Yesterday was my 29th birthday. The other ER nurses presented a cake to me while gurneys whizzed past, carrying the latest victims of trauma. I’ve learned over the years to compartmentalize my feelings and not allow the tragedies of the workplace to interfere with my right to enjoy life. Otherwise, I’d be dead inside, and life is for the living.
I was looking forward to celebrating at home with my boyfriend, Jeff. To my mother’s horror, we had “shacked up” two years ago and had no plans to marry. Mom, a world-class worrier, warned me that Jeff would never respect me as he would a wife. But this is the modern age, I had explained to her as if she were a child. Marriage is no longer the endgame for all couples.
The house was dark when I arrived. Jeff was sitting on the couch, tapping on a beer can. I tiptoed into the room, bracing myself for shouts of “Surprise!” from a barrage of family and friends. I curled my fingers into fists and tried to make out figures in the dark, but the lights stayed off and no one jumped out at me. Then Jeff began talking. His words made no sense to me at the time, because they weren’t the coos of affection and tenderness I’d been expecting. Instead, his voice was steely and unyielding as he told me our relationship was over and he had already moved on.
My birthday. His house. We’re through.
Today I am bushwhacking through a park along the coast of Washington state, searching for a geocache, rather than search for a new place to live. My handheld GPS unit – a birthday gift from Jeff last year – is guiding me toward a newly planted cache called “Home Sweet Home.” The person who planted the treasure promises the First to Find that “this cache holds the key to your future.” Figuring that it can’t be any worse than my recent past, I hope to find the cache and claim the prize.
I am a second-generation Japanese American. Both sets of my grandparents immigrated to Washington from Iwate. Mom and Dad met at the Japanese Community Center in Tacoma, married a year later and brought me into the world a year after that. My grandparents spoke to me only in their native language, spinning colorful stories of life along the woods and rivers of their homeland. I jumped at the chance to study abroad in Morioka for a year while pursuing my nursing degree. I am proud of my heritage, my tiny frame, long black hair, light skin and smooth cheekbones. There is nothing I would change.
Jeff said I am not Asian enough.
He dumped me for a 22-year-old Korean who barely speaks English.
I stray off the trail to peer through some undergrowth and my boot hits something that clangs in response. I kneel down to retrieve a cookie tin sporting a sticker with the familiar yellow, green, orange and blue Geocaching logo. I’ve found it. I work to pry the lid off, but the temperature hasn’t risen above 50 today and my fingers are slow to respond. In my haste to see what’s inside, I drop the tin twice, cursing under my breath. Mother would be appalled. She’s a good Asian. Not like me.
All at once, the lid pops off and flies away, landing on top of the bushes. My prize is an ornate key, gold and curvy, the kind that looks like it is meant for a gothic mansion or a pirate’s treasure chest. Attached to the loop of the key is a note: more GPS coordinates and two words, It’s yours. My respiration quickens and droplets of sweat line my eyebrows. I dig a geocoin from my pocket and place it in the tin so that the next finder will know they have lost the game.
The coordinates lead me out of the state park to a ferry. I show the note to the captain and he nods. There are no other passengers waiting, so he agrees to make the trip even though the coordinates lead to a place that is not on his normal route. My Jetta looks lonely on the ferry, so I sit inside my little car to keep it company.
A dense fog rolls across the bay, isolating us from the rest of the world. I begin to imagine that we will be adrift forever, unable to find land. It will be my punishment for shacking up with Jeff. Every muscle in my body is locked and quivering. I pull my quilted jacket around my skinny chest and hug myself tight, willing the warmth to come.
I must have dozed off. A ferryman raps his knuckle against my window and I scream and jump, making a fool of myself. He smiles wickedly at the effect he’s had and indicates that we’ve reached our destination. Not his, really. Just mine.
