Give your brain a time out, or else it might explode
I made this story up, which is why I’m suggesting you read it. It’s fake! Not real. Sure, the people in it deal with real things, but even those real things are made up. When you read it, you will get briefly lost in a different world. One of amusement and friendship and adventure where politics don’t exist.
Doesn’t that sound nice?
If this story isn’t for you (it’s a little absurd, quirky, full of cheap giggles) no one will be offended. But I suggest that you go back in your browser and find something else fun to read. Remind yourself that good things exist. For the sake of your home office (grey matter is remarkably hard to clean off walls), please do it.
All in-line images contain artwork that can be found & purchased. Credits and links beneath.
The Secret Treasure of New Berlin
“YOU!” they both blurted out in the very same instant.
Their fresh young faces curdled in shared dismay –the moment marked the first time they were sharing a thing in common– and he squelched the impulse to namecall her Big Clara Creamers.
Of all the people to live at Scugog Mansion, it had to be her.
“I didn’t know you lived here,” he grumbled.
“If I had it my way, you wouldn’t!” She sniffed in outright disgust (as though his presence filled the air with a repugnant and unwelcome stench). “It’s a shame about regrets,” she continued, glaring at him from behind the storm door. “They’re so damned difficult to avoid. Are you looking for Gordon?”
Zig thought he understood what she was getting at about regrets, and that surprised him.
“Who’s Gordon?” he asked.
“I suppose he’s who I’m here for. I’m looking to sell someone on getting this place painted. That’s my job this summer. The gingerbread and sills are looking worn. The whole house needs some lipstick. On the outside, I mean. The inside is probably perfect.” He blushed suddenly. Why did he have to say lipstick? “I don’t mean that it’s not beautiful already, but it could use a bit of socialization — ” another of his mother’s words that he instantly regretted using — “Old houses can always use a touch up. I’m a painter. That’s my job this summer.”
“You said that already.”
His pink cheeks turned a rosy red.
“Right. Is your landlord home?”
Landlord. The word felt uncomfortable in his mouth. To Zig, it seemed to hang there between them like a flashing neon sign. He’d never met a tenant who was the same age as him before. He didn’t think the law would’ve allowed for it.
“Gord doesn’t live here. I’ll get you his phone number. Be right back.”
She left him outside on the front porch.
Scugog Mansion, he’d always called it. The oldest and spookiest house on Old Scugog Road, a curving strip of crumbling tarmac that featured a ten story drop he loved to race his bicycle down.
The house was set farther back from the road than all its neighbours. It had a gently ramping cobblestone walkway that snaked its way up to a wraparound porch; and the porch itself was lined with a tall wooden railing that was punctuated by thick pillars. The brick of the house was yellow, an old colour common to the old town of New Berlin, but the exact shade was difficult to make out because of how densely the ivy grew over every square inch of it —
Zig only knew because in January, when the ivy stems were brittle and bare, the brick walls stood out like winter-flu mucous hocked onto a fresh bank of snow.
He liked Scugog Mansion the most because of its three skinny turrets. They jutted out from the walls of the two upper floors, and reached up into the sky. There was a wind vane perched on the tip of the tallest turret that was said to have never spun, not even when a freak tornado manifested from nowhere three summers ago. It was said that the wind vane’s creation dated back to before the founding of New Berlin; back to a more ancient time of royal blooded privilege and fire-breathing tyrants. A time when the Great King of Prussia stepped into the Hall of Mirrors in a Parisian palace and emerged from it a new man: The Kaiser, Wilhelm I, first Emperor of Germany.
Clara Creamers, lanky and long, emerged from the dark hallway beyond the storm door. Her sudden appearance disturbed Zig’s train of thought, and the demanding screech of thirsty hinges made him start. His fingers jerked nervously when he plucked the paper she held out for him to take.
“Thanks Clara,” he said. They made eye contact, her chin angled downward and his slightly up. “Do you know your landlo — I mean, Gordon’s last name?”
“Check the phonebook,” she advised, quite curtly, and then shut the door.
Although perplexed to discover that “phonebook” was part of her vernacular, Zig was unsurprised. Clara Liu (to anyone “in the know” she was Big Clara Creamers, Clara Creamers, or just Creamers, but NEVER Big Creamers) was the only student in Fraser Martin Leffe High School (FML High, to anyone looking for it) that didn’t own a smartphone. If anything, discovering her to be the youngest person in the entire world who subjected herself to a directory that had no search engine interface, just made her seem more normal.
It was normal to expect Clara Creamers to be different than everybody else.
Zig went back to Scugog Mansion the following week. After a single knock, the door opened to reveal Clara’s immediate and fierce frown.
“You again! I didn’t think you stood a chance with Gord. I suppose you’ll be needing lots of help, or extra special attention to do your job! What do you need? A glass of water? An extension cord? Loud music? Someone to do it all for you? If you tell me you need help cleaning something up, so help me God, I will throttle — ”
“All I need is access to the outdoor water supply!” he interrupted. “But I couldn’t find the hose. Gordon said it would be here.”
“Good grief,” she sighed, and left him alone. He peered into the house after her disappearing form. Although the ceilings were high and the walls were painted ivory white, it was difficult to see much because of how the rising sun, radiant and lovely behind the house, eclipsed the dim light inside.
A quick moving flash of silver drew his eye deeper into the dark dwelling, to the edge of a second doorway. But before he could stare any longer, Clara appeared, and marched down the hall toward him.
“Don’t snoop!” she ordered. And then, “Come with me,” as she joined him outside on the porch.
