A Quick Note—this is not fantasy. Sorry!
Amazing how life can turn on a dime. Savannah enjoyed the cool breeze as she came to the steeper section of the trail. Well, not enjoyed as much as appreciated. The day began calm and cool but as the sun rose, so did the heat.
“If it’s this hot in the mountains, I feel sorry for everyone stuck in the city right now.”
I am alone so my comment goes unanswered. I enjoy hiking and the green canopy above. Grimacing at thoughts of loneliness, I shake my head. Yeah, a companion would be sweet. But I’m not gonna find him sitting in my apartment moping.
The local radio station announced a treasure hunt two weeks earlier. The winner claims a new car plus $10,000 cash. My friends already have sweet cars and careers, so while the idea sounded cool, when it came down to it, searching the great outdoors was not their idea of fun. How did we become friends anyway?
Reaching the summit, I stumble when I find two guys looking out over the valley below. Too many trees prevent a view of the ranger station and parking lot, but I know my pitiful Volvo is there, an embarrassment to anyone walking by. A 1990 sedan, rusted out and barely able to make the trip out to the park.
The guys hushed and nod when they notice me. I need a breather after the climb so I slip off my pack and sit on a fallen tree further away from the cliff edge. They are treasure hunters; they had been waving at the mountain face to the left. Three trees rise above all the others. Clue number three. Clues one and two got us out of the city and into the park. Disappointment hit me. I’d hoped no one else would be aware of this exact trail. But the ding dang radio guys have begun giving hints on the first three clues so in a few days everyone will figure the treasure is near one of these trails. I’ve only visited one rock outcropping near here. I can’t let these guys beat me to it.
After a swig of Gatorade, I put it back in my bag and pull out a granola bar. The guys are using binoculars to glass the terrain. Maybe they don’t know about the rocky area after all!
Standing, my foot slides on the gravel, drawing the attention of the guy not using the binoculars. He turns with a smile that just about blinds me. Teeth as white as last night’s moon, and a dimple as deep as her craters. I stand there dazzled, his eyes crinkle as they flick up and down. Heat flushes my face so I get moving.
“Have a good one,” he says as I head off.
“You too,” I return on auto. My job as a receptionist makes the reply second nature. At least I didn’t sound like a dufus. If I could find a guy like that: he likes hiking, he’s fit, he takes care of his teeth. He’s fit!
Daydreaming keeps my mind busy as I make my way to the second trail. Cool fact, the side trail is often overlooked due to overgrowth but I’d taken the trail several times. The last time had been with my brothers four years back. A gentle stream meanders alongside the trail giving flashes of light, making the hike magical especially when things are in bloom, as they are.
Little purple papery flowers peek from the grasses and every now and then a patch of ferns fill an open space. I am partial to the tiny daisy-like flowers, I forget their name. They just make me happy.
After an hour the trail kind of peters out. “This isn’t right.” I check the stream. I thought it seemed a bit small, but figured less rain dried it up. “I spent a whole hour getting here!” I shout my frustration to the trees.
I take out my phone. I had marked the cave on my trail app. I’m so close to it. It would be dumb to hike back and then in again on the other trail. There’s gotta be a way to get to the caves through this thicket. It’s only a half mile away from my current location.
The wind had stiffened in the past twenty minutes. Looking up, purple angry clouds fill the heavens. “Great.” I take off my pack and pull out my poncho. “This will make it easy to slip between the brush—said no one, ever.” I want the shelter of the cave before the rain hits so, no time to stop for lunch. I grab a peanut butter cookie and a bag of candy. “Fine, I’ll have jerky too.”
The cookie renews my energy, but the protein from the jerky is better for me. I gnaw on it and ramble through the woods, temporarily lost but generally aware of my location. The wind increases and grows much cooler. Glancing up between trees I groan. The sky breathes like a bruise, deeper purple and ugly green. “No! They never mentioned storms in the forecast.” I pull out my phone. The edge of the woods should be ten minutes away if I didn’t have to walk around trees and thickets.
A huge crack followed by a boom reverberates through the forest. More cracking as trees fall. It would be my luck to have a tree fall on me. The rain filters through the thick canopy. Dropping in big splats before turning into streams. At last, the forest came to a rocky cliff. Looking down thirty feet sat the cave. The trail down must be to my left. I consider climbing down from here. Despite the strong wind, I inch my way to the edge to spot an easy path.
Don’t even try it, girl. The rocks will be slippery. I am so tempted but I know my brothers would be angry with me if I tried it and broke something. So, I make my way to the left, skirting a huge jutting rock that forms the roof of the cave.
