It’s been quite some time since I’ve shared any of my creative writing – mainly because I haven’t done a lot of it. So I’m happy to present you with an original short story here entitled The Treasure Within. While I’m sure that those who know me personally will no doubt recognize some aspects of a particular character, be assured that this is not an autobiography, but rather a vehicle for sharing a principle – or better yet – an epiphany that has proven most helpful to me in facing the innate sense of inadequacy that seems to plague most people regardless of their background. If you know of someone struggling with low self-esteem, or the repercussions of a personal trauma, I think my story might be able to soothe those wounds, or at the very least, indicate that healing is possible. Enjoy the story, and by all means leave me a comment on your thoughts.
The Treasure Within
by Ben Pastore
With his pulse racing, Corey swiftly sat up in bed. In his mind, all thoughts became instantly clouded.
Where am I?
He swiftly turned his head to take in the room. It was small, with bulky furniture that gave it an unexpected homely feel, though he had no idea why.
How did I get here?
He turned to look at the small alarm clock on the end table next to the bed. The soft light emanating from the porcelain lamp behind it indicated that it was five after 1. The darkness peeking through the lacy window shades indicated that it was five after 1 in the morning.
Corey lifted the heavy comforter and breathed in a musty smell that somehow reminded him of his grandmother’s house. Other than where his body lay, the bed was perfectly made. He also noticed that he was fully clothed except for a pair of muddy shoes perched in front of the end table.
What is going on?
Corey swung his legs across the bed and planted his feet on the floor. The heavy wooden planks felt cool through his socks as he observed his shady reflection in the mirror atop the dresser against the wall. His dark hair was slightly mussed, and his jaw was shaded with a distinct five o’clock shadow. He was still wearing a stiff jacket of dark brown leather. He felt a bulge in the inside breast pocket. Reaching in, his hand emerged with a sturdy six-inch knife with a wooden handle.
What am I doing with a knife?! This makes no sense!
The silence was broken by a sound of approaching footsteps. Corey shoved the knife back in his jacket pocket but kept his hand hovering nearby as a figure stepped into the room.
“Oh good, you’re up”, said a man who looked to be in his early forties. He was carrying a tray that contained a steaming mug and a plate of chocolate chip cookies.
“I wasn’t sure if you’d be hungry, thirsty or both, so I covered all my bases,” he said. He flashed Corey a smile that highlighted the crinkles in the skin around his eyes.
Corey lowered his hand and exhaled slowly. “Thanks, but I’m good”.
The man shrugged and set the tray down atop the dresser. “That’s fine,” he said. “I’ll leave them here in case you change your mind later.” He tossed him another smile.
“Where am I?” Corey said, then after noticing the impatience in his tone, softened his voice. “I mean, what am I doing here?”
The man crossed his arms in front of his chest while the smile turned into a look of amusement.
“To answer your first question, you’re in my house. As for the second, I was hoping you’d tell me.”
Corey looked away as he strained to remember how he got there—and why.
“If it helps, I found you sprawled out in my foyer. At first I thought you might be unconscious, but it would appear that you were just sleeping.”
As Corey responded with a look of confusion, the man smiled again. “You’re not here to kill me, are you?”
This elicited a small smile from Corey, and he shook his head no. He couldn’t help but notice the man’s smile faded at his response.
“Do you mind my asking your name?” the man said. “That’s kind of something I like to know about all my houseguests—conscious or otherwise”. His eyes crinkled back into a smile.
“Corey. And you?”
“I’m Brian”, the man said, extending his hand. Corey reciprocated and they shook. “And you look really confused.”
“Yeah,” Corey said. “I suppose I am. So you found me inside your house?”
Brian nodded. “I found you right over here,” he said, and with that he gestured with his head to somewhere in the hallway outside. Corey got up and followed him down a warmly lit hall with a thick blue woven runner.
They came into a curved foyer where there was a set of double doors to the right, and a large, sturdy door directly ahead.
“I figured you must have let yourself in the front door somehow,” Brian said, gesturing to the double doors. In the light coming in through the glass transom, a slight mist was visibly swirling in the darkness. “Though I don’t know how. They were locked when I found you.”
