“Did you hear me? I’ll give you the ring.”

John let go of the rusty door handle of his faded baby blue Chevy pickup and extended his hand towards Mr. Wilson. “Mary’s going to love it. When do we leave?”

That night John’s stomach, full of nerves, swirled over a bowl of spaghetti without meatballs. He and Mary shared the last drink of wine in their only coffee cup. “Babe, I’ve got exciting news.”

Mary’s eyes lifted from the porcelain pool of red, “What is it?”

John took her hand and covered it with both of his, “You know I love you.”

“What is it, John?”

He slipped his fingers into his pocket and placed Mr. Wilson’s ring behind her knuckle, a near-perfect fit. Mary’s mouth opened big as a full moon, her bright teeth shining like stars against a sea of reddish-grey gums, “Where did you get this?”

“Do you like it?”

“It’s so different. So lovely.”

“So, you like it?”

The frogs and fireflies kept thin sounds between them, and then as if struck by lightning, Mary sprung to her feet. “Marriage! You’re asking me to marry you?”

John joined her, planting his feet on the cold kitchen floor, “Will you?”

“Did Mr. Wilson give you a raise? Or something better?”

John reached for her again. She stretched her pearl-white palms across the table, and they fell gently into his. “Something better. But I need to go away.”

Mary slumped into the wooden chair. “Where?”

Eyes weakening, John kneeled in front of her; “There’s treasure off the Ivory Coast. Mr. Wilson promised I’ll never need to work another job again.”

Mary ripped her hands from his, stabbing her sharp gaze into him; “The ocean! That wasteland! You’ll join Steven and be none the richer!”

“I know it’s a sacrifice, Sugar Bear. But it’s the only way.”

Mary moved the ring up and down her finger until she finally pulled it off and placed it on the table; “Steven told me the same thing, that he’d return with treasure, that we’d all be rich.” The candle was a dim flame melting wax, and the sounds that previously kept harmony carried on out of tune.

“Your brother didn’t know the ocean like I do, Mary.”

Mary’s eyes labored with tears. “Go, John. Go if you must. But I won’t wait for you.”

John’s legs straightened; the bulge of his quadriceps revealed below his gym shorts. “All you’ve ever wanted was money from me. And now it’s not enough? You’re ungrateful, Mary, and greedy and know nothing about love.” John took the ring, slung it into his pocket, then stomped out the front door.

Trembling, Mary cried, “I love you, John. I’ve never wanted more than love.”

John didn’t usually frequent the drinking holes, but tonight was different. He wore his big fisherman’s hat and walked with his head titled downwards. Larry’s Pub was a mean place. Locals only. Faint neon lights, hanging on by frayed wires, dangled in front of the entrance door. John ducked walking in, despite having plenty of room, afraid the sign might shock him if he got too close. A string of shoulder-to-shoulder men filled the stools at the bar, leaving only space for seating around the main floor tables. John sat with heavy fists, replaying the evening, a string tightening around his chest. It might’ve been twenty minutes before he realized he’d keep a dry throat, waiting any longer for somebody to pour him something.

Standing, John’s knees knocked the table, bumping it on its side. Nobody turned an eye, the loud thump just a rickety noise with half-life. He left the table alone and headed towards the bar, hoping the barman would catch his beady-eyed gaze or the cash in his fingertips. But the scrum of men held drinks lasting seconds, then raised their hands tall as lighthouses for another. John edged closer and heard a familiar voice. Ricky Wilson was slurring his words, wobbling on his stool. On Ricky’s sides, a pair of men almost fell, bursting with laughter, sloshing drinks like big thirsty gulps of water.

John thought about tapping Mr. Wilson on the shoulder to try and get a drink. But he refrained, for lack of courage, then curiosity upon hearing his name. John inched closer, pulling his hat further over his eyes.

“Then there was this boy in my field today. Name’s John. Told him there’s buried treasure near Ivory Coast, that if he’d come with me, I’d make him rich.”

One of the men came off the line like spilled salt, tears filling his eyes from laughing so hard, “How the hell did he believe you, Rick?”

Ricky turned his head to the floor, “I gave him a knock-off ring to prove there was loot!”

The man continued in a curled mess of chaos, burping and howling, “Tell more, Rick!”

The barman topped the empty glasses. Then, as quickly as the liquor settled, a new round fell into their throats, floundering in the darkness of their gaping mouths.

“He said he needed that ring for his woman. But we’ll be long gone before she knows any better!” John’s fists went sheet-rock stiff. He raised them to his chin, surveying a small opening on Mr. Wilson’s left cheek. Then, as John cocked his right fist, Ricky spoke again.

“He’s strong enough, I tell you. And a hard worker. He’ll do good, and by the time we’ve docked and got rid of the shipment, he’ll be begging me to get off that boat.”

The man on the floor put his hands over his stomach, holding it like a pregnant woman having contractions; “I don’t know how you keep this up, Ricky. Over five years now, right? How you never get caught?” The drunkard hit his head on the tile with a thud.

John, peacock-chested, inhaled a deep breath and reached for the dark notes in his voice, “Say, Ricky. What you got in that shipment?” But the huddle of joshing men had turned to heads on the countertop, their eyes tired of spinning lights. Ricky lay corpse-like, snoring loud as the jukebox.

The barman looked at John while collecting empty glasses. Then, with shaky hands and nervy eyes, he whispered, “Cocaine.”

When John returned home, the only thing left of Mary was her scent. Every item of clothing she possessed was gone, and the big suitcases, never used, no longer obstructed his path to their bed. Her lavender perfume haunted every wall as he moved toward his bed. He dropped his head on the pillow she never liked and almost broke his neck. Underneath the pillow was a framed photo with a note taped to the front. This was the last time I saw my brother.

John removed the note to examine the photo. Steven wore a smile bright as a silver moon, arm in arm, with the rest of the crew in front of their boat. John gasped as he noticed another face he recognized. A shiver rolled down his spine, and then he squinted, feeling a fist in his stomach as if struck by an invisible hand.

Ricky Wilson stood behind the crew with a cigarette in his mouth, eyes cast toward the dark blue ocean.

South African born, Luke Beling, left home at 19. In 2007, he graduated from Campbellsville University with a BA in English. Luke has had several short stories published in journals and magazines, including: Quiet Shorts (2012), Eyelands Flash Fiction (2019), Academy of the Heart and Mind (2021), and New Reader Magazine (2021).