Picture PerfectChapter 7
What Aaron had refused to listen to, before speeding off with Herbert toward the construction site, was that unicorns are most attracted to fairy dust. He had ridden away before the girls could explain and think of a plan to get some. Instead, Marian and Esther agreed it was hopeless. They might spend just as much time seeking out fairy dust as they would spend seeking out a unicorn. So they searched for more information in every book they had on unicorns in their home. Which they were many because Mrs. Dolor loved to read about Greek mythology. She dedicated an entire section of their family bookshelf to myths and fables.
“This book says they ‘live on top of rainbows’,” Esther read aloud.
“Well, that doesn’t make much sense,” Marian responded. “The one we saw came from a forest.”
“Maybe they just like rainbows.”
“We could make some with the garden hose,” Marian thought aloud.
“And draw pictures!” Esther added.
“The last book I read said they are attracted to crying virgins and sweet fruits.” She looked at the kitchen.
“What’s a virgin?”
“I don’t know. But I think Mom bought some grapes and dragonfruit.”
Marian raced to the kitchen in preparation of their lure. Esther went upstairs to collect her paint supplies and start painting. Mrs. Dolor had already set up a special room on the second floor for the kids to use arts and crafts. Esther dabbed her favorite brush into a cup of water, and then into her most vivid violet. She arched the brush across a white sheet of paper and smiled. She stirred the brush into the cup of water, rinsed it clean, and dabbed it into a container of blue.
While Esther was finishing the world’s best painting of a rainbow, Marian stood outside with a bowl of fruit and sprayed a large arch of water into the sunlight. The light danced in the sprinkling water and a beautiful rainbow flashed intermittently before her.
The porch door slammed, and Esther stood beside her. She leaned her painting against the live oak’s trunk, and the two girls felt a sense of familiarity from the night before.
“I had a dream last night,” Esther said. “While we were waiting out here. I dreamt that three giant trolls were in our house, and they were going to eat us. But one of them was stupid, and the others didn’t like him as much. So you convinced them to eat the stupid troll instead of us.”
“That’s a weird dream,” Marian snickered.
“Yeah,” Esther trailed off. “You are a really good sister, Marian. You do a good job looking out for Herbert and me.”
“I really miss our old home,” Esther continued. “I don’t want a bunch of ugly old trolls to try to eat us.”
“Esther, that’s not going to happen,” Marian consoled.
“How do you know?” Esther fired back. “There’s skunk apes, and monsters, vampires, and weird men with corks in their ears. I hate this town.”
“Ess, it was just a dream.”
“But the rest isn’t. What about Mom and Dad?”
“What do you mean?”
“How could they not listen to us? And school is horrible. And I don’t have any friends.”
Marian bowed her head. “I know,” she said, because she had nothing better to say. The girls held each other in their arms and tried to remember what the old house was like. A tear dropped on Esther’s cheek, and one streamed down Marian’s nose.
The girls heard a rusty, but beautiful whinny, like the sound of a powerful ruler clearing their throat. They looked back at the spray of water. Esther wiped her eyes and gasped. She couldn’t believe it. A great stallion stood in their yard. Its hair was black as onyx and the mane white as marshmallows. On top of its head protruded a long marble horn, curled like a perfect ice-cream cone, as if the silver horn twisted while growing. Marian thought it looked like a candy-cane without the red. The animal stared at the girls like it was waiting for something.
“Marian,” Esther whispered. “The picture—the picture!”
Marian shuffled at her waist and turned the camera on. She didn’t want to take her eyes off the animal, but Esther watched it intensely.
The camera mechanisms rattled and clicked. The lens automatically extended and focused. She held the camera to her eye and her shaking finger started clicking.
Click. Click. Click.
Marian lowered the camera after the third photo. Something in her stomach made her wonder if taking too many photos was somehow wrong. Like the moment was meant for them to enjoy and not record. Somehow remembering the moment later through a photograph instead of a memory would only make it less remarkable.
The animal and the girls stared at one another. The great beast shook its head, and the mane fluttered in the breeze. It stamped its feet and ran in a circle around the live oak tree, kicking up mud and dirt.
“I take it back, Marian,” Esther whispered. “I do love this place.”
The unicorn stopped abruptly and reared onto its hind legs. Its front feet planted against the tree-trunk.