Corey looked around and tried to reach through the fog in his mind. He shook his head.
“Nothing looks familiar,” he said. “Maybe I came through the other door?”
Brian’s expression lowered as he shook his head. “As long as I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen that door open. It’s locked from the other side, and I never found a key that would work. You can see for yourself.”
Corey approached the door and noticed that while there was a lock, there was no handle. He pressed both hands against the door, but it didn’t budge.
“So, as I was saying,” Brian continued, “I found you here and thought you came in through the front. But it doesn’t seem like you remember any of that. You have any idea why you decided to visit?”
Corey shook his head and peered down a wider, darker hallway directly across from the front door. “I’m sorry, but I truly have no idea.”
Brian followed his eyes and took a step down the hallway. “Well, maybe a tour might help,” he said. He flicked a switch and they moved further into the house.
After a few feet the hallway opened up on the right-hand side to a spacious den, lit only by a meager fire flickering inside a wide stone fireplace. There was a soft-looking sofa with a crumpled blanket draped across the cushions and a pillow propped against the armrest.
“This is where I spend most of my time. In fact, I sleep here most nights,” Brian said. The firelight gave his expression a hint of wistfulness as he looked directly at the hearth.
“You live here alone?” Corey said, looking around at the other furnishings.
Brian crouched next to the fire and poked the coals, briefly releasing a burst of heat. “Sure do. For a while now.”
Corey watched the coals fade a bit as Brian stepped away and rested the poker against the bricks. “So there’s nobody else here who might have an idea of what’s going on?”
Brian smiled again, though his eyes didn’t crinkle. “Sorry, but I’m all you’ve got. Come on, I’ll give you the fifty cent tour.”
Brian walked past him and continued down the hallway, stopping to unlock a door on the left. Inside was an open studio draped with paint-speckled drop cloths and a collection of rickety easels, most with a canvas positioned in place. On the far wall was a sculpture depicting a standing figure with arms raised, holding a golden heart.
“I fancy myself a bit of an artist,” he said, moving into the room to allow Corey to enter.
Corey slowly walked from one painting to another, all the time feeling Brian’s eyes upon him. He stopped to take in a large canvas covered mostly in black paint. In one corner a dim swatch of light illuminated the shadow of a figure that was either crouching in fear, or cringing from the light. Corey turned to look at Brian, who averted his gaze.
Corey stepped up to the next one—a scene of barren trees with elongated shadows groping across a grassy field under a pale moon. A mass of clouds obscured most of the sky, and something in Corey was stirred.
In the far corner, there was another night scene, this one of a car, facing the horizon with its headlights fading into the dark. The car door was open, but there was nobody inside. To the right, was another barren tree.
Corey’s pulse picked up a beat.
Why does this seem familiar?
As he turned to look back at Brian, he noticed that his eyes seemed a bit glossy.
“I guess you could say I’m going through my ‘dark period’,” Brian said, clearing his throat and flashing another smile before looking away.
“Did you paint these recently?” Corey asked.
“Sort of,” Brian replied. “I’ve done a little at a time.”
Corey scanned the paintings once more then looked back at Brian. For some reason he felt a wave of anger rise in his chest, only to ebb a moment afterward. Even more confusing, was that his anger was directed at Brian.
“I know,” Brian said, as if he could tell what he was feeling. “Not something I normally show to guests I just met.” With that he went to the door and waited for Corey to pass before shutting the lights.
Brian once again stepped ahead of him and led him up a narrow flight of stairs. Corey was distracted by the jingling of a circular key ring that rhythmically dangled from his hip. At the top of the landing, Brian reached down and searched through the selection of keys before opening a door on the left.
“If you live here alone,” Corey said, “why do you lock all the doors?”
Brian looked over his shoulder with a smirk. “I suppose it’s so that I’m prepared in case someone drops by uninvited.”
The room was wide, with a parquet floor and a line of windows against the far wall. A grand piano sat perched to one side, while a music stand replete with sheet music occupied the space across from it. There was a plush, tall-backed chair, where a violin sat forlornly placed across the cushion.
