One Year Later
Everybody has a theory about Gray Wolf Island. Doris Lansing has five.
“Pirates’ gold.” She touches one finger to another. “King John’s missing crown jewels. The Holy Grail. The Ark of the Covenant. Or the Fountain of Youth.”
We’re sucking down milk shakes beneath the lone oak tree outside the Oceanview Nursing Center, her in a wheelchair and me on a stone bench that cools the backs of my thighs. I tie my hair into a high ponytail so the meager breeze can dry the sweat on my neck.
Across the lawn, the bluff drops to a pebbled beach, then miles and miles of ocean. Somewhere too far to see from here but close enough to call our own are Gray Wolf Island and a deep, deep, deep hole.
“Sheriff March thinks it holds the key to all knowledge,” I say.
“Ha! That’s a myth if I’ve ever heard one.”
They are all myths. It’s the lie I tell myself daily because that’s what I do now. I lie.
I tell myself there is no such thing as buried treasure. That the source of Wildewell’s endless frustration is one very famous sinkhole. That I haven’t screwed up my sister’s dying wish by being too weak with grief to chase a legend.
Doris’s fingers tighten around my wrist. “Are you seeing this, Ruby?”
I lift my sunglasses and blink back the bright. The ocean is almost silver in the summer light, as if the sun has leached color from the sea. A bony finger pushes my cheek, and my head jerks to the left.
“What a babe.” Her eyes follow Gabriel Nash in all his crisp-polo glory as he pushes the giant Oceanview lawn mower with an almost innocent unawareness that other people might struggle with the same task only to come away sweaty, wrinkled, and covered in grass clippings. “I always trust a man in a pair of pressed slacks.” She slurps her milk shake, then shoots me a serious look. “I bet he’s a very tidy kisser.”
“Doris!” I should mention that Doris Lansing is one hundred and four years old, and she’s only that young because she started counting backward once she hit a hundred and six.
“Not for me.” She shakes her head. “Nope, not for me.”
It’s been this way with her since I first started volunteering at the nursing home, one month after Sadie died. I push the wheelchair around the grounds, she scouts for potential relationships. Once, in a fit of exasperation after I told her I didn’t want a boyfriend, she told me I could have a quick fling so long as I kept my pants on.
“Which of those boys is he?” She doesn’t say it the way most adults do when talking about Gabriel Nash, Elliot Thorne, and Charles Kim, like they’re talking about wild boars or ferocious wolves. She says it the way most girls my age do when talking about the trio, like the boys have been dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with gold.
“His mother’s the Virgin Mary.” It isn’t her real name, of course. That’s Cecile Nash--three syllables too ordinary for the virgin who gave birth.
My grandpa Sal used to say that simply being near Gabe invited evil into your life. There are stories--this is Wildewell, after all. Some say Gabe brushed against them in a crowded store and, out of their fear of the damned, their shoulders dislocated. Others say Gabe shook their hands and, after they’d come into contact with such evil, burns sprang to life on their palms. And if it wasn’t exactly true before, it was once they spoke the words.
But there are also those people who believe Gabe is holy. An angel maybe, because who else but God could make a virgin pregnant? Constance Loyal, whose knees have cracked with arthritis for longer than Gabe has been alive, said she found relief after Gabe shook her hand at church. She was seated at the time, so Mr. Garza, who had burns on his palm from where Gabe had shaken his hand at church just last week, cried foul. But Mrs. Loyal just stood without a creak and danced a small jig.
Across the lawn, Gabe whips off his polo and tucks it into his back pocket. Doris sucks in a breath. “I hope the sprinklers come on.”
She shoots me a look that says she’s lovingly infuriated with me. “It’s okay to joke now and then.”
“Fine. Yes, Gabe Nash is an exquisite lawn ornament.” But I’m not looking at Gabe. I’m staring at the silver sea. And like I do every time I see the ocean, I think of Gray Wolf Island and buried treasure and a promise I can’t keep.