Clara led him to the south side of the house where a small dense vegetable garden grew. Sticking out from the speckled stone block foundation, above the thin delicate stems of carrot plants, was a water spout.
“I borrowed the hose,” she said, explaining its absence. “You shouldn’t tell him it wasn’t here.”
“What do you need a hose for?”
“I’m looking for something,” she replied with perfect clarity.
It wasn’t until the next day that Zig met Clara’s mother, and everything became a bit more complicated.
He was finishing off his fourth window frame when Zig heard his name called out in a stranger’s voice. Coming down off his ladder, he walked across the grass to the front of the house.
“Are you Zigmund Fritz?” the voice asked again. Where was it coming from? Few individuals ever called him by his full name. “Up here!”
Zig realized the voice was coming from the porch. Obliging, he crossed the front lawn and headed toward the walkway. Each step he took sent countless tiny grasshoppers into frantic bursts of motion, so he tread with care so as not to crush any. But when Zig reached the sloping cobblestone path that wound its way up to the porch, not even his ginger tiptoeing could have saved Zig from tripping over himself in surprise!
“Itsaramp!” he blurted. Not a sloping walkway at all, but a gentle, if somewhat lumpy, wheelchair ramp. Zig’s memory of flashing silver from the day before updated to include the image of spinning metal spokes.
The almond-eyed, dark-haired woman’s head tilted as she regarded him with steady unblinking eyes. She was not amused.
“You are Zigmund Fritz?”
Her eyes narrowed.
“Interesting…” What could possibly be interesting about that? “Clara is my daughter. She’s told me all about you.”
Zig’s mouth went dry.
“I know everything there is to know about you, Zigmund Fritz.”
“Everything?” he gulped, wishing she’d stop calling him that.
“I know exactly what you did when Clara’s gym shorts tore in two because Ms. Nucklehed had only a women’s small uniform to offer her.”
“Well um, you see, there were — ” he sputtered.
“And I know that you hid her sandals after class so that everyone would see her walking around the school bare foot. Clara Creamers’ Callouses Have Claws! you chanted.”
“M-Maybe I-I — ” he tried again.
“And then you covered her locker in whipping cream! How abysmal. How wasteful.”
“I-I guess I — ”
“And I know what you did following her end-of-year speech!”
“She told you about that?” he asked, hopeful. Maybe Clara had one good thing to say about him.
“I recall the specific words she used. They were quite poignant. ‘That insufferable twerp Zigmund Fritz has sunk to new levels of feces worship by starting a standing ovation to mock my passion in public!’”
Zig’s head hung.
“I liked her speech,” he mumbled. “I thought it was very inspirational.”
A harsh silence fell between them.
“Interesting,” Clara’s mother repeated, softening somewhat. “Clara wouldn’t like it if you started treating her any differently now,” she continued, as though she’d read his mind.
Zig glanced up. He thought to find her looking at him in the wry gentle way his own mother would, but instead her lips had become white and pursed. They were pinched together like a tightly pulled draw string pouch. Her cheeks were pale and dark bruises framed her dark eyes.
“Would you open the door for me?” she asked. “I’d rather not disturb Clara at the moment. She’s agonizingly close to finding what she’s looking for.”
“What is she looking for?”
The question leapt from Zig’s mouth! He’d meant to say, “Of course I’ll open the door for you,” but lately he found that his own brain, more often than not, betrayed him.
Zig held open the door.
“Since Clara hasn’t told you about the secret treasure, I won’t say anything about it. Take care on that ladder Zigmund Fritz. If you fall I won’t be much help, and your carelessness has imposed enough inconvenience on my daughter already.”
She emphasized the word “inconvenience” and he wondered briefly why she didn’t use a more convenient motorized wheelchair if she was so prejudiced against unwanted difficulties, but her operation of the vehicle extinguished the thought. He admired how she pushed herself along, making a difficult task appear so smooth and natural. Even so, he had to pretend not to see her bone white knuckles strain, or her thin elbows tremble as she passed by. She’d made it clear that she wanted nothing more from him than help with the door.
Zig went back to work. While he worked, he contemplated what Clara’s mother had said to him. What if he fell off the ladder? At first he imagined that he’d probably sprout wings and leap high into the sky; he alone would avoid a bone shattering crash to the ground below.
But then he decided that if he fell he’d probably snap both his legs and need a wheelchair to get around, just like Clara’s mother, and he’d miss riding his bike around town and over trails. Although, he admitted to himself, taking Old Scugog Road in a wheelchair could be loads of fun…
As the day progressed, Zig found painting to be mindless work. He didn’t even notice when he began painting the window that opened into Clara’s bedroom. When he first caught sight of her silhouette behind her orange curtain, his cheeks burned and he looked away. Whatever calm painting had brought to him vaporized that very instant. If there was anything worth seeing in the entire house, it was secret treasure, and Clara’s private quarters.
Zig found his eyes irresistibly drawn to the barely covered pane. He knew that if he looked long and hard enough —
The window slid open. Clara’s scornful face appeared and frightened away his thoughts.
“Don’t snoop!” she commanded. “Or I’ll tell your Uncl — friends. At school in the fall, I’ll tell them all you’re a nasty pervert and that I caught you spying on me through my bedroom window!”
Zig was embarrassed.
“I’m sorry!” he blurted, every cell of his body bursting with sincere apology. “I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings. Hating you was so easy. I never should have done what I did, and I promise I won’t ever call you Big Clara —
“Creamers! No way. That’s what you did with them? Turned them into that?!”
