This is going to be a bad one, I mused to myself.
I gazed out at the gray expanse before me. The sky was dark with storm clouds ready to release their deluge. The ocean waves 25 feet below me were already beginning to look choppy, even though the storm was still many miles away from the coast. The wind was picking up already too, threatening to blow my skinny 13-year-old body backwards against the rocks. But I planted my feet and held my ground against the onslaught.
"Wouldn't want to be sailing in this," Andrew voiced aloud. Although he was the same age as me, he was already stockier, and had no trouble standing, as if it were only a gentle sea breeze buffeting him.
"You aren't kidding," I said. There was a flash of lightning in the distance, followed by a long pause and another low rumbling of thunder. Definitely a bad one.
I gazed at the choppy waters, mesmerized by their ebb and flow. Suddenly, a glint caught my eye, lit by another flash in the distance. I stared hard, hoping to catch another glimpse of what reflected the light. Another flash and I spotted it: A shiny wine bottle bobbing in the waves. Still focused on it, I started treading carefully to the edge of the land, and climbed down.
"What are you after?" Andrew called down to me, bemused by my struggle with the cliff.
"I saw something in the water!" I yelled back. "I'm going to go check it out!"
I continued my tedious descent and jumped onto a large outcropping jutting into the water. I then got down on my stomach and reach out for the bottle. One of the larger waves broke in my face, pushing me back and causing me to have to blow stinging seawater out of my nose. Determined, I reached down again. So close, I've almost got it! Another wave came, carrying the bottle into my grasp, but drenching me again as well.
"Yes!" I yelled in triumph. I crawled back to the craggy cliff and began my climb back up, even hard with only one hand available. Finally, I reached the edge again and hauled myself up breathlessly.
"What could possibly have been worth all that effort?" Andrew asked, nonchalantly leaning on a tree.
"It was... a wine bottle," I gasped, getting to my feet. Andrew quickly lost interest and rolled his eyes.
"And here I thought you were after something actually valuable," he scoffed. Of course, being the son of a wealthy business man, he probably saw this sort of thing all the time.
"Where do you think it came from?" I asked him, examining the elegantly gilded bottle.
"I bet it's some debris from a shipwreck in that storm out there," he replied. Then his eyes brightened up. "Wait, is there any wine in it? I keep asking Father if he would let me try some but he always refuses."
The bottle had some weight to it, but it wasn't dreadfully heavy. I shook it a bit. No sloshing sound.
"Nope, it's empty."
"Darn, that's a shame. I bet it would have tasted so much better than that low quality stuff they give us at church."
I was about to say that I think all wine probably tastes that bad, but instead focused my attention on the bottle again. I held it up to the sky, hoping the receding sun might illuminate through the dark, maroon glass. No matter which way I turned it though, there just wasn't enough light shining through the dark, gray clouds. I suppose there wouldn't have been enough light this late in the evening anyway.
Just as I was about to decide my efforts were fruitless, I got another idea. I turned around and held the bottle out in front of me to the sea. Andrew watched me intently.
"Just what are you doing with that bottle?"
"I'm waiting for a-"
Flash! Another bolt of lightning ripped through the heavens, providing light enough to clearly shine through the opaque bottle. I inhaled sharply as I was able to see inside for a split second. There was no mistaking that distinct shadow.
There was definitely something inside the bottle.
I immediately grasped the cork and tried to pry it out. With a little bit of torque, it began to slowly slide.
"Wait a second, there is wine in there, isn't there?" Andrew exclaimed. He stalked over and tore the bottle from my hands, despite my cries of objection. But when he had it, he got confused.
"There's no wine," I said, annoyed.
"Then why in hell are you trying so hard to open it if it's empty!?"
"Because it's not empty!" I burst out. My patience with the buffoon was quickly dwindling down. "There's a parchment rolled up inside!" Now his eyes lit up.
"You mean, like, a secret message?"
"Yes, like a secret message, now give it back to me so I can get it out!"
"No, that's okay, I think I can manage."
"But I'm the one who found it!"
