Smoke and ShadowsChapter 11
Herbert stared like a deer caught in an automobile’s headlights. He couldn’t move or speak, because he didn’t really know even how to think. Beyond the group of children, among the dark, overhanging trees, a shadow lurked like a hunched over man resting his hands on his knees. Its two glowing green eyes pierced the darkness. When the rest of the group turned and looked at what Herbert stared at, the shadowy figure closed its eyes, becoming invisible, and skirted into the nearby bushes. The children heard leaves crashing and footsteps crunching through the dark.
“What was that thing?” Aaron asked, immediately on edge.
“I didn’t get a good look,” Marian responded. “It’s so dark in here.”
“Was it the Top-Hat Man?” Aaron asked.
“He could never move that quickly,” Esther replied.
“So where did he go, anyway?” Herbert asked.
“He left us,” Esther replied. “Like we all could have guessed he would.”
Marian felt that sting, because in her gut, she knew Esther was right. The Top-Hat Man was gone, and he took with him her feelings of anger and bitterness, leaving behind only the residue of shame and embarrassment. She had lost her temper, and threw it at Balaam, of all people. She didn’t know what was going on with Esther and the Top-Hat Man, but she knew better than to act that way toward Balaam, who was only trying to help.
Esther huddled next to Herbert in the marsh and wondered what she might do if she saw Mr. Dauer again. She wanted to go back to Balaam, but knew he could be miles from her, and there was no way of knowing what direction he went after crossing the bridge. After all, he didn’t have any reason to return to the Gate. And then, it dawned on her, and the others with her, they wouldn’t be able to return to the bridge or Balaam even if they wanted to. The trees, shadows, and murky swamp all looked foreign, and the path disappeared only a few feet behind their quickly fading footprints.
“Now, what do we do?” Esther asked. “We’ve got no guide, and we’ve got nowhere else to go.”
“Well,” Marian said, fully aware of the desperate situation.
“Please, don’t say it,” Herbert groaned.
“We’ve got to get through the swamp,” she declared.
The scariest thing about the dark is not knowing if something is lurking in the shadows. But it’s especially terrifying to know something is indeed lurking, and yet, know you have to traipse through it, anyway. Having friends with you can help if they are brave with you. However, if they are just as frightened as you are, the fear only gets worse. One simple sigh can make someone else think they are afraid, which only exacerbates their own fear, and that person moans, which makes someone else flinch, and the next thing you know, everyone is running in different directions.
But that didn’t happen to the Dolors and Aaron. Because Marian learned a lesson from her father a long time ago. He taught her the best way to do something scary or difficult is to set your mind only on what you know. Instead of thinking about how long and how many steps it will take to get through it, think only about the next step in front of you and the final step at the end. As long as you keep taking one step at a time, you will reach the final one. But if you worry yourself with the ones you don’t know about, it’ll make you miserable and terrified, and sometimes make you give up.
Having someone with you that is brave can muster up your own courage, too. Here, Marian’s confident steps forward helped propel the others onward, even though they didn’t like the idea one bit.
The sinister trees stretched out for them, and the wind bristled in their leaves high in the canopy. Squeaking branches squeezed against one another, echoing in the unseen sky. Under their feet, the murky forest floor was calm and quiet, save for the sounds of flying insects, chirping frogs, and their footsteps slopping through the mud. The stench of the stagnant water and rotting vegetation batted against their noses, and a hot, white fog lifted after every footstep, which made the whole area look like it was full of smoke.
“I can’t see anything,” Herbert whined.
“None of us can, Herbie,” Aaron retorted.
“Oh! Oh! God! No!” Esther screamed.
The others plodded to her side. She swat at her face and picked at her hair like a madwoman. Without seeing where she was going, Esther had walked directly into a large orb weaver’s spider-web. The thing was strewn across her face and clung to her lips and eyelashes. She spat and cried while hopelessly attempting to pull the stuff free. It felt like a thousand little legs were crawling through her hair, scaring her witless as she imagined the horror of never getting them out.
The others felt helpless to aid her. They tried calming her down before she hurt herself, but she only jumped up and down, wailed, and ran in circles while pulling at the web. The stuff started disappearing, but it took her sitting down on a cypress knee and bawling her eyes out before she even considered feeling okay.
“It’s horrible! I hate it!” She cried.
“It’s okay, Ess,” Marian consoled. “I don’t see any spiders on you.”
“It’s everywhere!” She screamed. “And we know who’s fault it is,” she said, glaring at Marian.
Aaron sighed. “Okay, well, there’s nothing to be done,” he said. “Let’s just keep going and be more careful.”
Aaron despised the idea of standing still in the claustrophobic swamp. Although the longer they stood, the more the smoky fog evaporated. The children could look further out through the trees. Nothing appeared familiar in the shadows, and every noise was a potential danger.
Esther wiped her face and stood. A long smear of dirt and mud crossed her cheek and nose. “It’s okay, let’s keep going,” she said. The group continued, and Esther didn’t cry anymore. However, she kept spitting every few feet for at least another half-hour.
“What was God thinking when He invented spiders?” Esther wailed and spat another piece of web out of her mouth.
“At least they eat mosquitoes,” Herbert offered.
Aaron smacked the back of his neck. “Speaking of which,” he said, and wiped a bloody mess from the palm of his hand. In the darkness, he tripped into the back of Marian, pushed backward, slipped on a cypress knee, and fell back onto Esther.
“Hey what’s the big idea!” he hollered, pushing himself up and helping Esther to her feet again. He stopped short of yelling when he saw Marian was whimpering. “Marian?” He asked.
Marian’s knees were shaking. “I have no idea if there is even a path anymore,” she whispered, and her voice shook.