The peel of orange cloth had pulled back from the window in the gentle breeze. Inside, the thing that caught Zig’s immediate attention, was a very tall –not unlike its owner– pyramid lampshade built entirely of emptied, individual sized, upside down cream and milk containers fastened together in a checkerboard pattern of white and beige. Each plastic facet was the size of a fat thimble, and the whole thing glowed with light from an LCD core coiled within. It looked like something from a 1970s time capsule, or like it was a joke sent back in time from the future!
“I really like it!” he exclaimed, surprising them both.
Clara’s scowl vanished and her eyes twinkled as she said,
“Feast your eyes on pure virtue, Zigmund Fritz! I purchased that beauty off a blind abandoned child who had no choice but to sell her art, hewn with broken and bloodied fingers from giant rocks of refuse hurled down onto earth’s crust by deluded, power-hungry overlords!”
The most epic of awkward silences fell between them. Zig had never heard anything so preposterous. But then he began to chuckle, and then he began to laugh.
“Holy mother of dairy cows and metaphors, Creamers!”
Clara didn’t reproach him as he expected she would. In fact, she looked very approachable and mischievous in a fun sort of way when she smiled like that.
Clara Creamers was fun?
Why hadn’t he noticed that before?
“In case you hadn’t noticed,” she pointed out, “I’m reading literature and practicing hyperbole. I’m doing coursework every summer, trying to graduate early if they’ll let me. I’ve never met a blind person before. Have you? I bought the lamp at a garage sale last summer for peanuts –not literally, I’m quite allergic. Love it or hate it, the lamp is what gave me the idea to collect the expired milks and creamers from school before they got wasted. Big Food and falsified expiry dates… But you should know all about that, given how much you ridiculed me for doing it!”
Her scowl returned but Zig just stared. Her food came in big sizes? Was that because she was so tall?
“Hmph. Ignorant. As I suspected. It’s none of your business, but because you’re just a giant ignoramus trapped in a tiny boy’s body, I’ll tell you. The creamers help me save money.”
“We’re a lactose intolerant household. Except that I crave a glass of milk here and there, a box of Cheerios from time to time. Captain Crunch if my tweet tooth is flaring. Mother sometimes likes cream in her orange pekoe. The creamers the school cafeteria provides are sufficient for our needs. And they’re free!”
“Um, so, if you wanted a cup of milk, you’d drink a handful of creamers?” He couldn’t believe it.
“Um, no, because that would be impractical and disgusting. I’m a person! Not a goat. If I wanted a glass of milk I’d drain individual milks into a mug until I was satisfied with the accumulated amount, and then I’d drink it. It’s really not that complicated.”
“But milk doesn’t cost a lot. I can think of lots of better ways to save money!”
Her arms collapsed into a rigid shield between them, and somehow the translucent orange curtain turned opaque.
“The difference between us, one of many let me remind you, is that I maximize my returns, and you’re a lazy fart. Which means I’m smarter than you, I’m going to be richer than you one day, and I’m physically superior. I’m not too tall. You’re a dwarf! A gremlin troll! Aside from that, I don’t care what you think. The lampshade was an– Why am I even bothering. I don’t owe you anything.
“Goodbye Zigmund Fritz.”
She moved back to shut the window.
“Don’t! Please. I told you, I’m sorry. I never would have been such an ass if I’d known — ”
Clara cut him off with a sharp laugh.
“That I’m impoverished? That my family isn’t nuclear? Or that I take care of my mother because she’s so sick she can’t walk anymore?”
“I just meant,” his tongue felt thick as he struggled to find the right words, “I would never have done it if I’d known you were already so, um, inconvenienced.”
“Only a heartless goon would see my life as an inconvenience,” she spat.
“I have a heart! I took your message to heart! I swear. I wasn’t trying to mock you. I heard what you said and felt like doing something. You made me — I mean, that’s why I’m painting this summer with my Uncle! Because of what you said in your speech.”
Zig’s hands began to throb. He’d been gripping the aluminum ladder so tight that the tread of the steps was pressed deep into the skin of his palms. An image of Romeo gripping a vine, propped against Juliette’s balcony, popped unbidden into his mind and he recoiled from the gruesome thought.
“You’re so tough,” he elaborated, trying to distract his disloyal brain. “It seemed liked you could handle whatever anyone said. Maybe that’s why things got so bad. You’re not like the other girls at school. Not to say — what I mean is — Gah! I’m really very truly madly deeply sorry. Will you please forgive me?”
Clara raised a single eyebrow, something Zig didn’t think people actually did in real life.
“Interesting,” she muttered over her crossed arms. Zig was momentarily transported back to when he met her mother, but then a wicked smile split Clara’s face in two and he was catapulted back into the awkward present. “Tell you what!” she exclaimed. “You’ll make it up to me!”
If she’d asked, Zig would have told her that he’d already atoned by enslaving himself to his Uncle for the summer. But he was glad to offer further compensation if that’s what she needed, because it meant that he wouldn’t have to go back to doing mindless zombie work while she pretended that he didn’t exist.
“You have to sell door-to-door until you have enough work lined up for the summer, correct? Poor soul. If you had one, that is. I never would have suggested that you build character by putting your life on the line to paint houses. Very admirable of you to help your Uncle, though.
“Have you been to the manor house yet?”
“I’m not going to the — ”
“I’m coming with you!”
Perhaps having Clara ignore him wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
“No, you’re not.”
“Listen. I’ve gotten to the point where I need to get inside that house and the way I see it, I have two options. Either you help me by distracting the home owner with insipid conversation while I sneak in, or… I break in tonight! And now that I’ve told you, you have to go to the police, which I’m betting you won’t, or help me. Because, and I’m not trying to mock you I swear,” — Zig couldn’t tell for sure, but something told him she was — “but if I break in and get caught, I’m naming you as my accomplice! Aiding and abetting. Something like that.
