Love, Artifacts, and You by Sarah Ready
“You’re Emma Castleton.”
I look up from the public computer at the Romeo Library. A young librarian in a cute dove gray 1950s-style belted dress gives me a bright smile.
“Umm, ye-es?” I say. I’ve only been in Romeo for one sleepless night and this is the first time I’ve ventured into town. Until this second I was one hundred percent certain no one knew me here.
The librarian, her nametag says Jessie, turns and waves at a group of older ladies sitting at a puzzle table. “I told them so,” she says. She turns back to me. “I saw your picture in National Geographic years ago, and then again on the cover of…” She trails off and her cheeks turn bright red. She probably remembers the magazine cover she’s thinking of. It had my picture and stamped across my face was the word fake.
“Um, so, you’re staying in the old Van Cleeve hunting cabin. That place is a real pit,” she says.
“How’d you know?” I ask, surprised and maybe a little unsettled at how well-informed she is. “I just got here yesterday.”
She shrugs. “Small town. Everybody knew someone was at the cabin within five minutes of your arrival. First, Marsha at the grocery phoned Wanda”—she points to the older lady at the table in the horn-rimmed glasses—“and said the Van Cleeve boy was finally here. Marsha recognized him because apparently he looks just like his uncle did fifty years ago. Then Wanda told everyone at Bridge club, when she went to the retirement center. So then Erma told her niece Chloe. Chloe lives with her husband out near the Van Cleeve cabin, and Chloe said Nick was in a huff because there was a Lamborghini SUV parked out front—”
“That’s Justin’s car,” I say.
She nods and continues, talking faster than almost anyone I’ve ever met. “And Nick made a point to mention to Chloe that if that Lamborghini belonged to anyone named Matt Smith, he’d march over there and kick them out of town. Which made Chloe laugh.”
“Ah ha,” I say, not really understanding anything she said.
“So everybody in town knew that the Van Cleeve boy was here and he’d brought a lady with him. The only mystery was the lady’s identity. Which now, I’ve solved. I’m Jessie, by the way.”
“Wow,” I say, sort of awed by her directness and cheerfulness. I hold out my hand, “I’m Em.”
She grins, then takes it and gives a firm shake. “Glad to meet you. You’re here for a dig, aren’t you?”
“Um, no?” I look at my internet browser. I have a tab open for my email, another on an archaeology journal and a third opened to world news. Nothing about digs. In fact, I was just planning on spending the next few weeks cleaning up the cabin and deciding if I could brave the business world and restart Castleton, Inc.—under a new name, of course. Justin may have been right. Castleton was an albatross around my neck, but I loved uncovering the hidden treasures of the past. It sings to me. It always has.
I close the browser and sign off the computer.
“That’s weird,” Jessie mutters.
Her eyebrows lower. “Well, Miss Erma said you were going to find the Lost Treasure of Romeo and also, you’ll find and marry your soul mate. She said it’d be all wrapped up within the week. Two at most.”
“What?” I say. My voice comes out louder than I expected.
“Shhh! Jeez, keep it down, you’re in a library,” one of the ladies at the puzzle table yells.
“Oh boo, Petunia,” says Jessie, “you danced the hokey pokey in here last week. Your cell phone was blasting at full volume. So ridiculous.”
Jessie turns back to me. “Anyway. When are you going to start looking for the treasure?”
I look at Jessie, then at the senior ladies working on a puzzle of a red barn and cow pasture, then I look at the moms and toddlers in the children’s area. They all look normal. The lady yesterday in the grocery store seemed normal. And I think I saw this Chloe person and her husband drive by last night. They looked normal too. But I’m beginning to suspect that people in this town may be a little off.
“It was really nice meeting you,” I say. I give a smile and a small wave. “I’ll probably see you around.”
Jessie gives me a confused look, then she starts to laugh. “Oh, right. Wow. You think I’m crazy. You haven’t heard about Romeo before, have you?”
I shrug. “Well, I mean, it’s a small town, with hiking and wineries and boutiques and…” Okay, I hadn’t heard of it until Justin told me about it a few days ago.
Jessie nods, like I’d confirmed what she suspected. “Okay, so I’ll try to condense seventy-five years of Romeo town lore so you can understand what you’ve landed in. Follow me.”
