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Treasure Hunt

by Roberta McReynolds

Another carton was nearly full and ready to cram into my sedan. This would be the last box. Every crevice from floorboard to windows was stuffed and the trunk lid barely closed. The only compartment spared was the drivers seat.

The last box for today. Tomorrow, just like the days and weeks before, Id be back at the house my father built; the home where I grew up. Now it was just a building where I sorted my parents belongings into heaps. One was mostly clothing for donations, another for the estate sale, a pile I couldnt bear to give up, and a fourth small mountain destined for a rented storage facility until I felt prepared to repeat this gut-wrenching process. Their existence reduced to mere fragments proving they were once here, before cancer took them both.

Mom was first, following a decade-long struggle with breast cancer. Colon cancer stole Dad a brief 15 months later. I didnt feel like Id had time to process the first loss before the next left me numb with disbelief.

I gazed down at the box next to my feet to judge what else I could fit inside before closing the flaps and calling it a day. When I scanned the shelves a small, crumpled paper sack caught my attention. It had been tucked behind a row of paperback books, previously out of sight. The brown sandwich bag felt light in my hand and I coughed when my fingers disturbed the layer of dust coating the surface.

I unfolded the top and reached inside. A jumble of cheap plastic palm trees, two-inch tall pirates, a treasure chest, and a ship filled my hand. Next out of the bag were paper napkins printed with the image of a pirates galleon and the words, "Yo, Ho, Ho!" Lastly, I found myself staring at two packages of birthday candles. Exhaustion, both physical and emotional, had taken its toll and I was slow to comprehend what this symbolized or why it had been hidden.

Birthday candles . . . pirates and birthday candles?

Tears began to trace streaks through the grime on my cheeks, sliding off my chin to leave my T-shirt dotted with salty, dark spots. I was holding enough birthday candles to decorate a cake for a 13-year-old.

My brother, Ray, was seven years my senior. I recall that during the summer of 1958, just before I turned five, he decided he wanted to go snake hunting and allowed me to tag along. Reptiles fascinated him and Ray longed to have one as a pet. Mom gave him permission, only because she was convinced we would never actually find one.

Ray loaded up our wagon with a fishing net, Mason jar and a long stick; all the things he trusted we would need to catch a snake. My excitement transferred all the way to my toes as I pranced around the wagon asking my brother (the authority), all sorts of snake-hunting questions.

"Is that snake okay, Buzzer?" I asked in my four-year-old version of brother. I pointed to the scaly creature slithering along a stack of building materials. Lumber had been delivered earlier in the week so Dad could erect a carport next to the house.

Thrilled beyond words, Ray raced indoors to tell Mom. The snake had disappeared by the time she reached the lumber pile. She suspected he had made it all up as a joke, but just in case, I was ordered into the house. She picked up a broom and began cautiously poking here and there, when the snake suddenly dropped out of the broom bristles and headed toward her feet!

I began to worry about our poor snake as I listened to screaming and yelling through the closed door, along with a measure of broom thumping. The gopher snake was eventually contained and set up in a terrarium in my brothers bedroom. Mom made him promise never, ever to let it out, or he would have to get rid of it.

True to his word, one day he approached Mom and confessed that somehow the snake had escaped and was loose in his room; a typical 12-year-olds very lived in environment. My pleading request to help catch the snake backfired and I was sent away to the opposite end of the house. I always missed the best part.

Rays snake was located following more screaming and yelling. It had sought refuge under my brothers old Halloween pirate mask on the floor. Complete with a black patch over one eye, the snakes head was peering out through the opposite eye-hole, flicking its tongue in the air. That reoccurring image unnerved Mom for years.

The snake was captured and Dad turned it loose outside, far away from where two determined children might locate it again.

The following spring Ray died, four days after Mothers Day and 17 days before his 13th birthday. The decorations were supposed to embellish the top of his cake. I closed the bag tightly and thought about the years Mom had hung on to this reminder, unable to part with it, yet refusing to ever look at it again. The paper sack felt much heavier now.

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