“Can we go tomorrow?”
“No way! My Uncle would murder me if I brought you along on a house call. I can’t put you or our potential customers at risk. I don’t want to go to jail. Besides, why do you want inside? What point have you come to?”
“AHA! You do want to help me!”
She jabbed him excitedly in the shoulder, dislodging one of his hands from the ladder’s top.
“Oh!” Zig squealed as his left arm flung out to the side to catch his balance. As he felt himself fall back from the ledge, he squeezed his eyes shut and wished he’d never imagined what it would be like to break both his legs.
Because his eyes were closed, Zig didn’t see Clara lunge out the window toward him. Her slightly longer than average arms extended just long enough, and without much ado, she grabbed onto his shoulders and pulled him back to safety.
Zig regained his breath. Eventually his flip-flopping stomach settled.
“Thank you. I think.”
“That’s not safe at all,” she admonished. “Maybe you should consider a different summer job. I have an idea. Let’s go now! I’ll tell you all about it on the way over. Don’t worry, your Uncle doesn’t have to know. I’ll never tell him and neither will mother. Gord will never know the difference. Um, you won’t tell him about the hose, will you?”
“Clara!” Zig protested. His every instinct compelled him to go along with her, but with a new job came new responsibilities. “I can’t! My blood would be on your hands.”
“I’m sorry to ask you this,” she said, sounding very unapologetic. “But can you, Zigmund Fritz, really afford to say no?”
Was this a trick?
“I won’t take you to the manor house.”
“No! I mean yes! You should! Don’t be one of those who lives a lifetime overflowing with regrets, Zigmund Fritz. What happens when you wake up decades from now, obese and dissatisfied and unfulfilled, not to mention woefully short, and realize that your life has been one, giant, steaming pile of — ”
“Gah! Fine! You’re impossible. But you have to agree that what I do demonstrates impressive sales technique and a natural aptitude for verbal communication, and there’s nothing insipid about it. I don’t even know what that word means and I know it’s bad. And you have to promise that you’re not going say a single word when we get there, or do anything… weird. Just, try to be less you. And absolutely under no circumstances should you sneak inside the house!”
“I don’t make promises that I know I’ll have to break.”
Zig wasn’t the least bit surprised.
She stuck out her hand. “So. Do we have a deal?”
For some reason, in spite of the warning alarm blaring loudly inside his head, the thought of making a deal with Clara excited him. Zig stuck his hand out for her to shake.
Unfortunately, at that same moment, his foot slipped, and he toppled off the ladder.
The vegetable garden broke Zig’s fall. The earth was soft and the kale was plentiful and plush, so despite falling more than six feet and bouncing on the ground, he didn’t break a single bone.
While they walked, Zig insisted that Clara owed him an explanation. Or at the very least, a juicy clue. But when they arrived at the manor house, one of three dark homes on a private crescent named after one of New Berlin’s founding families, he was none the wiser. Truth be told, he found it exhilarating to be kept in the dark. Not that he’d ever admit to it. Certainly never to Clara!
Down the long walnut tree-lined driveway they went. An electric silence hummed between them as anticipation mounted for what was about to come. But after many minutes of loud knocking on the front and back doors, they resigned themselves to the fact that no one was home.
“Should I call out?” Clara suggested.
“You mean yell? Don’t. Please. No one does that. We can try again tomorrow.”
But Clara was undeterred. She leapfrogged down off the front steps and marched to stand in front of a fence of angry-looking prickly plants that hugged the house’s perimeter.
“No need to come tomorrow,” she confirmed. “I came prepared. Follow me.”
Ignoring the tall shrubs with poky prickles, Clara managed to slip through a thin gap between two sprouting trunks, keeping her skin and clothing intact. Zig, grumbling, tried to follow her lead, but gained a stinging scratch across his forehead and many more all over his arms and legs.
“What are we even doing here?” he demanded once he’d passed through the barrier and found himself standing next to Clara in a cramped musty space that smelled of rotten vegetables and squirrel poop.
The only answer she gave was a single finger pointed up at a window above their heads. She was too busy assembling a lensed camera that she’d pulled from her pack.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” he cautioned, his annoyance at being treated like a disposable pincushion replaced by admiration. “That rig looks expensive to fix. Didn’t you say something like you ‘eschew nice expensive things in favor of long-term saving’?” Zig remembered because he’d needed her to clarify that she wasn’t sneezing, or talking about nice shoes.
Clara didn’t look up from her tinkering.
“We all have our indulgences. Mine happens to be accepting gifts.”
“Gifts!” he blurted. “From who?”
She glanced up, but only to let him see her roll her eyes.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You help someone clip their toenails and scrub their hard-to-reach places, and tell me if you don’t get spoiled with gifts from time to time. Now help me up!”
She looked at him as though he was the bizarre one. “I can’t get in without breaking something, so instead I need to look through the window to take a photograph of what’s inside!”
They tried all manner of boost positions. Zig got down on all fours, but his back was too narrow for her feet and her belly never stopped twitching; she danced around until she fell off, almost twisting her ankle in the landing. After that, Zig tried forming a saddle with his fingers, but his soft hands weren’t able to support her full weight. When he turned around to consider passing back through the bushes to scout an alternate vantage point, she clambered onto his back, but after a moment of loud cursing, all she did was prove that a piggy back didn’t get her high enough either. Zig even tried lifting her into the air in front of him, but he couldn’t get his hands to stop fumbling around her waist, so that got them nowhere.