The pathway down is not as apparent as hoped, so hiding from the battering wind behind a giant oak, I check my phone. No service. Dang, tower’s down. I’m stuck in the woods during a tornado. What’s my best option?
I could dig a hole under a couple of fallen logs. What if those guys make it to the cave and they find the final clue? I’m stupid. Stubborn and headstrong as my mother says. Well, she doesn’t call me stupid, just headstrong. I forge ahead. There must be a way down. I come to the stream, the one I should have been following had I not turned in too soon. Except now it is a raging flow, five feet across and no rocks to step on. I go downstream a bit and find a beaver’s hut and a few trees spanning the width. It’s my best option so I scramble over as best I can but on my last hop off of the tree, I slipped and twist my ankle.
I wrap the ankle with my bandana and find a stick for support and continue. The rainfall lightens. I know the signs. The eye of the storm is over the woods, as soon as it passes over the torrential winds will return. I am not sure which way to go; east of the stream, obviously, but should I go back to the head or not?
The woods widen and the cliff is not there. “I think this is a stream that joined the other one. Didn’t I see another stream on my way down on the other side? Yes. You idiot. You did.”
I’m lost, but I’m not. I’m cold and my foot hurts. I want to sit down and cry. But it wouldn’t solve anything. I need to get inside the cave.
The wind comes barreling forward like a train through the trees. A banshee scream if I ever heard one. I dash as fast as a hobble allows toward the place where I think the rock outcropping should be. Another strike of lightning smashes right in front of me making me startle and I fall into a ditch-like ravine, losing my walking stick, but landing safely enough. It is filling with water, creating a stream. The sides are steep and I can’t get a grasp on anything to pull myself up. Now I’m hobbling through five inches of water, dreading a rush that might pull me downstream.
I’m left with nothing but prayers. Praying with every step, I scan what I can through the darkened downpour. After another eternity, maybe fifteen minutes, the land levels out in one spot freeing me from the gully. And I can see the trail leading to the cave, at least I believe it is.
“I’m lost. I’m Lost. I’m lost.” I chant as I trudge through the muck, having forgotten my prayers.
I make it. But I’m not first; I can see light wavering from the cave. Still, it’s blessed safety and shelter.
“Helloo. Is there room for one more?”
The hunky man of my daydream earlier in the day looks out from under his baseball cap. “Saints alive! I’ve been wondering if you got off the mountain. Look at you. Get in here, we have a fire.”
I stumble and he catches me. “Oh. Sorry, I’m all wet. Let me take this poncho off.”
He sees me favoring my foot with the muddy bandana. “Hey, Mitch. She’s hurt her foot; get the first aid kit.”
The tornado’s winds pierce the air and I am afraid it will pull me right out of the cave. There is a slight curve in the cave that blocks all wind and that’s where I wanted to be, but they built the fire closer to the mouth.
Mitch helps me get to the far side of the fire and motions for me to sit. He expertly dries, cleanses, and dries again the scratches I didn’t even l know I had, applies ointment, and then wraps the foot in clean dry bandaging. In silence.
Mitch bobs his head and scoots away. I take it he doesn’t speak.
The guy whose name I do not know says, “Mitch keeps his comments scarce. My name’s Žondor, sounds like Shawn and door but spelled with a Z.” He’d made a pulling motion like opening a door.
“Sounds like you’ve said that all your life.”
He smiles, and replies, “Sorry, it’s a habit. Yeah, ever since I was a smart-mouthed ten-year-old.” He sat by the fire next to me.
“My name is Savannah. No catchy definition to go with it. But, um, I’m worried about the tornado. Could we scoot deeper into the cave?”
“Doesn’t go all that deep. We didn’t want to die from smoke inhalation. So, we built the fire closer to the edge. We intended to sleep on the back-side. But you can use that space.”
“There is a bend to the side, a little alcove. After I warm up, I’ll sleep back there.”
Both guys showed greater interest. They must have flashed their lights around and assumed they had not found the right cave. I’m positive it’s the right area, but I think the prize is hidden in a little alcove next to this one. This one is too obvious. The other one is tiny, perfect for a child to enter, but it’s short with a little ledge where I had hidden a wooden spoon, carved when I was nine. It was still where I left it on my last visit. I don’t think many people bring their kids out hiking as much anymore. Perhaps their parents make them put it back. I have found a pinecone and a can of Coke next to it before. It’s like placing my spoon on the shelf made it a sacred space. A catch-all for treasures. A cache.
