Home Sweet HomeChapter 19
Late afternoon came with a cool breeze and lovely spirit. The pleasing opera of thrushes, jays, and wrens echoed in the forest. Wind swept inside the crown of the canopy and sent a shower of leaves below. In the distance, a crow’s caw faded away, and a woodpecker cackled under the sound of cicadas singing to the sun. A mile over the forest, clouds bellowed and an osprey chirped while she soared with them. A sandpiper tip-toed through the mud along the path and hid behind the tall grass that waved goodbye in the wind.
Esther skipped the entire way back, unsuccessfully containing the excitement her healed leg brought her. The children’s spirits were high. They felt like experts of the forest, passing on the same footpath numerous times. By the time they reached the summit of the sandy hill, they raced each other down the other side, playing tag, laughing, and screaming. With their accomplishment behind them, they held nothing in but joy and silliness.
They stopped their frolic when they heard two urgent voices crying through the trees in the distance. “Marian! Esther! Herbert!”
“Mom and Dad,” Marian gasped.
Sobriety fell on them like a brick, and each tucked their head between their shoulders and sprinted to the entrance of the forest. None of them said a word, but each felt an uncomfortable sensation in the pit of their stomachs. Like you get when you know your parent is unhappy, but you must go to them, regardless.
They heard their parent’s speaking to one another on the other side of the pine grove. “Oh, Jesus, thank you—I can hear footsteps,” Mrs. Dolor said. “There!” Mr. Dolor shouted.
The children saw two blurry figurines through the tree-line racing toward them.
“Esther Dolor,” Mrs. Dolor reprimanded, “I can’t believe you are out here with your hurt leg! And Marian—you know better than—Hello, is this your friend Aaron? Esther—you’re standing on your leg!”
It may seem like Mrs. Dolor said a lot at first, but both parents were busy hugging and kissing the Dolor children while she said all of it. It delighted them to find all of them safe and together, and shocked them to find Esther’s leg completely healed.
“I suppose those sutures the doctor put on really did the trick,” Mr. Dolor said as the six of them exited the forest. “Kids—you know better than to leave without saying anything. You did this yesterday, and Esther was seriously injured from it. I’m glad she’s good now, but not again—do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” the three avowed.
“My God—what is that!” Mr. Dolor shouted. For the earth was rumbling under the family’s feet, and the children were wondering if Maushop had returned. But it was the gate rattling and shaking as it slowly closed the left side, and then the right side, like an invisible hand were shutting it behind them.
“Wow!” Mrs. Dolor said.
“How did—?” Mr. Dolor questioned.
“Is it automatic?”
“Some kind of motion sensor.”
Meanwhile, Herbert was slowly backing away from the group, before dropping to his knees behind a vine on the right side of the protruding gate. He ran his fingers along the bottom, feeling for the familiar shape of the eight-point star. A strange sound came from the shadows, and for a moment, he thought the vine whispered or sneezed at him. He stared into the lattice, but chuckled at how silly that would be. His fingers found the hole at the bottom of the wall and he placed the new panther figurine Ponce de León had given him. Just as he had instructed.
He dropped out of the vine and jumped to his feet, just in time to receive a hug from Aaron as he left.
“See you at the bus stop tomorrow,” Aaron said to the others, and picked up his bike. “Oh—” He stopped and held the machete out to Mr. Dolor. “This is yours.”
Mr. Dolor didn’t know whether to be proud or angry. He took the blade while Aaron rode away.
That night, Mr. and Mrs. Dolor let the children stay up late with them, watching a movie about talking ants fighting talking grasshoppers. The five of them sat bundled under a warm fluffy blanket on the couch and shared a bowl of caramel and kettle popcorn.
“I like the grasshopper that always jumps out of his skin!” Herbert laughed, and shoved a handful of caramel popcorn in his cheek.
“The grasshoppers are the bad guys, Herbert,” Marian commented, not taking her eyes off the screen.
“Yeah, I know,” Herbert muttered, with a mouthful of food.
“Esther?” Mrs. Dolor asked when she noticed her daughter had left the room. “Where did she go?”
“I think she went to the bathroom?” Mr. Dolor responded, scrolling his finger along the face of his cell phone.
Esther actually went upstairs. She didn’t want to watch the movie, because the talking animals and pretty plants reminded her of the Enchanted Forest, and that made her sad. She enjoyed remembering the forest, but she didn’t enjoy remembering it was closed now.
When she entered her room, her nose caught a whiff of something in the air and she smiled. “Marigolds,” she whispered to herself and looked around. But the room was quiet and empty.
She sat on the edge of her bed and ran her fingers over her ankle and calf where the wound used to be. A jagged scar remained. She liked the way the skin looked bumpy and wondered if it would ever leave.
