The Forest GateChapter 2
The sky turned black as the Dolor children exited the bus. Rain dumped on them while they ran for the house. Just as they stepped inside their home, the rain died to a drizzle.
“Well, how do you like that?” Marian said.
The door creaked open, and each child wiped his or her shoes on the rug, before stepping onto the wooden floors. Miserably, they walked to their rooms to change their clothes. Later, Herbert found Esther reading in the living room with their mother. Work kept Mr. Dolor away for a few more hours.
Herbert looked out the window. “Where’s Marian?”
Esther didn’t seem to hear him.
“I believe she’s upstairs, dear,” Mrs. Dolor said.
“She’s writing a play,” Esther added, without looking up from her book.
Herbert pursed his lips and scrunched them up to the top of his left cheek. He paced around the room like a meandering puppy.
“Esther,” he said at last.
“It’s too muddy outside, Herb,” only Esther and Mr. Dolor called him Herb, which he didn’t mind.
The backdoor slammed, and she looked up from her book. He was gone. She looked down at her book. Then back up again. Her mother was watching her.
“How was your first day of school, sweetie?” Mrs. Dolor asked.
“The great swordsman, Herbert the Heroic, battles Aaron the Alligator to the death! A battle of wits and skill!” Herbert swung a stick and thrust it forward at the air while spinning his body and twirling his arms every which way. “En garde!” The stick hit the side of the live oak.
“It looks like Aaron the Alligator has no chance,” a voice called out from above.
Herbert startled and looked up the tree. Marian was sitting on a branch with a notebook and pen in her hand. She smiled at him.
“Mom said you were upstairs,” Herbert said.
She shrugged, “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“You didn’t scare me,” Herbert said, frowning. “I’m Herbert the Heroic. I don’t get scared.” He swung the stick at the trunk and Marian went back to writing.
Next thing he knew, a frisbee hit him in the back of the head. He turned around to see Esther giggling.
“Oops,” she said. “It was an accident, I promise.”
“Not muddy anymore?” Herbert asked.
The two played under the tree, while Marian wrote her play on the lowest branch. The yard under the live oak became an office where they pushed imaginary paper and faxed faux documents. Esther was the boss, and Herbert was behind schedule. Then, the muddy pile of palm branches became a tar pit surrounding a volcano where a Tyrannosaurus Rex lived. Herbert was the dinosaur, and Esther was the damsel in distress. Finally, the tree-line became a racetrack, and the frisbee was a flying saucer. Each child took turns outrunning the alien attack.
The frisbee took a wild turn toward the row of forest trees and stuck into a pandora vine. Herbert raced to retrieve it, dropping next to the vines and pulling it out of the pink and white flowered lattice. The cold chill of iron stung his fingertips. Curiosity filled him, and he pulled at the grass and vine lattice, revealing a large iron gate. It was solid, made of ancient oak and wrought iron. Black spires, laced by thick oak, extended beyond its top, forming ornate finials well above a grown man’s height. Wrought iron scrolls curled over the wooden beams, molding an abstract shape that confused the two of them.
“Looks like a gravestone,” Herbert guessed.
“No, it’s a fountain,” Esther corrected.
“Come on!” Herbert said. “Let’s look closer.”
“It’s not ours.”
“Whose is it?” Herbert shook with excitement. In his guts, he knew it was probably not right to try entering a gate that wasn’t yours. But ever since seeing it the night before, he wanted to get inside and explore. Now that Esther was with him, he thought it would be better to have someone helping him in case he got in trouble.
“Well, you look over there for anything neat,” Esther pointed to the side closest Herbert. “I’ll look over here. But no going inside. We need to ask permission before we just go opening up people’s gates. Especially one as nice as this—it’s obvious someone doesn’t want us in.”
Esther crouched behind a column protruding on the north side of the gate. The old iron disappeared under the vine lattice and the wall fell back a few feet from the forward gate. She glanced back at Herbert, who disappeared on the southern side of another protruding column.
Esther ran her fingers along the muddy earth, feeling the bottom of the slimy wooden slats. She reached for what she imagined was the bottom of a column, tearing the vine in front of it. The wall was solid, she thought. Nothing could ever get through that without knowing how to open the gate.
Meanwhile, Herbert, also realizing that the gate would never open on its own, found a large boulder and was hitting the right side as hard as possible. He ripped the vines off and smashed the rock into the column and brackets.
Esther felt an iron brace on her end. Her fingers ran the length and wrapped around the iron rod. The idea of pulling and shoving her way in was overtaking her. It was so easy to imagine herself inside the gate, and the more she felt how strong it was, the more certain she became that it held wonderful things for her to discover. She wanted inside. She needed to be inside. Her heart beat wildly. She bit her bottom lip. She clutched the iron brace and squeezed. Maybe if I just pulled with all my might.
Herbert rammed his boulder into the south side’s bracket. Chink. The sound of rock against stone. Herbert looked down to see something white on the ground. His eyes flashed and his jaw flexed when he realized a piece of the column had broken off. His fingertips reached for it. Marble and shimmering granite. He knelt down and picked up the broken piece, noting the small dimples and fine carvings that formed the face and torso of a panther.
While it rolled over his hands and his eyes studied it, the earth shook violently. He heard a thunderous clap from deep in the forest. The vines fell off the front of the gate and a cloud of dust bellowed out from the earth beneath.
“Herbert! Herbert! Herbert!” Esther cried and ran to him. “What did we do?”
“Nothing!” He shouted back, stuffing the ornament under his shirt. “I was just looking at it. Did you touch it?”
