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Day Six: Treasure

A tall woman with frazzled black hair and a dirty overcoat flew in through the front door of the Coffee Stop and looked around. Customers glanced up from their meals or stopped their conversations to take in the crazy lady, and then casually went back to what they were doing. They kept one eye on her, though. Just in case.

Her head darted back and forth as she scanned the restaurant, and she clutched a threadbare pillowcase to her chest. Whatever was inside, she was holding it like it was life itself, her thin fingers and ragged nails kneading it. As soon as she spotted Jerome, sitting near the back, she sprinted, nealy knocking plates off people’s tables as she went.

“Jerome!” she said as she slid into the booth. She was breathing heavily, the pillowcase still held tightly.

He looked up from the club sandwich he was holding and stared at her for a moment. “Maxine?”

“Jerome,” she said, between deep breaths.

He put the sandwich down and closed his eyes for a moment. “Maxine.”

“Jer-”

His eyes snapped open. “What the hell are you doing here, Maxine? And looking like you slept in the subway all night, what’s going on? Does Aunt Patty know where you are?”

She swallowed hard and opened her mouth. A moment later, her hand shot out, grabbed the cola in front of Jerome and she started to drink, spilling nearly as much as she swallowed. When she finished, she dropped the glass on the table in front of him. It left a little trail of cola behind it.

“Jesus, Maxine. What happened?”

She took a shuddering breath. “I need you to hold this for me, Jerome.” Shaking, she held out the filthy pillowcase across the table. He shrank back from it.

“What?”

“You have to hold on to this for me, Jerome,” she said. “It’s very important.” Her hands trembled, but her eyes were locked on his and didn’t waver. “This is the most important thing in the world right now. You have to have it. I can’t keep it anymore. You can.” She pushed it towards him and he flinched. “Go on,” she urged.

“Yeah,” he said, glancing down. “But what is it?”

Maxine’s face lit up with a smile, one that might have been beatific if it wasn’t tinged with madness. “It’s treasure, Jerome. Treasure.”

He looked at it again. “Treasure.” With one finger, he delicately tapped the object concealed in the pillowcase. “Are we talking doubloons here or something?” He looked up. “Is this a crystal skull, Maxine?”

She shook her head. “No,” she said. “Nothing like that. That’s nothing like this. This is treasure. Real treasure. And you need to have it.”

“Why?”

“You need to.” Maxine put the object down on the table, but still didn’t let go. Her fingers looked too thin, almost wasted, and her grip was strong.

“Yeah, that doesn’t answer my question.” He was becoming aware of a smell from her. She smelled… sharp. Like dust in the desert or metal under the lathe in his grandfather’s workshop. “Maxie,” he said, “what’s wrong with you? This isn’t like you.” He touched her hand and she flinched away. Her skin was hot and dry. “Christ, Maxie – what is going on?”

She shook for a moment. “I tried to keep it,” she said. “I wanted to hold on to it. I thought I could make it work. But I couldn’t, Jerome. I just couldn’t. ” She smiled again, the smile of a mad saint. Her eyes were shining, almost silvery with tears. “So I’m giving it to you. I know you can use it. I know you’re the right one.”

With a slow finality, Maxine pulled her fingers off and left it sitting next to Jerome’s unfinished sandwich. She fell back in her seat, exhausted. “I know you’re right, Jerome,” she said. ” I know you are.” Her eyes closed.

“Shit,” Jerome said under his breath. He got up and moved to her side of the table to see if she was okay. “Maxine? Maxie?” He grabbed her shoulder and pulled back in pain. She was hot, even through the coat. He looked around to see if anyone could help, but everyone had gone back to their meal – Maxine’s craziness was too quiet to keep the audience’s attention – and what the hell was he supposed to do anyway? Say, Excuse me, but I think my cousin here is about to spontaneously combust – can I have another glass of water?

Later, when he would finally be able to tell this story as it had happened, he would never quite be able to explain what happened to Maxine. He found it much easier to just say that she ran out of the restaurant and he never saw her again. A lie, yes, but far more believable than what actually happened.

She was slumped over in the booth, heat coming off her in waves and barely breathing when she simply… popped. Like a soap bubble. She was there, then she wasn’t, and there was nothing to say she had ever been. No blood, no ashes, not a hair to mark her passage.

Nothing but her treasure, sitting on the table and drawing his attention with a kind of horrible gravity. The world seemed to bend around it, to fade away behind it. The thing inside that filthy pillowcase, whatever it was, filled his vision and his mind with a kind of psychic white noise, shutting off his ability to think.

“Anything else, sir?”

Jerome snapped back in to the world. The waitress held a pot of coffee and the check. She glanced at the thing on the table and wrinkled her nose. “Another cup of coffee for you?”

“N- no,” Jerome said. He reached for the check and pulled out his wallet. “No, thank you. I’m fine.” He handed her a couple of bills. “Keep it,” he said.

“Thanks,” the waitress said. She turned and walked away, sparing only a quick glance over her shoulder.

Jerome reached across the table, stopping just short of touching the thing Maxine had left him. It had killed her, he was pretty sure of that. And she wanted him to have it. But it killed her.

It was her smile. Yes, it was crazy. Yes, it looked like the kind of smile you backed away from slowly. But there was joy in that smile – he had seen it. And that was enough to lend curiosity victory over caution.

He picked up the object. It was a little soft, yielding. And warm. His skin shuddered when he touched it, and the cafe suddenly seemed brighter. Noisier. That sharp metallic smell overwhelmed him and he wondered why his nose didn’t bleed. Gotta go, he thought. He reached over to the other side of the table and grabbed his jacket. Wrapping the jacket around Maxine’s treasure, he left the cafe – head down, quick pace.

He’d look at it when he got home. Then he’d decide what to do.

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