How fitting that I find the last clue in my own secret sanctuary! A girl can hope, anyway.
I must have a dopey smile on my face as Žondor says, “Good to see you can still smile amidst such trials. Do you have food? We were about to cook dinner when you found us.”
“I didn’t bring anything that needs cooked. But if you have hot chocolate that would help warm me up faster. I need to change out of these wet pants.”
He drops his gaze as if embarrassed and replies, “Yes, we brought plenty of cocoa packets. Right, Mitch?”
Mitch bobs his head. It appears, he really likes cocoa, he pulls out an entire box of 12 packets of the mix.
“Okay, well while the water heats up, I’ll go unroll my sleeping bag and change.”
I am sure it almost seemed like I had disappeared. I’ve sat at the mouth of the cave when my brothers went in and it is uncanny how hidden the crevice is. A piece of the cave wall jut’s out, hiding the entrance. Once one moves to the back of the cave it’s easy to find the crack in the wall. With my flashlight bobbing about they could tell it’s a very small space, if they were looking. Is that unseemly? Drying off and changing makes a huge difference. Getting a slab of fruit leather and a tuna sandwich kit with crackers, I go back to the fire.
Lightning and thunder continue to rage. I sit and close my eyes in gratitude for my good fortune. I am safe from the storm now.
Žondor clears his throat. “The water is hot enough. Um, if you don’t mind, we say grace before we eat.”
“What? No, that’s fine.” I wave my hands, “Go ahead.”
“I didn’t want to interrupt your own contemplation.”
I wave him on. Glancing at Mitch, who seems quite hungry sitting with folded hands looking anxiously at his friend, I fold my arms.
Žondor clasps his hands and bows his head, “Father, thank you for helping us find shelter in the storm. For guiding our way, and for helping us to see the things that truly matter. Forgive us for doubting, for lacking trust, and not seeing the things we should. Help us to do better. And thank you for this food. Amen.”
I murmur, “Amen.” Surprised to hear Mitch utter his first words in my presence as he also replied with the expected response. Did he aim any of that prayer at me? What truly matters? My life. It was foolish to worry about the car and money, no matter how much it might help me. To put myself in danger just to beat these guys. I busy my hands making little tuna cracker sandwiches.
Mitch hands me a cup of cocoa with a soft smile and a dip of his head. They must be brothers. Each with that dark black hair, straight and wispy around their ears. Žondor has capable working man hands, while Mitch’s long thin fingers are suited to piano playing and basket weaving. “Ha!” I laughed out loud on accident.
They raise their gazes from the fire.
“Oops sorry. Just having merry thoughts in my head.” Why would I even think of basket weaving?
“So, tell us a bit about yourself, Savannah. Where are you from?”
Žondor makes communication so easy. Most guys I’ve dated are awkward and unable to talk about anything other than their work and sports. Not that you are dating him. I make a motion to show I am clearing the food from my mouth. They wait, patiently sipping their cocoa.
“I’m from Concord. I work at a securities office as the receptionist. Nothing exciting about that. On my free time I enjoy books, art, and nature. Sadly, Mother Nature made a surprise visit to the woods.”
They laugh. A complimentary sound, tenor and bass.
“We live in Concord as well. I work as a youth pastor in the inner city. Mitch was one of my first kids. I’m only five years older than he is, but a connection stuck, so I take him on adventures from time to time even though he’s not one of my kids anymore. We’re closer than that now.”
My heart sank. Žondor was not looking for a wife. Either Mitch was his partner, or as a pastor he couldn’t have a spouse anyway, though he didn’t say what church he was from. I don’t know which ones allow their preachers to marry. I try to hide my disappointment, I’ve been told I’m far too transparent.
I think my face must have been in shadow because Žondor doesn’t say anything about my shock. He continues, “So we are hunting for that radio station clue. Mitch easily solved each of the others. This last one is trickier since we’ve never been out here before.”
That was my cue to reveal myself. I couldn’t lie to a preacher, so I nod and say, “Same. We must be on the right track if we both came here.”
Could I deny them the prize? Yeah. I need the car. Pastors don’t get paid a lot. But they aren’t supposed to have a lot either, are they? I don’t know.
The hunky pastor with the smile to take away every teen girl’s heart smiled at me, melting me just as easily as any school girl. It almost made me want to tell them where the prize should be. Instead, I ask, “So did you find it?”
“Nope.” He replies with a glance at Mitch—who looks a touch sad, but he smiles at Žondor’s attention. “We didn’t notice the side cave. Obviously, you have been here before. Did you see anything in there when you changed? We won’t hold it against you. Mitch just likes to have answers before he can sleep easily.”
