On the far side of Weeper’s Run, the group found two distinct paths, each looking arduous in unique ways. The left, heading east, returned to swampy mud and mosquitoes under the shadow of water oaks and magnolias covered in droopy Spanish moss. The right, running southwest, met a thorny bramble as high as Mr. Dolor stood.
“Well, it seems obvious,” Aaron said. “We must go to the left.”
“Balaam, is he right?”Esther asked. “Do you know the way?”
“What are we looking for?” He asked.
“The logbook showed the swamp next,” Herbert responded. “It looks like that’s the way.”
“It’s true, swamp-lands head east. And to the west—well, only deer go that way. They like close quarters. Hope you don’t mind deer ticks and thorns, children.”
“Well, we’ve already made it this far through mud and muck,” Marian said. “Who cares about a little more?”
“To the left,” Aaron announced.
The children walked in single file. Aaron at the front, Marian behind, next Herbert, Balaam, and Esther at the end. But Balaam stood still.
“What’s the matter, Balaam?” Esther asked.
“I don’t like it,” he replied.
“Don’t like what?” Aaron called from the front.
“The way doesn’t seem like this is what we should be about.”
“What better option do we have?” Marian asked. “There’s only one true path.”
“I understand,” he replied. “But it doesn’t seem like it should be this one. Maybe the brambles—”
“I’m not climbing through that mess!” Aaron interrupted. “We’ll be covered in blood and ticks on the other end, for sure.”
“It does look like it’ll hurt an awful lot,” Herbert muttered.
“I don’t want a tick!” Marian shuddered.
“What’s a tick?” Esther asked.
“It’s a nasty blood-sucking bug that burrows under your skin and kills ya if you try to get it out,” Aaron warned, raising his hands up like a monster.
Esther and Herbert looked at one another and shivered.
“And don’t forget about the Lyme disease, Aaron,” the voice of Mr. Dauer startled the kids.
“Ugh, where’d you come from!” Aaron shouted.
“I’ve been here all along,” he replied, coming from behind a palm tree along the path. He stood next to Esther and Herbert. “Right, Esther?”
“I suppose you had to be,” she said, scowling.
“Excuse me!” Marian stomped forward between Mr. Dauer and her siblings. “And who are you?”
“We haven’t been properly introduced yet, Marian.” Mr. Dauer took his top-hat off to bow. Underneath, his scalp was bald and yellow. He put the hat back on and smirked at Marian. “I am Mr. Dauer.”
“He’s the Top-Hat Man I was telling you about,” Esther whispered in her ear.
Mr. Dauer’s neck twitched, and he made eye-contact with her. “Still catching everyone up, Esther? That’s why you are the best at leading.”
Esther blushed, and Marian noticed.
“The best at leading?” Marian thought. “Well, Mr. Tower,” she said, “maybe you know how to get to the Fountain of Youth.”
“Oh, the Fountain of Youth.” Mr. Dauer straightened his back, and it sounded like wound-up rubber bands. “I suppose there is only one way, and that’s through the swamp. I thought Esther told you all about this. She’s always keeping things to herself.”
“What?” Esther exclaimed, and Marian stared at her.
“Alright, geezer,” Aaron said. “I told you already once before, and I’ll say it again—get your bony butt away from us or you’ll regret it.”
Mr. Dauer smiled. “Oh yes,” he said. “Aaron, the delinquent wants to fight just like his father, but doesn’t know enough to keep up with the likes of the intelligent Dolors. How many nature books did you read last night to appear clever today?”
Aaron’s eyes narrowed, and his jaw clenched. He looked angry and ready to fight, but inside he knew the Top-Hat Man was right and felt embarrassed.
“Maybe we should just get going,” Herbert added.
“Ah, Herbert has joined the conversation!” Mr. Dauer turned his attention to him. “Still holding on to that panther ornament you ruined everything with, are you?”
Herbert’s eyes widened. He looked at his sisters and Aaron. They were staring, which made his heart rate quicken. He put his head down.
“I don’t know who you are, but we are going through the swamp,” Marian ordered. She looked at Esther and Balaam. “And that’s final.”
She turned toward the swampy path, but Balaam stood in her way.
“Move, you dumb donkey!” she yelled.
Balaam remained still and didn’t say a word.
“I said move, idiot!” She hollered again. She didn’t think Balaam was an idiot or was even mad at him. But something about how the Top-Hat Man talked about her sister leading the group made her blood boil. It wasn’t only this, you see, because the Top-Hat Man’s presence had a strange magical effect on all the children that made all of them want to run away, or fight, or argue, or throw something. It was the sort of feeling you get when you think someone is hiding in the closet and your hair stands up on end—or, more precisely, when you feel grumpy and tired and end up stubbing your toe on the leg of a dining-chair because of it, and you get real angry but have no one to blame but yourself, but you end up taking it out on the closest person next to you, anyway. Marian felt like that. And with every passing second, she grew more agitated that she couldn’t make a decision—or that no one was listening to the decision she had already made. She raised her hand and smacked Balaam’s rear as hard as she could.