Wind swept through the forest and cleared the fog. The frogs stopped croaking, and the flies disappeared. Trees stood on thin stocks, towering up and linking at the canopy. The forest floor was water and mud for miles. Nothing grew at the bottom, leaving an endless void of murk.
“We could be anywhere,” Marian said softly, trying her best to not fall to her knees and bawl on the ground that instant. With all her might, she must stay strong for her siblings.
“I thought you knew where you were going,” Esther said.
“I just believed if I kept walking we would get through it,” she replied.
Fear ran down Aaron’s spine as he looked left and right at the shadows. “Well, a heck-of-a-lotta good that’s done us!” He hollered and bit his lips.
“Marian,” Herbert whispered, touching her arm. “Are we lost?”
Herbert’s tender touch made her take a deep breath. “No, Herb.” She smiled weakly and wiped a tear from her face.
“What do you mean ‘No’?” Aaron exclaimed and threw his hands into the air. “We don’t know where any direction is and have no idea how long we’ve been going.”
“Maybe the logbook?” Herbert tried not let his voice shake.
“Ever think it might be the middle of the night?” Aaron’s rant continued. “Oh God, we are gonna die in this pitiful place.”
“Stop.” Esther’s voice whispered a stout warning, and everyone silenced. “Stop. I hear something.”
The kids were as still as rabbits.
“Shh!” Aaron whispered to Herbert.
“I’m not moving,” he whispered back.
“Well, it’s not me.”
“Then who is it?”
The kids squinted and hunched forward to make sense out of the darkness. The fog lifted.
Squish. The sound of a footstep sliding through mud.
Growl. A low hum reverberated through the tree trunks.
“Alligator!” Aaron yelled, and all four kids took off sprinting through the mud in the direction they best thought opposite the noise.
Pepper trees nicked their faces, and cypress knees broke their shins as they raced through the swamp. One after the other. First Aaron crashed through, winding branches up as he ran, before they swung back into Esther, and then Herbert, and Marian in the rear. Blood traced their faces, forearms, and shins. Then the floor dipped, and their feet slipped. All four fell, tangling up into one another and skidding along a mud hill before the hot smack of water took the wind out of them, and they couldn’t breathe.
They had fallen into a pond in the middle of the marsh. Darkness, confusion, and fear devoured them. Brushing and bumping into one another underwater, they lost all sense of up and down, grabbing for anything that felt firm—roots, rocks, and each other’s limbs. Their feet touched the bottom, and one by one, they propelled themselves to the surface and gasped for air.
“Oh my God!” Aaron screamed. “Swim! Swim! Swim!”
“Herbert doesn’t swim good!” Marian hollered back.
“Where do we go?” Esther begged.
Aaron swam to Herbert’s side, who was flailing and thrashing in the water.
“Herbie!” Aaron gasped, and Herbert clung to his neck before spitting a mouthful of water out. “Hang on, Herbert!” Aaron ordered and swam for shore, which he did not know where was.
“Where are we going?” Marian cried, scanning each direction for rushing waves and the reflective eyes of alligators.
“Are we going to die?” Esther whimpered.
In the distance, Aaron caught sight of a small green light. “There!” He ordered, and the girls followed him as quickly as they could.
The kids kicked their feet as though their lives depended on it, which they did, and their arms gulped water behind them with every stroke. They thrashed forward, and after only a few yards, they heard a loud splash erupt from behind, and they knew an animal had dove into the water. Tears were falling down Esther’s and Marian’s faces while they kept up with Aaron. Herbert closed his eyes and hung on for dear life. Another loud splash beside them. And another from the other side.
Alligators closed in on the group from every direction. Growls bellowed out of the darkness like teeth were right next to them. Aaron kept his eyes on the light ahead of him.
“Keep going!” He hollered. “Keep going!”
The light shimmered. It was an emerald fairy, hovering behind a row of cypress trees. She glanced around at the commotion and saw the four children swimming toward her. In shock, she saw six alligators closing in on them. Her wings buzzed at the speed of her light as she flew through the marsh, banking round tree limbs and trunks, dodging moths and dragonflies, and hugging the water’s edge.
A nine-foot alligator closed in on Marian. Its tail serpentined through the water at lightning speed, and its mouth opened. Its head jerked forward.
The fairy flew into Aaron’s face, barely missing him, halted, and exploded into a vibrant white flash. Light gushed through every nook and cranny of the dark swamp for a half mile in every direction. The water around them looked as bright as a beach on a summer day, blinding the children and alligators. A pair of ivory jaws snapped inches from Marian’s face before retreating underwater. The reptiles swam away from the bright light, as it slowly burned from white to gold to a dim emerald green.
The children’s breath came back, and they cried and cheered together. On the top of Herbert’s head lay a little green fairy. She gasped for air and clearly used an immense amount of energy to save the children with her light.
Esther stopped cheering and swam to Herbert’s side. “Are you alright, little pixie?” She asked.
Fairies don’t speak in our language, but the little lady smiled and patted Herbert’s head while she closed her eyes to rest. Her little chest beat up and down as fast as a hummingbird’s wings.
“Thank you so much for saving us,” Marian whispered. “We would be dead without you.”
“We need to get to shore,” Aaron said.
The children swam to the edge of the pond, from where the fairy flew. Aaron tried to stand on the shore, but his feet slipped from under him. He grasped the branch of a cedar and steadied himself. One by one, the children pulled themselves onto the slushy bank. They traveled far enough away from the pond to feel safe and collapsed.
They were indebted to the little green fairy and let her sleep in Herbert’s shirt pocket until her strength returned. Meanwhile, Marian removed her backpack to examine its condition. Luckily, the children lost nothing in the pond. She pulled the rest of the snacks out and each kid partook. Later, the children described it as the best food they had ever eaten.