Then, to their surprise, the beast nailed its horn into the trunk of the tree.
It ripped its head away from the tree, but a piece of the horn snapped off in the tree trunk. It shook its head back and forth, as if in pain. With terrible ferocity, the animal burst through the gate and into the Enchanted Forest. It disappeared from view almost immediately, all except the sound of its gallop that slowly faded away behind the sound of birds chirping and insects singing in the forest.
“Wow,” Marian whispered.
“Let’s see the photo!” Esther cheered.
Marian pressed a button on the back of the camera, and a catalogue of saved photos popped up on a small display. She scrolled through photos Mrs. Dolor took while painting, and some more of moving day. One of Mr. Dolor studying on the couch. Two of Esther and Herbert sleeping on the porch the night before. And three of blaring white and yellow light.
“Oh no,” Marian said.
“What’s the matter?” Esther asked.
“They are ruined.”
“I forgot to adjust the shutter speed from last night,” Marian explained. “There’s nothing here.”
“There’s nothing we can do?!” Esther exclaimed.
“It’s gone.” Marian lowered her head in shame.
“How could—!” She was going to shout in anger, but stopped herself short.
“I’m so stupid.” Marian turned the camera off and pounded her fist on the porch floor.
“That’ll do.” Vinnie put the developed photo on top of his dictionary and shook hands with Aaron. Its quality looked terrible, but you could just make out an image of a black hairy ape strolling across a plank over a small dirty pond in what appeared to be a construction site.
Aaron nodded confidently. Vinnie pursed his lips and slid another book from under the dictionary on his lap. It was brown, leather-bound, with a long strip of leather wrapped around it several times.
“As promised,” he said, handing the logbook to Aaron.
The leather felt worn and soft, but tough like ancient things do.
“Thanks, Rat,” Aaron replied.
He left Vinnie’s Grandmother’s porch and approached Herbert, sitting on his bike. Clay and black tar smeared across his face, under his ears, and over his little forearms. The stuff completely ruined his pants and shoes. He frowned as Aaron saddled his bicycle.
“This feels wrong,” Herbert said.
“That’s cuz you got you tar in your butt crack.” Aaron laughed.
“You know what I mean,” Herbert replied.
“Do you wanna get through the Enchanted Forest or not?” Aaron asked. “What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. ’Sides, Vinnie’s had it coming to him.”
The boys rode in silence back to the Dolor house. Herbert went upstairs to wash and change his clothing. Aaron found the girls laying prostrate and miserable in the backyard next to a bowl of uneaten fruit and a soaked painting of a rainbow.
“What happened to you two?” Aaron asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” Marian replied grumpily.
“Well, maybe this’ll cheer you up.” Aaron smiled and pulled the book out of his backpack.
“You got the picture?!” Esther asked.
“You got the logbook?!” Marian cheered.
Aaron handed it to Esther. She opened the cover, and a signature in the top corner read C. Mewbourn.
“Way to go, Esther!” Marian celebrated.
“What do you mean?” Esther asked.
“Well, you said someone else would help us get the book, and the library wasn’t the best way. Who would have thought it was Aaron?”
“I am pretty wonderful.” Aaron grinned and raised his chin in the air.
Esther remembered what the Top-Hat Man said about her and felt strange. “Yeah, who would have thought,” she replied, and handed the book to Marian.
“We should get it back to Paw-Paw,” Aaron said.
The three of them waited for Herbert to finish his shower and come down in fresh clothing. He threw the old clothes away before Mrs. Dolor saw how nasty they had gotten.
The kids rode their bicycles back to Mr. Mewbourn’s who welcomed them in with warm hello’s and an invitation to eat more vanilla bean ice-cream.
He took his time getting to the book, which bothered the Dolor children at first, but later they appreciated him for it. He showed them his bearded dragon and let Herbert and Esther feed it some crickets. Marian didn’t want to touch the insects, and Aaron had fed it plenty of times before. Esther told the elderly man about her lemon gecko, and the two laughed about the quirky reptiles.
The previous night, Mr. Mewbourn caught a coral snake in a large trashcan and showed it to them from a safe distance. He taught them that some snakes are dangerous, but never purposefully try to hurt people. He even showed them the difference between a coral snake and a king snake, so they can always leave the venomous ones alone.
