It was dark, dusty, dirty, disorganized, and desolate. Also, it smelled horrendous and triggered my gag reflex. I went deeper inside.
I was flailing around my aunt’s attic, desperately looking for something useful. I needed something that would help my mom get through her latest bout of breast cancer. She told us everyday we were lucky they had caught it at Stage II; she cried herself to sleep every night. I was looking for something that would comfort her through her depression or something that would bring in enough cash to afford a better treatment. I found cobwebs, spiders, and eighties relics. It was some pretty scary stuff. I ended up clawing through every box I could find for something- anything- I could bring home for some good. Nada.
Until I ventured into a back closet built into the wall. It was really more of a hole that had been finished so it appeared to be intentional, but nevertheless it was supposed to be a closet and Aunt Linda had used it as such. I first removed a bulking cardboard box that was motheaten and flimsy to the point of falling apart at my touch. I moaned, now covered in sticky weird stuff- the kind that just never washes off or goes away no matter how you scrub or rub your hands on other things to get it all over them. After the box was out of my way, I noticed a clipboard- the kind with tiny holes in them that you use tacks on- hung on the back wall. It was mostly displaying odd documents that had accumulated over the decades sans recycling can. This included everything from school newsletters and the tops of those annoying forms where you only need the bottom to degrees for deceased and elderly relatives. If I wondered what happened to Grandma’s stuff when she was transferred to the nursing home- a crumbling establishment featuring the ever-present vomit aroma that choked young visitors- I now knew: Aunt Linda happened.
But then I saw something else. It was yellowed and frayed at the edges but laminated as if to protect this condition from worsening. Faded black pen had traced runaway zig-zags all over the surface with no apparent meaning or distinction but one: they all seemed to either originate or culminate in the same little red dot smack in the middle of nowhere. I stared at it, deep in thought, but it did make sense. All maps have labels and keys, they preached in school. No key, no labels, no title, no map. But even though this had nothing to distinguish it from a toddler’s scribbles, it felt like an ancient map to some legendary pirate’s equally legendary precious treasure. I swiftly yanked the tacks out and carefully rolled the map into a tube to stuff it in my sweatshirt pocket. It looked kind of cool.
After that, there was nothing of any value to pay for Mom’s treatment. I found some pictures I knew would make her laugh, which was starting to feel priceless to me now that she was looking like a haggard old shell of a lady and testing ground for chemo. I slid all the photos into a plastic bag and tucked them in my front pocket. Having gotten what I decided to venture up for, I hurried back down to the kitchen- a comforting space as bright and airy as the attic was dark and cramped. I pulled the map out again and set it on the table. It wasn’t the same and legit lighting; it was really thin and worn to not much more than a space. The ink turned invisible when the slanted sunlight filtered onto its surface and I had to angle it just right to make out what had been drawn. It did look like more like a map though; I noticed rounded lines traced to make shapes like borders of a country or state and a slanted script at the top, probably the title. This added to the intrigue; it wasn’t even remotely close to English. What would Linda, who never stayed awake through a Spanish lesson in her life, be doing with a map transcribed in a foreign language? I was genuinely curious now and bordering on fascination. What exactly was the treasure at the red dot? How annoyingly vague. Why did whoever made it seek to annoy me but not just turning it into an X for the sake of the map? Honestly not that hard and so much better. Why did Linda have the map and how did she get it? Nope, no sense to be found there. Why?
I gaped at that little slip of parchment until my Dad maneuvered the old SUV Mom can’t drive anymore into Linda’s driveway. I still didn’t understand what I was looking at by the time he strode into the kitchen, gave his sister-in-law a tight but awkward hug, and walked over to me. He wrapped an arm around my shoulders and gazed down to the paper to see what had me so entranced.
“What’s up, kiddo?” He inquired. Such an intuitive intellectual, my dear old dad.
“Hey, Dad,” I told him absentmindedly. “I found this in the attic.”
“In which case it’s probably toxic, treacherous, or terrifying then,” He joked. “Shall we get going?” He never was all that comfortable around Aunt Linda; it was pretty funny sometimes.
“Can’t I get you anything? Coffee or something?” Linda asked, frowning at us without even realizing it.
“Dad doesn’t drink coffee,” I reminded her. He mostly didn’t; he indulged in an iced frap every weekend of the summer and fall. But he didn’t like decaf coffee or almost any other kind.
“Alright then. Well, it was nice to see you too,” She told us. Dad was already out the door. “Give your mom all my love. Tell her she’s got us for anything she needs, the usual. And, hey Max, enjoy that map you’re so interested in. You can have it.”
“Thanks, Aunt Linda, I will.” And with that I walked out the door.
All that night I sat at my desk and poured over the map. I adjusted the lamplight until it was just right, put various school supplies over and under it so it was positioned perfectly and everything was dimensionally right, I made a copy of it on a brand new paper, and…nothing yet. Try as I did, all I did, I could not understand what the map was trying to tell me. I felt certain there was at least one hidden message and that the message just had to be for me, but I had no idea what it could possibly be.