Balaam stood still. “I don’t think it’s the right way,” he whispered. “Why must you beat me for it?”
“I don’t care what you think,” Marian retorted. “This is the only way I’m going, and it’s the way we are going.”
“Maybe we should try the brambles,” Balaam offered.
“No! We aren’t going willingly into cuts, bruises, and ticks.”
The back-and-forth fed Aaron up. Ever since the Top-Hat Man made him feel insecure about how little he knew compared to the Dolors, he had remained silent, but now, after seeing Marian struggle to lead them out of the crossroads, he grew angry and violent. He stomped his feet on the ground, like he used to do when he was a little boy, and bent down to pick up the largest stick he could muster. It was old, rotten, and covered in mud, but would work. It swung through the air as hard as he could fling it and struck Balaam on the back. The stick broke into many pieces against the talking beast, and didn’t hurt Balaam’s back near as much as it hurt his feelings.
“Move!” He screamed.
“Heehaw!” Balaam screamed in pain.
Aaron dropped his fists to his sides, red in the face. Esther whimpered at the sight. Herbert looked at Marian for help, but she was just as mad as Aaron. Mr. Dauer’s lips curled up.
“Marian says we are going!” Aaron hollered at Balaam. “So get moving, you stupid animal!”
“Why must you strike me for standing my ground?” He whimpered.
“Because you are in our way!” Marian hollered and pushed Balaam, though he didn’t budge at her shoving. “We are going through the swamp, with or without you.”
Balaam lowered his head and sighed. His shoulders trembled, and his back legs shifted in the mud. He turned slowly and met Esther’s eyes. She watched two great, big donkey tears roll down his long face and splatter in the mud. She looked down, feeling awful.
His head swung round and faced Aaron. The boy sighed heavily. Seeing the animal’s tears made him at war with himself. He wanted to be angry, because all the words that the Top-Hat Man said convinced him he had a reason to be angry. But looking at the sweet donkey’s sad face made him realize he was wrong. He was ashamed of his pride, proud of the thing that made him ashamed, and too ashamed to admit any of it. In the end, he couldn’t make left or right of his feelings and looked away, clenching his jaw over and over.
Balaam took a step forward, and the forest was silent except for the mud squishing under his hooves. He ascended the bridge.
“Hey!” Aaron yelled after him. “Where are you going, you stupid donkey? Ponce de León gave you to us! Get back here!”
Balaam didn’t reply. The children watched him fade behind a balustrade, down the other side, and out of view without a word.
“This is all your fault,” Esther shouted, and pointed her finger at Mr. Dauer.
“My fault?” Mr. Dauer responded, his spindly hand on his chest. “I’ve done nothing but help you?”
“Help us?” Herbert mocked. “What on earth have you done to help us?”
“Well, I directed you at the library, didn’t I, Esther?” he asked rhetorically. “And you found the way, just as I knew you would. And Aaron, who do you think threw the camera down for you when you foolishly left it behind on top of that mountain of rock and sand? Girls, do you really think a unicorn just magically showed up at your home? Why, I led it there for you to see. It’s not my fault Marian bungled the camera. And in fact, Ponce de León had me get that stupid donkey for you. I tried to tell him Balaam wasn’t the correct choice, but he was adamant that the griping buffoon was perfect for your journey. Seems about right he would abandon you at the moment you need him most.”
Marian’s eyes shifted back and forth in confusion. She was trying to make sense of what the Top-Hat Man said and thought, Why was he meeting with my brother and sister and not me? Why did they seem to know so much, but I didn’t? What else were they keeping from me? How did he know about the camera? Did Esther tell him about me? Is she making fun of me? Yes, I’m afraid that everyone’s been making fun of me from the beginning. “I—don’t understand,” she said weakly. “Herbert, is it all true? Did you see this man at the library with Esther, and later with Aaron?”
“Well, yes,” Herbert replied. “But—”
“But nothing,” Aaron interrupted. He shook his head at the ground and dug the sole of his sneaker into it. Why couldn’t I do anything right? He thought. First, the photo isn’t good enough. Then it’s bad what I do to Vinnie. Now the donkey is gone…
Mr. Dauer smiled menacingly. “Well, it seems I’ve only ever told the truth and helped. And now you are without a guide. Would you care for me to lead the way?”
“No!” Esther jumped in. “I don’t like him. He’s scary. He has dust in his pockets and a cork in his ear. He looks at us weird.”
“Ess, those aren’t really the best reasons to not believe him,” Marian said. Deep down, she didn’t like the way the Top-Hat Man made her feel either, but she didn’t like the way Esther made her feel right then even more. “Aaron, can he help us?”