A whiff of marigold hit her nose again, and this time she knew it had to be real. She followed the scent to the window where she discovered a small yellow bur marigold, just like the one she pulled from the riverbank.
“It will never wilt,” a soothing voice said from behind her. Esther spun around to the Ghost of Ponce de León shimmering blue in the middle of her bedroom.
“I thought you may like it to remember the forest,” he said.
“Juan Ponce de León!” She shouted.
“Marian has the logbook and Herbert has his artifact,” the Ghost smiled. “It only seems right you have your marigold.”
Esther looked at the flower, and a tear dropped onto the top of it. “Thank you,” she whispered, and carried it to her bedside.
“I’m happy we met, Esther,” the Ghost said. “But I also came to warn you it’s going to get a lot harder now. And a lot worse. But remember that I’ll always be near. Just like in the forest.”
“Oh,” she said. “Why are you telling this to only me?”
“I’ll speak to your siblings when the time is right,” he said. “But you need to hear me say this. And you need it in your heart forever.”
“If it’s going to be so much harder—” she said, “—why don’t you stop it?”
“Well, sometimes I try.” He sat down on the bed, which later Esther thought was funny, seeing as how he was a ghost. “But people have a nasty habit of impeding my trying to help. It’s very difficult, dare I say, impossible, to force someone to be good. You could force them to do good things, I suppose. But inside—that’s all up to them. And it’s that stuff inside that gets in the way when I’m trying to help.”
“It seems like you would be able to just show up and talk to someone, and they would listen.”
“I thought the same thing too,” he said, “and then I got a poisoned arrow shot in my leg.” He winked at her.
“Oh, right,” she said, and giggled.
“Anyway, don’t worry about all of that. As long as you know that I’ll always be here for you, you don’t need to worry about what everyone else thinks. And yes, it’s going to be hard. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make it through.”
“Thank you, Señor Ponce de León,” she said.
“Call me Juan,” he replied. “That’s what my friends call me.”
Esther thought about that for a second, and said, “How about I just call you León? Juan feels disrespectful.”
The two smiled and gave their goodbyes before the Ghost disappeared and Esther lay down to sleep.
The next few weeks went by with little significant happening. Although, now Aaron spent a lot more time with the Dolors at school. And he even went back to Vinnie the Rat to apologize for tricking him. Vinnie forgave him with little effort. Apparently, he always knew Aaron faked the photo, and it hardly consumed his thoughts anymore, ever since he started looking for new photos of strange beasts.
The children liked San Juan Bautista Elementary a lot more now. Marian’s teacher recognized her as the brightest in the class and often asked for her help during study hour. The girls in Esther’s class loved the immaculate marigold she wore in her pigtails. And no one dared make fun of Herbert for any reason, or they had to answer to Aaron.
One Friday afternoon, the children reminisced about their funniest stories in the forest, sitting at the kitchen table while Mrs. Dolor made dinner.
“Remember the way Herbert looked riding on Aaron’s back in the swamp, with the glasses down around his face?” Marian laughed.
“Yeah, he looked like a goofy cartoon,” Esther jeered.
“Well, what about Esther drooling all over herself while she napped on Balaam by the river?” Herbert giggled.
“Oh, hilarious—but nothing was as funny as when Marian tripped in the brambles and got her butt stuck in that gopher tortoise’s hole!” Esther cackled.
“Balaam had to pull you out with his tail!” Herbert shouted.
All three roared with laughter.
“What are you three talking about?” Mrs. Dolor asked while stirring a pot of spaghetti.
“Nothing,” Marian said, and noticed six plates at the dinner table.
“I remember having fun,” said Herbert.
“I did too,” Esther smiled.
“And we got lots of ice-cream at Mr. Mewbourn’s.”
“And a new treehouse!”
“I remember breaking the figurine.”
Marian laughed. “It’s okay, Herbert. We forgave you.”
Just then, the front door opened and scraped the wooden floorboards. The children turned and cheered together, “Daddy!”
Mr. Dolor stepped through the threshold with his hands full of boxes, bags, and papers. He was sopping wet from the storm outside.
“What’s all that, dear?” Mrs. Dolor asked.
Mr. Dolor dropped the things on the floor with a loud bang. “I told you already, honey,” he huffed and puffed. “I’m thrilled about the direction our business is headed. New real estate. New banking partners. New opportunities—oh good, you made a spot for him at the table. Kids, my boss will be staying with us for a little bit until we get it all figured out.”
The children’s eyes popped when they watched the heavy footfalls of Professor Ludwig Wolfgang entering their home. He stood in the foyer, dressed in a black trench coat, water dripping from his fedora.
“Living with us?” Marian asked, shocked.
“Ah,” Professor Ludwig Wolfgang sighed. “Home sweet home.”