Finally I decided to get help. I knew what I had to do, even if it was technically against a law. But do district rules even count as laws? It was worth that risk, even though I’d have to call the FBI and find out about that ‘law’ thing. I climbed out the window and onto jutting out porch roof. Then I simply took a noble leap down to the ground where I would land at a run like a princely knight. I sort of swan dived and came flying down and shoved my nose into an ant farm. While I was an upside down snow angel, I was mostly laying completely still and attempting not to scream in pain. Which was not the worst pain I was in that night.
Anyway, I got up from that and wobbled over to my car. It was cruel how many times I flopped over on my side and stumbled back up…and back down… and up again…and hello bush, I’m back…and finally to the car and into the seat. Was I clear to drive? Not up for debate. I did a pretty great job, actually. I didn’t hit anything, get pulled over, or get caught breaking traffic laws.
Dawn was cracking orange flames over the gray and brown slate of the residential zone by the time I reached it. I shut the GPS off when I did and gave the old house a wave. I knew the way from my childhood to the harsher realities of now by heart. Grandpa’s nursing home in Lukerich, Ohio was a small town home with lots of families crammed in to visit their friendly neighborhood old people and nothing at all like the Hell Linda had stashed my other Grandma in. Dad had let his own father decide where to go when we left Lukerich for Chicago; Gramps had opted to go the nursing home route, which he insisted was “what worked best for everyone” and “really out of laziness and never dependence”. Mom had tears in her eyes when she watched me say goodbye to him, I think because she wanted me to believe he really was okay. I wanted that too because, as it turned out, I was going to need the strength I spent soldiering through Grandpa’s decline like a man. I wanted to be strong, but taking a guy’s mom away from him is like pegging him in the balls with a brick while he’s sleeping. I tried to keep my expression neutral and hide the pushing throb of threatening tears within the folds of my dark hood.
On the morning I drove from my house to my home to visit the only person I had left behind, Grandpa was strutting the halls in adamant refusal to don a shirt. He told the staff tasked with changing his mind that he wanted to photograph the sunset and no, he would not be giving in to anyone’s demands until he saw the star sink into the lake. He wanted this day to be over. Listening to him, I was reminded of his liking that everyday started and ended with beauty and natural grace no matter what anyone did in between. Finally, I just told them it was okay and they could just take him back to his room so I could talk to him. I promised to coerce him into clothing with no intention of doing so.
“So how’ve you been, son?” He grunted as soon as I got him settled and sat down myself. This was an awkward process as I had no idea what to do and was in no way comfortable handling him by myself. I started wishing I had let them do their job. But he was still quite lucid and grunted me through everything I needed to do with the occasional manhandling when I did something I wasn’t supposed to. I sat down and squirmed almost immediately in a panic.
“Um, no, I’m not….well, you see-” Grandpa finally put me out of my misery by cutting me off.
“You’re my grandson, Max the Mighty,” He told me.
“You remembered!” Pre-cancer, Mom and Dad had read to me all the time. My favorite book- a sequel of my previous favorite book- was called Max the Mighty. I almost cried every time I read it and only my family was allowed to know how much it meant to me. Of course, every other book still made me bored out of my mind but Grandpa liked to tell me I had a way with words and they meant a lot to everyone.
“Of course I remembered, Max. I just wanted to call you son that particular time. Sue me, little man, I’ve been missing you guys. What’s going on?”
“Mom has cancer,” I began.
“Duh,” He responded, reminding me that he had always liked to feel ‘hip’. I felt awful about it, but I couldn’t help laughing.
“What do you mean by that?” I finally asked, not getting why it was so obvious.
“Fact: women with big boobs get boob cancer. You are welcome,” He informed me.
“So I wanted to help her,” I continued.
“Ok, Gramps. I found something.”
He perked his head up, distracted from his hidden jello stash- which was as pointless as it was massive- and met my eyes with an odd look in his own.
“Something that brought you all the way from the big city to see your old man.” He stroked his beard in a very stereotypical way.
“I’m pretty sure it’s a map, but I can’t read it.”
“Well of course you can’t boy, you’re nothing but a child!” He declared with a laugh I missed more than I cared to admit. “I guess you brought it? Give it here, I’ll tell you what it means.”
Far be it from me to like someone talking down to me like that, but it was what I had come for so I got up acting all proud like I was totally his equal. I handed him the map and came around to peer over his shoulder. First, he twisted it around.
“What did you give it to me upside down for?” He demanded with a snort. My jaw dropped; I gaped at the document in shock, looking at it with brand new eyes. When I saw it as he looked at it, I barely managed to hurl the swear back in my mouth. Grandpa snorted and said something I will not repeat. Mostly because it’s too embarrassing. Which you may think is unfair, but whatever, it’s my story. Anyway, Grandpa could interpret the map.
Unfortunately, he decided I wouldn’t be able to handle it by myself.
“Max, you couldn’t hold the map right! Why should I leave you on your own to use it?”
