“Keep it steady, move slowly, or we’ll never find a thing.” Johnny watched his son swing the metal detector around like a sword and sighed. Whenever Ricky did anything, he did it fast. The boy did not walk, he ran. He did not eat his dinner, he wolfed it down. Life was not a stroll for Johnny’s exuberant ten year old, it was a mad, arm-flailing sprint.
“I’m trying, dad, but it’s not doing nothing.”
“Anything. It’s not doing anything.”
Ricky huffed at his father. “Help me.”
“Okay, okay.” Johnny trudged across the field and helped his son keep the wand steady. It wasn’t Ricky’s fault, really, the thing was old and heavy, as much a relic as anything they hoped to find. “There you go,” he said softly. “Just like that. Back and forth, back and forth.”
Together the two of them covered an area about the size of a tennis court, and got nothing. The wand beeped rhythmically, but never got excited for a single second. As a kid, Johnny remembered combing beaches with his own father and finding loose change galore. He wanted his son to feel that same rush of excitement, hearing a metal detector screech at a find! But alas, it seemed like disappointment. Ricky was clearly growing bored with what he probably consider walking around aimlessly with a metal stick.
There was little place for a father to entertain his son nowadays, beyond spending money on gadgets that did it better and for longer. Television and toy companies were the ones raising the nation’s children, not their parents. Ricky would rather spend his days with grumpy birds on his iPad than in a field looking for nonexistent buried treasure with his dad. Kids didn’t get excited by adventure these days, they wanted immediate gratification. Johnny wouldn’t mind so much, but he wanted his son to grow up into a relaxed, content adult, not a stressed out consumer always reaching for that next rung on the never ending ladder of modern affluence.
“Can we go inside now. It’s getting cold.”
Johnny took a sniff and felt the crisp air in his nostrils. “Yeah, I suppose we should. I never brought your coat. Didn’t think we’d need it. Time to head back.”
Immediately, Ricky began skipping along, heading down the sloping field, back towards the house. The mid-century cottage was 2 miles from anything else with plumbing, and it had pretty much saved Johnny’s life. Buying the quaint little abode, with its cobbled stone walls, original fireplaces, and thatched roof, had been a desperate escape from the endless cycle of stress that had become his life. Getting away from the city and grabbing six acres all his own had given him back his freedom: freedom that had been previously eaten up by credit card bills and mortgage statements, noisy neighbours and gas-spewing traffic, cold-callers and, of course, the odd crazed fan finding his address and wanting to be friends.
Being the nation’s most treasured Mystery writer was not all it had cracked up to be. The money was great and the work was soul enriching, but the editors, publishers, and even the fans on occasion, were hard work. Johnny was truly blessed for what he did, but the blessing was also a curse. His job had become his life and his life his job. The phone calls, emails, and Internet posts never ceased. The begging and pleading for his next novel was all anybody cared about, but he was only one man. New York Times Bestselling or not, Johnny had needs beyond writing books and making money. He needed to be a husband and a father, as well as a writer.
So, three years ago, he had used the advance money for three of his upcoming releases and purchased the run-down, yet beautiful Poe’s Place Cottage. The property was surrounded by fields on three sides, and a long, dusty driveway kept them set well back from the seldom used B-road that lined the fourth. The fresh air and nature brought his heels back down to earth and reminded him to concentrate on taking one breath after the other. That was all life was about, when you really boiled things down. Just take one breath after the other and deal with whatever came between. Think only about the next second, not the next year. For the first time in a decade, Johnny had remembered what it was to be happy.
“Dad, why do foxes always poop in our field?”
“Where do you suggest they go?”
“In the hedges or something. Not right where I can step in it.”
“I think they do it to mark their territory.”
Ricky fiddled with the strap of the metal detector over his shoulder and gave his father a quizzical look. “Mark their territory from who?”
“Other foxes. If a strange fox comes along and sees another ones droppings, they know to stay clear. It’s how a fox let’s other animals know that this is his turf.”
“But it’s not. This is our turf. You bought the field and now a fox is shitting in it.”
Johnny pointed his finger. “Language. Your mother hears you using that word, she’ll hit the roof.”
“I’m ten, not two.”
“You’re still a newborn as far as she’s concerned, so watch your mouth. Anyway, I kind of like having a fox around the place. Reminds me I’m in the country.”
“The country is boring.” Ricky kicked a stone embedded in the dirt and sent it spinning into the air. They both watched it roll down the hill before Johnny carried on talking. “You’re very lucky to grow up in a place like this, Ricky. Better than I had as a boy. I know the country is quiet, but believe me, things are worse in the city.”
“They just are. Everything is too busy. Everywhere is cracked and broken, and dirty.”
“The country is dirty.”
“No…no it’s not. It’s clean. And nothing ever breaks in the country. Nature heals itself. A tree falls down, another grows in its place. Take our cottage. When we moved in, it was all crumbling and broken down, and smelt bad. Because nobody had lived in it for a long time, weeds had taken root everywhere and we had rats and mice. Nature saw that nobody was living in the cottage, so it moved in. Nature makes the best of what it has. It always copes. In the city, things just fall apart. Trust me, son, you’re lucky to live here. When you’re older you’ll see that.”
“Maybe, but I still hate all the fox shit.”
“The city has dog shit, and that stinks a whole lot worse. And mind your language.”
“Sorry. Hey, when we get back can we have pizza?”
