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"Buried Treasure": First Place, Family Circle Fiction Contest 2011

boy and girl on bikes
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Jorge Mascarenhas

Standing at the edge of the pile of junk, I recalled Andrew's words. I picked up an umbrella, one of its spokes poking out of the black fabric. You have to count on yourself. What was I going to do? Our two daughters would soon graduate high school and hoped to go to college. We had a mortgage. Andrew had been the last man hired at his company and was the first man fired during the financial crisis. I'd been a teacher's assistant in the elementary school until the new school budget eliminated my position.

"If nobody buys the cabinet, I'll chop it up for firewood to sell in the winter," Andrew said. "You can help me carry the rest of the things to the pickup later."

"No problem," I said, looking down at my hands, clenched into fists.

I remembered watching Andrew fix the flat tire. He'd asked me what I would have done if he hadn't been there. I had wanted to tell him that my mother had died the month before and my grief had made me absent-minded, scatterbrained and directionless. The only way to escape the raw grief was to ride away, see the plains rush by like roaring streams. I wanted to go fast after all the slow days sitting with my mother in her hospital room. It was the start of spring and outside her window, we could see the leaves in the trees unfurling, the tulips opening, my heart breaking. I'll never make it out of here, my mother had said.

But I couldn't explain all that to Andrew—I'd just met him moments before. He changed my tire and the group set off. Although Andrew could have easily ridden at the front, he rode alongside me. That evening, after I'd returned home and showered, I changed into a white blouse, looped a pastel pink sweater carefully over my shoulders and we met for dinner. One year later, we were married.

I knew he was the man my mother would have approved of: a businessman with a good future, someone who would always be able to take care of my flat tire—and me. But then Andrew's company went under. Bad luck was how his best friend, Sean Phillips, put it. He lived on the ninth floor of this building and had suggested we come over and scout around the basement to see what we might find to sell. I was trying not to feel envious each time Sean and his wife invited us into their beautiful apartment. I knew that jealousy would only turn me bitter and ungrateful for what I, we, still had. Yet looking at my husband, I was flooded with fear. How would we survive?

"Find anything interesting?" he asked from across the heap.

"A flour sifter I could probably use myself," I replied, thinking I could learn to bake my own healthy bread. The lights above us flickered. Every now and then I turned to the door, fearing the building's janitor would come in to stop us, half hoping he'd come in to stop us. Sean had said he didn't think it would be a problem for us to go through the garbage—after all, the people had already thrown the stuff out. Yet I couldn't convince myself that this was right.

I picked up a bouquet of dusty flowers that might have been a centerpiece on a table at a wedding. I pictured my own wedding and how I'd walked down the aisle, looking up at Andrew, who stood at the altar beaming at me as if I were the sun rising. I'd never felt more beautiful or more certain that life would hold only good things for us. Our first daughter, Caitlin, was born the following year. Soon after came Nora. They filled the hole that grief for my mother had left behind.