She walks to a glass-fronted cabinet across the library, unlocks it and pulls out a heavy book. She drops it on the table and it falls open to a page with a photograph of a wedding. “You’re in Romeo, New York.”
“Yes,” I say. We agree on that.
“Official Town of Love, USA,” she says.
I think I remember seeing that on the Welcome to Romeo sign at the edge of town.
“Over there is Miss Erma.” Jessie points to a petite, fine-boned older woman in a red silk shawl sitting with the other ladies. “She has been predicting soul mates since 1948.”
Jessie flips through the pages until she comes to the first photograph. The writing under the photograph gives the names of the bride and groom. The flower girl is Erma—she’s small, young and in a lace dress.
“She’s never been wrong.” Jessie flips through the hundreds of pages. I watch as the pictures flash by. “She predicted my match. Two of my friends’ matches. Heck, half this town. Once she sees your soul mate, that’s it, there’s no question.” She snaps the book closed.
I watch as she puts the book away. Then, “I’m sorry. What exactly do you mean by soul mate?” There’s an uncomfortable itchy sensation on my skin.
“Your soul mate. Your true love. Your one and only,” says Jessie. “The man you’re destined to love and who will love you. Your other half.”
My stomach sinks and I press my hand against it. I’ve only ever loved one man. I’ve never regained the ability to love another. I lost it when I lost him.
I wonder if this Erma really is a psychic and not some, well…fake. Maybe she saw Justin’s proposal. Maybe he’s right and I can move on. My skin feels tight and itchy.
“Can I speak with Miss Erma?” I ask.
“Sure. Of course,” says Jessie.
She leads me across the library to the crowded puzzle table. The table is in front of a large bright window overlooking green grass, the river and a little arched footbridge. There are six ladies and one older man sitting around the unfinished puzzle.
“Miss Erma? This is Em, the girl you pointed out. I told her about your vision and she was curious about it,” says Jessie. “She’s never heard of Romeo. Or of the Lost Treasure.” Jessie’s eyes brighten at the last. “I did my fourth grade social studies project on the Lost Treasure.”
I smile at Jessie then focus on Miss Erma.
“Nice to meet you,” I say. My tongue feels thick in my mouth. I don’t know why I’m so unsettled. She can’t actually have seen anything or predicted anything. I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding.
“You too,” Miss Erma says. She takes in my dirty, dust-covered jeans, my bleach-stained top, and my tangled hair wrapped in a blue bandana. I spent the morning cleaning and then walked into town for a break at the library. I didn’t have cell reception or Wi-Fi at the cabin, so I figured when I got to town I’d text Justin that the night went okay and not to worry. Then I’d send my dad’s live-in nurse an update. I hadn’t expected to interact with people. If I had, I would’ve washed off at the water pump and changed my clothes.
“So, you’re psychic?” I ask.
Miss Erma’s mouth turns down and she shakes her head. “No, not at all,” she says. She picks up a blue puzzle piece from the table and pops it into place. When she looks back up at me, I see something in her eyes that reminds me of an old woman I once met at a market in Cairo. She was nearly one hundred years old, and the look she gave me made me feel as if she saw past all the things on my outside and instead saw right into my heart. Miss Erma doesn’t look like that woman, but she reminds me of her.
“Oh, snap Erma,” says one of the ladies. “I’ve been looking for that piece.”
“If you’re not a psychic…” I say.
“I don’t see the future,” she says. She smiles and the wrinkles around her eyes crinkle. “I see the present. When you came in the library I saw you and your soul mate and the Lost Treasure.” She draws a line through the air, tracing something from across the room and then lands with her finger pointing at me.
“Erma, you’re freaking the girl out with your all-seeing act. Cut to the chase,” this is from the lady that Jessie called Petunia.
Erma blows out a breath. “Fine. You’re no fun, Petunia.”
“I’m lots of fun,” says Petunia.
Erma shakes her head and looks at me like I should agree with her. “Okay,” she says. “Here’s what I saw. You’re going to look for the Lost Treasure of Romeo. When you find it, you’ll also find your soul mate.”
I nod. “Okay. Find treasure. Fine.” Treasures I can do. I’ve found plenty of those. In fact, thinking about finding some mysterious artifact in this cute little town has me excited. It’s the other bit that I’m not sure about.
