I stared at the white ring box before me, somehow excited and yet completely terrified by the shiny center stone sitting at the head of a silver band within the box.
“Oh, just fucking get over yourself and ask her, dumbass,” came the shrill, ear-shattering voice of Mariah right across the table from me. “Stop making such a big deal out of it.”
I raised my eyes to her and watched her set down a card—a red queen of hearts, which completely obliterated my black jack of spades. But then my eyes caught a glint of light on her ring finger. My eyes traveled to the band on her ring. “How did you propose to Joe, anyway?”
Mariah’s cheeks grew red and her frown deepened. “What? That’s not...I mean, you weren’t...”
I smirked at her. Joe had called me up all excited a little more than eight months ago, explaining how Mariah had proposed to him. Well...if you consider throwing a ring at someone’s face and yelling “MARRY ME NOW, IDIOT!” a proposal.
Still, Joe was ecstatic.
Back to Mariah—now an embarrassed, babbling idiot—I spoke up to her again. “I know the truth about how you proposed to him. There’s really no use hiding it, Mrs. Mariah Nowell.”
Mariah huffed and crossed her arms over her chest, but she didn’t blow up at me or spew a string of profanity. Somehow, her years of traveling with her little sister, Tess, and her childhood friend, Joe, had really softened her, especially since being married to Joe. Don’t get me wrong, she still had her rough edges. They just weren’t as razor-sharp and deadly like they were three years ago when we met them.
“That’s not fair,” Mariah tried to tell me, pouting. “I asked him not to tell anyone about that.”
“Well, honestly, we were gonna find out sooner or later,” I told her in a straightforward tone.
Mariah just huffed in return, throwing down her hand of cards on the table—uncaring that she had won our latest round.
I leaned toward her, asking, “So, really, how did you decide how you were gonna ask him? Like, how did you know the time was right?”
Mariah contorted her face in confusion. “‘ The time was right ?’” She repeated, almost seeming to question my sanity. “I wasn’t looking for ‘the right time’. I just did it. When I realized that I loved... ahem ...sorry...when I decided Joe and I might, you know, save money and stuff if we were together, I just went out and got the stuff and then asked him.”
I blew out a sigh. Figures Mariah would be the untactful type. I should’ve known that from the start.
“But, look, dumbass,” Mariah addressed me by her affectionate pet name for me, “Marina adores you like only a first-class idiot could. You’ve got to stop stressing about how to do it and just do it.”
Somehow, in the burning trash heap of words Mariah had just spewed, I pulled out a golden nugget of wisdom and truth. She was right. I just needed to do it.
But as I glanced once more at the ring box, my stomach churned again and I lost my will to the anxiety stewing in my brain.
“I think Joe and Tess are coming back soon from that movie,” Mariah announced, leaning back on the futon and throwing her feet up on the table, uncaring that her feet knocked over a few empty beer cans. “So scram, kid, so I can unwind before they get back.” Mariah waved me off.
Something about her use of the word “kid” to address me made me laugh since we were only maybe three months apart in age. Still, I rolled my eyes and chuckled to myself, grabbing up the ring box and tucking it into my sweater pocket. “Fine. Night, then.”
“Peace,” Mariah offered me in return, leaning back and taking a long drag of a toke she’d picked up from an old geezer a few blocks from our campsite.
Maybe that’s what had mellowed her out over all these months...
I chuckled to myself again and stepped through their luxury RV, still as cluttered as ever, but now thankfully with more of Tess’ photography equipment and Mariah and Joe’s treasure-hunting equipment than liquor bottles and beer cans. Opening the door to their RV, I stepped carefully down to the ground and shut the door behind me.
I patted the ring box in my pocket then pulled out a small flashlight and flicked it on. I stepped forward, my eyes straying to the gorgeous starlit sky above me. The woods of the southern Tennessee Appalachians surrounded me with their earthy and smoky scent. The late-night air was humid but I could sense a hint of the early autumn chill. We were far from any big city or town, so the surrounding wood was quiet except for the chirp of crickets, the rustling of the wind in the leaves, and the occasional hoot of an owl.