“You like music?” Brian asked walking over to the piano. The bench creaked beneath his weight as he sat down and tested one of the keys. The note echoed in the acoustics of the room as he waited for Corey’s response.
“Sure” Corey said.
“Do you play?”
Corey shook his head. Behind the chair was a trophy case filled with plaques and awards: In recognition of years of service…In gratitude for extraordinary generosity…For uncommon dedication…
Behind him, Brian began to play. At first the notes were hesitant and halting. Then, as Corey read inscriptions of appreciation and recognition the melody grew stronger, with an overriding tone of melancholy. For some reason Corey was drawn to the violin, and as he approached the chair he could see Brian watching him as if he were about to strike, though the music never stopped playing.
“Do you play the violin too?” Corey asked.
Brian closed his eyes while his fingers danced along the deeper notes. “No, my wife did. At least she used to.”
Corey felt the music cutting through some of the fog of his memory. Suddenly he felt a surge of anger—and blame. “What do you mean, she used to?”
Brian continued playing. “She’s not here anymore.”
The music picked up tempo and strength, and Corey noticed that he was balling his fist in rage. Flashes of clarity burst through the fog and he remembered standing in the foyer earlier that evening, ready to take his revenge. Instinctively Corey reached for the knife as the music reached a crescendo.
Whirling around, Brian didn’t even look up as Corey drew the knife from his pocket, recognizing something he only now just understood.
I was sent here to kill Brian!
With his eyes closed, Brian dropped the tempo and softly played a haunting series of seven notes that echoed in the room. As the sound faded he opened his eyes and looked straight ahead, not even sparing a glance to the man with a knife a few feet away from him.
“I thought you said you weren’t here to kill me,” he said after a few seconds. He slowly pivoted on the bench to face Corey. “Though truth be told, I was disappointed to hear that.”
Corey stopped in place as Brian sank down off the bench to his knees and lowered his head, exposing the back of his neck.
“Go ahead,” Brian said. “I know I deserve it.”
Corey noticed that his arm seemed to rise on its own accord, though not without noticeable trembling. The rage that had just been coursing through his veins and the incontrovertible sense of certainty of why he was here wavered for a brief moment at the sound of Brian’s voice.
“I think it’s for the best,” he said. There was no fear in his voice. It was soft and calm, as if he were casually remarking about the weather. “In fact, I think I know why you’re here.”
The surge of emotions that swirled through Corey’s mind quieted at that.
Brian nodded and looked up at him. His eyes were red around the edges.
“I’m pretty sure I called you.”
“You called me?” Corey said. “When?”
“A few hours ago. Before I fell asleep,” Brian said, lowering his eyes again.
Corey paused. He didn’t remember receiving any call, but then again, he didn’t remember coming here in the first place.
“Why would you call me” he said, “if you know I’m here to kill you?”
Brian’s shoulders started shaking as he lowered his head. “Because I know it’s all my fault.” With that he burst into tears, sobbing loudly and gasping for breath in between convulsions.
Corey felt his arm rise again.
It is all his fault!
He took a step towards Brian’s supine body. He had a few images flash into his mind. The image of a woman crying, holding the hand of a loved one he couldn’t see. An image of weary doctors speaking with a police officer with a remorseful expression looking over his shoulder as he spoke. Though he didn’t know why, Corey felt pain—true pain—and he knew, just knew that Brian was the reason why.
He raised the knife as Brian knelt faced-down on the floor. A small puddle of tears had pooled underneath his face as sobs wracked his body.
This is an act of mercy…and revenge!
Then suddenly, he stopped. Corey’s gaze was drawn to a mirror, which at that particular angle reflected the trophy case behind him. He recalled the things he read about the man weeping at his feet: Expressions of gratitude, honor, respect and generosity.
He looked up at a trio of framed photos on the wall behind the piano. In the first, there was Brian, clearly much younger with fuller hair and a thinner frame. He was holding a trophy as a cluster of young men his age held him in various stages of embrace. The second frame contained a black and white photo of Brian looking down, gently stroking a gray puppy sleeping in his lap. In the last, it was a photo of Brian in profile, gazing admiringly at a lovely dark-haired woman with her arms around his neck as she laughed at an unspoken joke.