Mr. Mewbourn not only had ice-cream, but grew his own mini bananas. He gave one to each child, who enjoyed it greatly. They tasted sweet and smooth like buttermilk. He offered the Dolor children a bundle to take home for their parents to enjoy as well.
“Mr. Mewbourn, we appreciate all the lessons and snacks,” Marian said, “but we would really love to hear more about the book.”
“Book? Oh, the book.” Mr. Mewbourn closed his eyes fondly and leaned back in his armchair. “Lucille and I read so often together. She loved when I read to her. She used to sit in that chair while I sat in this one.”
His eyes shot open, and he sat forward. “The logbook, of course!” He said, profoundly. “Give it here. Ah, yes. I remember it all now. Juan Ponce de León wasn’t coming here for Spain and country. He was coming here for everlasting life. Ponce de León believed Florida was the resting place of the Fountain of Youth. And many believe that he found it in what you call the Enchanted Forest.”
“Why would a fountain be so valuable someone would cross an ocean for it?” Herbert asked.
“Why?” Mr. Mewbourn repeated rhetorically. “Why imagine a spring that restored you to your health and youth whenever you wanted! People wouldn’t have anything to fight over anymore.”
“But if it were such a great thing like that, why would someone lock it up behind a big gate?” Esther asked.
“Well, if people had nothing to fight over, most wouldn’t have anything to live for.” Mr. Mewbourn winked at them. “And what’s the point of having eternal life if you have nothing to live for? See the conundrum?”
“I think so,” Esther replied.
“No,” Herbert responded flatly and confused.
“The Ghost didn’t say anything about the fountain or finding it,” Esther whispered to Marian.
“The Ghost didn’t say a lot of anything,” Marian whispered back.
“Let’s see here, oh—” Mr. Mewbourn flipped through the pages. “It seems Ponce de León wrote in Spanish.” He turned the logbook to show them the pages full of handwritten notes, drawings, and symbols written entirely in another language.
“Can you read it?” Herbert asked.
“Well, see, there’s another conundrum,” Mr. Mewbourn said. “My father was bilingual, but I never understood the sense in it. Really regretting that life choice now. Maybe I can gamble someone for lessons some time.”
“Paw-Paw,” Aaron interrupted. “What do we do now?”
“Well, don’t lose all hope,” Mr. Mewbourn encouraged. “I can guess a bit of it. Ah, see here—” He showed the children a drawing of a gate and fountain.
“Oh, there, there!” Herbert shouted. “That must be it!”
“El Bosque Encantado.” Mr. Mewbourn read the inscription under the drawing.
“What does that mean?” Marian asked.
“The Enchanted Forest, I presume.”
“Keep going,” Aaron encouraged. “Maybe we can understand more.”
Mr. Mewbourn flipped the pages slowly, and the kids saw many strange drawings and letters. They recognized a large bridge over a riverbed with the words: puente acertijo.
“What do you think that means?” Herbert asked.
“Maybe it means ‘puny bridge’.” Aaron guessed.
“A puny bridge means a puny river,” Esther quipped.
“Sorry, children,” Mr. Mewbourn said. “My Spanish is not very good.”
He kept going and found a picture of a swamp. The longer they looked at it, the more upset each child became. The Dolors grew up around ponds and lakes in Florida, so they never really bothered them. But something about this picture made it come to life. The trees looked like they reached out of the page and gripped the edges of the leather. Esther later swore that she saw little green eyes blinking through the page at her. Under the picture read the words: criatura de la laguna.
“I hope that means ‘celebration at the beach’.” Marian laughed.
“I don’t think so.” Mr. Mewbourn cautioned.
He flipped the page, and it was the strangest of them all. There were only two words on it, and the rest was a drawing of someone’s big, hairy feet. Herbert thought the drawing was so good that he could actually smell them. Later, he discovered it was only the smell of the worn leather. The words underneath the feet read: el gigante.
“Well,” Mr. Mewbourn mused, “they are gigantic feet.”
“But what in the world does that have to do with anything?” Aaron asked.
“I’m not sure,” Mr. Mewbourn replied. “Unfortunately, none of this seems familiar to the stories my father told. I wonder if this book has been tampered with. Or if my father liked making up stories instead of reading them.”