Dried leaves, pine needles, and other vegetation crunched beneath my feet at I walked through the darkness, following the light of my flashlight for maybe forty yards until I spotted it.
My home. Marina’s home. Our home.
Our new motorhome was bigger and definitely a little nicer than Gramp’s old rig, though Gramp’s rig was still safe at home in Colorado. But for Marina and me, this rig was perfect. We affectionately dubbed it “Momo”.
I stopped in my tracks and stared at the RV for a few moments, reminiscing over the past few years. It had been three years since I had met Marina. Three years since Gramps died. Three years since finding the miner’s fabled treasure. Three years since my life trajectory was completely changed by the sweet, auburn-headed girl, Marina Hale.
To think, a faulty fuel gauge brought me here, of all places...to the smoky mountains of eastern Tennessee. Hunting for more fabled treasure...
I thought about how Marina and I had met, how I had picked her up off the side of the road because her car had run out of gas, and then we somehow got wrapped up into finding the Miner’s treasure all over the American Southwest. I thought about how, as we went from park to park and adventure to adventure, I had slowly fallen in love with her, finding her to be the most exciting adventure of them all.
After the music festival all those years ago, we had decided to take up treasure-hunting as our profession, using the skills we gained on our original adventure and the money we cashed in from the gold we had found to fund our journeys. Somehow, Mariah, Joe, and Tess were never far behind us and we had an almost unspoken agreement with them to be each other’s rivals and--occasionally--partners. Still, while the treasure-hunting business had been fun, it often was not the most profitable. We’d found a few items with moderate payoff, but most of the stuff we uncovered was junk. Sometimes worse than junk.
But that didn’t really matter as long as we were together.
I put my hand in my pocket and my fingers grazed the ring box.
Mariah was right. I just needed to do it.
I peered at the RV, and a rush of wind whipped my shoulder-length hair over my face, pushing me toward the vehicle, almost as if spurring me on.
I decided to follow its direction and head back toward the motorhome. As I approached, I pulled the key from my pocket, careful not to drop the ring box, and unlocked the door. Entering the RV and pulling the door shut behind me, I stepped into the darkness, peering around to find Marina. When I noticed a light coming in from underneath the door to our room, located in the very back of the RV, I stepped toward the door, raising my voice to alert her to my presence, “Marina? You in there?”
I pushed open the slightly ajar door to the bedroom, finding Marina on the bed, leaning against the headboard with her knees drawn up to her chin, a book in her hands, and her eyes flowing with tears.
Panicked, I rounded the corner of the bed and knelt next to her. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
Marina’s face contorted at me. “I’m...just...really...happy...for Rachel and Samantha...” Marina flung her arms around me, bawling her eyes out.
I immediately recognize those names as the names of the main characters in her book, the last in a long series. She’d spent an inordinate amount of time gushing over them over the past few weeks. I smiled in relief and patted her back comfortingly.
After a moment, she seemed to gain back her ability to speak. “Amber, I’m just so happy for them. Samantha’s father was cured of his cancer, and Rachel and Samantha were finally able to confess their love to one another and start their life together on the horse ranch they had always dreamed of...It’s all just so perfect!”
I continued to hug her, thankful when she couldn’t see the flash of self-doubt that pinched my face and pierced through my entire body.
I couldn’t help but wonder if Marina was caught up in those stories because she was unhappy here with me. Or if she preferred someone more adventurous...or maybe more stable? Or perhaps she…?
I cut off my own thoughts. It had been a long struggle with self-doubt, but Marina’s loyalty and faithfulness—as childish as it sometimes seemed—was helping me through. I gave her a smile, even though she couldn’t see it because she was still hugging me, and asked, “And what about the dog?”
Marina released me from her hug and looked into my face, smiling and beaming like a child on Christmas morning. “He came back from the vet all healed up and healthy!”
