The Forest Gate OpensChapter 2
The sky turned black as the Dolor children exited the school bus. Rain dumped on them while they scurried for the house. Just as they stepped onto the wrap-around porch, the rain died to a drizzle.
“Well, how do you like that?” Marian said, flinging water off her arms.
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 next to their mother. Work was keeping 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—,” began Herbert, but was interrupted by Esther, who already knew what he was going to ask.
“It’s too muddy outside, Herb,” she replied. Only Esther and Mr. Dolor called him Herb, which he didn’t mind.
The sliding glass door slid open and then slammed shut. Esther looked up from her book. Herbert was gone. She looked back at her book. Then back to the door. 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 Addroshus to the death!” Herbert meant to say Atrocious, but didn’t quite know the word yet. “A battle of wits and skill!” He swung a stick in the air over his head and thrust it down onto a make-believe enemy. “En garde!” The stick hit the side of the live oak in the backyard.
“It looks like Aaron the Atrocious has no chance,” a friendly voice called out from above him.
Herbert startled, tripped on his own feet and looked up the tree. Marian was sitting on a low branch with a notebook and pen in her hand, smiling 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 her writing.
Next thing he knew, a frisbee hit Herbert in the back of the head. He turned around to see Esther giggling with her hands over her mouth.
“Oops,” she said. “I didn’t mean to, I promise.”
“It’s 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 wizard who would zap it to smithereens. Finally, the tree-line became a racetrack, and the frisbee a flying saucer. Even Marian got in on the fun as each of them took turns outrunning the alien attack.
The frisbee took a wild turn toward the forest and stuck into the draping pandora vine. Herbert retrieved it from the pink and white flowered lattice. The cold chill of iron stung his fingertips from under the vine. His lips curled, and he cocked his head. Pulling back the vine, he revealed a large gate. It was solid oak, laced in wrought iron. Black iron spires extended beyond the top, forming ornate finials that reached eleven and a half feet up. Iron curls and scrolls twisted over its wooden face, forming a peculiar shape that confused the three of them.
“Come on!” Herbert cheered. “Let’s get it open.”
“It’s not ours.”
“Whose is it?” Herbert shook with excitement. In his guts, he knew it was not right to try entering a gate that’s not yours. But ever since seeing the finials peaking through the vine (which he now realized were what he saw the night before), he wanted to get inside the forest and explore. Now that his sisters were with him, he thought it wouldn’t be as bad if he got caught or in trouble.
“Well,” Marian interjected. “I don’t think it’s right for us to go into someone else’s yard…or property…or whatever this is.”
“Maybe Mom or Dad knows who it belongs to.”
“Do you remember Kyle’s grandma’s house at the end of the street? Those old orange groves. Maybe it’s something like that, and if we meet them (whoever they are), they will let us make forts inside.”
“No way! That place gave me poison ivy.”
“I’m not saying that it is that place. I’m saying it’s like it.”
“That gate had a latch on the front. This just look like a solid piece of wood. Maybe there’s a handle somewhere.”
Esther stepped closer, close enough to smell the old earth between the boards. Her fingers brushed against the peculiar scrolls and shapes. Dirt fell between her hands and the gate. She and Marian examined the strange shape, trying to guess at what they formed.
“Looks like a gravestone,” Marian guessed.
“No, it’s a fountain,” Esther corrected.
Meanwhile, ever since Herbert first asked, “Whose is it?”,he was busy around the side of the gate, trying to find another way inside. All he found was that the gate sat in front of a ten-foot-high stone wall. He followed it about twenty paces down the yard, before concluding that the thing must have run the entire length of the forest, hidden behind the vine and overhanging branches. It could be miles before it ever disappeared. He banged his fist on the wall and wondered if maybe he could climb the vines or any misshapen blocks. Near the base, he found an oblong stone protruding from the wall. It was covered in dirt and filthy, but he could easily see that at one time, it shimmered. He knelt down and blew off whatever loose dirt had caked itself on it. It was a delicate little thing, made of granite, about the size of his hand, shaped like the growling face and torso of a panther. Surrounding the ornament was an ornate circle of spiraling iron, similar to the gate a few feet away. It was a pretty thing, and the sort of trinket that would impress his mother or sisters. But for Herbert, it did nothing more than give him a way to reach for the top of the wall. He placed his foot on the ornament and lunged upward, grasping and flailing at the vines for support.
Herbert’s foot slipped, and he fell on his back. Thud! He cried and grabbed at his ankle, before noticing the little ornament had broken off under his weight. He frowned and his eyes got big as he looked around to see if his sisters saw, but they were still too busy brushing the dirt off the face of the gate.
While the panther ornament rolled over in his hands and his eyes studied it, the ground underneath him shook like an earthquake. He heard a thunderous clap from behind the stone wall, deep in the forest. Whatever remaining vines still on the gate fell off it and a cloud of dust billowed out from the earth beneath it.
