The BeginningChapter 1
Sunlight bounced along the cool water’s glassy face, and the air shimmered like fireflies. A dragonfly careened downward, banked left and dove for a landing on the jutting-out end of a cattail. It halted in perfect standstill grace while a ladyfish jumped from underneath it, waved “hello” to the clouds and sky, and with a smack on her side, fell back into the creek. Ripples sent every which way, as she either evaded some unseen predator or merely pranced for joy in the morning sun’s glory. Marian Dolor watched her jump and splash, her hearing numbed by the buzzing wind and rumbling road beneath the family sedan. Pellicer Creek flashed away. A deluge of trees—pine, palm, and pepper—came in front of her, zipping by in a blur of green and brown. It was only a few more minutes before the trees disappeared, too. The family pulled off the interstate, and a new city wrapped around the car.
Marian sighed and slunk into her seat. She was only ten-years-old, but had made up in her mind that her previous house was the home she was going to live in forever. A new home can be tough on anyone. But it’s especially tough when your parents don’t give you any choice in the matter. It was hard to watch the new town unfold before her. New house, new room, new street, new school, new principal, new teacher, new school bus, new ice-cream shop, park, church, friends. That was a lot of new. And no matter the amount of excitement, there was always a tinge of fear rounding the far edge of it. It felt like her first time swimming in Tavenier on Molasses Key—darting fish, vibrant coral, gliding sea turtles everywhere, but always in the back of her mind, this haunting feeling that somewhere out there on the perimeter was the elusive shark king, never seen, but always felt, waiting to ambush, strike, and kill.
She shook her head and giggled. She had a terrible knack for letting her thoughts run too far sometimes. This move was going to be fun. What was she worried about? Dad had taken a new job in St. Augustine, Florida. Something with “electricians”, “technicians”, or “superstitions”. And Mom had promised the city was full of beautiful sights for Marian to help with filling her portfolio. One of Mom’s last photos ended up inside of the local movie theatre.
This was going to be good. Beginnings are always good. They are the purest form of hope. They hold dreams and wonder without the pain of what yesterday brought. Rarely is the end seen from the beginning, the journey guessed in its entirety, or the trials known in their complexity, but that is what makes the beginning of an adventure both thrilling and terrifying. No matter how many mistakes there are on it, they can always lead to greater things. Though they carry us through trial and error, heartache and sorrow, they also take us through hope and perseverance, leading to that wonder and glory everyone was made for, but few ever reach. And this adventure that they set out upon is the story of how the Dolor children made a terrible mistake, but saved the world because of it.
The new home was a colonial, three-stories of rickety old wood slats running vertically, painted blue and green, and wrapped by a porch on three sides. Clay shingles pivoted over the attic and formed a pointed top that gave the whole thing a reminiscence of a historic tower. It felt imposing at the end of Flagler Road, along Twenty-Second Street. A beaten patio was attached to the southern end, on the kitchen, centuries after the home was erected. It had the kind of door that slapped shut but never latched properly. Overhanging it were the thick and ominous arms of an ancient live-oak. Its branches loomed over the yard on the front, side, and back, like a mother to her hens, and reached their fingertips higher than the top of the attic. On the perimeter of the backyard ran a forest of oaks and maples for miles north and south, hemming the rear-end of every house, building and street in the city, up over the horizon, and disappearing on the weakness of eyes. On the front of the nearest tree-line, was a wild dressing of pandora and passion vine that covered a high brick wall in green lattice and purple flowers.
Marian was the oldest and inherited her father’s height, standing one and half feet taller than her siblings. Esther was eight-years-old, but stood only half an inch over her younger brother, so she always put her hair in pig-tails to give herself an extra couple inches. Both girls unpacked their things on the second floor. With quick and fervent effort, they filled their room with toys, swords, shields, dolls, lamps, enough stuffed animals to cover two bunk beds, a pink rug, white-laced curtains, and a karaoke machine. On their dresser, a fish named Sparkles swam in a white and pink cubed fish tank, and a leopard gecko named Lemon slept under a rock in a terrarium.