“Because I know what it means now!”
“And how are you going to find what you’re looking for? You need me, son.” I hated needing people. The shrink I was speaking to over some sensitive issues said that probably stemmed from my “irrational fear of losing people”, but that wasn’t the case. I was only afraid of losing my parents- is fear of losing a cancer patient irrational? No, Doctor Dimwit, it is not. You’re fired, by the way.
So my rational logic was to break Grandpa out of the nursing home temporarily and return him and when we’d found the treasure. By the way, he’d told me there was treasure to be had.
“So this map you’ve got here..” He’d mused stroking the frayed edges of yellow. “It promises treasure.” He declared ever so cavalier.
“What?!” I was never prepared for that kind of news. It was just interesting somehow.
“Yep. treasure to be found due north, courtesy of an old outlaw legend not a soul alive today could prove. Look here, boy, this word was used in ancient times to equate booty.” He told me, pointing to a collection of squiggles.
“Where?” I inquired.
“I’ll take you to it,” He said. This brought us to the argument of who was going on this adventure.
Eventually, we had it settled that I was going to sneak him out the back door and drive with no question wherever he told me to. When we reached our destination, he’d wait in the car while I searched for the treasure. However, he reserved the right to shout orders through the car window. To counteract this sass, I reserved the right to put the child lock on. Go soccer mom cars!
It took me less than half an hour of being yelled at to get to the little red dot I had started obsessing over nearly 24 hours earlier. It was a big lake I had never known about before but Grandpa had stories about lingering from his childhood back when Jesus roamed the earth converting the water supply into liver cancer. For some clandestine reason, the map showed a tree I had mistaken for a squiggly line. The old man insisted the treasure was buried under that tree. So I locked the car doors and trotted over to the big tree. It was an ancient willow that was, in fact, bigger than Grandpa’s room at the nursing home.
When I was halfway there, I noticed a stray stick and went to pick it up. It was then that I tripped over it and landed on something that was definitely not grass. I lay on the ground- correction steel trapdoor because why not try to kill people- and thought I was really in for it this time. I was in so much pain I nearly cried, which turned into embarrassment, which brought forth a golden waterfall of anxiety attack, which conveniently signalled the nearby snake- a cousin of one of the three breeds I’m scared of- to run rampant. So I was terrified when Grandpa stuck his head out the window to wonder whether I had stared at the sun long enough and could I please focus. He followed this up with a cancer joke. Not like his only daughter-in-law was halfway in the grave over it or anything, but he made a crappy cancer joke. Anyone who knows me at all knows I will fight anyone who thinks that’s funny; this time, I was mad enough to get up and fly into enough of a rage to ignore my personal broken but and start beating the crap out of the trapdoor. At which point I noticed it was a trapdoor and, once again, had to refrain from cursing out loud.
When I collected myself, I went over to get Grandpa and together we opened the trapdoor. He made me go first- Grandpa is such a lionheart beast- and I walked down this bronze staircase that was rusty and gross and made weird noises it was not supposed to. This ended in a cute little matching chamber that was only slightly darker but was okay until this she-devil with Nicki Minaj boobs jumped out. The devil bounced around throwing judo kicks I remembered from the three years of karate I had cut off in favor of band practice. Anyway, she clearly was the worst possible thing: a ninja with no mercy, honor, or ethics. She attacked the old man as ruthlessly as she did me so I attacked her with as much force as my broken body was capable of generating. Scene: epic fight until a gunshot went off. So this huge rifle fired and the ninja booked it like her ass was in flames. Also remarkably silicone-like, I checked.
As soon as she had cleared out, I rushed to help Grandpa and he told me was fine- this was a lie, but manly pride and all so I let it slide. We then proceeded into the ridiculously, shockingly, comically unlocked room opposite the little one we were in. And, just like a cheap movie falling action, it was filled with cash. Beautiful, plentiful green lined the walls, the floor, the ceiling, and everything. And had all allegedly been stolen and the search for it and ceased in intervening decades. It was all ours to save Mom. I noticed a container of bags and grabbed one. As soon as I started stuffing, I noticed Grandpa again. He stood leaning against the door jam with arms folded over his broad chest…just watching me. I put the bag down and met his gaze. A slow, thin smile played at his lips; I returned it without thought and began distributing the money back to its stacks. And that is when I called the cops.
“And this is all true, Sir?” The officer sent to respond to our goose chase tale asked Grandpa. I scowled and muttered under my breath.
“It mostly certainly is, my fine civil servant.” Grandpa said. “Now, if you don’t mind, my grandson and I will be going. Nursing home worriers and all,” He said, way more chipper than I felt.
“Actually there is, Sir. obviously, we’d have to check with our superiors first, but we think this calls for something special, so we’d like to offer a reward. For doing the right thing.”
We whooped with glee all the way home and took Mom straight to the hospital. Sure enough, as we later learned, private donations can go a long way. I’ll get pretty angry about those when they stop being the reason I still have my mom.