Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading here.
“I can’t believe you!” Lorelei touched her forehead, a vein pulsating beneath her fingertips.
Grier’s mouth was hanging open excitedly, the paper clenched in his fist. She’d managed to drag him away from the booth before Ziah or Conrad could count the rest of the supply or the money gathered as one shift ended and the other began, and they ended up in a quiet spot just at the edge of the festival grounds. “I know,” he was grinning stupidly, ear to ear, “This is amazing!”
Lorelei sighed, squeezing the bridge of her nose. It absolutely was not amazing. Grier had traded one of their most expensive ciders for not legal tender, but a piece of parchment, aged, torn, and with an almost illegible writing scrawled over and even less recognizable drawing. Evening was settling in around them, lamplights flicking on, and shadows were growing tall in the setting sun. She only had a few hours to rectify this.
“That man, where do you think he went?”
Grier shrugged, “I dunno, home? He’s not got the map anymore so why would he hang around?”
“That’s what that is? A map?” She pointed to the paper.
“To treasure!” He was eighteen now, but acting more like a child than she’d ever seen.
“You think that’s a legitimate treasure map? And someone just handed it off to you?” Crossing her arms, Lorelei sighed, “Was he wearing an eye patch too?”
“No. And he didn’t just give it to me, we did a trade,” he rolled his eyes, “He said the treasure is worth more than the bottle, don’t worry, we’ll be able to pay it back. Come on!”
He turned from her, unfolding the paper and burying his nose in it as he walked.
“You realize how ludicrous this sounds, right?” She was watching him as he started across the street.
Lorelei jumped at the sound of Hotaru beside her. The short girl winced and offered her an apologetic look.
“Treasure hunting,” she snarled, the hurried after him.
They were headed down a wide sidewalk along Main Street, the buildings packed together tightly, but their doors and shutters close; it seemed everyone was at the festival. Lorelei and Hotaru were rushing to keep pace with Grier, until he stopped suddenly.
He looked up and spun around, “I don’t understand. This is it. That was…short!”
Lorelei glanced up at the building they were in front of. It was painted a bright magenta with yellow awnings and flower boxes spilling over with pansies. A kettle-shaped sign hung above the door reading Eleanor’s Tea Room, and another in the window read Closed.
Even with the nagging thought that the man had give up the map too close to the end to be a coincidence, Lorelei found herself poking around the flower boxes alongside Grier, though she had no idea what they were looking for. Then Hotaru plucked the paper from Grier. “No, it doesn’t stop here, not exactly.”
She wandered away from them for a moment, down the sidewalk, then back and turned sharply toward the building, disappearing into the hedge. At the edge of the sidewalk, there was a small arch, drowning in ivy and white flowers, and Hotaru had dipped under and through it. Grier followed, and Lorelei found herself alone on the sidewalk, her question of “Should we be doing this?” left unanswered before she ducked under the ivy as well.
The walkway between the tea room and its neighbor was just wide enough for her to squeeze through, though it was dark and stray vines tugged at her sweater. There was light at its end, from the back of the building, and she stepped out onto a patio scattered with mismatched tables and chairs, surrounded by a fence covered in the tendrils of rose bushes just at the beginning of their hibernation.
Hotaru stood at the center of the space where an oak tree was growing, its branches spread out above them, adorned with lanterns and twinkling in the darkness the tree created. “You have to get to the right spot before it will tell you where to go next,” she reached a hand out and placed it on the tree, and as Lorelei came up behind her, she saw a line crawling itself across the map.
“Of course! That man didn’t know Moonlit Shores well enough to use this,” Grier grabbed her upper arm and spun her toward him, “You’re so smart!” Then he snatched the map from her and headed out. Hotaru’s face flushed deep red, and she smiled for just a second until her eye’s met Lorelei’s, and she hurried off into the darkness after Grier.
