The Way BackChapter 15
The children were not excited to leave, but no one had any better ideas, and it was now dusk. Mom and Dad would be searching and calling for them. The way back seemed less inspirational than the way forward. The sky turned gray and the mosquitoes and gnats bit at the children. Trees lacked their luster, and the birds whispered. Even Starlight, who fell asleep on Herbert’s shoulder, seemed less magical as her glow faded. Herbert glanced at her every few minutes to remind himself she was not his imagination.
The further they traveled from Maushop, the more they doubted why they traveled through the forest. “Stupid game,” Aaron said at one point, and Marian wondered if it were all make-believe. Balaam was real enough. Starlight, too. But did they really meet a Ghost that sent them on this journey?
Balaam showed the way around the swamp, through the brambles that they insisted on avoiding. It was funny how quickly they passed the thicket. No one saw any ticks, and only one of them (Herbert) got a cut from a thorn.
Night fell when they reached the limestone bridge over Weeper’s Run. Esther remembered her conversation with the creepy Top-Hat Man and shuddered. Herbert smiled when he thought of Pascal. “He talked funny,” he muttered under his breath.
At nightfall, they ascended the cliff. The tall trees disappeared, and the moonlight reflected off the white sand. At the top of the ravine, Esther caught a dim glance of the orange markings over Weeper’s Run when Balaam came to a stop.
“I think it’s time I left you children,” he said.
“What?” Marian asked.
“No,” Herbert said.
It hadn’t occurred to any, until just then, that Balaam wouldn’t be able to come home with them. He was his own person and belonged at his home in the forest.
“I’ll take you down to the edge of the hill,” he said, and looking at Esther, added, “so you don’t have to go as far.”
Another three-hundred yards and they were at the bottom, under the cover of the pines, and walking along the soft needles. Herbert chuckled when he remembered how easy the beginning was.
“I appreciate the opportunity to walk with you children, fine group you are indeed,” Balaam said. “Though I’m sure you are happy to be rid of me anyway,” he smirked.
“Oh, Balaam!” Marian cried.
The four children wrapped their arms around the donkey and kissed him a thousand times.
“Hee-haw,” Balaam whispered, and a tear fell from his long face.
“We will never forget you, Balaam,” Marian said.
“You saved my life,” Esther said while Aaron helped her off his back. “You saved all of us. You will always be our hero.”
“I’m going to name my kid after you, Balaam.” Herbert smiled and squeezed his neck one last time.
“Thanks for being our friend,” Aaron said and wiped his face, trying his best not to show his tears in the moonlight.
“I’ll never forget you, children,” Balaam said. “Well,” he straightened his back. “Better time than never to get started going nowhere.”
The children smiled and watched the donkey disappear up the hill. They continued on their own way, Aaron helping Esther along, slowly and surely, down the bed of pine needles. The moonlight disappeared behind the tall trees and they huddled close together. All was quiet, the trees were still, and nothing stirred. Fear would have gotten a hold of them if not for a familiar voice they heard in the darkness far behind them. “Ugh, I always hated crossing sand,” came Balaam’s voice, and it made the children giggle.
The gate wasn’t too far from them, but their pace dragged because of Esther’s ankle. Herbert stared at the pine trees overhead, looming like giants. He wondered if he had ever even seen a giant before.
“Almost there,” Aaron said. “See that piece of coquina—that’s the piece I pointed out on the way in.”
When the children stepped from the forest, through the open gate, into the Dolor’s backyard, they felt the odd sensation of stepping onto foreign land. For a half second, they thought houses were an oddity and fresh-cut grass an absurdity. But the wave of “normal” poured over them like a cup of lukewarm water. It felt pleasant to be home, safe to be back, but abhorrently uneventful.
The group met under the live oak and to their surprise a tree-house was inside of it. “I don’t remember that being there this morning,” Marian said, pointing.
The back-porch door had opened and slapped shut, though it didn’t close properly because the latch was broken. Mrs. Dolor was standing in front of it, furious. Starlight woke up from the sound and shimmied down to Herbert’s shirt pocket, afraid. Aaron hollered his goodbye and ran to his bicycle perched on the side of the house. He took off before any of the Dolor children said a word. The Dolors couldn’t take their eyes off their mother for their own safety.
“Where have you been!” She hollered in the sort of way adults do when they don’t want an answer, but just want you to know they are mad. “You’ve been gone all day—without a word—oh, goodness, Esther, what happened to your leg—where have you been—all of you are filthy—look at all your cuts and scrapes—Ugh! Get inside!”
Mrs. Dolor was quite upset, but calmed down a little once all three of her children were safe inside their home.
“Where did you three go?” Mrs. Dolor asked again. Esther was sitting on top of the table while her mother examined her leg. Iodine and gauze were next to her.
“We were playing in the woods behind our house,” Marian said. “I’m sorry, Mom. We lost track of time.”
“Who was that boy?”
“His name is Aaron,” Herbert said. “He goes to school with us.”
“Aaron,” she repeated to herself, like she wanted to memorize it. “Is he a good boy?”
Marian, Esther and Herbert looked at each other, unsure for a moment how to answer.
“Yeah,” Marian said. “He’s our friend.”
“Well,” Mrs. Dolor said, “I’m glad you are making friends.” She poured a sizable amount of iodine down Esther’s leg. Esther clenched her teeth and winced. “You know your father was home all day. He wanted to spend the day playing with you.”
“Oh,” Marian said, while Mrs. Dolor softly wiped the iodine off Esther’s leg.
“He spent the entire day making a tree-house for you out back.” Mrs. Dolor had that look in her eye that all mothers know how to give. It’s that glance that makes you feel disappointment even though they don’t have to say it.
“I’m sorry,” the children said.
“Don’t say ‘sorry’ to me,” Mrs. Dolor replied. She dropped her hands to the table and looked into Esther’s eyes. “Young lady, your leg looks horrific. Cleaning it has only shown—this is really awful. What happened? We need to go to the doctor tonight for stitches. I hope they don’t want you to stay overnight.”