From the Smoke to the Flame


From the Smoke to the Flame

Chapter 12

“Where do we go now?” Herbert asked, while checking on his sleeping friend in his patch pocket. 

“I don’t know,” Marian replied. “But I feel like nothing can stop us now.” The others smiled. They had escaped death, and that made them feel alive.

“Let’s check the logbook,” Aaron said. “Maybe we should have done that to begin with—like Herbert said.” 

Marian stuffed the remains of their snacks into her bag and removed the book once again. She flipped the pages until she saw a drawn image of four small characters standing at a crossroads. Next to them were a donkey and a tall, thin man with a hat. The donkey was walking away with its head sunken low. The bottom of the page read two words: Wrong Way.

She frowned. Deep down, she felt very embarrassed and angry at herself and the Top-Hat Man, but she didn’t know what to say. “Esther,” Marian said, meeting her sister’s eyes. She winced and fumbled her words. “Nothing. Never mind.” 

Her finger flipped the page away from the “Wrong Way” and recognized the drawing of the swamp. There were the cypress and magnolia trees covered in Spanish moss, the muddy marsh and the overbearing weight of danger. But now the sketch showed four characters. And behind them, a pair of creepy green eyes, glowing. The caption read: The Creature of the Black Lagoon

“Oh no,” she whispered. 

“What?” The others asked. 

She looked up and about, scanning her eyes through the darkness. “Herbert, do you still have your pocketknife?” 

“Yes,” he answered. “Why?” 

“Because we might need it,” she said. 

The others’ eyes swept the forest with her. And one by one, they fixed on the same spot in the shadows. Between the knees of a tall cypress, two green eyes glowed. 

“We aren’t out of this yet,” Aaron whispered. He came between the group and the creature. None of them could tell what it was. “C’mon,” Aaron said. “The only way outta here is to keep moving.” As soon as the others stood, the green eyes shut and disappeared in the darkness. 

“Great,” Aaron whispered, and felt Herbert shaking next to him.

A noise shuffled in the swamp to their right. Then a bush shuddered at their left. Whispers danced all about, little beacons signaling the creature’s location. It circled like a wolf closing in on its prey.

“Stay close, everyone,” Marian directed.

Herbert clutched his knife in hand. Aaron clenched his fists.

“Aaron—” Marian said.

“Where—” Herbert asked.

“Did it—” Esther whispered.

A webbed, sticky hand reached from under a palm frond and snatched Esther’s ankle, pulling her onto the ground. Her face slammed into something hard and bounced into the mud. The buzzing in her ears made the world turn yellow, white, and cloudy. The slimy hand yanked, and her body slid into the bush. 

“Esther!” Herbert screamed and ran after the noise of her body dragging through the woods. 

Aaron jumped ahead of him and lunged into the forest. He was wrestling in a pepper tree, tangled and out of breath, with the green monster under his weight. His fists came down in a fitful rage, but the creature’s spiny head scratched him, and the slimy scales slipped through his grasp. Esther, coherent at last, was screaming, fighting, biting, and punching. Herbert and Marian worked together, holding Esther’s leg still and attempting to remove the webbed claw from it. 

The creature’s long claws dug in, just above the ankle and under the calf. It ripped the tendon to shreds. Herbert opened his Gerber knife with shaky hands and shoved it into the back of the slimy claw. Crimson blood spurt and spat out of the back of the knife, and the hand released. The creature howled, and the forest erupted, birds and animals rushing off in every direction. Aaron kicked its chest in. It flew back, corrected its footing, nursed its hand for a moment, and struck at Aaron with the other. Aaron’s body flew in the air, over Herbert and Marian’s heads, and landed in another tangly pepper tree. 

Marian and Herbert helped Esther to her feet. She screamed in agony when her foot touched the ground. They took the pressure off her ankle before the Dolor children looked up to see the ugly, menacing creature staring at them. Its chest rose and fell under its heavy breathing. 

Marian took most of Esther’s weight as Herbert stepped from underneath her shoulder and stood between his sisters and the monster. His pocket knife shook in his hand and dripped blood. 

“I won’t let you hurt them,” he said. 

Aaron flailed himself about in the pepper tree’s spindly branches, trying to get free, before tripping and falling back into its web and tangling up again. Herbert glanced back at his sisters. The girls were retreating, slowly limping further and further away. Herbert looked back at the creature. It hunched low to the ground and its skin changed color from green to black. Into the shadows it disappeared—its legs, torso, arms, and finally its head. Only the glowing green eyes remained. 

“Oh, no,” he whispered, and trembled. 

Hee-Haw

The uproar thundered from deep in the forest. The creature’s color flicked back to green in surprise. It spun round to face the assailant, but it was too late. A wild, brown donkey erupted from the darkness and rammed its head into the side of the creature and threw it to the ground. The creature scattered across the forest floor, and a low, jutting branch impaled its leg. Its ear-splitting screech echoed again in the forest, and blood gushed from its thigh. The donkey charged, whirled on its front legs, and pounded its rear hooves into the creature’s face. Blood spat out of the gills and scaly head.