I navigate the Jetta off the ferry and drive away, forgetting to ask when it will return. It’s okay; my entire wardrobe is in my car. I may not make it back to work on Tuesday, but I will be well-dressed no matter what. On the island, the trees hold the clouds overhead like a tent, keeping the fog off the ground. I aim for the dirt road leading into the woods, and the GPS unit is confident we are headed in the right direction. After crawling and bouncing along the forest floor for ten minutes, I see it.
The road ends at a stone cottage topped by a thatched roof. I sit in the car, my hands gripping the steering wheel, as I wait for seven dwarves to burst forth, singing and carrying the tools of their trade. No one comes out to greet me. I leave the safety of my car and take baby steps to the front door. What if this is the wrong house? Someone may see me trying to get in. I could be arrested. I could be shot. I look around, hoping someone will emerge from the bushes and save me from a terrible mistake. No one does. Time to try the key.
The key turns easily with a satisfying clack. I push the door open and step inside.
“Hello?” I brace myself for an answer. I am tiptoeing again, just like last night, only this time I do not expect to be greeted by friends. Or by the man I trusted who turned out to be the enemy. A board creaks and I halt, but my heart is racing as if I swam all the way here from Leadbetter. I spy a familiar-looking cookie tin on a nearby table. The lid is off and the tin is empty. I run my finger along the tabletop. A very thin layer of dust sticks to my finger, but otherwise the cottage appears well-kept. This is not an abandoned home; someone lives here, which means I am trespassing. So what? They gave me a key.
I hear the cadence of a clock calling to me from a room at the back of the house. The door is slightly ajar and when I push it open, I see something that makes me want to turn and run, but I am rooted to the spot. My stomach twists and a cold tingle settles under my jaw. I shouldn’t be here. A man is asleep on a bed. One arm rests on his belly and a piece of folded paper is stuck between his fingers. I watch, afraid to turn and make a noise that might wake him. After a moment, my medical training kicks in and I realize something I felt by instinct the moment I saw the man.
He is dead.
I’ve spent the last six years of my life surrounded by the dead and dying. I pride myself on maintaining a professional demeanor in the midst of pain, fear, grief and utter chaos. This is nothing. This is only a dead man on a bed. Just to be sure, I check his pulse, but I can tell his soul took flight days ago. I remove the letter from his hand and read it.
Congratulations. I am leaving this house in your hands. It was my nephew’s idea. Cancer will soon overtake me and I cannot bear the thought that the home my father built will languish.
Follow the path behind the house to my nephew’s cottage on the far side of the island. Parker will give you coordinates to a cache holding the deed. He assures me that you treasure-hunters are good people and that the right person will find this house.
I hope I will live long enough to meet you. – Charles Laveau
Another set of coordinates titled “The End of the Rainbow” is scrawled across the bottom of the page. The handwriting matches the signature, but not the body of the letter. I suspect that Charles did not want Parker to know about this last cache. Okay; it will be our secret. The sun is setting and I want to find the Rainbow cache now. I don’t trust that I can find my way across the island to Parker’s house and make it back before dark.
I follow Laveau’s latest clue to a cinderblock garage so well-camouflaged by vines, moss and pine straw that it is almost unrecognizable as a building. The large door is rusted shut. I find a side door, brush aside the vines, and throw my weight against it twice before it gives way. Fluorescent lights flicker on overhead, giving me just enough light to see where I’m going.
A narrow path winds through stacks of boxes and broken furniture, snaking its way to the far wall. I might have to spend months searching every box for the treasure promised to me. Or not. A red steel Coleman cooler shines like a beacon from amongst the piles of brown and black detritus. A piece of paper is taped to the lid and I recognize Laveau’s shaky handwriting: The End of the Rainbow.
My hands trembling, I open the cooler to find it stuffed with stacks of tightly bound hundred dollar bills. Dozens of Benjamin Franklin clones stare at me with the faintest hint of a smirk. Good job, they seem to say. You found us. Now close the lid. I oblige. It’s dark now. I wend my way back to the door and head for the cottage, planning to visit Parker tomorrow to tell him about his uncle and to introduce myself as the new neighbor.