I grinned at her, appreciating the joy she exuded in even the smallest things.
A thought popped in my head. My heart pounding, I slowly reached for my pocket. More specifically, the ring box in my pocket. At that point, I didn’t have a clue what I was going to say, but surely I could come up with something.
I began to pull the little jewelry box from my pocket and looked up at Marina again, beginning to say something—I don’t remember what. Just as the words begin to leave my lips, however, Marina’s eyes grew wide and she shook my shoulders before jumping out of bed, exclaiming, “Oh yeah! I made something for you. Come check it out!”
Marina somehow bounced off the bed in one leap and landed square on her feet. Even the thought of that makes my back hurt. I watched her bound into the kitchen, disappointed but curious all the same.
The ring box went safely back into my pocket for another time.
I guess this is not it.
As I entered the main part of the motorhome, the overhead lights flared on and stung my eyes. Marina stood at the refrigerator and pulled out a long baking sheet covered in parchment paper. She set it on the counter and closed the fridge door as I walked up to her, curiously asking, “What’s this?”
“You know those big, soft pretzels you like?” Marina answered me, smiling brightly. “I made it better.”
She tore the parchment paper off the top of the tray and revealed a huge pretzel shape...completely covered in chocolate.
I chuckled. I can’t help it. It’s too fascinating and disgusting at the same time. “Wow, this is...something...”
Marina absolutely beamed. “I know, right! I’ve been dying to try it all night, but I wanted to wait for you, of course.”
“How courteous of you,” I quipped, knowing the sarcasm would go right over her head. I pulled a knife from a nearby drawer, anxious yet a little reluctant to taste her latest creation.
Cutting an awkwardly-shaped piece for each of us, I put down the knife and picked up the smaller of the two pieces, knowing Marina would have no qualms about taking the bigger piece. Sure enough, a thick layer of hardened milk chocolate covered a salty, yeasty pretzel. We both took our pieces, eyed each other knowingly, and clinked the pieces together before stuffing them in our mouths.
First, it was sweet...too sweet...then the salt of the pretzel hit and balanced it out a bit. Then the sweet hit again, overwhelming the final taste. I looked at the pretzel again and grew a little nauseous at the thought of finishing the whole thing, though Marina could probably do it no problem.
“Mhmm,” Marina moaned in a way that made me want to blush. “It’s so good!”
I grinned in response to her. “Too sweet for me,” I replied. “But I’m still grateful you did this for me, babe.” I leaned in and planted a kiss on her cheek, leaving behind a faintly chocolatey kiss mark.
She rolled her eyes but smiled. “I’ll never understand how you don’t like sweet stuff.”
“I’ll never understand how you can eat a whole bag of candy by yourself in one night and not vomit,” I returned teasingly.
“Hmph. Skill, I guess,” she mocked me haughtily.
“Skill, huh?” I asked, suddenly using my fingers to tickle her sides, sending her into a fit of pained giggles. She stumbled back and fell onto the couch as I continue to barrage her with tickles. Finally, somehow, I ended up on the couch on top of her. We stopped the commotion suddenly and stared into each other eyes.
This is usually how sex starts for us, but not tonight. At that moment, I felt strangely heavy. I leaned into her and wrapped my arms around her, pulling her into a tight embrace and burying my head in her neck.
She was warm and soft. And her arms around me felt a little like heaven.
“Sorry...” I mumbled into her neck.
“What?” she asked in confusion.
I sighed and leaned back from her slightly, answering. “I said sorry. For being so weird lately.” I wished I could tell her why but the butterflies in my stomach prevented it.
Marina gave me a stern look—or at least, as stern as she could muster. “Amber, you’re being hard on yourself again. You have no reason to be. You aren’t weird at all!”
Thoughtful, I stared at her, wondering if she noticed my weirdness and just wasn’t telling me or if she was just that oblivious. There was no telling with Marina sometimes. In any case, I rose my lips up into a half-smile before yawning. “Weird or not, I’m beat. You ready for bed?”
