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The Fortune

    Daniel stood beside the old truck and watched as the flames climbed high into the night sky. This wasn't a defeat, he told himself. This was a good thing. He needed a fresh start, and he'd never find it while this place was waiting for him.

    Good riddance.

    Something collapsed inside the house, and a blast of sparks and smoke rolled out from the downstairs windows. The interior was an inferno now, like a coal furnace, every surface blinding with yellow light and heat. The flames had spread to the outside a few minutes ago, climbing from the windows and the occasional pool of gasoline to tear at the dry, lichen-spotted clapboards, the flaking white paint burning and blistering around them. High above, the roof began to sag, the old tar shingles sliding and folding as their frame vanished into the searing blaze in the attic.

    Behind the house, the old barn, all dry wood and hay, burned twice as bright, already collapsed on one side, massive, dry-rotted beams falling into the workshop, crushing what tools and tractors he hadn't already sold. That familiar building, that historic building, had been reduced to a jumbled silhouette of broken boards and corrugated sheet metal reaching out of the rolling flames below.

Daniel could hear sirens in the distance, far off now, out beyond the overgrown fields, his latest crop of weeds and saplings lit by this flickering orange sunset, but they were getting closer. It was time to leave.

    Thank God, it was finally time to leave.

***

    One month earlier.

    “You need help, Daniel.” Kelly always said that, so it didn't bother him anymore.

    “No I don't. All I need is some peace and quiet. Why do you still come here anyways?” He punctuated the question by jamming the pry bar between the next two pieces of plywood and shoving down savagely. The wood creaked loudly and popped up, and he ripped it out, tossing it onto the pile and looking below. Nothing.

    She cringed faintly at the destruction. She'd grown up in the house next door and had been closer to Daniel's grandparents than he had. She might have inherited this house if it hadn't been for him.

    “Just thought today might be the day I talk some sense into you,” she said. “That and I brought you some potato salad. You don't eat enough on your own.” They had been friends once, perhaps that was why she still felt some responsibility for him. Certainly no one else did anymore.

    “Thanks, but I didn't ask for your help.”

    “I know.” She paused, surveying the ruins of the kitchen. He'd torn up the tile floor months ago, before moving on to search some other, more likely hiding place. What plywood remained was still covered in plaster, though the rough, light-gray surface now bore several paths where he'd ground mud into it as he went about his daily routine.

    Her eyes followed those trails, from the doorway, with its missing frame, to where he'd shoved the refrigerator, so he could check beneath it, to the counter, where he ate whatever half-prepared meals he had, and then back to the door. She sighed. This place had been so full of life once.

    The walls were bare now, the cheery yellow-flowered wallpaper torn down, and most of the sheetrock was missing, as it was everywhere else in the house. The cabinets had been gutted, the upper ones torn off the walls entirely, until the countertop and sink were all that remained. Dishes, old, delicate, and painted with blue flowers filled the two-bay sink and stood in piles on the formica countertop, dusted and bracketed by construction debris. He didn't have anywhere else to store them now.

    “Listen, I've got this friend,” she said. “She's a psychologist, but I thought maybe you might just want to talk to her a little. It wouldn't be anything formal, just, you know, sometimes it helps to talk about these things.”

    “I don't need some shrink telling me the same thing as everyone else.”

    “I figured it'd just do you some good to get off the farm for a little while. You know, just get a change of pace, some perspective.”

    “I don't need perspective,” he snapped. “I got all the perspective I need right here. You'll see when I find it.”

    “Find what Daniel?” she demanded. “There's nothing here! It's all in your head. You're wasting your life tearing this place apart for nothing! For God's sake, you bulldozed the orchard! You're obsessed. You need help.”

    “I don't need help!” he yelled. “It's my house. It's my farm. And I'll do with it what I will. I don't need you coming in here, telling me what to do with my life and my property!”