I was glad they didn’t ask if I knew where it was. I answer, “No. Just rocks and a soda can.”
“Is it possible the soda can is a clue?”
I’m not up to hobbling back again, so I wave him off. “You can go get it.”
“Are you sure? We don’t need the prize. I have a car and Mitch doesn’t drive. The money would help with my youth programs, of course. We’ll let you have the car if it is the clue. Deal?”
He has me thinking; what if it really is the clue? I feel lost again—in my head. They did help save me by having a fire already going. And I’ll need help getting out of here with my bad foot. Settling it in my mind, I reply, “Sure. I really need a car. It’s yours.”
Mitch springs up and hustles back to find the side cave. Žondor was about to stand but stopped and leaned back, his eyes twinkle and then drop back to me. I figure if I can see his eyes, then he must be able to see mine. I’m not sure what my face is saying, but he seems pleased.
“Thank you. It makes my heart happy when he’s happy.”
“Does he live with you?”
Mitch returns, shining his flashlight on the can to study it for clues.
“Mitch lives at a group home sponsored by the church. Our adventures happen about once a month. This is the farthest from home we have ever gone. He was nervous when the storm broke out. But we got here before the rain started to really pour. You were ahead of us. What happened?”
I spent twenty minutes detailing my mishaps. Mitch set the can down, apparently saddened by not finding a clue. When I finished and answered a few follow-up questions, I ask for the can. Nothing inside, no strange messages written on it. No coded numbers. Nope, not a clue. Shaking my head, I hand it back to Mitch who hands it to Žondor.
He looks it over and says, “Sorry dude. We’ll search the rocks in the morning.” Glancing at the evening sky he adds, “Looks like the worst of the storm has passed. Just a gentle drizzle falling now. I’m glad the cave slopes up so the water doesn’t come in.”
Speaking of water, I need a potty break. Mentioning that need, I collect my flashlight and hobble out. The clouds are mostly gone, a sliver of orange as the sun settles winks between the trees. It wasn’t nearly as dark out of the cave as it was inside. It’s only 7:35. On my way back from the woods, I can’t help but look at my cave. Daddy brought me here on my first hike with the big boys. They had come two years in a row without me, but I was finally old enough and strong enough. That first time I had been afraid of the darkness of both of the caves. Daddy laid himself down and scooted his head into the cave and then sat up inside of it. Leaving his long legs hanging out. “See,” he called, “this all the bigger it is. No bears can even fit.”
Right now, I am tempted to check it, but the men stand at the edge of the cave awaiting my return so they can take their own trip into the woods. After they trudge off, I give in and check it anyway. It’s there! My spoon. I kiss it, and beneath it sits a folded piece of leather with a message on it. I unfold it and all it says is, “Now I’m Found.”
If I remove the clue, people might be tempted to take my spoon. Even though the prior clue said to leave the carved artifact. It doesn’t say spoon directly, the clue mentions an ancient carved implement within a cleft, sitting upon a ledge. How many people would even think of such a tiny cleft and ledge? The car is meant to be mine, right?
Nothing about the color or texture seems to offer any other clues. So, the words alone are the only clues. I fold it and replace it beneath my spoon rubbing the smooth bowl one last time before scooting out of the cavity.
I was about to sit in front of the fire when they return. They brought more twigs and pieces of wood for the fire, soggy wet but they would perhaps dry by morning sitting next to the currently glowing coals. Žondor places the last piece of dry wood on the fire.
I sit and watch as the coals lick the wood, it doesn’t take long before light blooms once more. I feel Žondor’s gaze on me. How do you flirt with a pastor? Do I even want to try?
Looking up he averts his gaze and then looks back. I ask, “So do you have a wife?”
His brows raise ever so slightly, but his grin won out, showcasing that adorable dimple. “Not yet. But I’m taking applications.”
I snort. Apparently, Mitch does not like the conversation topic. He leaves the fire to prepare his sleeping bag, as well as Žondor’s.
“Have you been camping together before just not in this park?”
“Yeah, there are fun campgrounds closer to home. Have you been to this spot before?”
“Yes, with my dad and brothers.” I lose my ability to make decent conversation so random things come out of my mouth. “So how old are you?”
That grin again. “I thought I was the one taking applications. I’m twenty-nine. I recently inherited my mother’s house.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I was going to say, now that I have a house, I can avoid embarrassment, now that I can offer a woman something of value. Being a Youth Pastor does not provide for very many extras in life. My mother is from Hungary, she worked hard to provide for me and my sister. My sister married well and has no need so my mother left the home to me. She lived a good life. She had us later in life. She was seventy-three and going blind.”
