metal of the shovel as it bit into the soil, then the sound of the dirt as it landed in a pile outside the latest hole. Normally, he was better at taking a joke.
I looked up to see that he was surveying the map again.
“Hop out,” he said. “It’s my turn.”
“Where now?” I asked, climbing out of the two-foot hole I’d just dug. I handed over the shovel and scrubbed my palms against the filthy denim of my jeans.
“Over here I think.” I watched him traverse the yard carefully.
“If I didn’t know any better I’d guess you have a big rodent problem.” I thought about what I’d said, then began to chuckle. “A big problem. And big rodents.”
He wasn’t paying attention. I sighed and followed him beneath a large oak tree where he’d begun yet another hole.
“You’re a tough crowd,” I told him.
“I can do more than dig.” I gestured at him to hand over the map. “Let me see it. Two sets of eyes are better than one.”
Zeke shook his head. “Granddad was specific in his instructions,” he reminded me. “I’m the only one supposed to see this.” He stopped shoveling for a moment to pat the pocket in which he’d placed the folded letter. “And he made sure I knew I’m only supposed to read one line at a time.”
“He was a big fan of mystery novels, your granddad, wasn’t he?”
“Yep. He really despised people who read ahead or flipped to the back to see how the story would end.”
“Yeah,” I said, somewhat sarcastically. “Those people are the worst.” The man was dead, I reasoned. How would he know if we didn’t follow his instructions word for word? I watched Zeke’s face and inwardly scolded myself for the thought. I was being a jerk and I knew it.
“Okay,” I agreed. “So, just how much money did he bury out here, anyway?”
“Hell if I know,” was Zeke’s reply.
“The letter doesn’t say?”
“Probably. I’m guessing I just haven’t gotten that far yet.”
I wove my way to a picnic table sitting beneath another sprawling oak. There were a few bottles of Gatorade sweating in the heat. I chose one and twisted it open. As I drank I thought about Zeke and his grandfather.
The two of them had always been close. I’d met Zeke about ten years ago. He’d introduced me to his grandfather shortly after we’d become friends. Zeke’s parents had been killed in a car accident when he’d been five years old. Zeke moved into this gargantuan house in the south end of town before the funeral took place. He lived here now, but on his own. Two weeks ago, he’d been left without a guardian again when his grandfather died of a heart attack in his sleep. Zeke had been just a few days’ shy of his eighteenth birthday on that fateful night. Now the house and everything his grandfather owned belonged to him.
When Zeke opened the letter that had been tucked away in an envelope, along with a copy of his grandfather’s will, he learned that the old man had left something else for him. It was a detailed letter attached to a treasure map of the grounds. There was something hidden there, and Zeke’s granddad wanted him to find it.
Zeke wasn’t one to be untruthful. In the ten years I’d known him, I’d only caught him in a few white lies. The kind that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. He’d told me once the movie I wanted to see started a half an hour after the actual time so I’d have to watch his pick instead. Then he made it up to me by taking me out to dinner later that night. There was the time he drove me to another friend’s house and told me we were just going to hang out. When I opened the door, everyone I knew popped out from behind couches and chairs and scared me so bad I’d nearly wet my pants. That didn’t count, though. How else was he going to pull the surprise off without being a little bit devious?
If Zeke told me he didn’t know the whole story, I believed him. I also knew how important his grandfather had been to him. When he confided in me, told me his grandfather had left him a treasure in the back yard, I believed that, too. When he asked me to help him find it, I didn’t hesitate.
I just wish we’d could find the damn thing already.
“He says to dig this one a foot deep.”
“Was your grandfather of sound mind?” I asked.
Zeke lifted his baseball cap from his head and wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt. “I always thought so. I’ll be honest. I’m starting to wonder.”
I took another long swallow of Gatorade and turned in a slow circle, my eyes skipping over the two dozen holes we’d been instructed to dig. Some of them were shallow, others were four to five feet deep. There had been nothing in any of them, and because Zeke wasn’t supposed to read ahead, neither one of us had any idea just how many more holes we were expected to dig.
“Alrighty, then,” I said, capping the bottle. “My turn?”
“Looks like it.”
Zeke stepped out of the hole and pulled the letter out of his pocket again. He found where he’d left off and read the next instruction. I noticed that he’d come to the bottom of the first page. Maybe we’d find whatever it was that had been hidden and we could call this whole scavenger hunt a done deal before too long.
“Over in the garden,” Zeke told me. “This one’s a deep one.”
I rolled my eyes. “How deep?”