“I don’t like any grown-ups,” Aaron growled. “But I guess what he said was true. Herbert would know more about him than me. He was up on the hill longer.”
“Herbert?” Marian asked.
Herbert shook his lowered head, too ashamed to talk about it, and thinking only about the broken panther ornament in his bedroom.
“No—” Esther interrupted. “I don’t care. It’s something in the pit of my stomach. I don’t like him.”
“Esther,” Mr. Dauer encouraged. “When have I ever not been proud of you? You’re such a great leader.”
“Enough!” Marian shouted, and Mr. Dauer grinned.
“We shouldn’t follow him!” Esther yelled at Marian. “We’ve lost Balaam! Just like we lost Aaron! And it’s all your fault—just like usual—you get so mad at people and then they leave us. Now you want to follow the Top-Hat Man?! I won’t do it. I won’t allow it!”
“Oh! So now you are leader, then?” Marian struck back. “Been talking behind my back and wanting to run ahead this whole time!”
“I never said I was the leader,” Esther retorted. “But maybe I should be if you can’t make an obvious choice like not trusting someone as creepy as the Top-Hat Man.”
“Maybe we should go home,” Herbert suggested quietly. He hated seeing his sisters fight, but more than that wanted to get away from any chance of the Top-Hat Man mentioning his secret again.
“Shut up, Herbie,” Aaron said. “We all know you are keeping secrets.”
Herbert looked down. Oh, God, no…
“The old geezer may be right,” Aaron continued. “And what other choice do we have? Go home or follow the bag of bones into the swamp?”
Marian and Esther stared at one another ferociously. Marian thought, If following this Top-Hat Man is the only way to be in charge, then it’s the only way. “I just don’t see another way,” Marian said.
Esther felt the wind knock out of her at the words. “No,” she pleaded.
“Mr. Tower,” Marian relented, “lead the way.”
“With pleasure, children,” he replied.
“There—” Marian turned to Esther. “I made a decision.”
Mr. Dauer dug his cane into the muddy earth and turned on his heels. He led the children along the eastern path toward the marsh. Marian heard his bones creak and groan as he walked ahead of her. It sounded like wood being ground into a pile of dried rice. Aaron grimaced at the sound.
“I don’t like it either, Ess,” Herbert whispered to his sister in the back. “But what other choice do we have?”
Esther stared at her boots in the sloppy mud. They lifted one slow step at a time and crashed down into the slurpy, black goo. On and on they trudged, and soon she couldn’t tell what was a path and what was merely swamp and mud. Any sense of direction seemed to disappear as the trees crowded closer and closer overhead, and wider and wider around them.
I can’t believe she wouldn’t listen to me, she thought. This is why I should have been leading all along. And this isn’t going to end well for any of us. If I was bigger, I’d show all of them—and they would listen more. Just like those stupid girls at school. I don’t need to be “cool”. Because I’m the only one who knows what she’s doing. Oh, God—where are we going now? And following this nasty old man instead of Balaam. Why did he leave us? He could have stayed with me at least. He could have told me what to do. I’d be better than Marian. “Why did Balaam leave us?” She muttered aloud.
“Maybe he knew he wasn’t the best helper on our journey,” Herbert offered. “He did complain a lot about the mud and everything so far.”
Esther, not realizing she had spoken out loud, was shocked by Herbert’s reply. “That’s not the point,” she replied.
Herbert sighed. “Well, maybe the Top-Hat Man is helping us.” Herbert didn’t believe this for a second, but he trusted Marian.
“What did he mean about the panther ornament, Herb? This isn’t the first time he mentioned something like that. Are you keeping secrets?”
Herbert clenched his jaw and shook his head. “It’s nothing, Esther. I don’t know. He’s crazy and old.”
The two stopped walking. They were deep under the cover of the oaks, magnolias, and cypress that pepper trees and thorny vines climbed throughout, hiding the sunshine and obvious way forward. Their path seemed as murky as the mud they trudged through, an aimless wandering hike through deep sticky filth. Mosquitoes and gnats created a cloud around their heads.
Herbert sighed. Tears lined the edges of his eyes. “Ess,” he began. “I—”
“Where did he go?” Marian shouted from the front. Esther and Herbert looked up. The others were quite a distance from them. They ran through the slop, ducking under twisted branches and spiderwebs to catch up to Marian and Aaron. Esther was ahead of Herbert because her boots didn’t slow her down.
“The old man’s gone!” Aaron confirmed.
“What happened?” Esther asked as she reached them.
“He was right here one second and then—poof! Nothing but a cloud of dust.”
“Look!” Aaron pointed at the muddy ground. A puddle of hot, yellow wax steamed on the surface.
“Guys,” Herbert said. The others looked at him. His face was pale, eyes wide, and he was staring with one arm up, pointing beyond them down the path. His hand shook as he whispered, “What is that?”