The dazed creature reached for the branch imbedded in its thigh, but it wouldn’t come out. It broke it off from the tree and camouflaged its scales black. Dropping to all fours, it lurched away into the darkness, leaving a thick trail of blood behind.

All four children cheered, “Balaam!” 

“You came back!” 

“You saved us!”

“Our hero!” 

“Faithful ol’ donkey, we couldn’t have done it without ya,” Aaron cried, tripping on his face as he escaped the pepper tree.

“Well, I suppose I’ll have to look after you bunch of delinquents again.” Balaam smiled. He strolled over to the children, as if bored, but secretly very happy indeed. 

Herbert closed his knife, thankful he didn’t have to use it again, and ran to Esther’s side. She winced in pain and reached for a tree branch to take the weight off her leg. Blood gushed down her ankle and soaked her sock and shoe. Flies and gnats were gathering at the blood and chewing on the skin. 

“From the smoke to the fire,” Aaron whispered.

“What?” Herbert asked. 

“Nothing—just something my dad used to say,” he replied. “Do you think that thing will come back?” 

“If it does,” Balaam replied. “It’ll be sorry—but no, I think it learned its lesson.”

As Esther rested on the ground, Aaron ran to the pond’s edge with a piece of his jacket sleeve and dipped it in the water. He came back and gingerly wiped the dirt and blood away from her ankle. He used another piece to tie around it. Esther put it on the ground and slowly let her weight down. She nodded her head, while wiping tears from her cheeks, and thanked Aaron. It wasn’t much better, but at least the flies would stay off of it.

“Won’t be able to journey much with a foot like that,” Balaam said. “Looks like you’ll need me even more now than ever.”

“I’m so sorry, Balaam,” Marian said. 

“We all are,” Aaron agreed. 

“We should have listened and—” Marian paused. Sometimes, when you know what you wish you could say, you have no idea how to start saying it. 

“It’s okay,” Balaam reassured them. “I’m back.”

The children wrapped their arms around him (except Esther, who was sitting on the ground again). They never felt so glad to have someone back in their lives. 

“It’s not ‘okay’ though. I’m sorry, everyone,” Marian said. “I shouldn’t have led us this way. I was wrong to listen to the Top-Hat Man.” 

“We forgive you,” Esther said, wincing. 

“And now you are hurt.” Marian frowned. “I wish—Oh, what was I thinking!” 

“You may have all been hurt going the other way, too,” Balaam said. “No use wishing for something that never was.”

“Balaam,” Marian said with tears in her eyes, “You are an amazing friend.” 

Balaam blushed. 

“I won’t make that mistake again.”

“I think I get it,” Esther replied, while pulling a stick out of her left pig-tail. “Inside I felt yucky, too. Like—I started doubting you. And getting angry. I couldn’t get out of my head what Mr. Dauer said to me. I’m sorry, Marian.” 

Aaron stooped low next to Esther and lifted her on his shoulder. She cried out in pain when the ankle twisted on itself. He and Marian helped her up to Balaam’s back. She lay down, exhausted from the pain, and hugged the donkey’s fluffy neck. 

“It must be broken,” Aaron whispered to Marian. “What should we do?”

“What can we do?” Marian muttered.

“Well, isn’t this great?” Balaam said. “Now I’ve got to traipse through swamps and fog and carry a lame duck on my back.” 

Esther smiled sheepishly and whispered in his ear, “I think you are perfect.” 

“Looks like the logbook told us a lie,” Aaron said as he watched Marian remove it from her bag. 

“I don’t think it did,” Marian replied. 

“Why—it said we needed to cross the swamp, and all we did was nearly die twice because of it.” 

“Just because it mentioned the swamp doesn’t mean it meant for us to go that way.” 

Aaron sneered. 

“After all, Ponce de León gave us Balaam to journey with, and he tried to warn us,” Herbert said. 

“Well, what’s next, then?” 

“It still says el gigante,” Marian read. “But everything has been making more sense the further we go, and the language changes to our own. I’m sure we will know when we get there.” 

“I can guess enough Spanish to know that el gigante means the giant,” Aaron said. “So what—we going to fight a giant now?”

“Maybe,” Marian said. 

“Well,” Aaron sighed. “No better time than never to get started going nowhere—right, Balaam?” 

Balaam smiled. “That’s the miserable kind of junk I’ve been trying to teach you children all along. It’s about time you understood.” 

Marian tied the logbook shut, stored it in her backpack, and the group began its journey again. But not before Herbert checked his pocket and saw the little green fairy still sleeping calmly. 

The children followed Balaam as he turned south in the sloshing mud. Esther held on to his strong neck hair while he wound through the slush. Soon the warm, smokey fog stopped lifting from their footsteps and they felt cool air up ahead.     



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