I bit the inside of my cheek and took the shovel from him. “Lead the way.”
Zeke made his way across the yard and I followed, squinting in the late afternoon sun. “Granddad had kind of a sick sense of humor.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You don’t say.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me if we spent all day digging up his yard just to find that he’d buried a five-dollar bill out here.”
“And made me dig a six-foot hole to find it.” When Zeke didn’t say anything in response I stopped walking. “He knew I’d be out here with you, didn’t he?”
“It says in his letter it had to be you,” Zeke answered. “And I dug the first hole because that’s what he told me to do.”
I thought about that as we walked. “If the treasure is in this hole,” I told Zeke. “And it’s under a hundred bucks, I’m taking it all.”
Zeke laughed. “Fair enough.”
The hole was about five feet deep and I was taking a break. The least the old man could’ve done was pick a spot in the shade. He hadn’t. Over the past hour, I’d come up with a collection of nasty names I desperately wanted to call him, but I kept my mouth shut. I was too out of breath to talk much, anyway.
When my shovel hit something hard, something that made a thudding noise, both Zeke and I looked at one another.
“There’s something down here,” I told him.
He looked at the letter and nodded his head. “Yes,” he said, anticipation coloring the word. “This is it.”
I uncovered a large, rectangular box with my shovel. When it was exposed, I hefted it from the dirt and lifted it. Zeke reached down and took hold of one of the handles and pulled it up onto the grass.
“It’s heavy. It must weigh, what, forty pounds?”
“Or more. There’s a combination on the lock.” He consulted the letter again. “Let’s see,” he said, his eyes scanning the spidery handwriting. “Ten,” he moved the dial to the left. “Twenty-seven,” over to the right. “Eight.” He held onto the lock for a moment before trying to pull it open.
“It’s gotta be more than five dollars,” I told him.
“Unless it’s all in pennies.”
“C’mon,” I urged him. “The suspense is killing me.”
He unfastened the lock and pulled it from the box. When he lifted the lid, we both peered in.
My eyes grew wide. “So much more than five dollars.”
“And not a penny to be found.”
Zeke reached in and fingered the bundles of one hundred dollar bills. He counted quietly, his lips moving without sound.
“How many are there?” I asked.
“There’s at least two million dollars here,” he told me, staring down at the neat stacks of cash. “Where in the world did Granddad get two million dollars?”
I shook my head. “I have no idea, but now you have the money to hire a crew to come in and fill all these holes up again. And pay for me to go to the spa and get a massage.”
Zeke smiled and stood up, closing the lid of the box. “There’s still more to the letter.”
“Great,” I said lifting the shovel toward him. “How about you help me out, and then we’ll figure out what else your granddad wants us to do.”
He took the shovel and held it in one hand while his eyes scanned the last page of the letter. It was hard to tell from where I stood, my head not quite level with his sneakers, but it looked as though the color was slowly draining from his face.
“Oh, no …”
“Zeke, what’s wrong?”
I looked around and found some jagged edges around the hole I’d dug. I stuck a toe in one of the ledges and reached up, my fingers grabbing at the blades of grass above me. I’d managed to pull myself up a couple of feet when I felt a shadow shade me from the sun. I looked up and saw Zeke standing above me, the handle of the shovel resting on the ground, the blade up in the air.
“I know now why Granddad didn’t want me to read ahead.” His voice wasn’t stable and his eyes shone with unshed tears. The letter fell from his hands and I watched as he wrapped his fingers around the wooden shaft.
Zeke had always loved his grandfather. He’d always done everything the older man had ever told him to do. It suddenly felt very important that I get myself out of this hole.
I scrambled up another six inches, my fingers stained green from the grass I was pulling from the roots. Dirt was crumbling from the edge, falling to color the front of my shirt.
“I also know why he had two million dollars,” Zeke said.
“He was frugal?” I asked, concentrating hard on pulling myself up. I was closer. Another foot.
“Frugal,” Zeke nodded. “Yes. Do you remember him having much company?”
I glanced up and saw that Zeke was staring down at me, his fingers wrapped around the shovel so tightly his knuckles were white.
“Uh, no …” I paused, trying to swing my leg up over the edge.
“It’s because he had no friends,” Zeke told me.
I saw the glint of sun on the shovel and raised my head to see Zeke swinging it around like a Louisville Slugger.
Right before I felt the pain explode inside my head, before everything went dark, I felt one last ping of regret. Now that I knew how much Zeke’s granddad disliked me, I wished I had told the old man I was one of those people who flipped to the back of the book to read the last page.