I nod. “My dad died early. He was forty. I was a teen. I was lost without him. My brothers were floundering for a few years too. But they took care of me and we have a great relationship. Mom kinda fell apart and never really got her mojo back. She’s a little better now that she has a few grandkids to dote on.”
“I am sorry, my father died early too. He left my mother with money from his insurance policy and nothing but his faith to guide my sister and me. His library is full of books on religion. Naturally I took it upon myself to read them all in an attempt to draw closer to my father. I was lost, and now I’m found.”
My mouth flew open. I wanted to ask if he were even real. Like am I entertaining angels and they are just giving me what I need to win a car? I couldn’t tell if I was losing it or not. But I had to say something when asked why my mouth was hanging open. “I haven’t even thought of that song in years.”
He grins, deepening that delightful dimple, “Amazing, isn’t it?”
“Ha ha very punny.” He’s a preacher, I have to be honest with him, right?
Before I can decide whether to reveal my discovery, Žondor asks, “So you have kids then?” Seeing my startled response he adds, “You mentioned grandkids for your mom.”
“Oh, sorry. No, my oldest brother has two kids and my third brother closest to me has one on the way, well his wife. You get what I mean.” I can’t tell what is making me more nervous, chatting with a guy I find highly attractive or the fact he’s a pastor. Both probably. Am I gonna be able to do this? Like, push for a connection? Without thinking I say, “Like, how much free time do you even have?”
“All the time in the world. No? Okay, I am required to spend 20 hours working with the youth and 10 hours on planning, committee work, community planning and such. Currently, I spend much more time at the Outreach Center, because I have nothing else to do.” He searches my eyes, offering an invitation.
“Did you date much before becoming a pastor?”
“Enough. Not a lot. There was never that special someone. I know, I know everyone tells me the girls are crazy about my eyes and all. But, you know, I never found her. The right girl never caught my eye. Back then.”
“And now?” I smile what I hope is seen as coyly innocent.
He offers a deep velvety chuckle. “Looks like Mitch knows it’s bedtime. We have a long day ahead since you will need to take it easy on the way out.” He pauses and adds, “And yeah, I’ve been caught.”
Be still my heart!
Mitch is an early riser, it is a good thing we went to sleep with the sun. After a hurried breakfast complete with more cocoa. We go out to explore the various cracks of the cave. My sprain is considerably improved. I walk without a limp, for now. Mitch eventually stuck his head into the little cavity. I find I want him to experience the joy of discovery. Yet he scoots out with a frown.
“Nothing in there, buddy?” Žondor goes over to pat his shoulder and sighs. “I don’t know. I’m stumped.” He faces me. “You came here on purpose. Where did you expect to find the clue?”
I want to tell, but I don’t want to ruin the fun for Mitch. Instead, I say, “Did you explain to Mitch what a ledge looks like? It’s like a shelf. The last clue said, ‘Rock of ages cleft for me on Pisgah’s slope it’s there to see. The clue is sitting upon a ledge beneath a treasure we did wedge. The ancient carving, a tool you’ll find, is not the clue—leave it behind.’”
They look up, scanning for a flat surface that is shelf-like. “Fine. Mitch, you need to go into the cavity again but sit up and look higher. There is a tiny shelf to your left. When I was a girl, I carved a wooden spoon and left it there. I think people believe it is something made by Natives or an early settler or something. Anyway, the clue says to leave it there, and I really appreciate that because I love to see it when I visit.”
Mitch yipped with joy and came out with the spoon and the leather. Žondor grins and looks the spoon over appreciatively as Mitch unfolds the leather, with its note.
Reading the note from behind, Žondor looks at me. “Now I see.”
I blush, realizing he saw through me. He takes my hand first with his left, transferring it to both hands, more like a handshake and says, “I do. But seriously, I also know where the last location is. It’s like providence brought us together. We couldn’t have done it without you.” He stops to smile slyly and adds, “I’ll let the two of you puzzle it out on the way off the mountain.”
He hummed Amazing Grace most of the way down the trail.
Amazing Grace Advocacy in Concord, North Carolina supports Autism, and sponsored the contest along with Žondor’s church community. He wasn’t qualified to win, but Savannah felt almost obligated to offer a portion of her winnings to support the programs. It would support her future husband after all.
Amazing Grace Advocacy in Concord, South Carolina is real; the rest of this is pure fiction, written for a contest I entered.