There was only one position left to try. Clara had to sit on Zig’s shoulders. But that seemed repulsive and horrifying to them both. What if the back of Zig’s head accidentally brushed against the inside area –the crotch– of Clara’s shorts? Not to mention her thighs would be that close to his head. She would squeeze him!
In the end, not seeing any other way, they agreed to at least give it a try. After some teetering and angry accusations that his fingers were pinching her calves– “Watch where you’re holding, I have delicate ankles!”– Zig managed to raise Clara high enough in the air on top of his shoulders.
“Aha!” she exclaimed as his thin shoulders trembled beneath her weight. “It’s exactly what I thought!”
“What is it?!”
“The original map of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee present! Victoria Park! And dating right back to 1896! It’s there, mounted on the wall above the mantle. I can see it so clearly. His grandmother must have lied to the archivist and handed it down, just as I’d suspected. It has the location of the — OH! Please be careful Zig! I have too much left to do before I die!”
It was the first time Clara had ever said please to him, and it occurred to Zig that she was starting to behave nicer to him in general. Could it be that she was beginning to like him? She had trusted him enough to carry her, after all. And, he rejoiced in secret, her vagina was right there. It was the closest he’d ever been to one. Surely that meant something…!
“Sorry! Sorry. I’ve got you,” he muttered, swaying back and forth to regain his balance. “Could you repeat that? I missed what you said.”
“Never mind. I got the pictures I need. Hodor! Down!”
Zig found that Clara avoided making eye contact with him as she adjusted her clothing. Finally, she faced him squarely on.
“I’ve got to get home,” she stated. “Thank you for your help today, Zigmund. Will I see you tomorrow?”
Disappointment coursed through him.
“You’re really not going to tell me anything? I could have just helped you commit murder, and I wouldn’t know. Take pity on an accomplice, a valiant steed… on Hodor, at least!”
Clara smiled warmly, “Let’s just say I’m diversifying into antiquities in an effort to maximize my returns,” and then disappeared back through the prickle bush.
Kicking at pebbles and twigs on his walk back home, Zig decided that while he was coming to admire Clara, he still found her very strange. Nothing she did was normal. She even talked in ways he’d never heard anyone talk before. But he found that he wasn’t bothered by her strangeness anymore. In fact, not that he’d ever admit to it, certainly not to Clara, he was coming to like that about her!
The following day was supposed to be his last day painting Scugog Mansion, but when Zig woke it was to the pitter patter of a light and consistent summer rain. The kind that drizzled and spat for entire days at a time and made most people feel depressed. But for Zig, the change was welcome. It meant that he couldn’t work. He had the entire day to spend with Clara!
But when his bike skidded to a stop in front of Scugog Mansion, with slivers of hair dripping into his eyes beneath his hat, he found an ambulance and two police cruisers parked outside Clara’s home. Vehicle lights were flashing red and white, and serious-faced adults dressed in uniform were standing around. Frowns rippled their damp faces.
Time dragged that day. To keep himself busy, Zig rode his bicycle along the maze of dirt trails in the ravine behind his house. With every jagged step of a raised root or buried stone that his thick tires bit into, he leapt inside: Why was there an ambulance at Scugog Mansion? Was it there for Clara? Or her mother? When would he get to see Clara again?
Answers never came to him and by the time evening fell, Zig was caked in mud and his mood was as dark as night itself. The rain’s chill had infected his bones; he shivered all evening and wasn’t able to fall asleep until he resolved that the following day, he’d tell Clara he wanted nothing more than to be her friend.
Two weeks passed before his Uncle texted him to go back and finish the job. In that time Zig heard every possible version of what happened at Scugog Mansion. There was a break-in. Someone was murdered. Four dismembered bodies emerged from the fireplace. A terrorist cell was uncovered in the basement. Extra-terrestrials landed and abducted the dog –strange, everyone was willing to admit, because they didn’t even have one! The stories went on and became more elaborate with every passing day. It made it impossible for Zig to know the truth without asking Clara herself. But it wasn’t Clara who opened the door to Scugug Castle when he came knocking to find out what happened. It was her mother.
“Hello!” Zig said, surprised at seeing her, and frightened for what she’d berate him for this time. “Is Clara home?”
It was then he noticed how pale her face had become, and how deep set her bloodshot eyes appeared.
Clara came running to the door.
“Mother!” she chastised, breathless and aggravated. “I told you I’d get it if anyone came!”
“I was passing by. Relax, child. Being overbearing will age you faster than any illness.”
Zig waited outside on the porch as Clara pushed her mother back into the healing warmth and comfort of their home. When she came back outside she looked as harrowed as her mother, but Clara’s eyes snapped with a vivacity that her mother’s lacked.
“She’s dying,” she stated baldly. “And I don’t want to discuss it any more than that. I’m glad you came by. I have a proposal to make.”
Zig hesitated. Clara’s tired eyes filled with tears. She released her clenched fists and wrapped her arms around herself, hugging her shoulders tight.
“Grief isn’t something you go through,” he said quietly. “It’s who you become.”
They were words his own father shared with him when his beloved pet turtle disappeared after he forgot to clean its tank, again.
“That’s so emo of you.”
“Should I start a blog?”
She chuckled and colour returned to her cheeks.
“Anonymous handle. Blogs are so yesteryear. Are you here to finish painting?”
“Sort of. Today’s it for painting. But I want to lend you my services. All I ask is that in turn, you consider trusting me. Let me help you find what you’re looking for!”
“And you don’t care what it is, or how we intend to find it?”
“Of course I care!”
She drew a single deep breath and let it out in a single long gust.
“Alright. I’ll tell you. Laugh at me and die! Come, sit. The floor helps me think.”