I park Doris’s wheelchair at the far end of the library, where a wall of windows overlooks the garden. It’s overrun by butterfly bushes, azaleas, hyssop, monkshood, and dogwood trees that spill petals across the lawn. A layer of dirt left over from this week’s landscaping coats the outer glass, so the light streaming into the room has a hazy, lazy quality.
“I can’t just fall asleep, Ruby. It doesn’t work like that,” she says, rolling her eyes. I want to tell her that that is exactly how it works, but we’ve been over this before. And besides, she thinks I only fall asleep so easily because I’m depressed, which I’m not. Not really. Mostly I can’t think of anything else to do with my time. And in sleep I can forget what I did.
I don’t tell Doris that, though. I don’t tell anyone.
“Read me something good.” A mischievous smile and a wink tell me exactly what kind of book she has in mind, but narrating sex scenes to an old woman is about as enjoyable as cleaning bedpans. Unfortunately, I have firsthand knowledge of both.
“I’ll read you something academic. That ought to put you right to sleep.”
“You know what you need, Ruby?”
“A paying job?”
“An adventure.” Doris squints me so hard I’m afraid she’s stuck that way.
Then I remember the way she looked at Gabe Nash earlier, like she might gift-wrap him and give him to me with a bow. “I’m not really the adventuring type.”
“Oh, fine.” She shakes her head. I get the feeling I’ve disappointed her, but I’m used to it. I disappoint myself on a daily basis. “At least pick one about indigenous peoples. Ours is a history you kids ought to learn.”
There is no shortage of historical texts on these shelves. In its past life, this building dealt in the rare and exceptional, and the research within these walls was the first step to discovery. Its former owner, renowned American antiquities dealer Bishop Rollins, was a true believer, and the town’s most prominent one at that. Like so many before him, he was drawn to quiet Wildewell by the tempting tale of Gray Wolf Island. He wasn’t the first to commission a dig, but he was the only one who stuck around after the money ran out and the treasure, if there is a treasure at all, stayed buried.
My fingers trace worn spines as I walk the perimeter of the room. Paperback romance novels and used sudoku books, which the library has collected in the five years since Rollins’s death, squeeze beside books older than my grandparents, giving the wall the appearance of a grin with too many teeth.
In the far corner of the library, towering mahogany shelves hold dense reads with thick spines. I suck in a deep breath, savoring the musty, dusty scent that seems to float like motes in the air. “Smells like knowledge,” Sadie used to say when she brought worn books home from the library in her never-ending quest to discover the secrets of Gray Wolf Island. I hated the smell until she was gone. Now I love it.
I walk with my head tipped sideways until my gaze falls on a shelf labeled native studies. It’s packed with cracked spines, monstrous things that promise dry sentences and tedious facts and a nap for a very old woman. I tug Twelve Thousand Years: Native Americans in Maine from its tight slot between two equally formidable books, both of which crash to the floor as Twelve Thousand Years thuds into my chest. I fumble for the fallen books, but before I slide them onto the shelf, I notice a thin paperback hidden at the back.
As I look at the flapping flag on the book’s cover--black as sin and adorned with a skull and crossbones--I know with an odd certainty that it was left for me: a gaping grin of bones meant to mock the standstill I’ve been in since the day Sadie died.
But no, it’s more than that. It’s adrenaline in my veins. Anticipation in my chest. It’s the sense of something more that makes my skin buzz and my arm hairs stand.
I snatch the book from the shelf and walk away.
Doris is asleep by the time I return, white hair fluttering in the breeze from the air conditioner. I tug her blanket to her neck, fingers brushing papery skin, then settle onto a couch so stiff it has to be expensive.
The slim book sits on my lap like an anchor. Holding me here, to this spot in Bishop Rollins’s house, to this moment that feels like more than it is.
I fan the pages, skimming the chapter titles and not thinking about the story or even the treasure. My mind is on Sadie and the day she stole lip gloss from the pharmacy. The way she flipped the pages of her book--fast, fast, faster--until she couldn’t keep the secret any longer.
My mind is on Sadie’s red fingernails the day the butterfly died. The way she let the polish smear against a stark white page because she’d been inexplicably bitten by the poetry bug.