"And I'm the one who will open it, calm down." I threw my arms up in exasperation and groaned. Andrew was just impossible sometimes. Still, he got the cork out far easier and quicker than I would have. But when he stuck his fingers in, they didn't quite fit very far into the neck of the bottle. I smirked as he struggled to reach the documents.
"I have skinnier fingers than you. Let me get them out."
"No, I can do it!" he fumed. The rising frustration was clearly evident in his voice. Then he got the bottle stuck on himself and spent a moment twisting it off. It left a pale ring around his index finger. Finally, he boiled over. "You know what?" he said. "I know an easier way of doing this." He grabbed the bottle by the neck and raised it around his shoulder, then turned to face the tree.
"Wait, no!" I cried, diving forward to stop him. But I wasn't fast enough. I watched in horrific slow-motion as he brutally swung the bottle into the side of the maple he had been leaning on. The gilded glass shattered magnificently, throwing dagger-like shards and ribbons of the wrapping in various directions. I ducked down in case any flew towards me, but thankfully, none did. I then instantaneously scrambled forward again to catch the papers, now floating away in the breeze.
Satisfied with himself, Andrew tossed the jagged upper piece of the bottle aside into the grass. He didn't bother to even offer to help me gather them up again, letting me frantically run around on my own.
I jumped, snatching a sheet out of the air. I felt as if I were a cat, trying to hunt a small flock of birds who were always just out of reach. Working fast, though, I was able to quickly grab the taunting birds, and shortly grasped the last piece of parchment off a low-hanging tree branch.
I took a second to catch my breath, then got to work organizing the pages. There were five total, slightly crumpled, but thankfully not drastically harmed. The first and last pages were easy to figure out, but connecting the middle three was a bit trickier. As I'm walking back towards Andrew, I start my examination of the first page.
What first caught my attention was the large seven-by-nine grid dominating the page. Preceding it was only a single paragraph and the traditional "Dearest [Insert name here]." Actually, the letter wasn't addressed to anyone. The first line simply read "Dearest Reader." The print itself was varied. On the first page, the script was very neat, but upon flipping to one of the later pages, I found that parts of it were written more sloppily, in great haste by my judgement.
Back on the first page, I focused once more on the curious grid. Letters filled in the second column and the third row. They formed names: Abigail and Gabriella.
I wonder what it could be, I thought. Is it a puzzle? I started reading the first paragraph. It was just an introduction of the writer, but in the paragraph, both names were casually mentioned. What could be so important about these two names? I looked closer and saw 'Abigail' had a faint red line under it. 'Gabriella' had a dark yellow one, almost invisible on the parchment. There is definitely some sort of hidden message here. As I approached Andrew by his tree, I quickly skimmed the other four pages.
"So, what does this secret message say?" he asked casually,as if nothing had just happened. I glared at him.
"I don't know, I only skimmed it," I said. It's a letter written by some girl a few decades ago. But, from what I can see, I am fairly certain the is some sort of code in this letter."
"What does the code say, then?"
"I haven't solved it in the mere minute I've possessed this letter," I responded flatly.
"Oh, well then, do you have any clue what the answer might be?"
"No, I don't! The whole letter is basically the girl's memoirs as far as I can tell. She mentions family, friends, this place she would go to to spend the day sometimes. Actually..." I paused, pondering the bits and pieces I had caught. Then I flipped to the last page again and reread a specific portion of it. "It might just be a treasure map," I finished.
"Oh really? I thought you said it was some girl's memoirs from who-know-how-many years ago. Now you're saying there's a map on those pages? Quit pulling my leg, what's really on the papers?"
"It's not literally a map," I explained. "You would have to figure out the hidden message, and that will probably give instructions for finding a secret location where the treasure is. I am sure once I thoroughly look through it, everything will be clear." I am right about to begin doing this when suddenly the parchments are pulled right out of my hands.
"Hey, what are you doing?!" I yelled at Andrew, who was now holding me back with one arm and holding the letter in the other.
"I'm reading the letter. You don't think you're going to go and take all the credit for finding this treasure, do you? I'm getting my share."
