Treasure in the Jersey Barrens
by Walt Giersbach
Sam considered stuffing a sock in Ashley’s mouth to shut her up. Who knew anyone could walk through the New Jersey Pine Barrens for three miles and talk non-stop?
“If she would’ve come,” Ashley chattered, “I would’ve found the stuff, but she didn’t, so I didn’t. She probably coulda gave me, like, some advice. I think the sand is soft, but it’s a lotta work. Know what I’m sayin’?”
Yak yak yak. “What’s that mean?” Sam demanded. A quarter mile farther to find Joey and Carol, who’d already driven to the campground. He’d chosen to hike up with Ashley. Joey had the beer. He had Ashley. He really needed that beer.
“I mean, I thought me and her were pals.”
“Ashley, what the hell are you yakking about!” That really wasn’t a question. He punctuated it by turning to face her.
“I told Brianna about when I got done my work, I was comin’ here to dig up the treasure. Like, did she want to help me?”
“A damn treasure?” She’d finally captured his attention.
“Don’t talk like that. It isn’t nice.” She held up her hands, palms out. “That campground you’re takin’ me to is where the pirates used to hang out and bury stuff. Why’d you think I came along today?”
He couldn’t believe it. “Are you nuts? There’s no pirates in New Jersey.”
“Oh, yeah? I seen it. I think it was with Johnnie Depp. Maybe that other actor. The one who said that thing, you know, that time with Angelina Jolie.”
“Keep walking, Ashley. We’re almost there, and I’m exhausted.”
“See, me and Brianna were at the 7-Eleven last week. Knew we shoulda gone home early, but Tuesday was kickin’ her butt so bad she said it felt like Monday was gangin’ up. So I saw this old man at the curb. Said I’d give him ten bucks if he’d get Brianna a handle of vodka. He says, ‘Twenty, and I’ll give you a king’s ransom.’ And Brianna says, ‘What’s a king’s ransom?’ and he says, ‘It’s on the map’.”
Sam put his hands on her chicken-bone shoulders. Ashley was a great-looking kid with long, brownish hair that sparkled when sunlight hit it. Her job managing at the Cookie Shack made her talk of becoming a baker. All other thoughts whirled in her head like ice cubes in a blender. “You hit on a geriatric creep to buy you...?” He changed his line of thought. “You gave him twenty and he gave you a pirate map? Think, Ashley!”
“So, why’re you askin’ all these questions if you know all the answers?”
Last week, Joey had joked that Ashley was Mother Nature’s mistake, forgetting to issue the girl a brain.
Later, he was sorry about mocking Ashley. Sam should have said something in her defense, but he figured she could take care of herself. And it wouldn’t matter once they were snuggled together in a sleeping bag.
“You’re always thinkin’ of stuff, Sam,” Ashley snapped. “Why do I have to be thinkin’? What makes you believe I know where the old guy got this pirate map? I don’t have any ideas. You’re the college boy. You got enough brains for a whole block of people.”
“Something must be going on in your brain. A person doesn’t just turn out the lights when they’re not talking or doing something. I took Intro to Psych, and our professor said the brain is never idling in neutral. Freud also said—”
“Sam! Shut the hell up. I gave the old guy forty bucks ’cause he was dyin’ of cancer.”
“You’re kidding me, Ashley! Are you out of your mind?”
“And he also gave me this Spanish coin. Said I was polite and respectful.”
Ashley got a defiant look and reached in her bra. She pulled out a coin that shone like the foil-wrapped chocolates Sam saw at Christmas. This one had the warm glitter of real gold. “When I find the treasure, I’ll help hungry people, and maybe give some to the poor people in Tent City.”
“Let me see it. Give it to me.”
“I don’t think so, Sam. You been snotty the whole time you had me walkin’ up this dirt trail. You think I’m stupid, and Carol says you told Joey I was a trailer park hoochie and my body was just oozin’ sex. So how much do I have to put up with to have you be nice to me? Whatta I gotta do to get your respect?”
“Start by letting me see the map.”
“You know I like you mostly, but where’d I be if I give you the map and you decide that’s all I’m good for? That and, you know, makin’ out.”
“The map’s not going to change anything, Ashley.”
“It’s not that, Sam. How long have you known me? Since high school? All that time you ever wonder what my life’s like? Why I am who I really am? Nobody here ever looks beyond the obvious stuff, like what’re they’re wearin’ or what they said.”
He looked at her standing defiantly. She was totally unequipped to deal with events whipping by her head. Yet the map might be a meal ticket for life, and she was talking about giving it to people who’d crapped out. Generous, but not logical.
“I’m walkin’ up to see Joey and tell him to take me back home or to the highway,” Ashley said. “I’ll hitch if I gotta. You’re a loser, Sam.”
Feeling a wave of isolation and rejection, Sam remembered his professor who said a math genius in Sudan hadn’t a chance of applying a new mathematical theory when his concern is staying alive one more day. But a slacker in the U.S. could fall into a job and live on Easy Street.
“You got guts, Ashley. Like some kid in Sudan. I like it. Really.”
He dropped his pack. “I think there’s a space between us greater than you being some kind of Mother Theresa and being nuts enough to follow a treasure map. I know I’m kind of drifting through college. My dad’s left home. Mom’s getting crazy and she drinks too much. I just get impatient sometimes.”
“I know, and I think that’s sad.” She put her hand on his chest. “That’s like when you got a lock and there’s no key.”
Her comment gripped him. “We’re salt and pepper, you and me. Oil and vinegar.” An inspiration flashed in his mind. almost biblical in its revelation. “We’ve been going together for, like what, two years? And that’s why. ’Cause we’re opposites, and that’s good. See, I’m logical, analytical. And you’re intuitive, insightful.”
She shook her head, as if to clear up the conversation’s cobwebs. “I thought we were talkin’ about treasure. Why can’t there be treasure? There were a bunch of pirates, and we have the whole weekend to look for it.”
“I think you are my treasure. That’s why we stick together, like yang and yin.”
“I knew it!” She pirouetted in the road. “Now, what’ll we do about the curse they put on the treasure? The thing about whoever discovers it will succeed in love and have lots of children.”
“That’s a curse?”
“Not for me, it isn’t.” She ducked her head and smiled, then peered at Sam under lowered eyelids.
He squinted. “Don’t go so fast. It’s too soon to think about babies.”
“That’s okay. I made up the part about the curse, but you might think about our future after we find the treasure.”
Copyright © 2020 by Walt Giersbach