My mind is on Sadie when I discover the treasure map.
The first clue is inked in the empty space after the book’s final words--a square with a slash through its center. Slanted writing begins after the symbol and runs onto the next page. I read and reread and reread, not quite believing that the scribbled poem is a map to the treasure. Sadie’s treasure. I close my eyes. Take a deep breath. Then I read it again.
Many will try,
will seek, will fail
to discover a treasure
and pull back the veil.
To throw out the false
and welcome the true,
Only one will triumph.
And that could be you.
Your adventure begins
with stars trapped in a sign.
Navigate with them and
our paths will align.
Discover the spot where
morning sun scorches sand
and the ocean beats its anger
into the land.
Head west, dear friend,
if you want to have fun.
Too far to the south,
and your quest is done.
Go down to go up,
pay no heed to the dead.
If you’re on the right track,
you’ll see gray wolves ahead.
Find heaven on earth--
a sign you will see.
Then let go the lie
and set the truth free.
Into the depths
is your eventual demise.
Part the water instead
for the ultimate prize.
Night descends quickly and
dark is made near.
It cloaks you in shadows,
but strangle your fear.
And in the black
you’ll find the star
to guide your way,
to take you far.
Take caution, dear friend.
Do not be misled.
If trickle turns torrent,
you’ll soon end up dead.
When narrow opens
up to wide,
take a deep breath
and step inside.
Look for the place
where stone stabs at sky
and the earth sings a mourning song
for your echo to reply.
Search for the six,
sturdy, solid, and true.
For centuries they’ve been waiting,
waiting for you.
Hidden stays hidden
until the ray
that guides your gaze
does a secret betray.
Only the worthy
can see the clue
to the greater treasure:
to know what is true.
I leave you now
With an immense quest.
Your strength, your intellect,
your honor it will test.
But if you are brave
and if you are wise,
if you’re determined,
you--only you--will find my prize.
My body vibrates, each part of me moving at a different frequency so the whole feels disjointed and dizzy. How is it that Bishop Rollins never found this? A treasure map. In Treasure Island. A heavy laugh escapes my lips, and I clap a hand over my mouth so I don’t wake Doris.
It has never been my adventure, this Gray Wolf Island business. That was all Sadie, and I was just along for the ride. When she died, it never felt right, me continuing on without her. But now I feel a wave of pure want for an adventure.
So I steal the book.
Poppy March looks like she’s seen a ghost. Blond hair swishes in the wind, but when I step onto the sidewalk, the strands sort of freeze in midair. All of Poppy freezes, really, except for her thin lips, which puff out a breath too soft to hear. Doesn’t matter. I can see what she says as if she’d shouted it. Sadie?
“I’m sorry, no.”
She blinks once. Twice. She shakes her head and slaps on a smile. “Oh . . .”
“Right, Ruby. I’m sorry--” She waves her hand around, like she’s trying to erase the past minute. “I forgot.”
People have a tendency to do that, forget me. Ronnie Lansing, the degenerate Sadie dated for half of freshman year, went a good two months before realizing I wasn’t just Sadie’s ghost going about like death never happened. It’s understandable, really. Without Sadie, there’s not much of me to remember.
Besides, this is Sadie’s turf. She spent countless hours locked in the back room of the Wildewell Historical Society and Museum, trying to piece together the mystery of Gray Wolf Island. I’d assume I was her if I hadn’t--
I’d assume I was her if she hadn’t died.
“She asked you to find the treasure,” Poppy says. At my shocked expression, a bittersweet smile crosses her face. “About a month before she died, she told me you’d be coming here for information about the treasure and that I should help you. When you didn’t show up, I figured she never . . . well, that she never got the chance to ask.”
I stare at the sidewalk. A crack splits the concrete, and in that space a yellow dandelion pokes through the earth. I used to think that kind of thing was beautiful, but really it’s just a weed. “I should have come sooner,” I say.
Poppy’s face softens. “Don’t be so hard on yourself--you’d just lost your sister.”
For one sinful moment I drink up her sympathy, but then I remember. I didn’t lose anything. I took something.