“Oh, my goodness! If it wasn’t you—then yes!—Yes, I did. I think I pulled a lever on the post. I reached through the vines and felt around—”
“You said not to touch it, Esther!”
“I’m so sorry, Herbert.”
The ground shook again, and they looked at the gate in fear.
By this time, Marian had joined them. “What did you do?” She looked awestruck at the trembling gate.
“It wasn’t my fault, Marian,” Herbert said, fumbling the broken ornament behind his back.
“It must’ve been me,” Esther confessed. “I think—”
The ground quaked again.
“What is happening?”
“It wasn’t me.”
“Herbert and I saw this gate that looked so pretty.”
“Who’s gate is it?”
“I think I did something to it.”
“It wasn’t me!”
Marian glanced at Herbert, furrowing her brow.
The door swung open, and a flash of white light blinded the children. Colors of violet and green shimmered in the air like an effervescent rainbow, extending upward into the sky. The dark clouds disappeared, and the sunset broke through. The children lowered their hands from their faces. Dust and lightning bugs fluttered in the air around them.
“Fairies,” Marian whispered.
The ground shook again, but less powerful than before.
“What now?” Esther asked.
The sound of the repetitive motion was familiar, like a train rumbling across an open plain. But it wasn’t a train or machine. It was the galloping feet of a gallant unicorn that burst through the gate and reared on its back legs. A cotton white mane and tail draped across the fine jet black hair. The horn on its head glowed silver, like mercury, in the sunshine. Its whinny thundered, and the kids cowered, covering their ears. The beast took off, galloping across their yard and out into the street, turning sharply south and heading downtown.
“Oh my gosh,” said Marian.
“Did we just see a unicorn?” Esther asked.
“Ugh, what’s that smell?” Herbert asked.
The kids’ noses wrinkled on their faces. It smelled like a nasty swamp, the kind you pass by on the road and your mom wishes she had switched the A/C to recycle too late. It was like rotten eggs and milk left under the dishes in the sink for a week. The children heard a low growl and looked to see the shadows of the forest moving and the underbrush coming to life.
A large ape-like creature came out of the gate and grabbed the low branch of the live oak—the same branch Marian was sitting on just minutes before. With lightning-fast grace, it flung itself upwards onto another branch and sailed high into the air. It landed on the roof and threw a slew of shingles to the ground. It howled again before jumping from the roof on the other side of the house.
“What did we open?” Marian asked.
“It’s an enchanted forest,” answered Esther.
“I saw it! I saw it all! I saw what you did!” A voice shouted at them from the yard, beneath the oak tree.
The Dolor children looked to see, at their dismay, Aaron on his bicycle. He rode his bike in the grass, its fat tires sinking in the wet mud. He was whistling to himself, wearing his crooked smile.
“What are you doing here?” Marian asked.
“Is this what you all do in Cacao?” He asked, grinning. “Break open enchanted forest gates that don’t belong to you and let loose monsters?”
The Dolor children were speechless. Meanwhile, a blue mist filled the air around their feet and they unwittingly looked back into the forest.
A man stood before them. But he wasn’t a man at all. At least, he wasn’t whole like a man. He was transparent. But not the spooky kind of you ghost you hear about at Halloween-time. Kindness was in his eyes, and goodness came from his smile. He wore a wide-brimmed hat with a feather sticking out the back of it, and armor—which frightened the kids a little, and strange fluffy pants—which made the kids giggle.
“Hello children,” the ghost greeted them. “You are younger than the last time I saw you.”
The kids looked at each other. Even Aaron was speechless now.
“Begging your pardon, sir-ghost,” Marian replied. “But we’ve never met you before.”
The ghost smiled at them.
“Who are you?” Esther asked.
“I am Juan Ponce de León. And you are the children who have opened the gates to my Enchanted Forest.”
The Dolor children and Aaron looked at one another.
“I’m sorry if we—” Marian began.
“The gate protects the world’s greatest secret. And it happens to keep at bay the world’s most evil monsters.”
“That’s right!” Aaron blurted out, stepping off his bike and racing forward. “My great-grandfather told stories of Ponce de León and his Enchanted Forest. There’s history books of it.”
“And you’re an expert now?” Marian whistled.
“I didn’t say I was an expert. I said my great-grandfather knew about it. I bet I could find a book—”
While Marian and Aaron were arguing, Esther and Herbert noticed the ghost had disappeared. This made them more afraid than anything else before. It’s funny how seeing something scary can seem less dangerous than thinking about something you can’t see, that may be hiding in the shadows.
“Guys!” Esther hollered. “The ghost is gone.”
The kids looked around the gate and forest entrance. Oak, maple, and pine trees towered overhead, and the sun fell beyond the edge of the horizon behind them. The smell of lavender and honey on the air.
“Time to go inside,” Marian ordered. “Goodbye, Aaron.”
Herbert and Esther obeyed and started walking.
Aaron was indignant. “You heard what the ghosty said,” he yelled. “You’ve got to put it back together. Get them back in and get the gate sealed.”
“He didn’t say that,” Esther replied.
“Why do you care, anyway?” Marian asked.
“Maybe I don’t want to see my home run over with vampires,” Aaron responded. “Maybe it’s none of your business.”
“You’re right. It is none of our business,” Marian fired back. “The gate isn’t our property, and it’s not like we can do much about it. We are talking about monsters and ghosts. And we are just kids.”
“It’s my fault,” Esther groaned.
Herbert felt the granite under his shirt and flexed his jaw.
“You need to fix it!” Aaron commanded.
“We need to go in for supper!” Marian admonished.
That night, the Dolor children had a hard time sleeping again, but for entirely different reasons. And all of them thought they may have heard a smelly ape traipsing on the roof.