"What?! All you did was smash that bottle into the next life! I'm the one who caught the sheets and retrieved the bottle in the first place!" I spat.
"Oh, shut it. I was thinking we could split the spoils equally, but if you're going to keep at it with this attitude, perhaps I shall take some of your share, too."
"Are you joking?! You don't deserve anything, you pompous jerk!"
Andrew's nostrils flared at this remark. Now I could see that he, too, was losing his composure. He said something as he marched up to me, but it was drowned out by another rolling of thunder. He stuck his finger in my face, and I caught the last few words as the rumbling died away again: "-self-centered little peasant!"
That one really angered me.
With the next flash of lightning I made my move. I started my retort, but halfway through, I paused, and averted my eyes to the ground behind Andrew, trying to wear a look of the most utter terror on my face. I also took a short step backwards for added effect. Andrew was instantly fooled, and turned around to see what had frightened me so much. His back turned, and his eyes scanning the shadows as he slowly moved away from the imaginary danger lurking in the grass, I took my opportunity and snatched the papers back out of his hand. I then turned on my heel and tore off away from him.
Rather than take the easiest route of escape, I decided it would be better to outrun him by nimbly climbing a rocky hill. I scale it deftly, with Andrew hard on my trail. He surprises me with how close he is to catching up. This was not going to end in my favor if he caught me. At the top of the rise, I veered left into the woods. I ran so fast through the undergrowth down the slope that I was almost stumbling over my own feet as they tried to keep up.
Through the trees, I could see a distinct shape silhouetted in the gray light. I adjusted my course for the shape, thinking I could make it. It was the old tree fort I had discovered years ago. Of course, Andrew knew about it, too, as did a few other people. Yet, if I got there with a great enough lead, I could get in and raise the ladder, keeping my newfound rival at bay. This plan was dashed when I realized i could hear Andrew crashing through the forest only a few strides behind me. And gaining fast.
Oh, gosh, now what do i do?
I dared not look back. If I turned around, I'd surely see his hand reaching to grab my over-sized coat. I just knew it. I frantically tried to think of another way to escape. I was almost at the bottom of the hill, though, and didn't have much time before I lost the speed advantage completely.
Finally, acting on impulse, I raced to the right and across the top of a giant boulder jutting out of the earth. Andrew was a split second behind me. At the edge of the rock, I took what may just have been the largest leap I've ever attempted. As I soared fifteen feet above the ground, I realized what I had just done, and became mortified that I wouldn't clear the gap and make it to the fort. Inches behind me, Andrew roared my name in fury.
I closed my eyes, willing myself to make the jump, but at the same time preparing to crash sickeningly against the hard, unforgiving forest floor. To my shock, I felt the breath driven from me... as I slammed into the wooden side of the fort. My eyes snapped open, and I searched desperately for a handhold. As I grabbed a window ledge, I cringed as I heard a thud below me. Despite fearing what my eyes would happen upon if I looked, I peered down anyway, just in time to witness Andrews form hitting the ground with a bloody gash in the forehead. He must have come just short and smacked his head into the bottom edge of the tree fort.
I may have been trying to avoid his wrath moments ago, but now I had to make sure he was alright. I hauled myself through the window and climbed down the ladder, hoping I was wrong to think he might be... Oh, God, what would I do if he were? How would I explain what had happened? Would I be arrested? Would I have to run away, and live alone in the far out woods, in perpetual fear that I may accidentally wander into Indian territory, and be shot by an arrow on the spot? I don't think I'd be able to live with myself anyway, I thought.
I jumped off the third-to-last step and scrambled over to check him. I set the papers down and leaned over. Oh, God, did I really just kill him? He wasn't moving.
I went to check his pulse under his jaw, but before I even touched him, his eyelids flipped open, and he punched my shoulder so hard I originally thought he had dislocated it. I rolled over, clutching it in pain, watching from my sideways point of view as that twisted villain made off with a very crumpled wad of yellowed parchment in his grip. Then I noticed what still lay in the dirt.
Despite the throbbing ache in my shoulder, I managed to smile to myself.
He only had three pages with him.