Corey lowered his knife as the certainty he felt a moment before dissipated.
“Go ahead,” Brian called out in a loud voice, “Please, I deserve it!” He let out a wail, tottered on his knees and collapsed to the floor.
Corey dropped the knife and reached down to find Brian’s pulse under his sweaty neck. It was steady, if a bit elevated and he was breathing regularly. Standing up again, there was something about the position of Brian’s body that brought up a brief flicker of recognition.
Why do I know this?
Looking around the room, Corey felt unsure of what to do next. And then he remembered the keys.
Kneeling down once more, Corey unclasped the key ring from Brian’s belt and repositioned him with a pillow underneath his head. All the rage and anger was gone now, replaced with another sense of certainty.
Standing up, Corey said, “I know there’s more to this story. You rest while I find out what it is.”
Walking to the doorway, Corey watched Brian’s chest heave rhythmically for a few seconds as he recalled the last words he had said.
“You’re wrong,” Corey said, more for his own sake than Brian’s. “I don’t think you deserve this.”
With that he left the room and locked the door behind him.
To the patter of rain tapping on the windows, Corey began systematically exploring the upstairs of the house. There were a few sparsely furnished bedrooms, a large master suite and bath that didn’t look as if it were lived in recently, and a closet stuffed to the ceiling with boxes of photos.
His next move was to retrace his steps downstairs. He wandered through what must have been a very light and airy kitchen during the daytime, an intimate dining room, and a large formal living room, all without anything that seemed to be of any significance. He stopped back in the small guest room where he woke up. The tea was now cold but he helped himself to a cookie.
Making his way back into the foyer, he again noticed the locked door with no handle. With a sense of anticipation he tried every key on the ring, twisting and cajoling with all his strength. When the last key didn’t turn, he sighed audibly and looked around for another target. It was then that he remembered the den.
By now the fire had dwindled to just a few charred embers, leaving Corey to fumble in the darkness to turn on a small lamp. There were several cozy-looking chairs scattered around the sofa, while a large bookcase filled the wall behind. He had to circle the sofa to access the bookcase, which was made of a dark walnut wood and was stocked with a sizeable number of hefty tomes. The subjects varied from the sciences, to art, to history to sport. Scattered among the volumes were all sorts of maps and an antique globe that was astutely placed in a center shelf. Reaching up to give it a spin, Corey accidentally knocked over an alabaster lion figurine.
Crouching down to see where it fell in the semi-darkness, Corey noticed a faint groove in the wood floor that vaguely resembled an arc. Rising to his feet, he began pulling and sliding everything on the shelves in front of him until shifting a heavy wooden bookend resulted in the center section swinging open toward him.
Corey stepped into the revealed darkness and felt along the wall with his left hand until it came to a switch. Immediately he saw that he was in a small study with only one small octagonal window mounted high in the opposite wall. The rest of the walls were stuffed with books, drawings and shelves of mementos seemingly from all over the world. In the center was a large desk, brimming with papers that spilled over onto the floor.
Being careful not to step on anything, Corey made his way behind the desk and switched on a brass lamp. Rifling through the papers, he saw nothing of any note. He then sat down in the rich leather armchair and tried the two desk drawers, which were both locked. Pulling out Brian’s key ring, he worked his way through the collection until he heard an audible click. Slowly, his fingers a bit shaky in anticipation, he opened the first drawer.
Inside there was a single folder containing a series of faded newspaper clippings. They were dated a little less than a year before. Opening the file, Corey read the first headline aloud.
“Local Man Jumps to His Death in Dramatic Suicide”.
Corey scanned the article for details. As he did, the fog in his memory began to clear. He raced through article after article, absorbing detail after detail until he found the one that contained the one piece he was missing.
Stuffing the article into his jacket, Corey yanked open the second drawer. There were letters from someone named Lucy and a picture of the woman he had seen with Brian in the photo. As he read on, Corey’s fingers began shaking all the more. Another series of images flashed through his mind, flooding his brain with memories until he had a moment of ultimate clarity.