“I’ve been hunting for the bronze bust of Kaiser Wilhelm the first, the Prussian King who united Germany centuries ago, because I want to sell it to a feminist from Denmark I met on the internet. A collector of sorts.
“The photograph you helped me capture the other day was the last piece of information I needed to ascertain its true location. The only reason I haven’t already dug it up is because I was at the h-hos-hospital.”
Clara’s voice wavered and for the first time in Zig’s experience, she looked vulnerable.
“That sounds like fun. Not the hospital part. What you said before that.”
Her face lit up in wonderment.
“You’re not going to laugh and tell me that searching for the Kaiser’s missing bust is a fool’s quest?”
“And miss out on secret, buried treasure? Sounds like a minimal upfront investment with the possibility of great short term rewards. Tell me again. Which of us is going to end up richer?”
“Me — ” she began, and then burst into tears.
Zig wrapped his arms around Clara in a warm enveloping embrace, and said nothing. They sat that way, not talking, until she stopped crying. Eventually, Clara sniffed and blew her nose on the bottom of her shirt. By then, Zig would have gladly offered his.
“What are you going to use the money for?” he asked, subdued and affected by her tears.
“University.” Clara climbed to her feet and reached down to tug him up to his. “Let’s go upstairs. I’ll tell you everything. The moon is full tonight which means there’s lots to do between now and sunset, when we must go to Victoria Park, to where the bust is buried. We’re not going to get a second chance at this, and my future depends on it! No pressure, my friend.”
Not sure what she meant –about any of it, really– Zig didn’t hesitate. Instead of being left outside to contemplate its spooky exterior, he stepped over the threshold of Scugog Mansion for the first time with his strange new friend, and promptly got lost inside.
Later that night the moon looked pocked and cast a sickly light, but that didn’t stop them. Now that Zig understood what needed to be done, they were equally furtive. When they reached the boundaries of Victoria Park they sped quietly over the quaint Roland Bridge, and over the sleep-tucked mallards, past the bandstand on Roos Island, and over to the battle-scarred cannon that marked the Queen’s Ground.
“This is the spot?” Zig whispered, setting down his spade and pack of supplies. Clara set hers down next to his and grinned wickedly in the moonlight. Her teeth glinted.
“Over rippling fields of green, beyond the yellowwood and Singing Elm Grove; to where regal figure rises, and bronze cat king keeps guard over royal treasure trove. Does that look like a cat king to you?”
Clara pointed to the majestic statue of a bronze lion, laying on a draping flag also cast in bronze, on top of a granite stepped pedestal. On top of the pedestal was a life-sized bronze statue of a stern looking Queen Victoria, put there more than one hundred years earlier by people long dead.
“It does. But I don’t know why you had to say it like that. What now?”
“Now, my friend, we dig!”
Thirty minutes in, Zig’s back began to ache.
“Tell me again,” he groaned. “What makes you so sure you’ve got the right spot?”
Shovel upon shovel, she heaved more dirt onto the growing pile.
“Google Earth,” she huffed, out of breath. Then Clara paused to pull back her headlamp and wipe her face. A thick smear of soil streaked across her forehead. “I’ll level with you Zig. When I said before that I would tell you everything, I lied. It’s been tearing me apart since we got here! But I couldn’t help it. Being friends with you is so new. I had to know I could really trust you. And here you are, vandalizing public property in the middle of the night with me. I owe you the truth. Come, sit with me.”
She pulled two cans of iced tea from her pack and sat down on the floor of the pit they’d only just begun to dig. Zig gladly accepted the drink. He was piqued that she’d withheld information, again, but was too thirsty to make a stink. He drained the can in a single gulp.
“I have an advantage,” she continued. “A notebook, found beneath the floorboards of the tallest spire in my house. It must have been stowed there shortly after the house was built, which was around when the bust got stolen the first time. I’m going to sell the notebook with the bust, once I uncover it.”
Zig’s eyes became two unblinking round moons.
“You found a priceless artefact hidden beneath the floorboards of Scugog Mansion?”
“I like that. Scugog Mansion. And yes, I did.”
“Really! Can I see it? And you were allowed to keep — um, never mind.” Zig knew better by now than to assume that Clara would have alerted the authorities to her discovery.
“Anyway,” she sniffed. “The notebook’s author confirms the existence of the piece, and tells of the original location of the altar the bust was placed on top of. It was first erected here, in front of the statue of Queen Victoria! The lion was said to have stared directly into the Kaiser’s eyes, and the Queen down on the top of his head, to remind people of their true place in society. No one alive today –other than me that is– knows of the altar and bust’s true location!”
Zig was entranced.
“Well? What happened to it?”
“Just one decade after it was put up, the bust was stolen off the altar by a battalion of angry soldiers who wanted revenge for what was going on overseas at the time, so they mangled it brutally in the town square for all the townspeople to witness! But then three brave, loyal souls–their names have been forgotten, if they were ever known– managed to steal it back in the dead of the night.
“Secretly, they buried it in Victoria Park, right where it originally stood — quite clever and poetic justicy of them, to hide it where it was supposed to be in the first place! But they had no choice. They had to protect it from the thieving soldiers, because they’d steal it again if they could!
“The townspeople later resurrected the altar in a different location, where it is today, to throw any lingering miscreants off the scent. They always intended to put the Kaiser back on top when it got safe enough to, but as years passed and the war became a distant memory, knowledge of where it was buried faded, along with any evidence identifying the three heroes who — ”
A loud honk of a disturbed Todd’s Canada Goose interrupted them and made them both yelp. Then, when they were sure they were still alone, they laughed in relief and got to their feet.
