Thursday, November 1, 2007

Chapter Thirty-Three: Lucky Charm

They spent the remainder of the night at Compass’s place. Mark wasn’t accustomed to sleeping with cats, and more than once he woke up in a blind, choking panic when one or the other of the fat girls draped herself across his face. But instead of cursing the cats, he took each instance as an opportunity to curl up behind Compass and snuggle and drift back to sleep with his nose in her hair.

When Compass woke in the morning, Mark had already left for work. Watery, early April sunshine struggled to penetrate the clouds. Compass had now been unemployed for long enough that it made her feel a little panicky every morning. She had savings to last a little while, but then there was the question of what to do next?

Her officemate at school had been horrified at Compass’s decision to take a hiatus from teaching. He loved to teach – went to conferences, did research, wrote papers on different pedagogical theory and strategies, even had a wooden-apple pencil-holder on his desk. He left school every day surrounded by adoring students, the St. Francis of college kids. Compass found it impossible to explain to him that while teaching was fine, it wasn’t her passion.

“Teaching is what you do.” she told him. “For me, it’s just what I’m doing.”

He failed to understand the difference.

And so she’d turned down all the hours offered her for spring quarter. She had so far been reveling in not having to prepare lessons or spend entire weekends wading through student papers for no pay. But soon she’d have to start thinking of how to make a living.

For now, she shrugged off the thought as best she could, put on the oversized fleece shirt that served as a robe, and shuffled into the kitchen to make coffee. When she saw the full pot, warm and ready, a choir of angels started singing the hallelujah chorus in her head. She opened her refrigerator, hoping she could ring one more drop out of the empty milk container she had put back in there yesterday. When she went to pick up the milk, she nearly dropped it. It was heavy. Full.

And there were other things in there. Food-shaped things. Fresh fruit, a line of little yogurts like soldiers to the rescue, a carton of butter, a fat little pot of jam, even eggs! Like one in a dream, Compass set the milk on the counter and reached a tentative hand toward the first yogurt in line. Dark cherry. She touched it, it stayed. She picked it up, it didn’t melt away or bite. It was even cold.

On the table was a note.

Welcome to the world of real food. Popcorn is not real food. That’s why people eat it at the movies. Movies aren’t real either. Making popcorn isn’t cooking just because it involves a pan and heat. Do NOT pop your breakfast, OK? I had to go to work; I’ll call you later in the day.


Compass stared at the note. More exactly, she stared at the semi-colon. While not entirely a grammar snob, she did have a certain fondness for the semi-colon, mostly because so few people knew how to wield it correctly. Mark did. Compass came as near to swooning as a recently reformed cynic could.

Coffee in one hand and yogurt in the other, Compass went to her computer to write up her notes. This had become an almost daily activity, keeping track of events, and she found she looked forward to it. By the time she’d finished, the coffee pot had turned itself off and gone cold, but she microwaved herself a second cup and wandered back to the bedroom to dress.

At the back of her closet, there was a box. It was a box of keepsakes, mostly photographs, some scribbled short stories, school awards, the debris of sentiment that drifts over an average life. Compass fought her way to the back of the closet, tripping over shoes and shoving aside clothes that should have gone to the Salvation Army a decade ago. The box teetered atop a pile of old video cassettes, but she managed to get it down without disrupting the delicate balance of all the other crap. Using the box as a sort of battering ram, she got clear of the closet.

She set the box on the bed, opened it as carefully as a junior member of the bomb squad. It wasn’t a huge box, her life being a little short on memorable occasions, and right on top lay Jenny’s manuscript. Compass picked it up and set it aside. The next thing she was looking for was a little harder to find, as it had slipped and slinky-ed its way to the bottom of the box. She drew it out carefully, not wanting to snag it on anything.

It was Jenny’s charm bracelet. Compass laid it on the bed, formed the bracelet into a circle and fanned out all the charms so she could see them. They were beautiful, really: the dragonflies were different sizes, some of gold, some silver, some pewter. Some had stones inset for eyes. The bracelet was crowded with them, and Compass counted 16 dragonflies. Sixteen dragonflies, and one tiny key.

She was right. She’d remembered it right.

When she went to England to visit Jenny’s grave, Jenny’s sister Margaret had given her the manuscript and the bracelet.

“Jenny adored you, my girl,” said Margaret. “She would have liked to give your mother a good thumping, but you she loved. She wanted you to have these.”

At first, Compass demurred, saying that Margaret should keep the bracelet for her own daughter, but Margaret persisted. Now that Compass thought about it, she had been very insistent.

“Jenny had very few precious things, but you were one of them. This charm bracelet’s another. I’d have mailed it to you when she passed, but I wanted to give it to you in person. I’m glad you’ve come and can get it safely now.” And she put the bracelet Compass’s hand, rolled the young woman’s fingers around it and squeezed. Then she nodded, rather vigorously. “Precious. You understand?”