Herbert Dolor was six-years-old, tough, ornery, and wild when at home, but sweet, gentle, and shy when out of his element. He unpacked his things into the converted attic one story above his sisters. There were two windows, split by French-cut beams, onlooking the front and back yards, the road out one, and the live-oak obscuring the view out the other. Wedging a lollipop between his cheek and jawbone, Herbert pondered where best to put his dinosaur collection. The setting sun glanced off his round glasses and drew his attention to the back window. Climbing on top of an unopened box and looking through the spindly branches and thousand shaking leaves of the oak, he stared at the row of trees lining the forest. Pines and palms stuck their brilliant heads through the criss-crossing branches, and the long line of passion and pandora vine wrapped over the brick wall. His eyes made out the rough edges of an iron gate protruding from the wall and covered in the vine lattice.
On their first night in the house, Mr. and Mrs. Dolor let the children stay up late with pizza, popcorn and a movie. Sometimes, parents do fun, comfy things to make their kids feel happier and relaxed. And eating junk food can make any tough day feel better. But sometimes staying up reallylate makes it hard to fall asleep.
St. Augustine was quiet, and the sound of silence was deafening. Sirens and train-tracks put the kids to sleep in their last town, Cocoa. Here the floor-boards and crickets were ten-times louder. Herbert was afraid to sleep alone on the third floor, so all three bunked on the second. The girls slept in their beds and Herbert on their floor.
“What are we doing tomorrow, Marian?” Esther whispered through the mattress.
“Mom says we are going to a new school,” said Marian.“It’s called San Juan Bautista Elementary.”
“I don’t want to go to a new school.”
“Well, you’ve got it easy. Nothing but multiplication and long division. Wait ’til you get to fifth-grade. I’ve got fractions, electricity, and essays.”
“I like math and reading. It’s not that…it’s the other kids.”
“I miss our friends, too. But we might as well get used to it.”
“I like reading-time,” said Herbert. He startled both of the girls, who thought he was asleep.
“I’m sure they will have plenty of reading-time at the new school,” said Marian.
“Did you guys see the woods out back?” Herbert asked.
“I did!” exclaimed Esther. “They look extraordinary.”
“I want to play in them all day.”
“We can climb that tree and make a treehouse!”
“And color pictures in it!”
“And do our homework in it…”
“Oh,” Esther said. “We have school all day.”
“Well, then we will play in it after school.” Herbert shouted.
“Shh!” Marian hushed them, rolling over and peering at Herbert below. “Do you want Mom and Dad to hear us?!”
“We can talk as loud as we want,” Esther said. “They aren’t even on this floor.”
Marian didn’t reply, and Esther knew she was acting asleep. She best go to bed, anyway. Herbert lay wide awake on the floor. His mind racing in thoughts about the backyard. The forest went as far as he could imagine, and he wanted to see that iron gate up close.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had to wait for the school bus in the morning, but it can be a very adventurous time. For starters, it’s so early in the morning that the cars aren’t really racing about yet. The world is still sleepy, and the sun is only high enough to make it shimmer, but not shine. It’s easy to listen to and spot animals like soaring herons, grumpy ibis, jittery squirrels, and raccoons crossing the road on their way to bed. And it’s easy to catch grasshoppers and ladybugs who come out to sip on the dewy grass. What makes it even more exciting is that the longer the bus is late (which it always is), a hope grows that it may never show up, and you get to skip school without it being your fault.
On this particular morning, the clouds hovered close to the earth and formed a thick, cold fog up and down the lane. The Dolor children were at the corner of Twenty-second and Chase Hammock. The girls huddled together to stay warm while Herbert counted how many footsteps it took him from one end of the block to the other. Another boy stood across the road waiting, but he refused to speak to them.
I don’t know if I said it yet, but it was the middle of February, which meant it was chilly outside in the morning before the sun came up. But also meant it was all the more annoying to start a new school when all the other kids have already made friends and are comfortable in their classrooms without you.
“What’s the bus number?” Herbert asked.
“Herbert, don’t go so far down the street,” said Marian.
“Thirteen-fourteen,” Esther answered him.
Herbert turned around in the grass and walked next to the street with his eyes closed. He was counting his steps out loud.
“Where did you three come from?” The boy across the street called to them. He had shaggy red hair and a race-car on his shirt.
“We just moved from Cocoa.” Marian smiled at him.
“Cocoa? Where’s that?” Half the boy’s mouth curled up and his eye squinted.
“It’s in Florida,” Marian replied.
“Never heard of it.” The boy looked down the road. “Must not be a very special town.”