“Come on!” Zig said. “We’ve got work to do!”
“Buried treasure doesn’t uncover itself,” Clara agreed, and they began to dig.
They didn’t break again for another two hours, and then not again for another three hours after that. Deeper and deeper they dug, and higher and higher the mound around them grew. When they had dug down almost seven feet, almost a foot higher than Clara’s head, they agreed to dig the hole wider. When the shovel top of Zig’s spade came off against a particularly stubborn rock, he began using a hand trowel instead. Neither spoke about the sharp pains that formed in their necks and backs, or the bruises that softened their knees and shins, or the blisters that had formed and burst on their hands and feet. Any injuries seemed trivial compared to the secret treasure they knew was buried nearby.
On and on they dug, like two possessed rabbits.
When eventually the sky began to brighten with the rising sun, the questions that rose with it were endless. But, exhausted and limp, neither stopped moving dirt until Clara cried out. Despite his fatigue, Zig’s head whipped up. He rushed to where she was standing, cradling her hand, her snapped shovel on the ground beside her.
Taking her hand in his –she was moving sluggishly by this point– Zig assessed the damage with tired eyes. A two-inch-long, eighth-of-an-inch-wide splinter was lodged deep inside her palm, and there was a frightening gash next to it. A stream of rich red blood dripped to the ground.
“Clara…” he began.
She shook her head.
“We’re not done. It’s here! We must keep digging!”
“Clara — ”
“There’s still time!”
“The sun’s up. We have to go.”
She pushed him away.
“Here,” she said as she bent down to pick up the broken pieces of shovel with her uninjured hand. “I’ll mend this! You can keep digging with that!” Her toe nudged the trowel.
Zig approached her again.
“I’ll walk you to the hospital. Someone should look at that.”
Her lips became thin and twisted.
“You aren’t walking me anywhere!” she snarled. “I’m not lame. I’m not some tame beast who’s thrown a shoe! You can’t lead me somewhere I don’t want to go. I want to keep digging. It’s got to be here!”
Zig didn’t know why she was so angry all of a sudden. Did he do something wrong?
“Why don’t we get your hand taken care of, and then after a loOOong nap, regroup to figure out where else the bust might be? So what if this location isn’t the right one. Going home doesn’t mean giving up. But we really should go.”
He was starving, exhausted, and sore all over. There was no shame in admitting that he didn’t want to get caught in such a compromising situation. But as the moon fell and the sun rose and the stars went back to sleep, something unseen had occurred within Clara. And it had nothing to do with food, rest, or compromising on their situation.
“FRIG OFF ZIGMUND!” she lashed out unexpectedly, temper flaring. “BEGONE! This freak show is OVER! This was my only chance, and I-I blew it! Blew it!”
“Let me read the notebook,” he insisted, trying to remain the calm one. “I might find a clue in it that you didn’t!”
“It — ugh! Good grief! The notebook isn’t real! I made up a stupid story about finding it so that you’d shut up and help me dig! The map on the wall was the only thread I had left to pursue. But they’re all dead ends. This was my last hope! I needed this, Zig. The bust, selling it, it could have solved everything!”
In a burst of anger that equaled hers, Zig kicked the trowel into the dirt wall.
“You’re such a stinking liar! Friends shouldn’t lie to each other! You’d know that if you had any!”
“Making friends is the least of my concerns.”
“So, what, you were just using me?! Pretending to be my friend?! Does money mean that much to you?!”
“No, it’s not tha — ”
“STOP LYING!” he yelled, suddenly. It was too much for him to take in, on too little reserves. “YOU’RE DERANGED, BIG CLARA… GIRAFFE NECK CREAMERS! No one LIKES you because YOU’RE WEIRD! And a LIAR! And a USER because you’re GREEDY and OBSESSED WITH GETTING RICH!”
Clara gripped her wounded hand with her other so hard that for a moment, the flow of blood stemmed.
“YOU’RE WRONG!” she hollered back. “I’M NOT OBSESSED — ” But she choked, and when she continued, her voice trembled and shook. “With the money I could get for it, I could afford specialized treatments and medical trials they don’t offer here! I could fly her to Europe, or the United States, and meet with the specialists! I could do… something! Which is a hell of a lot better than doing nothing!”
Clara wasn’t saving money to pay for school. She was doing it for her mother. But what she was talking about was impossible. Her mother wasn’t getting any better — she’d said it herself. And no buried treasure found in measly little New Berlin would ever be worth that much. If Clara had just been honest with him from the start, like how friends should be, he would have told her that!
Zig looked around. The surrounding ring pile of dirt reached so high above their heads, the morning sun lit it up like a distant mountain range. The cavernous hole had become so deep that it was beginning to fill with water in the lowest spots. Queen Victoria and her bronze cat king stared sternly down on them from high above, reminding Zig that he had a place to keep. But because of Clara, and all her lies, he’d skipped out on his job and become a delinquent criminal instead. He’d never felt so ashamed in his entire life, and it was all her fault.
“She’ll be dead by the time you sell it!” he yelled, feeling sick to his stomach.
“It’s worth trying!” she shouted back.
“You’re INSANE!” he screamed, sure he was about to puke.
“I HATE YOU ZIGMUND FRITZ!” she shrieked in response.
A nauseating, perturbed silence fell between them. Not even the chipper song of morning birds reached their ears, they were so deeply embroiled. The only noise that could be heard around them was the occasional crumble of soil dropping off the walls, and their confused, heavy breathing.
“I hate you too, Clara Creamers,” Zig whispered into the silence. Then he scrambled out of the crater and fled before he vomited all over.