“The pizza place doesn’t deliver here. I’d have to go out.”
Johnny sighed. “Okay, let me thi-”
Johnny looked at his son, who was standing frozen like he had a live grenade in his hand instead of a metal detector.
“Ricky, you’ve got something.”
“What do I do, what do I do?”
Johnny laughed. He pulled the trowel free from where he had strapped it to his belt. “You dig, silly. Here take this.”
Ricky grabbed the trowel from his father and leapt down onto his knees in front of the imaginary X spot. The metal detector swung about like a guitar strapped around a drunk musician’s neck.
“Here, give that to me,” Johnny said, taking the metal detector and clicking it off to stop the annoying whining.
Ricky struck the dirt with the point of the trowel and split the dirt. Luckily it had rained just that morning and the ground was moist and yielding. Not that Liz would be best pleased about the grass stains no doubt working their way into the knees of Ricky’s jeans right now.
She wanted him out of her hair for an afternoon, so she can’t blame me for a bit of muckiness.
It wasn’t long before Ricky was huffing and puffing. He’d dug a hole a good foot wide and had gone down by about the same amount. It was wonderful to see the boy so excited; Johnny just hoped it didn’t end with in disappointment, like the manhole cover Johnnie had once unearthed when he was about the same age. He’d dug for more than thirty minutes that day to get at the shiny chunk of metal, before eventually realising that it was nothing fantastical or ancient at all, but simply a chunk of iron from an old sewer.
“We should have bought a shovel,” Ricky said. “What if it’s something huge. It’ll take all day if we find a Roman shield or a helmet or something.”
Johnnie dropped down on his knees beside Ricky. “Let me take over,” he said. “We’ll take it in turns.”
And so they did. For twenty minutes, they went back and forth, digging until their forearms burned. At one stage, Johnny double-checked with the metal detector to make sure something was there. The speaker whined deliriously to let them know that indeed there was. There was something buried in the field, and it was at least a few feet deep.
Five minutes later, Johnny hit the edge of something with the trowel.
“Did you hear that?” Ricky yelled.
“Yeah, I heard it. Here, you do the last part. It was your find.”
Ricky beamed and took the trowel. “Thanks, dad.” He dug furiously, his vigour renewed. The soil gave way to sand and clay, and the buried item quickly revealed itself. Whatever it was, it was covered in some kind of sackcloth, the old brown fabric you used to find potatoes in. Ricky grabbed a corner and started pulling.
Johnny wondered if they should be more delicate. What if they really had found something valuable. The last thing they wanted was to smash it into pieces by being too heavy handed. But it was too late to say anything. Ricky tumbled backwards with the muddy sack securely in his hands.
“I got it,” he yelled. “I got it.”
Johnny grinned. “Yeah, you got it, son. Let’s take a look.”
Ricky placed the sack reverently down on the ground. He brushed its surface with both hands and delicately removed the dirt and debris. “What do you think it is?”
“Only one way to find out.”
Ricky reached his hand inside the sack and Johnny suddenly felt a wave of nausea. It quickly passed, along with the light breeze on the back of his neck, as Ricky slid out a black hunk of what looked like wood. He examined the item in his hands, turning it over carefully. “It’s…a picture frame.”
Johnny frowned. It did indeed look like a picture frame. The thick wood was stained so dark a brown that it almost appeared black, and it’s edges were finely carved with intricate etchings made by hand, not machine. “It looks old,” was all he could say.
“Maybe it’s an antique.”
Johnnie nodded. “We’ll have to get it valued. Ha, maybe you’ll have enough money to buy your own Playstation this Christmas. I can use the money I save to buy myself a new writing desk.”
Ricky pulled a face. “No way. You promised me a Playstation and you can’t get out of it. Anyway, I don’t want to sell this.”
Johnny folded his arms and hugged himself. It had suddenly got much colder. “What do you want with a dirty old picture frame?”
Ricky ran his fingertips over the glass surface of the object. “I dunno. We found it together, buried all the way in the ground. I want to keep it.”
“Okay, then we’ll get it all cleaned up.”
Ricky leapt to his feet, grinning from ear to ear and clutching the frame tightly against his chest. “I can’t wait to show mom.”
Johnny giggled. His son’s exuberance was contagious, and one of the few things to make him forget himself completely. Before they headed back, though, Johnny knelt down and scooped up the sack which had held the buried photo frame. “We should check there isn’t any messages inside. Sometimes people bury things hoping they’ll be found years down the line.”
“Like a time capsule,” Ricky said.
“Yeah, like a time capsule.” Johnnie straightened the sack out and reached inside. He felt a twinge of excitement when his fingertips came into contact with something at the bottom, and all of a sudden he was a kid again, scouring the beaches with his dad. Perhaps he and Ricky were about to find out the story behind the mystery of the buried photo frame. But it didn’t feel like a letter at the bottom of the sack. It was something loose and hard. He grabbed a fistful of whatever it was at the bottom of the sack and pulled it out.
When he opened his hand again he grimaced.
“What is it?” Ricky asked.
Johnny shoved the bone fragments back inside the sack and folded it up. “Just some worms and stuff,” he lied. “Must have crawled inside and died.”
Ricky laughed hard. “And you just shoved your hand in them. Ha!”
“Cheers, son. Now, come on, let’s go show mum what you found.”
The two of them set off down the field, back towards Poe’s Place Cottage and the warmth of its natural fires.