Esther furrowed her brow at him. She loved her hometown. It’s where they grew up, and its name reminded her of hot chocolate on frosty nights by the campfire. She rubbed her hands on her favorite Batgirl tee-shirt and yelled out to Herbert, “Don’t go so far, Herbert!”
Herbert finished counting and opened his eyes. He was ten steps short.
Marian tried at being nice to the boy. “I’m Marian,” she said. “And this is my sister Esther and our little brother Herbert. What’s your na—”
“Herbie?!” The boy’s eyes grew huge and his mouth opened wide. “What kind of name is Herbie?”
Herbert dropped his eyes and pursed his lips. Esther smiled and put her arm around him.
“Well, his name is Herbert,” Marian corrected. “And what’s your name?”
“Aaron,” the boy replied, and looked down the road again.
The Dolor children jumped, turning to see a large black truck aimed at them. Its bright headlights shone in Herbert’s eyes. They were standing in someone’s driveway, and that someone was trying to leave for work. The kids moved into the grass. Marian looked back at Aaron. He continued staring down the road.
“What’s our bus number?” Herbert asked again.
“Thirteen-fourteen,” Esther repeated.
The smell of leather, rubber, and old cloth filled the Dolor children’s noses. The wheels rolled on the asphalt. The brakes squealed at the next stop. Steam rose from under the hood and a puff of black carbon monoxide exploded from the tailpipe. The accordion door opened. Four more kids entered the bus and found seats.
The door shut. A gear thudded, and the bus thrust a step forward, paused, hiccuped, and took off for the next stop. On and on this went, until twenty-five kids were on the bus, waiting to arrive at San Juan Bautista Elementary.
The bus was a cacophony of noises, shouts, squeals, and laughter. Herbert sat, quiet and alone, in the middle of the bus. The girls sat at the back, making conversation with another young lady named Bethany.
The bus stopped again and let on another group.
“What is that smell?” A shout from the front.
“It smells terrible!” Came another howl.
A high-pitched shriek came from the tantrum. “There’s poop in the aisle!”
In an instant, all the boys and girls were jumping up and looking at the aisle. Fingers pointed. Accusations rose. Fights threatened. Everyone wanted to know where it came from and who did it.
The bus-driver, Mr. Cunningham, stood up and hollered for silence. Every boy and girl shot down into their seats while snickering and whispering ensued. He looked at the aisle and sure enough, the excrement stamp of a shoe made its way down the bus.
“Everyone stay seated,” Mr. Cunningham said. He took a step and looked at the feet of the three kids in Seat One and Two. Nothing there.
He took a step and looked at the four in Seat Three and Four. Nothing.
The snickering and whispering grew in volume, and every boy and girl looked at their partner’s foot. Herbert looked at his feet, and to his horror, the brown filth of what once belonged to a dog at the house he waited in front of covered his right sneaker. The blood rushed from his face. He looked up and saw Mr. Cunningham only a few aisles from him. He clutched his backpack in his lap, and his heart raced.
Mr. Cunningham stood between Seat Eleven and Twelve. Only one more before Herbert’s. He shifted his left foot and pinned his right between it and the wall of the bus. His eyes stared at the back of the seat in front of him.
Mr. Cunningham stepped forward and looked at his feet. Then he looked at seat Twelve. Then he took a step to Thirteen and Fourteen.
Herbert closed his eyes and exhaled. Mr. Cunningham continued on his way back to the end of the bus. He sighed and shook his head, hurrying up the aisle and watching his step as he went.
“Who is it?!” A boy’s voice hollered.
The bus kicked into gear. Thrust, stop, hiccup, roll. The boys and girls once again laughed, pointed, and accused.
After a few minutes, the elementary school came into sight. The bus veered into the bus loop, and thirteen-fourteen parked behind twenty-one-oh-four. Every student stood at their seat like packed hens in a coop, and the accordion door swung open. The line crawled down the aisle while Herbert watched and waited for his sisters to meet him at Seat Eleven.
“Esther,” Herbert whispered in her ear. She looked away from her new friend and smiled at him. “It’s me, Esther. I have the poop-shoe.”
Her eyes grew enormous. “Okay,” she whispered. “Stand behind me.”