Zig slept for so many hours, and the groans coming through his door were so disturbing to listen to, that his parents considered taking him to the hospital. Family dinner was served alongside gentle probing as they struggled to respect their son’s privacy. Zig blamed his exaggerated winces and moans on muscle stiffness gained from long hours spent painting, and his parents took it upon themselves to inform his Uncle that Zig would be taking a vacation.
When the local newspaper reported that a group of nefarious vandals was at large in New Berlin, no one was surprised to learn that it all went down in Victoria Park, and no one suspected that they should be looking for Zig and Clara.
On the third morning following Zig and Clara’s failed attempt to uncover the Kaiser’s bust, Zig was called out of his bedroom. When he got downstairs he found Clara waiting for him in the front foyer. She seemed shorter than her usual self.
“Hello…” she said, ducking her head.
After everything (including sleep and food and hours spent soaking in the tub) Zig was still happy to see her.
Clara’s back straightened and she towered over him once again.
“I came to see if you wanted to go on a walk with me!”
Zig nodded with unrestrained enthusiasm. “Have you heard? The authorities say there were at least five vandals, because of how big the hole is! They suspect the awful jerks got into a bad fight, most likely over whatever it was they were trying to dig up, because of all the blood they found. I hope they stayed friends. You know? Just sayin’. But a real crime scene in New Berlin! Taped off and everything –I saw photos online and I’ve been dying to see what it looks like during the day.”
“During the day?” Zig’s father called out, suddenly curious, from the kitchen.
“When it’s brightest out, Mr. Fritz,” Clara piped, coming to Zig’s rescue. “So that it’s very clear and we don’t miss a single detail!”
“Hmm. I’m not sure that you’re well enough to go outside yet,” he began to say to Zig, but Zig ran out the door with Clara before his father could stop him.
When they got far enough away, Clara turned to Zig.
“Want to see my stitches?”
“Obviously! What did you tell them?” The question had been on his mind ever since that night.
Clara peeled back the gauze wrappings on her hand to display a thick line of six black criss-cross stitches next to a number of thin scabbed over scrapes. Her hand was watermelon pink and looked puffy and tender.
“I told the emergency intake staff that the boy painting our house, a small boy and a real sappy sort, was obsessed with poetry, and wanted to witness the crack of dawn from my rooftop. But he was too weak to move a large piece of wood that stood in the way of the ladder, so I helped him move it –against my better judgment of course. It was just my luck that his skinny little fingers gave out, and he dropped the wood! An embedded rusty nail tore my skin while at the same time a splinter got stuck in my palm. They gave me a tetanus shot. Isn’t that neat?”
Zig wasn’t sure how he felt about Clara characterizing him as the weakling painter boy who got teary eyed over sunrises, but then Clara said, “Zig…”
…and he was cheered by her tone. Clara was finally going to apologize!
“Yes?” he asked, expectantly.
“I have to tell you something important that’s in no way a reflection of what I think about you. I’m moving away from Scugog Mansion. I’m travelling out west stay with f-family until, until…” She couldn’t finish. The solemnity with which she regarded him made him stay quiet. Zig knew that she had to go, and he knew what her going meant.
They fell into a miserable silence.
Eventually, Clara asked, “Will you write to me?”
“I was thinking I’d send a carrier pigeon. Or a messenger on horseback.”
She chuckled. “I’ll have to give in and get a phone now. I’ll text you my number.”
Zig regarded her out of the corner of his eye.
“Be honest. Did you really just come over to ask me for my number?”
She jabbed him in the arm with her good hand. “Don’t be ridiculous. That’s what phonebooks are for.”
Appalled, Zig stared.
“Cell phones aren’t — ” But then Clara launched herself at him and embraced him with all her might. If it wasn’t such a thrilling sensation, Zig would have insisted that she loosen her grip, because he was sure he would perish under the crushing pressure.
“Thank you, my friend,” she whispered into his ear, relaxing her arms the perfect amount. “I could never have dug such a big empty hole without you.”
“I believe that you, and only you, could have,” he whispered back, fondly. “Big Clara Creamers.”
Their heads moved without each of them knowing what to do, and they shared their first kiss.
Then, at Clara’s immediate suggestion, they agreed to never try doing it again. Before nodding like chums and parting ways, they solemnly vowed to never speak of their lips touching; or of what transpired that night under the moonlit gaze of Queen Victoria and her cat king, as the two searched for the secret treasure of New Berlin.
To this day, the mystery of where the bronze bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I, the first Emperor of Germany, rests, remains highly speculative and entirely unsolved.
The disappearance of the bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I one hundred years ago is one of Kitchener's greatest unsolved…www.cbc.ca
This story was inspired by my late grandmother and dear care taker, Clara Toner, whose indomitable spirit never diminished under the weight of lifelong illness. Ever magnificent, she taught herself how to paint with her non-dominant hand from her wheelchair, and produced numerous oil paintings throughout her life. I count myself as profoundly fortunate to have grown up in her shadow.
If you enjoyed The Secret Treasure of New Berlin, I invite you to support my author journey by reading this, and by considering placing a pre-order.
"A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life." - Charles DarwinI am a changed man.I…www.inkshares.com
It’s the first chapter of novel Where the Sun Sets, an inquisitive exploration of the mind and heart of a quiet man who must overcome the most piercing physical and emotional challenges he’s ever imagined in a world where time stands still, all to give his dying beloved a chance at a different life.
It’s very personal story that was inspired by my father’s quirky philosophies, and the deep and lasting love my partner’s late father held for his wife all through his life. You can learn more about my journey to date, here.