It had drifted to them during the waning-hours of a beach party. Almost everyone had taken off, packing up their backpacks and heading back into the bright lights of the city. Only they had stayed because Kate insisted on beach-combing. Whenever they came to the water, she would take her little plastic bucket, one she had had since childhood and walk to the far ends of the beach. She would disappear for hours and come back with rocks and shells and things that most anyone would consider litter. Why she brought the lone sneaker, the lens-less sunglasses…he could never understand. He would just shake his head and laugh when she showed him her treasures. It was no surprise to him to find himself in the dim light of the setting sun, resting on a colorful beach towel and waiting for Kate. A wind blew in from the ocean, “a cold front,” he thought. He reached for his backpack to retrieve the hoodie inside.
He looked up and to the north, running along the shore, small and white against the blue background of the ocean was Kate. He could see the white outline of her body in the even whiter bikini that came towards him. “I wonder what she found this time…” He got up, pulling the hoodie over his head. He started walking towards her.
“Max! Max! Look what I found.” She was carrying something large in one of her hands, the red plastic bucket was in the other. “Look,” she thrust an old bottle into his hands. It was worn and white. It was cold, cold from years of travelling the ocean currents.
“Wow, look at the glass, it’s all cloudy and milky-white, it must have been out there forever.,” he said with a slight hint of curiosity.
“Yeah, and you know, I think there’s something inside it, listen,” she held the bottle to his ear as she shook it slightly.
Max smiled slightly, “it’s like from a movie,”
He took the bottle from her hands, he gave it a little shake and then tried to unplug the cork. “ahh, I think it’s useless, the cork’s really in there, we’re gonna have to break it.”
“Oh, but the bottle is so pretty, I thought you’d be able to open it with some sort of tool.” Her eyes showed a bit of worry. This was her treasure, now he talked about destroying it.
“Well look, don’t you want to see what’s inside?”
She nodded her head.
“Well there’s a years worth of salt buildup along the cork, I’m not sure if I can get it out, if I push it in, it could destroy what’s inside. I think the only thing we can do is break it.”
“Really?” she said, still a little worried.
He nodded. He took her silence as consent and turned and started walking towards the cement bathrooms. There were lots of rocks near the bathrooms. He picked one that was slightly larger than his hand, he brought it down tentatively, striking the bottle. Nothing happened, the bottle was slick. He raised his hand higher, he brought it downward and closed his eyes upon impact. There was the sound of glass breaking.
“Max! you said you’d be careful!”
“It wasn’t going to work any other way, it needed some force.”
He carefully reached his finger among the pile of creamy-white broken glass. There was a small tube, a tube of paper. He brought his thumb and index finger to the edge of the paper and pulled it out, shaking the paper gently and letting the glass shards fall.
“Made a little mess,” he said with a devilish smile.
Kate shook her head, “you like destroying things, don’t you?”
He smiled. They turned their attention to the paper. Their fingers fumbled together as they tried to un-scroll it. “It’s a map,” she said in disbelief.
Three months ago they had found the map, and now they were here, tromping along the south side of Tikam-sui, a small island in the Sampui Republic, which was really a collection of a dozen small islands in the South Pacific. The map had taken a hold of them, like a plague of the imagination.
“What if it’s really true?” Kate would wonder at night. “What if it was the last message sent from a sinking ship? What if a defector made a map and threw it overboard in the middle of the night?”
They came up with dozens of stories, they wanted it to be true. And now they were here, animated creatures following the lines of the map, looking for the buried treasure. Was it jewels that the map promised? There was no picture of a treasure box on the map, nothing that overt. But there were complicated lines indicating the ocean currents and this was the modern-day nation that the lines all pointed to. This was the place with the “X.” The “X” that promised nothing but mystery.
“So…I’m not sure how the topography has changed since the map was made, but if it’s still slightly close, then we’re on the right side of the island. This beach is big, how the hell are we supposed to find it? Whatever it is?” Max wondered out loud.
Kate shook her head, “just pick a place and start digging,” she said. “But you know,” she added, “don’t try to use your head, just walk ‘til it feels good and then start digging.”
They held the map between them, four hands held the corners open in the light of the setting sun.
“Well, we should probably make a nice fire and carve out a place to sleep…maybe eat some chocolate…we can start looking tomorrow, soon as the sun rises.”
They slept among a sparkling blanket of stars. They were at least a thousand miles away from any big-city noise and neon signs, here the night lights came out from hiding, they showed themselves to wondrous eyes in unabashed openness. Max and Kate lay together, in the double sleeping bag they had brought.
She nestled her head against his chest, “I can’t believe this all exists, it’s too beautiful.”
The sun came up against a layer of sinewy blue clouds that burned away quickly.
“Ok, remember, pick a place with your body, not your head,” Kate said with more confidence than she felt.
Max nodded. They each started walking, in slightly parallel lines and then, after a couple of steps, they diverged. Kate walked for forty more steps, then sunk to her knees and started digging with her small metal shovel. She dug until the sun was high overhead and her stomach was rumbling. She climbed out of the sandy hole and went to look for Max. She walked down the beach half a mile and saw three holes that were close together, each was a couple of feet deep. He was shoveling into the third hole.
“Ready for lunch?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, looking up and squinting, there was sand stuck to his cheeks. “You know, this is gonna be a big job.”
She nodded. “How come there are three different holes?”
“Well, I started and then, obviously, didn’t find anything, so I started digging in another spot.”
She nodded, vague memories rushed to her of all the things Max started and then stopped. The two hours of guitar lessons, the two weeks of Karate, the single lesson of sculpture. Nothing held his interest too long. She imagined a beach pocked with a thousand knee-high holes.
“I’m still working on mine, it’s pretty deep,” she said. “Cool, different styles, I guess.”
They ate their lunch and returned to their respective places on the beach. At night, they returned to their camp and made a fire and held each other in the soft confines of their sleeping bag.
“This is gonna be a lot of work,” Max said as he drifted to dreamland.
Kate knew Max would never find it, the mysterious “X.” He just never went far enough, he always stayed at the surface, giving up before making a committed effort. The only thing she had ever seen him commit to was her. She smiled a little and kissed his sleeping forehead. She thought to herself, “if there is anything here, it’s sure to be buried deep. Anything worth hiding is worth hiding well. They would have hid it thinking ahead, thinking of storms, of the ever-present sea, of the coming years, without the certain truth they would ever come back. Whatever it is, it is probably buried very deep.”
The next morning the sound of a small bird awoke them. It spoke in the rhythmic intervals of a metronome. Somewhere in the thicket of tropical trees behind them, a chorus of little birds answered.
“Time to get up,” Max said, kissing Kate on the forehead.
“Let’s find the mystery…” she said with sleepy eyes.
“You want to come over to my side of the beach to help me?” Max asked.
“No, I want to really make sure that it’s not there, or make sure it is. Either way, I need to keep digging.”
They dug for hours, they dug for days. The days turned into a week, the week transformed, moving out of the regimented intervals they had grown accustomed to. As she had seen with her mind’s eye, Max had indeed dug a hundred small holes over the beach. Time only had two designations for them now, light and dark. They dug when it was light, they made love when the sun moved away from them. Each morning, Kate went back to the same large hole she had started with. The one her heart had chosen. With each movement of her shovel, she thought of something precious she would want to hide and protect, she thought of how deep she would have struggled to protect it from unworthy hands. There was nothing else to do. There was the sun, the beach, the sand and the work. Sweat ran down her forehead as she came to realize that nothing else truly mattered anymore.