The chicken line dragged on, and Herbert saw the end. Maybe, if he could get off the bus behind Esther, he could hide his feet in the grass quick enough that no one would notice. He’d have to get behind those bushes and clean his shoes. But he feared Mr. Cunningham’s disappointment on his first day and dreaded the sound of that laughter directed at him.
“Just stay behind me,” Esther said.
Through the window, Herbert saw a group of boys gathering on the side of the school. They were waiting and jeering about something.
Esther stepped off the bus.
“Oh, it’s Herbie!” A voice hollered.
Herbert’s eyes shot forward in fear. He looked down at his feet and saw the brown-stained shoe, bright and hideous in the sunlight. The group of boys were laughing and pointing. One danced like a buffoon and mocked his name again and again. It was Aaron.
“Herbie stepped in the poop!” they shouted. “Herbie stepped in the poop!”
Tears filled Herbert’s eyes. Esther shot around to help him, but he was gone. Marian lumbered down the bus like an angry brute. She was six months older and two inches taller than Aaron, and didn’t appreciate the way he made her brother feel. Aaron, laughing hysterically, didn’t even notice Marian squarely walk up to him before punching him in the face and dropping him to his knees.
The other boys laughed and encouraged Aaron to strike her back. Scowling and barking, he leapt to his feet to say something ugly.
“Enough!” Mr. Cunningham shouted. “Get to class, all of you!”
Marian was lucky. Not because she didn’t have to fight Aaron—she’d probably do pretty well against him—but because teachers seem to send kids to the Principal’s Office for anything these days and hitting another student would definitely permit it. It would be a terrible thing to start your new school year with a detention or referral.
Esther and Marian looked for Herbert, but never found him. They considered waiting outside the school for him, but a lady with a short black haircut and stern face ordered them to class.
In his absence, Herbert found a bush to cry inside of, before attempting to clean his shoe in the grass and dirt. It wasn’t working very well until a lady from the nurse’s office found him. She invited him into the office to clean his shoe in a sink. After which, he went back to his class to meet his new teacher, Mrs. Taylor.
The kids thought they would see each other again at lunchtime, but Bautista Elem. has a strange block schedule that kept them from one another. This probably hurt Esther the most on their first day.
Esther has the most common-sense of the three Dolor children. But she’s also the quietest, smallest and most tender-hearted. At lunchtime, she stood pressed up against the wall outside the cafeteria, waiting with her class to enter. She clutched the three dollars and fifty cents Mrs. Dolor handed her for lunch. A list of food options and prices confused her as the line grew shorter and shorter.
“Excuse me,” Esther asked the boy in front of her. “Do you know what we should buy for lunch?”
The boy’s forehead wrinkled, and he looked at his friend. They chuckled together. Esther didn’t understand the joke.
“Whatever you want,” the boy said, and turned away.
She looked down and sighed. Three girlfriends chatted behind her. She turned to face them, hoping to join in the conversation. One’s eye caught Esther, and the group looked at her. The one closest to her looked down at Esther’s Batgirl tee that read: “I’m a Superhero!”, and then back at Esther’s face. Esther smiled, about to greet them.
“You’re not cool,” the girl said, icily. The other two girls laughed, and the first looked away and continued the conversation without Esther.
Esther wanted to cry her eyes out, but couldn’t. Where was she? Why would her parents send her to a place like this? She wanted to be with her friends back at home so badly and missed the halls she knew. She missed knowing what was for lunch and being able to pronounce her teacher’s name without looking like a fool. In that moment, she wanted nothing more than to curl up and die.
On the bus ride home, all three Dolor children sat together. Without a word, each agreed never to split up again. This first day of school was the worst they had ever experienced.
Marian was miserable, too. In Mr. Oulette’s class, she made a fool of herself when she didn’t know the name of an ocean. The class didn’t laugh out loud, but she heard snide remarks and felt everyone staring at the back of her head all day.
No matter what Esther did, she couldn’t remove the cutting words from her head. She was “not cool”. It felt like the time a yellow jacket ran up her leg and stung her a dozen times. An agonizing, swelling pain that creeps along your body from within. Mr. Dolor had to tie up her leg with vinegar and a tourniquet when that happened. She wondered what kind of medicine could fix her broken heart.
Herbert couldn’t stop thinking about how the bus ride began. He would never look Mr. Cunningham in the eyes again, and all the kids on the bus knew him for all the wrong reasons.
Their new school was a nightmare. Things needed to change fast for the Dolor children.