    Kelly sighed and shook her head. There was no arguing with him once he'd said that. Most everyone in the town could do a passable impression of him saying that sentence. She turned away from him and looked out into the dining room, what was left of it.

    “Okay.” she said flatly. “Sorry I brought it up. Just... promise me you'll take a day off some time, try something different, go on a trip. I don't want to see you spend your whole life destroying the last thing they left to you.”

    He looked up warily, but nodded, more for her sake than in agreement.

    “Maybe I will,” he muttered.

    “I hope so,” she said, but she knew he wouldn't. She said goodbye and left. He heard the door in the old summer kitchen close, her car start, and the crunch of gravel as it rolled out the driveway.

      He sighed, hung his head, and looked hard at what he was doing, the prybar strangely heavy in his hand. For a moment he felt the old, familiar guilt welling up around him, but he pushed it back with the ease of long years of practice and tore up the next sheet of plywood. If he gave up now, it would mean that all his work, all his searching for the last eight years had been for nothing, and, worse, that the treasure would still be here, waiting for someone else to find it.

    He couldn't let that happen.

    She'd see when he found it, he told himself. They'd all see. There had been a small fortune hidden in this place, and once he found where the old man hid it, he'd be rich.

    Then he could finally leave.

***

    Eight years earlier.

    “It's gotta be here somewhere,” Daniel muttered, rummaging through one of the cardboard boxes sitting against the dining room wall. He knew he'd probably thrown the letter away over a year ago, but he kept looking, partly because it was the best clue he had, and partly because a little proof would go a long way towards improving Kelly's opinion of him.

    There was a small stack of letters from his grandfather tucked into one of the boxes, but most of them were old, from a month or two after Grandma Carrie died and Grampa Samuel had started writing to him, asking him to return to the farm.

    Daniel had started throwing them out within a year, and didn't remember why he'd even read the one he was currently looking for – the one that mentioned the treasure. At the time, he'd assumed it was just another trick to bring him back, but he was starting to have second thoughts. It looked like the old man had taken it upon himself to teach him one final lesson before he died.

    “Maybe you'll find it when you unpack,” Kelly said politely. It had been almost a month since Daniel moved in, yet he'd barely removed anything from the four boxes, which contained all of his worldly possessions. It wasn't that he was a naturally tidy person – just that he felt no reason to unpack when he would be moving out as soon as he found the money. He liked to tell himself that he always traveled light, but he knew he would have kept most of the things he'd sold to pay his debts if he could have.

    He didn't say anything – he was too busy looking for the letter – so Kelly started again. “Well, I'm glad to see you're staying,” she said. “I was worried you'd just sell this place off to developers or something first chance you got.”

    He looked up and realized that she was smiling, so he smiled too.“Yeah, it's...” he trailed off, when he realized he couldn't think of a single thing that would be nice about living here. He hated this place.

    “Quiet? Safe?” Kelly asked with a smile as Daniel stood and picked up his coffee cup. Everyone here thought they knew all about him.

    “Yeah.” He nodded and sipped his coffee. At least she'd stopped short of saying 'honest.' That would have sounded a bit too close to those letters for his liking. He didn't need their opinions, and he didn't need them trying to save him. He was doing just fine on his own.

    Of course, he would have been better if the old man had just left him the damn money, but no, that would have been too easy. Every account and investment Daniel found had been closed over a year ago, and though he could still sell the farm for a decent profit, he wasn't leaving until he found the rest of it.

    Daniel gave up on the letter and stepped back into the kitchen. “I don't know what happened to it,” he said. “I hope I didn't throw it out. I swear he mentioned the money. Said if I worked here long enough, I'd find it.” he shook his head. “It would be just like him to hide it on me.”

     She frowned at the bitterness in his voice, but kept her thoughts to herself.

    “So what were you doing before you came back up here?” she asked.

    “Uh, sales work, actually.” he said. “Heavy machinery insurance.” That was sort of true.

    “Oh, that sounds interesting.”