“Well, the next page is what we are looking for!” Marian said, peering under the page and Mr. Mewbourn’s finger.
Mr. Mewbourn flipped the page, and a beautiful ornate fountain was drawn on it. It was made of stone and rock. Water poured from a plate at the top, and little fairies fluttered in the air above it. Sunshine cast down through the trees and reflected off the dancing water. The kids thought they could drink the water right off the page. The caption read: la Fuente de la Juventud.
“The Fountain of Youth,” Mr. Mewbourn said reverently. “I tell you what—I will get on my slippers and lets the five of us head into this forest. We can see this place for what it is and maybe find that fountain with this here book. Oh books! I used to love reading to my Lucille.” Mr. Mewbourn closed his eyes and leaned his head back. In a moment, the children heard snores emanating from his nose and open mouth.
“What do we do now?” Esther asked, while Aaron took the book from his sleeping grandfather.
Marian placed her finger against her lips and walked around in circles. “Well, we need to go to the forest,” she said matter-of-factly.
The children were silent; each frightened to say what each was thinking. The truth is, no one felt altogether excited about venturing into a forest alone after seeing drawings of scary swamps and giant feet.
“I don’t think we should do it just yet,” Esther spoke up. “It’s gonna be late soon. Who knows how long it could take before we return?”
“That’s a great point, Ess,” Marian said. “We need to be back for suppertime, after all. Why don’t we wait until Saturday morning? That way school won’t be in the way so we can—”
Marian meant to say “so we can start early”, but Aaron interrupted her.
“Hang on!” He retorted. “Who put you two in charge? I got the book. My Paw-Paw’s the one who translated it!”
“Do you have a better idea?” Marian asked.
“Not at the present moment, but l’m not sure about any of it. Maybe my Paw-Paw can come when he wakes up—or your parents.”
“Mom and Dad won’t like it.” Esther thought aloud.
“Do you really think he can come?” Marian asked, motioning to Mr. Mewbourn. “He falls asleep pretty often.”
“Forget it!” Aaron threw his arms down and nearly the logbook with them. “It doesn’t matter!”
“What is the matter?” Esther asked.
“Why are you so upset?” Marian added. “We only think Saturday is best.”
“Nothing.” Aaron crossed his arms with the logbook underneath.
“Is it because of Vinnie?” Herbert asked.
“What?” Aaron yelled. “Why would I be upset about that?”
“Sometimes, I feel bad when I—”
“Shut up, Herbie!” Aaron yelled.
“Don’t tell my brother to shut up!” Esther hollered.
“Everyone shut up!” Marian shouted. “Herbert, what are you talking about?”
“I think he’s mad—” Herbert shouted, and then whispered, “…because he lied.”
The others looked at Aaron, and he scowled at Herbert.
“Aaron and I didn’t get a photo of the skunk ape—” Herbert continued.
“—Shut up, Herbie!” Aaron exploded.
“We—Aaron staged a photo and gave it to Vinnie,” Herbert explained. “It was all fake. He lied to Vinnie.”
“Why would you do that, Aaron?” Marian asked.
“Do what?” He mocked. “Get us the book?”
“You know what you did was wrong!” She shouted. “It’s wrong to steal!”
“So what?” Aaron yelled back. “It got us the way in. Vinnie’s a rat and a jerk.”
“You’re—you’re nothing but a thief! I knew we couldn’t trust you!”
“I get us the logbook and this is how you treat me!” Aaron yelled. “You know what—Take your stupid book,” (he shoved it at Marian) “—and good luck fixing all this on your own!” He crossed his arms again and looked away, showing that the Dolor children were no longer welcome.
“Wait, Aaron—” Esther tried reasoning, but he refused to listen.
As the Dolor children opened the front door, Mr. Mewbourn’s eyes shot open, and he sat up. “Don’t forget to take some bananas with you!” He exclaimed. Then he promptly fell back to sleep.
Outside, Esther turned to Marian indignantly. “Why did you have to come so hard on him?”
“What?” Marian asked.
“He’s been helping us,” she said. “And the only one who has helped us. And now we are all alone again.” She picked up her bike and rode away angrily.
Marian looked at Herbert. “This isn’t your fault, Herb,” she said.
Herbert looked down, ashamed.