I pull the last box from the dusty crawlspace, coughing as I drag it across the concrete. My day is nearly over.
“Bryce! Watch your head.”
Too late. I bump the back of my head again, as if twenty other trips in and out of the small door hadn’t taught me a lesson.
I rub the bump, scowling at the door frame.
“If you weren’t a slow learner before, you are now,” Ally says.
“Ha ha. Can we please get this done?” I grab the boxcutter from the floor where I’m crouching and run it across the tape.
I never thought I’d be anxious to get back home and back to work. It’s been a week since Grandpa’s funeral, and only my cousin and I could stay long enough afterwards to help my mother prepare the house to sell. That meant cleaning everything out, all the items he’d accumulated with our grandmother for forty-five years and then for ten more years after she died.
Fatigue gnaws at me. Just finish this box. You can fly home tomorrow.
I pull out some smaller boxes and hand them to Ally. I remove a small, red felt case about the size of a deck of cards and open it.
A pocket watch rests there – brass, maybe. Obviously old. There’s an engraving on the front I don’t recognize.
“Do you know what this is?” I pull the watch from the case and show it to Ally.
She takes it and examines it. “It looks like a family crest. But we don’t have one of those that I know of.” She shrugs and hands it back to me. “Maybe it was a gift.”
I push the clasp and the front of the watch springs open. A small, folded paper falls out and lands near my knee.
Picking it up, I unfold it, careful not to tear the antique creases. It displays a hand-drawn map and a message written in cursive – I’ll be waiting.
“Okay, this is weird.” I hand the paper off.
Ally turns it around, as if I’ve handed it to her upside-down. Her face brightens. “I know where this is!”
“Shut up. You do not.”
“Of course I do. I grew up around here, remember?” She moves to sit next to me, holding the map between us. “See this outline? That looks like Horsehead Rock, in the mountains just outside of town. There’s a river that runs along the side of it.” She traces the curved line with her finger, following it to the base of the map, where someone had drawn a circle. “I don’t know what that is. Wanna go find out?”
I glance at the box, then at the clock on the wall. “I don’t know. I want to get this done.”
She hits me on the arm. “Come on! This is cool! Grandpa kept this hidden away for some reason. And this note looks like it could be something romantic.” She raises her eyebrows and fans herself with the paper.
I look out the window at the sunny day. It would be nice to get outside. “How far away is it?”
Forty-five minutes later, I’m tromping through knee-high grass in a small valley and swatting at a battalion of mosquitoes.
Ally points up. “There’s the rock.” She points ahead while looking at the paper and walking at the same time. “The river’s on our right, so I think if we just keep going this way, we’ll see whatever’s circled on here.”
After ten minutes, we finally leave the grass and enter a wooded area. I scratch my bare legs, wishing I hadn’t worn shorts today.
“Oh, I remember this.” Ally jogs down the trail. “Grandpa used to bring us here.”
She stops after a few minutes, standing by a gate that covers the entrance to a dark cave.
“Grandpa said some kids died in here a long time ago, when it flooded or something. So the police put this gate over the opening to keep other kids out.”
“If you think that note is romantic, I doubt this is the place.”
She stares at the gate, then at the padlock securing it.
“You want to break in, don’t you?”
I find a large rock and after a few whacks, the lock breaks. The gate moans and creaks when I open it, as if relieved to finally have a workout after so many decades.
I pull my phone from my pocket and turn on the flashlight, trying not to think about the creatures that like to live in caves.
As the daylight shrinks behind us, something catches my eye in the flashlight beam. It looks like…a boot?
Approaching it, I see the boot is not alone. Its partner is next to it, covering the feet of the nicely-dressed, mostly decomposed skeleton leaning against the wall. The skull appears to have been fractured.
“Oh my God.” Ally leans towards the bones. “This looks like a woman.”
I swallow my anxiety and the urge to run away. “Yeah. What’s she doing here?”
The clothes are tattered but identifiable – like the dresses women wore in the fifties. A purse rests near her hip.
Ally picked it up and opens it, pulling out a small stack of papers.
“Hand me your light.”
I do, then I stand next to her to see what she has.
“My darling,” she reads. “I wish more than anything to be with you. But people may have noticed us at the bar. Gary, I’m afraid I can’t risk being caught. I love you too much to do that to you. Maybe if we lived in a different place, or among strangers, we could freely love each other.
“I want to see you one last time. Wear a disguise. And pick somewhere in secret. I’ll await your message. Love, Harold.”
“Grandpa wrote this. Who’s Gary?” I ask.
“A disguise…” Ally hands the papers to me and crouches next to the bones, examining the clothes. Her gaze goes to one of the boots.
She crawls to them, gingerly pulling one off the remains of the foot. She holds the bottom of the boot to the bottom of the foot. “These boots would have been too small.”
“You don’t think this was a woman,” I say.
She shakes her head, puts down the boot, and stands, still looking at the remains. “Looks like Grandpa had some secrets.”
Okay, I’m a teensy bit over my word limit, hence the rather abrupt ending. Here’s the deal.
This was for Chuck Wendig’s latest flash fiction challenge. We were given three lists of ten items each, and using a random number generator, we were to pick one item from each list. I got:
A pocket watch
You got: this story that I don’t think is really over. Maybe there will be a part two at some point. Anyway, I hope you found it entertaining enough.