Marina’s face appeared almost concerned for a mere second before she nodded. “I want to finish my book, but I’ll get in bed with you.”
And with that, we readied for sleep and fell into bed beside one another. Because of all my worry and anxiety regarding proposing to Marina, it took me a while to fall asleep—I think Marina was even asleep before me—but eventually, I drifted off, completely unaware of what the next few days and weeks had prepared for us.
An incessant buzzing at the head of the bed pulled me slowly, ever so slowly, from sleep. Finally, I woke up enough to recognize the ringer on my cell phone—yeah, I finally caved and got smartphones for Marina and me. Still half-asleep, I pulled the phone away from its charger and pressed the green “answer” button, groaning incomprehensively, “Yeah?”
“It’s about time you answered!” a familiar female voice shouted at me.
I held the phone away from my ear, cringing. Slightly offended, I raised my eyes to the analog clock on the wall opposite our bed. It read 10:43 am. “Okay, fine I slept in a little,” I answered Mariah back shortly, my words a little slurred as if I were hungover. “Wha’do ya want?”
Mariah sighed in exasperation. “Haven’t you seen my messages?”
I rolled my eyes, hopefully so hard she could hear it from her location. “No, I was asleep ...”
Mariah groaned as if I was at fault for sleeping. “Look,” she began explaining, “there was a scavenger hunt announced just this morning for a town only about thirty miles away. The reward for finding all the pieces is twenty-five grand! Can you believe it?”
The sum didn’t really impress me, considering the payoff sum from the Miner’s treasure was well worth more than fifty times that amount. Still, I try to emote some type of impressed vibe for Mariah. “Wow...that’s crazy.”
“Joe, Tess and I are already on the road there. It’s a little town north of the campsite called Sorrel Run,” she told me excitedly. “So, are you in?”
There it was. Mariah typically didn’t tell us what their plans were unless she had some scheme to rope Marina and me in for help.
I was silent for a moment, considering and gazing at Marina’s peaceful sleeping face.
I sort of didn’t want to bother her, but...she would be excited to have a lead again. It had been a while since we’d had any luck with anything.
“Alright,” I finally agreed. “We’ll meet you there after getting ready.”
“Hell yeah!” Mariah shouted into the phone again, making me cringe again. “We’ll meet you outside the town courthouse at noon. Got it?”
“Got it,” I responded, grateful that Mariah gave us some time to wake up and get ready before heading out on the road. I clicked the phone off and let my hand collapse to the bed, laying my head back on the pillow. I sensed Marina at my side and instinctively turned to cuddle into her, appreciating her body heat, even though the sunny September day was quickly growing warm.
For a moment, I almost gave in to the temptation of falling back asleep and dealing with Mariah’s wrath later, but when Marina began to stir next to me, I found I was more awake than asleep.
Finally deciding to rise, I got up out of bed and visited the bathroom. After I finished my business and put on a pot of coffee to brew, I went back into the room, finding Marina awake in bed, scrolling through her phone. “Good morning, dove,” I cooed toward her affectionately, using one of my favorite pet names for her.
Marina rolled over and gave me a disdainful look, teasingly putting me in my place for greeting her so cheerfully after she’d just woken up. I chuckled in response, remembering her tendency to be a grumpy waker, and sat down next to her, saying, “Mariah called a few minutes ago. There’s a scavenger hunt in a town a little ways away called Sorrel Run. We’re gonna go help Mariah, Tess, and Joe, okay? We gotta be there by noon, so you should get up and get ready.”
Marina’s eyes went wide the moment I mentioned ‘scavenger hunt’. She sat up excitedly at the prospect of another lead. “Really?” she asked breathlessly.
I nodded, laughing. “Yep, so you better get up soon, or we’ll miss our chance at the reward.”
She jumped out of bed, charging past me into the bathroom.
I shook my head and decided it was time for coffee. Two....maybe three mugs of it.