Suddenly, he knew exactly who and where he was.
The fire in the den was burning brightly when Brian finally woke up. The clock on the wall now read half past four, and its rhythmic ticking was somehow soothing.
Brian lifted his head off the pillow and sat up on the sofa.
“What am I doing here?” he said.
Corey looked back at him from a chair near the fire where he sat with one leg tucked underneath him.
“I brought you here,” he said.
A look of confusion crossed Brian’s face as he took in his surroundings.
“But I thought you were here to kill me,” he said.
Corey shifted in his chair. “Yeah, that’s what I thought too.”
“So why didn’t you?”
The ticking of the clock filled the empty silence as Corey gathered his thoughts.
“You said that you deserved it. But somehow I didn’t believe you.”
In the firelight, Corey could see a teardrop roll down Brian’s cheek.
“Well, you should. It’s true.”
Corey reached into his jacket and pulled out the article he had stashed.
“Is this what you’re referring to?” he said, handing the slip of paper to him.
Brian accepted it reluctantly, then winced and began crying quietly.
“I had to read a bunch of articles before I found out how you fit into all of this,” Corey continued. “This one here—this is the only one that mentions that you were a witness.”
Corey got up and slid his chair next to the sofa, within arm’s reach of Brian.
“This picture here—this one is what inspired the painting of the car, right?”
Brian nodded but did not look up.
“What makes you think this was your fault?”
Brian buried his face in his hands for a full twenty seconds before wiping his eyes and grabbing a tissue from a box next to the lamp.
“He was my best friend. I should have known something was wrong.”
Corey sighed and leaned forward in his chair. “Did you have any reason to suspect that this is what he was thinking?”
Brian shook his head and snatched another tissue.
“So what did you do wrong?”
The tears started again, but this time Brian kept his head up.
“I wasn’t paying enough attention. Maybe if I did, I would have got there in time.”
Corey nodded. “About that. The article said that you found the note saying what he was going to do. Did you call the police?”
“Of course,” Brian said, “then I went after him. I got there just in time to see him fall.”
Corey let a few more seconds pass before speaking. “It sounds like you did all you could. So how is it that you take the blame on yourself?”
“Don’t you see?” Brian nearly shouted. “If I were only a little more attentive; a little faster to act; a little bit better of a friend he would still be here today! But I wasn’t. I wasn’t what he needed me to be to save him. And now he’s gone.”
Brian sobbed and drew in a long calming breath. “He’s gone, and I wasn’t good enough to save him.”
The ticking resumed as Corey reread the last part of the article then tucked it back into his jacket.
“Do you want to know why I didn’t kill you?” he said.
Brian nodded without looking him in the eye.
“I saw your trophies. I saw your photographs. I saw the expressions on the faces of the people around you. I realized something that I don’t think you realize in yourself.”
In the silence that followed, Brian turned his eyes to meet Corey’s.
“You. Have. Value.”
Brian closed his eyes as another tear dribbled down his cheek. “The treasure within,” he said softly after nearly half a minute had passed.
Corey sat up in his seat. “What was that?”
“The treasure within,” he repeated, this time with a little more force. “Funny, that’s the title I came up with for the sculpture in my studio.”
As Brian reached for another tissue, Corey had another rush of understanding. Leaping to his feet, he motioned for Brian to follow him.
“But why?” Brian said, “Where are we going?”
With a smile of absolute certainty, Corey said, “I now know what I have to do.”
The studio was untouched from when they left it before, but this time Corey had a very different agenda in mind.
“Help me lift his,” he said as he moved around to the back of the sculpture.
“But why?” Brian said. “I haven’t touched this since I moved in here.”
“Exactly,” Corey said, “Now, push.”
The statue slid back reluctantly, scraping the floor until a metal key was revealed.
“What is that?” Brian said, incredulously.
“I’ll explain that in a second,” Corey said. “Come with me.”
The duo went straight to the foyer where Corey stopped and pulled out the article.
“Please,” Brian said, gently placing his hand on Corey’s arm. “I appreciate what you’ve said, but I’d really like to just put that behind me.”