    Daniel shrugged. “It was alright, I guess.” He decided to change the subject, but she beat him to it.

    “Well, I guess I ought to head out,” she said, as she finished her coffee and set the mug down on the counter with a thump. “It's been nice talking to you.” He could tell she had her doubts about him, but she was kind enough not to say anything.

    “Yeah, thanks for stopping by.” he said. They walked out through the summer kitchen and he waved as she got in her car.

    “I'm glad you're back. I hope it all works out,” she said as the door shut.

    He stood and watched until her car was out of sight, then he set his coffee mug down on the threshold and grabbed the dirt-caked shovel resting by the door. He'd been out in the fields when she stopped by, and when she'd assumed he was working on the farm instead of searching for buried treasure, he'd seen no reason to correct her. Not that letting her think he'd turned over a new leaf had kept him from asking her about the treasure. After nearly a month of searching, he was starting to get frustrated.

    She hadn't known anything, but it wouldn't matter. He was pretty sure the old man had hidden the money out in the east block. According to the calendar he'd left behind, Samuel had been planning to leave that one fallow for the next three months, then plant it for a fall harvest. Assuming that he'd meant for his grandson to follow the calendar, that would probably have been 'working long enough' or whatever it was that letter had said. By then, he would have magically gained an appreciation for this place, and would probably put the money towards a life of honest farming like he was supposed to.

    But he wasn't going to play by the old man's rules. He was smarter than that.

***

    Eight years and four months earlier.     Samuel sighed as he put his bowl of soup on the table, and settled into his seat. He swore he'd never ached like this a few months ago, and he'd never felt this tired this early. Not too long ago, he would have stayed up late pouring over the ledgers, working hard to keep the farm profitable, but now it was all he could do to shower and eat a decent meal before he fell asleep.

    There was a letter sitting by the threadbare placemat, one of hundreds he had written to his grandson, striving vainly to convince him to come home. It was already folded, nearly finished now, the small, cramped letters carefully printed by a hand which was better suited to large, strong movements, on a sheet of Carie's old stationary. He read what he had written the night before while he ate his soup, thinking over the events of the last week, checking to see if he'd missed any. There was always work to be done, and it seemed like it was building up faster and faster these days. Or maybe he was just moving slower.

    Once he'd read it over, he picked up the pen, and started writing. It was a small thing, sending out these letters, and he doubted that it was helping – Daniel probably didn't even read them, and he'd probably moved away from the address he was sending them to long ago, but Samuel liked having someone to talk to, even if he wasn't listening.

    'I'm feeling my age Daniel.' he wrote. 'It took me long enough, but I finally am. I could use a hand, if you ever get tired of doing whatever it is you're doing down there. And if you don't, then just remember that this place will be waiting for you.

    'I know I won't be around too much longer, I can feel it down deep. I just wish you'd come home, learn to run the farm while I can still teach you. Lord knows it ain't easy running a place like this, but you'll do well, you always had a good sense for business, and I've made sure this place'll be ready for you before I go. First season's crops are all planted, the debts are all paid, that should give you some time to make mistakes, learn the ropes.'

     Samuel stopped and worked his cramped fingers. Writing hurt worse than pretty much any other job he could do now, luckily he didn't have to do it often.

    He looked over the last paragraphs and nodded with satisfaction. He might have had to spend everything he'd saved over the years, but he'd paid every debt, bought everything that needed to be bought, even planned for his own funeral expenses. When Daniel got this place, he'd have a clean slate, nothing to worry about but learning how to do the job and keeping the place in the family. He flexed his hand and started writing again.

    'The greatest fortune I can leave you is right here, Daniel. I know you don't appreciate it now, but come home, work the land awhile, and I know you'll find it.' he signed it. 'Stay safe, and come home when you can. Samuel.'

***

    The light from the fire in the rear-view mirror flickered on Daniel's face as he pulled out of the driveway, shifted gears, and started down the road. He didn't look back.



    

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