“What’s the name of her soul mate?” asks Jessie.
Erma shrugs and tosses aside a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit.
“What does he look like then? What was he doing?” asks Jessie.
I lean forward. Do I believe her?
“She knows him,” says Erma. She looks up at me and there’s a hint of compassion in her eyes, like she knows more than she’s letting on.
A chill settles over me.
“Is he blond, blue-eyed?” I ask. My voice sounds distant.
She shakes her head no.
“He’s wealthy, as wealthy as a king. He owns skyscrapers, an island,” Erma says.
One of the older ladies whistles.
Not Andrew. The thought flashes through my mind. Andrew never wanted money or prestige. Although it couldn’t be Andrew. He’s gone. Dead and gone.
I pull my gaze back up from the floor and look at Miss Erma.
“He has power and status,” she says.
I don’t want him. Whoever he is, I don’t want him.
“He doesn’t really sound like my cup of tea,” I say. Plus, I don’t know anyone that fits this description. I shrug. “Sorry. I’ll still look for your treasure though if you like. I could research. Apply for a permit.”
In fact, it’d let me do what I love, outside of the tarnish of Castleton, Inc. and the cloud of the past. A way to move on.
“I’ll take him,” says Petunia. “I’d love an island.”
The lady next to her, she looks like her sister, smacks her on the back of her hand. “We’ll stay out of this one,” she says. “No interfering.”
“Good idea,” says Jessie.
I give Erma a smile. “Thanks for the welcome. I’m sure your predictions have come true in the past, but I don’t think it’s likely this time.”
“That’s what they all say,” mutters Wanda. She pushes up her horn-rimmed glasses.
Erma purses her lips and pats a completed chunk of puzzle into the barn. “Maybe so,” she says. “Oh, well. Gals, we need to finish this puzzle. I’m headed to my niece’s to see the baby in two hours.”
Jessie looks at Erma like she’s lost her mind.
“Oh, well? Ooo-kay,” Jessie says. She turns to me, confusion on her face. Then she shrugs. “Well, anyway. It’s lunchtime. Can I take you out for a welcome to Romeo lunch? I could invite some friends for you to meet. I’ll bring some books, tell you all about the Lost Treasure, then show you to town hall for your permit or whatever you said you need.”
I look back at the table. The ladies all seem engrossed in the puzzle. Me and my supposed soul mate are completely forgotten in favor of a barn puzzle.
“Well, alright,” I say to Jessie. “Thank you. That’s really nice of you.”
Jessie starts to walk toward the exit and I turn to follow. But a stray thought makes me stop and turn back to Erma.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “but did you happen to see what my um…soul mate, I guess…what he looks like?”
Erma looks up from the puzzle and gives me a wide smile.
“I did,” she says.
“Okay.” My throat goes dry.
Erma pauses, watches me.
“What does he look like?” I ask.
I nod. Okay. Tall.
“Thick, black hair,” she says.
My heart stops for a moment, then with a hard lurch starts up again.
I can feel the soft memory of thick black hair running through my fingers.
I swallow and try to clear the lump in my throat. “That’s it?” I ask.
She shakes her head no, then, “Eyes so dark, they’re almost black.”
The air rushes from my lungs, hard and painful.
A picture forms in my mind of a black-haired, brown-eyed boy. Now a man.
“He’s sun-browned,” she says.
I close my eyes, like doing so can block out the vision.
“Not possible,” I whisper.
Andrew’s dead. We had proof. He died. I would’ve torn the world apart if I believed otherwise.
Erma continues. “He has a crooked nose and a long scar over his eyebrow.”
“Ooh, a pirate,” says Petunia.
“Shush,” says the lady next to her.
I open my eyes and try to focus on Erma. The room spins around me. Andrew’s nose was straight, he didn’t have scars. But it’s been ten years, he might…he could…
“I…I…” I don’t know what I’m trying to say. “Is he in Romeo?” I finally ask.
“Start digging for the Lost Treasure and he will be,” Erma says.
I blink and the room stops spinning and comes into focus. All I have to do is start digging and Andrew, if it really is Andrew, will come back to me.
I know what I have to do.
Petunia laughs. “A treasure hunt and a soul mate. What could be better?”