“I know, Brian, but I need you to see something. It might be hard for you to accept, but you still really need to see it.”
Brian shifted his weight. “I’d rather not.”
“I know,” Corey said, “but this explains everything.”
Brian mulled it over for a few seconds before taking the article from Corey’s hand. In it was a photograph of himself, sprawled on the ground in exactly the same position he had collapsed back in the music room.
Brian took a small step back. “But…what is this? I don’t get it.”
“I know you don’t get it,” Corey said. “That’s you, Brian.”
“I can see that, but how? Where is this?”
Corey lowered his eyes and walked over to the door without a handle. He inserted the key into the lock and turned until it clicked.
Brian’s jaw hung slack as Corey held the door from swinging open.
“Tell me what you remember about your wife,” Corey said.
“My wife?” Brian said, shaking his head in confusion. “What does she have to do with any of this?”
“Just tell me what you remember,” Corey said softly as Brian looked around like a cornered animal.
“She’s gone,” he said, barely audible. “I wasn’t there for her either and now she’s gone.” The tears began to emerge again.
“What if I told you that she isn’t gone at all. In fact, she’s been trying to reach you.”
Brian’s eyes widened as he handed him the pile of letters from the study. He tried to speak but no words came out.
“Brian, I don’t know how to explain this, but you’re not really here. At least, here is not a real place.”
Brian looked back at him with a look of complete confusion.
Corey sighed and ran his fingers through his scalp. “Maybe I didn’t word that right. This picture,” he said, pointing at the article, “was taken of you at the scene of your friend’s suicide. The police found you on the ground, barely conscious. They rushed you to the hospital but the trauma—the trauma was so powerful that you slipped into a coma.”
Staggering back a few steps, Brian leaned against the wall for support. “But how—?”
“How do I know this? Because I realized why I’m here. And it’s not because you called me. I’m here because that’s where I’m from—not out there.” He gestured to the front door.
“You’re from in there?” Brian said weakly, nodding toward the door without the handle.
Corey smiled and shook his head. “No, Brian. You are.”
The sound of the rain pelting the door outside filled the gap as Brian held back tears.
“Brian, I need you to listen to me,” Corey said. “You need to go through this door. Back to where you belong.”
“But what’s on the other side of that door?” Brian said.
“Lucy,” Corey said, watching as Brian winced at the sound of her name. “Your wife is on the other side of this door, along with everyone else that you love.”
“But why now?” Brian said through tears. “Why can we open it now?”
“Because you did it, Brian. You worked your way through the trauma.” Corey paused as the words came to mind. “The trauma from your friend’s suicide had you convinced you weren’t good enough. That all the good you did, all that you meant to everyone else in your life was no longer good enough. All because of one mistake—which wasn’t even your mistake.”
Corey reached out and braced his hand on Brian’s shoulder. “But you found the key, Brian. You realized that you still have value.”
With tears streaming down his eyes, Brian shook his head vehemently.
“But I didn’t do any of those things,” he said. “You did!”
This time it was Corey who shook his head. “Don’t you get it, Brian? This is your mind. I didn’t ‘get in’ here. I’ve always been here, because I’m a part of you.”
With that Corey stepped aside as the door without a handle swung open. It was dark beyond, but there seemed to be a light off in the distance.
“Go on, now,” Corey said. “Lucy’s waiting.”
Standing straight up, Brian wiped his eyes and peered into the darkness. Hopeful beyond measure, he folded the article into his pocket and nodded to Corey before stepping inside.
“Remember your value,” Corey said, then the door shut behind him.
Brian awoke in a hospital bed as the remnants of a powerful dream flitted from his mind. He briefly envisioned a young man in a dark jacket with an even darker jawline. There was a house with some paintings and a grand piano—and a sculpture in the corner.
His wife was asleep in a chair next to him, the waning sunlight illuminating the lower part of her beautiful face from underneath a half-drawn window shade. She stirred slightly, and as her eyes opened and caught sight of him looking back at her they instantaneously filled with tears. And as she leaned in to shower him with kisses, he was reminded of his dream, and something about a treasure within before it slipped away under the pressure of her warm embrace.