Now she did. How much Margaret knew was unclear, but obviously she knew that the bracelet was valuable beyond the worth of the charms, beyond even the sentiment attached to it. It took a pair of wire cutters to do it, but Compass managed to cut loose the key from the bracelet. She couldn’t wear the bracelet – she’d be terrified of losing it or losing one of the charms – so she thumb tacked each end to her bulletin board so it could smile at her as she sat at her desk.

She prayed to Google, God of Hopeless-Seeming Research, and typed in “keys” in the search box. It took a few tries, but finally she found The site, dedicated to saving keys from the bottoms of junk drawers worldwide, had pictures of all different kinds of keys and the locks they belonged to. There were millions. Compass nearly wept at the impossibility of the task, but then she did something she nearly never did: she read the instructions.

“Does your key have an identifying number?” She turned the tiny key over in her fingers. Yes! She typed in the number. That narrowed it down in a hurry to a bank of lockers that had been in a St. Louis train station, installed back in the early 50s. A little more hunting produced a phone number for the train station. The emerald – if that’s what was in there – had been stashed in that locker for at least 30 years. Compass had remembered seeing the key dangling from the bracelet even when she was a child. What were the chances the locker was still locked, still even there?

With trembling fingers, she dialed the number.

The old train station had burned down, she was told, by a man who must have had a striped cap and a walrus moustache. Why did all men of a certain age in St. Louis sound like Mark Twain? It wasn’t the big, main station, the man told her; it was a much smaller one just outside the city – older. Made of wood. Burned down 33, nope, 34 years now.

“The lockers? What happened to the lockers?”

“Funny you should ask. An old eccentric … name of Byrne or Brine, something like that, he bought up those ugly old lockers and hung ‘em on his wall as art.”

“Does he still have them?”

There was a pause. “Now I do find old train lockers pretty fascinating, but I have to admit losing track of that particular collection.” It took Compass a full minute to realize he was being ironic. She thanked him and hung up.

Compass went back to Google, finding Gabriel Brynn’s locker collection in a surprisingly short time. No sooner had the lockers been installed on one wall of his 28,000 square foot house then the house had burned down. Yet the lockers survived. Twice in raging fires and only slightly singed, the lockers were officially a “curiosity,” and they’d been moved, unopened, to a small, private museum of St. Louis history. The museum was made of brick.

Compass called and would have sworn she was talking to the same guy. Yes, they had the lockers. Yes, they were still unopened. Yes, if she had a key, she was the rightful owner of the contents. Yes, she’d have to come there and open the locker herself. Could she let them know when she was coming? It would be nice to have the media there to document the occasion of Opening the Locker. Compass, picturing Geraldo shoving his moustache and microphone in her face as she tried to stuff the emerald down her shirt, sidelined that request to deal with later. She hung up the phone and started searching for airplane tickets.

When the phone rang, Compass assumed it would be Mark on the other end of the line. She gave her “hello” as much warmth as she could stuff into a single word, and just a hint of sexy. It was Ginny.

“Oh! Hi, Gran,” said Compass, guilt at not having checked up on her mother instantly dimming her day.

“Dear Lord, what have I raised?” said Ginny, her usual round and sunny voice a little sharp today. “She’s been griping and moaning all morning. I told Arthur, if she’d been plugged into anything, I’d’ve unplugged her by now.”

“Oh, Ginny, I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t you worry, dear, it’s not all that bad. The doors in this house are solid enough to muffle even that screeching tea kettle of a voice. I’ll tell you why I called: I’ve got some good news to pass along. Seems your mom has an emergency stash of ‘valuables,’ and she considers being stuck with her boring old parents enough of an emergency to tap into the reserves.”

“Am I going to have to figure out how to fence stolen gems?” Compass’s heart made a couple of protest thumps in her chest.

“ ‘Fence?’ Now who watches too much CSI? No, dear, the gems have already been converted into cash, according to my dear, thieving daughter of whom I am so proud. The money’s stashed in the attic, in the wall. Perhaps you can take that lovely young man with you. I know Henry and Sophie look out for you, but there’s only so much the incorporeal can do.”

“I’m sure Mark will go with me. Hey, Gran, did Mom and I ever live in St. Louis?”

“St. Louis … not that I know of, but there were gaps of months and years when we didn’t hear from your mother, so it’s possible. Why?”

“I think the emerald’s there. It’s a long story which I’ll tell you later, but as far as you know, we never lived there.”

“As far as I know, but then, that’s not very far.”

A crash in the background at Ginny’s ended the phone call in a hurry. Compass had barely hung up the phone when it rang again. This time it was Mark, and Compass readjusted her voice lower in her throat, hoping for husky and sexy.

“Are you coming down with something?”

Argh. “No, I’m fine. Hey, do you want to go to St. Louis?”


NuclearToast said...

Ooooh, how will Compass open the locker without a media circus? And what awaits in the attic? More chapters, please!

Ash said...

OMG - I am so excited! It's a cross county treasure hunt!!!!! PLEASE don't make us wait long for the next chapter!!! :)