The sidewalk took them down away from Main Street, and the smell of the ocean intensified. Grier led them like a hound–though Lorelei would never say that–to a big, square building with shaker shingles and a high mansard roof. When Lorelei stepped inside, she paused, feeling how cavernous the place was immediately. She faltered on the threshold then pulled her head back out, glancing at the facade of the place, how at sat on a corner lot looking ordinary and unobtrusive, and then popped back in. It was definitely bigger on the inside, but she’d come to realize that pointing these things out didn’t seem to matter.
The library smelled like she’d fallen between the pages of an old book. Each row of tomes was lit from overhead by an orangey bulb nestled into a stained glass lampshade, casting warm blocks of color all over the leathery spines. Their footsteps echoed into the otherwise empty place, floating off into the impossibly high ceiling.
“Where in here?” Grier’s voice pierced the quiet.
Lorelei shushed him, but wondered if it mattered in the emptiness of the place.
“Probably something old,” he stopped and looked around, “That doesn’t narrow it down.” Then his face lit up and he bolted across the room and out of sight.
Hotaru looked after him, then turned back to Lorelei, “Where did he get that map?”
“Some man at the booth,” she ran a finger along one of the books and thought she heard a giggle. She jerked her hand back and shuffled away from the stacks.
“Was he dressed in a black cloak?”
“Yes,” Lorelei narrowed her eyes at the girl, “Why?”
“Kind of tall and skinny?”
The anxiety on Lorelei’s face told her the answer.
“I saw him following you around this morning. Ren even seemed kind of interested, but the man disappeared before you two took over for us, so I didn’t think much about it after that.”
Lorelei felt a queasiness in her stomach, “What do we do?”
“Found it!” Grier came thundering back to them with the map held high over his head, “It was the archway into the old record’s room. Made of reclaimed wood from the Argo. Next stop!”
They watched him march past and back out the door.
“I don’t think he could be convinced to stop,” Hotaru bit her lip, “There’s really only one thing we can do–”
“Knock him out.”
Lorelei grimaced, “Oh, okay, yeah, protect him. That’s a good option too. Let’s do that.”
Grier was almost sprinting as he headed down the road. Barely keeping up, Lorelei turned the corner to finally see it: the ocean. Out past a line of red and white stilted houses, the smokey blue of the water reached up and melted into a hazy, yellow sky. The clouds were resting against the water like long swaths of cotton candy in pinks and blues, and the sun was slipping down behind the sea.
She wasn’t sure how long she’d been standing there when she remembered she was meant to be following Grier and Hotaru. She saw them bustling along a stone retaining wall ahead and hurried passed the stairs that would take them down to the beach, catching up with them near a thicket.
It looked especially dark beyond the treeline, and again Lorelei stopped, “Grier, are you sure you’re going in the right direction?”
“Oh yeah,” he forged ahead to the edge of the trees, “Next spot is the old fishing shack.”
“Isn’t that over there?” Hotaru pointed back the way they’d come to a sort of terrifying, but admittedly less terrifying than the wood, dilapidated hut at the edge of the beach.
Grier shook his head, “I don’t think it means there.”
He disappeared amongst the trees, and with a little groan, Lorelei went in after with Hotaru. The girl was muttering to herself about what else the old fishing shack could possibly refer to, but her voice was swallowed up in the branches.
Sinking into the ground, Lorelei pulled each foot after another, bending over and pushing old branches away from her face. She came upon Grier before she realized in the dark, finding him kneeling in the muddy sand beside a few planks, broken in a small stack. There in the shadows she could just make out the outline of a foundation of what was once, long, long ago, something one might have called a fishing shack.
“How did you know this was here?”
Her voice seemed to pull him from a bit of a trance. “Oh, you know, it’s part of Moonlit Shores. Got it!” He popped back up and hurried past them, shouting after himself in the dark, “Come on, ladies, we’re near the end, I can feel it!”
She looked to Hotaru for clarification, and the girl smiled in the dark, “He made this place his home. I’ve lived here almost my whole life, but I think he’ll always know more about it than I do.”
With a sigh, they pressed on.
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