“Oh, my Goodness! Oh, my Goodness!” Esther and Marian cried together. “What did we do?”
Herbert ran to his sisters.
“What is going on?” He shouted, stuffing the ornament under the back of his shirt.
“Oh, my goodness!” Esther shouted. “Did we—did I—I didn’t touch anything. Just barely brushed it.”
The ground shook again, and they looked at the gate in wonder.
“What is happening?” Marian gawked.
The door split down the middle, and for a brief moment hung still before flinging wide and its two doors, four inches thick, swung open, and a flash of blinding white light dropped the children to their knees. Colors of green, violet, marigold, and orange melted through the white like a rainbow coming up from a waterfall. It was so thick and misty, you could touch if you tried. It traveled up into the sky and broke the dark rain clouds in half, letting the sunset break through in orange and pink behind the children. The Dolors covered their eyes as a plume of dust and a bevy of lightning bugs smacked them in the face.
After all this, the earth was shaking again, yet less powerful than before. A repetitive boom, like the rumble of a locomotive across an open plain, was thubbudy-thubbudy-thubbudying toward the gate. But it wasn’t a train or machine. It was the galloping feet of a gallant unicorn that tore through the gate and reared on its hind legs. A cotton white mane and tail draped across its fine jet black hair. The horn on its head glowed silver, like mercury, in the sunshine. Its whinny thundered, and the kids cowered underneath it. The beast took off south, galloping across their yard, veering slightly out into the street, and cutting hard west along twenty-first street toward 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 just before your Mom wishes she had switched the A/C to recycle.—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 metallic whiney howl, like a bull or chimpanzee, erupted from the forest as 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 a few minutes before. With powerful 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 for the roof on an adjacent house.
“What did we open?” Marian asked.
“Ew! What is this stuff?” Herbert gasped.
What he meant by “this stuff” was a thick fog that had flowed out of the gate, only a few inches off the ground, and was covering the children’s ankles. It felt heavy against their skin and smooth like oily wax. The fog made a noise—a mechanical tick-tock-tick-tock—as it slowly crept over their shoes, across the lawn, around the front of the house, and out of view.
“It’s an enchanted forest,” Esther thought aloud.
“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 up 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?”
“Who said it was enchanted?” Marian fired back.
“She just did,” Aaron gawked, pointing at Esther.
“Right, well, who says we broke it open?”
“It was probably good ol’ Herbie who did it!”
“I didn’t do it!” Herbert hollered, clenching hold of the ornament in his hand and wondering if it was in fact he that did it.
“Marian,” Esther whispered. “Something else is happening.”
While Aaron walked his bike closer to the group at the open gate, a blue mist had filled the air around the children. At its center stood a man. But he wasn’t a man at all. At least, he wasn’t whole like a man. He was transparent. In fact, he was a ghost. 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 alarmed the children a bit, 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, before the Ghost interjected.
“The gate protects the world’s greatest secret. And now it has been opened. The gate keeps at bay the world’s most evil monsters. And now it has been opened. Without the gate shut, these monsters roam freely.”
“That’s right!” Aaron blurted out, letting his bike fall to the ground. “My great-grandfather told stories of Ponce de León and his Enchanted Forest. There’s history books on it.”
“Oh, and you’re an expert now?” Marian mocked.
“I didn’t say I was an expert. I said my great-grandfather knew about it. I bet I could find a book—”
“Stop!” Esther shouted.
While Marian and Aaron were arguing, she had noticed the Ghost had disappeared. This made the group even more afraid than anything else. It’s funny how seeing something somewhat scary can seem less dangerous than thinking about something you can’t see whilewondering if it may be hiding in the shadows around you. The kids looked around the gate and the forest entrance. Marian tried to move the gate door, but it would not budge even an inch.
Oak and maple trees were hanging their branches through the opening over the group, and the sunlight fell behind them. The smell of lavender and honey was on the air. “Time to go inside,” Marian ordered. “Goodbye, Aaron.”
Herbert and Esther obeyed and started for the patio.
Aaron was indignant. “You heard what the Ghost said!” He yelled. “You’ve got to close the gate. Get them creatures back in and get the gate closed.”
“He didn’t say that,” Esther replied over her shoulder.
“Why do you care, anyway?” Marian asked.
“Maybe I don’t want to see my home run over with monsters,” 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 creatures, monsters and ghosts. And we are just kids.”
“It’s my fault,” Esther groaned.
“What do you mean?” Marian whispered to her.
“Something I did,” she whispered and shook her head. “Maybe when I was brushing the dirt off of the gate, I triggered something. I don’t know…”
Herbert squeezed the panther ornament under his shirt and pursed his lips.
“Ess,” Marian said. “It could have been any number of reasons why it opened.”
“You need to fix this!” Aaron yelled at the group again.
“We need to go in for supper!” Marian yelled back as she slammed the door shut behind them.
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.