Marian, Esther, and Aaron couldn’t stop kissing and hugging Mrs. Dolor. It felt like a century since last seeing and touching her. A thousand horrible things had happened, and they didn’t know where to begin in describing them or taking their next step. Somewhere out in the house, their brother fended for his life and their father was missing. But nothing mattered for these brief holy moments of feeling Mrs. Dolor’s soft warm cheeks against their own.
“I’m so happy you’re back, Mom,” Marian cried.
Tap. Tap. Tap. The sound came from stories above them.
“I know, sweetie,” Mrs. Dolor replied and kissed her forehead. “And I’m back for good.” She unwrapped her arms from the children and stood up, looking down the long hallway and considering where they were. Just outside Mr. and Mrs. Dolor’s bedroom, under the stairway, and nearest the kitchen and dining-room.
“What happened to you?” Marian asked.
“We came to see…” Aaron trailed off.
“It’s been so scary,” Esther added.
“I wish I could explain it,” Mrs. Dolor said, “but I have a hard time finding the words. It felt like a dream that you know is a dream. But can’t get out of. Like that kind that you are in right before waking up, and you know you are dreaming, so you can walk around and interact with the dream. Only in this dream, I couldn’t do the things I really wanted to. I remember talking to you, Marian. I wanted so bad to make sense of it all. And I remember you hiding in the closet, Esther.”
“But—I never went into your closet, Mom,” Esther said, confused. “This is the first I’ve seen you since dinnertime.”
“Oh!” Mrs. Dolor said. Her eyes wandered on the floor. “That’s right. You see?—It’s all still so groggy.” And then, “Where’s Herbert?”
“The monsters took him!” Esther squealed.
“The stupid Professor,” Aaron added.
“We almost found him,” Marian said, “But the whole house is messed up. Doors don’t lead to the right places, and the stairs led to a dead-end. I heard him…and I tried…” Marian couldn’t contain her tears any longer. She put her head in her hands and shivered.
Mrs. Dolor wrapped her arms around her and whispered in her ear, “I’m so proud of you, darling, but you don’t have to carry this burden alone anymore.”
Marian squeezed her mother with all her might.
“We need to find your brother,” Mrs. Dolor declared. “You said he was upstairs?”
“Marian and I heard him at the top,” Aaron confirmed.
“Let’s start there,” Mrs. Dolor said.
“But Mom, you don’t understand,” Marian said. “There are monsters and strange people everywhere in the house. Well, at least it’s somewhat normal now—the lights on.”
“And the smell gone,” Esther added.
“And that stupid song done!” Aaron agreed.
Mrs. Dolor put her hands on Marian and Esther’s shoulders. “Girls, Aaron,” she said, “I know.” She looked at all of them in their eyes so deeply that it somehow made them feel safe, as if she had all along been right with them.
Mrs. Dolor put her back against the hallway wall and crept in her slippers from under the stairwell and into the dining-room. The children followed suit as she bent down and peered into the living-room and back again at the kitchen. The coast was clear, and much easier to see now with all the lights on.
She spun round the column, her hand sliding in the grooves of the dark wood, and scampered up the first three steps to the far side of the railing. Her back was to the living-room as she took a deep breath and nodded to the kids to follow her up the stairs.
Marian led the way past her, with Aaron on her heels. Esther crouched beside her mother on the step. Mrs. Dolor was looking over her shoulder. Esther looked back and saw her mother’s forlorn stare had landed on the kitchen table in the dining-room. Esther looked back at her mother.
“What was the song like to you?” She asked.
Mrs. Dolor’s eyes remained on the dining table. “When the song played, everything felt real,” she replied. “But not the sort of real you know. Like living in a storybook you are reading. As the reader, you know where the story is going, but you can’t control it. And in that story, it’s only going to a bad place.”
Esther looked at the living-room on the other side of her mother. The way she spoke reminded her of the Monster’s speech.
“So you keep putting the book down,” Mrs. Dolor continued. “Because you don’t want to see where you know it’s going. But you know you have to keep reading it if you are going to get through it.” Pause. And then, “I saw horrible things, Esther. Wretched things. And none if it made any sense. I don’t believe it even still.”
Esther opened her mouth like she was going to say something, but Mrs. Dolor continued.
“But I believe what you’ve seen. And I have to fight for my babies.” Marian and Aaron had joined them at the bottom of the steps by now. “And yes, of course, you too, Aaron. Like I said, my children.”
Aaron smiled, but his eyes were sad.
“It doesn’t matter how bad the book got,” Mrs. Dolor said, matter-of-factly. “I had to get through it.” She stood to her feet. “And I’ve got one more of my babies out there. Let’s go get him.”
“Mom?” A small hoarse voice whispered from the top of the stairs. Mrs. Dolor and the children spun their heads on turnstiles and stared, shocked and awed. At the top of the stairs, standing before them, was a little boy with short blonde hair, wearing glasses too small for his dirty face, and holding a pocketknife in his shivering hand. A green fairy hovered in the air next to him, spinning and full of jubilation.
“Herbert!” Mrs. Dolor covered her mouth, and tears raced down her cheeks.
Aaron pushed through Marian and Mrs. Dolor and raced up the steps. He barreled over Herbert and tackled him to the ground with his hug. “I’m sorry, Herbert,” he blubbered.
Herbert laughed weakly and hugged him back. Marian and Esther were at his side like lightning, hugging and crying and laughing, just like they had with their mother. Herbert peered through the pile of hair and limbs to see his mother standing over them. She knelt down, and he reached through his siblings for her hands.
“My baby boy,” she whispered, and pulled him up to her for a hug and kiss.
Just then, the house rumbled and shook. A chime from the Pendulum in the attic echoed through the halls and wasted their moment together. It vibrated the steps underneath them and rattled the picture frames on the walls.
“I hate that sound,” Aaron growled.
“What does it mean?” Marian asked.
“No—” Herbert interjected. “It’s a good thing.” The others looked at him inquisitively. “Trust me—it means we are winning.”
Mrs. Dolor smiled at him. Then, as if she knew something the children didn’t, she looked down the stairs and ordered, “We need to get to the garage.”
“But what about Daddy?” Esther asked.
“I saw him,” Herbert answered, and everyone stared, waiting for him to explain.
“He’s—okay,” Herbert didn’t know quite how to say it. “He’s in some sort of castle or dungeon. With the Top-Hat Man.”
“The Top-Hat Man?” Marian hollered.
“Oh, no!” Esther whimpered.
“I knew it!” Aaron’s jaw jutted out.
“I think the song was messing with him,” Herbert continued.
“Well, the song’s over now!” Marian reasoned. “He may be normal—like Mom!”
“Maybe we can get him, too!” Esther added.
“I can take us back!” Herbert hollered. “We need to save him!”
“What matters is I get you to safety first,” Mrs. Dolor declared.
“But Mom—” Herbert pleaded.
“That’s not what we are supposed to do. And I’ll be crossed if I take my children into harm’s way, knowing I had the chance to save them. And I know your father would want nothing more.” Then, as if the matter was done, she turned and started down the steps with the children behind her. Esther at her side, Aaron following closely, Marian nodding in acceptance, and last, Herbert shaking his head in frustration. Starlight rode up and down on his shoulder, petting his cheek in compassion.