This story is by Bea Dawkins and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Only a couple hundred people lived in the tiny village that was pinned against a desert. Those who did were very strong, very brave, and just a little bit insane. Their desert, after all, was the deadliest one to be found on earth. It spanned for miles, and it cut off the little town from everyone living. The sand could burn, and some kind of mineral had made it reek with toxic fumes. But the desert was really a monster, not because of the danger, because of the legends: According to tale, the desert hid a cache of jewels,
The legends had started so long ago that no one even asked how the treasure had gotten there anymore. All that mattered was that it was there for the taking. According to the town quack, the village priest, the bella of the town, the cross old schoolteacher, and many others, there were sixteen chests stuffed with rare and beautiful gems of every kind. There were jewels to make the poorest beggar rich, the ugliest woman pretty, and to bring admirers and thieves to the most repulsive home.
But treasure like that always has its ways of killing. Every once in a while, some member of the little community would grow quiet and thoughtful. He wouldn’t talk to his friends, and would spend much of his time alone, brooding. Then, after a few days, he would disappear. His friends and neighbors would glance quietly at each other, but be too afraid to say anything. The Law would send out a searching party across the desert. It would sometimes come back with nothing and sometimes with a body. The absence of the the wanderer would gape in the community like an ugly wound.
Mr. Peter Travelli never paid much attention to these matters. He had money to make. There was no time to worry about far away treasures. He just set his scales, sold his goods, and filled his days with business. There was nothing else to do after all. He had no one to care about any more. Mr. Travelli had given up having friends when he began to get rich, and when his best friend had disappeared after the jewels years ago.
When she had disappeared, Peter Travelli had been so young. He had cried for weeks, and had spent days staring across the sands, praying that she would come back. But that had been years ago. She never did come back, and he had tried his best to move on. As the years went by, he moved on more easily. Now he had forgotten her entirely. Now he just counted the money from his profits and swept his failures under the table.
One day, though, he suffered a failure that even he couldn’t ignore. His most daring investment was waylaid and completely pillaged. The night he got the news of the robbery was the first night he thought of the jewels.
He soon pushed that extraordinary idea out of his head.
But business only went downhill after that. More investments foundered, and more companies refused to trade with him. He was losing everything, including his patience and his common sense. That was when he made up his mind to go after the jewels.
He slipped out of his house (the finest in the town) before dawn. He left early so that no one would see him and think him ridiculous. He had brought nothing but a pushcart and lots of sacks. He always knew how to be prepared.
He was following in the footsteps of his friend, though he didn’t stop to think of it. Years ago, she had walked on that same sand and had swung her hands carelessly around her hips, singing a tune.
But memories were far from Mr. Travelli’s thoughts on that day. Deserts are never too hot in the early morning, so he ambled along comfortably. The failures of others never bothered him. He was so sure of his own success. The sun rose in front of him, but he ignored it and instead counted out the revenue he could gain by treasure.
There is nothing so dead as a desert, but as Mr. Travelli counted, he got the feeling that he was surrounded by living things. Every once and a while, he turned his head. He had the sensation that a shadow had just ducked out of the way. It was odd.
He tried to forget his strange feelings and continue thinking. His thoughts of wealth outran his feet and overtopped the sun itself. As the deadly light made him hotter, his thoughts became more giddy. He dreamed of treasures more grand than they were wholesome. The desert had fully laid its trap.
The sun was at full conquest of the sand now. Its light hit the ground and made it steam. The whole desert stank of poison.
Mr. Travelli was getting more and more exhausted. He staggered forward like a man too drunk to do anything but go home. The quest was fast turning into torture. He had let go of his pushcart and bags long ago and had lost them.
His strength gave out, and he fell. As soon as he hit the ground, Peter Travelli’s thoughts changed course. He finally thought of his best friend: Her name was Eva. She was the girl he had played with as a boy. She was the vivacious young woman who had disappeared years ago.
He got up and kept on. The desert was wide, and the refreshing wind coldly ignored the man who was fighting for his purse and for his life. There was nothing on the whole callous plain but the lonely tycoon.
Eva had always talked about the jewels, he remembered. She was loud, adorable, and joyfully pulled him into all her games. She made the jewels the theme in everything they did. When they danced together (and they often did), she would take out all the words to the songs and just sing “treasures”.
That was when he was a child. Now, sweat was pouring out of his body. He had forgotten to bring water, and his anger at that stupidity became a blind rage. He fell over and over again, but collected his tattered will power each time and forced himself to go on. He wouldn’t let this treasure escape him. He couldn’t face his own life if he lost the comfort that was his by hard work and by right. He would follow that treasure right into the mouth of the monster.
But didn’t he hear singing? His mind was so fevered, he couldn’t tell what was right or false anymore, but somehow he was positive that the singing was right. Didn’t Eva used to sing like that? Didn’t he used to laugh with her and talk of things other than money?
Such thoughts would not bring him treasures! He pushed them aside and forged ahead, forcing himself to think of the glory that waited him at home when he came back as the man with the jewels.
In spite of himself, he wondered why Eva would ever run off after jewels. When had she ever cared about riches? Why did she fling her life away on a faerie story?
He mustn’t think of the treasures as a faerie story. Of course it wasn’t a faerie story! If he continued thinking like that, he would lose his poise entirely!
But the thoughts nagged him anyway. Eva, that pure hearted girl would be so shocked to see the cold life he lived now. Why couldn’t he just forget her?
He was sure that she was with him now. He couldn’t dodge that thought. If he could just turn his head at the right time, he would see her shadow springing away and hear the sound of her light feet. The shadows had been her all along, he just knew it.
Maybe the jewels were a faerie story. Maybe his whole scheme of wealth was an illusion. Maybe he had lost the only real thing in his life that day she ran away. This new swirl of thoughts made him cry like a kid, all sense of dignity and importance lost in the sand. He mustn’t think that way! That way would kill him! He would think only of the jewels. That’s it! The jewels, the jewels, the jewels. . . the jewels . .the jewels. He stumbled and collapsed for the last time. His head was no longer full of jewels, but of a young girl who could dance forever.
Back in the village, under the noonday sun, people began to exchange uneasy glances. The respected merchant Travelli was missing, and he had no cause to be gone. They all pretended to ignore the cause of his absence. They all wanted to believe that the jewels had not claimed another victim. But their faces were ashen and their manner haunted. They knew the truth.