Subject to Change (Eight Months Later)Chapter 21
The November sky covered the earth in a cloudy, wet mess. The sun rose behind it, barely peeking its face through the tree-line of the enchanted forest. The ravens and crows squawked and cawed from their stagnant perches. Dew ran down the strings of spider’s webs and hung in frozen brilliance above the steamy earth. The live oak’s branches bowed under the cold wind and the leaves shuddered “good morning” to each other.
The Dolor children huddled under the shadow of the great oak’s canopy, holding hands and praying. They were different children now—their lives cold and bitter like the breath in their lungs.
A barred owl looked at the children from above. It bellowed its goodnight to them before closing its eyes and taking its morning nap. The children finished their prayer and sat in awkward silence.
“How’s school, Herbert?” Marian asked, dolefully.
He rolled his eyes. “I’ve been reading a lot,” he replied.
Esther smiled, sheepishly. “Do you think it will get better?”
“Mom has Dad’s papers in the kitchen,” Marian replied. “She’s supposed to sign them today—I don’t think it’s getting better.”
“I don’t even recognize Dad anymore.” Herbert stared at the two-by-fours his father nailed into the base of the tree. His finger traced a line through a pile of dirt on top of them. “He only cares about money and Sheila.” (Sheila was Mr. Dolor’s new girlfriend that moved in to their apartment two weeks prior.)
Esther furrowed her brow, and her bottom lip quivered. Marian put her hand on Herbert’s shoulder.
“He doesn’t talk to me,” Herbert continued. “But he’s always watching. It feels weird. Like he’s waiting for me to show him something—or reveal something.”
“The artifact,” Marian whispered.
“Have you seen Aaron since I left?” Herbert asked.
Marian nodded, slowly. “I see him at school,” she trailed off. “He’s not the same since what happened to you and Dad in the dungeon.”
“It’s my fault.” Herbert flicked the floorboard with the back of his hand. “I’ve thought about it a thousand different times and a thousand different ways. I should have had a plan. I should have been able to stop them from putting the drink in Daddy’s mouth. If I was one step faster through the door in my bedroom and the Professor wouldn’t have grabbed me and Aaron.”
“Oh, Herbert, you can’t,” Esther said.
“—If only I gave the artifact to them.” Herbert threw a stick from the tree angrily. “I just kept thinking Ponce would have saved us. But he didn’t.”
“Señor Ponce de León,” Esther whispered to herself.
“I thought you threw the artifact away,” Marian said.
“I just kept thinking,” Herbert replied, “I need to keep my mouth shut. They want it so bad, it must be important. Don’t tell them anything about it.”
“Herbert—you don’t—” Marian touched her mouth.
Herbert bent down. His small hand ran under the rough edge of the two-by-four and brushed a pile of dead leaves and sticks away. A small ornate statue of granite and marble was hidden in the wet crook of the live oak. Herbert pulled it from its hiding place and showed his sisters the roaring panther ornament. It was altogether holy and delicate, a piece of history and power. The children stared in awe and silence.
“I was so afraid somehow Dad or the Professor would find it,” Herbert said, stoic. “But it’s been eight months. I don’t feel scared anymore.”
Esther shut her eyes. Her family was never meant to be apart. Her father and mother were one, inseparable. A perfect picture of harmony and love, joy and kindness. But she now understood her parent’s marriage was as fragile as the spiderweb next to her hand. A delicate and precious thing, strong and tender, but easily ripped to shreds if not properly tended. A tear ran over her round cheek and into the corner of her mouth.
“We should all be together.” Esther’s whisper quavered.
“It’s not just Dad’s fault, you know?” Marian said. Herbert looked at his sister’s angry, bitter face.
“Dad drank the poison,” Herbert interjected.
“—And Mom didn’t fight,” Marian said, spitefully. “She just gave up and said it was all a dream. I will never respect her for that.”
“Marian.” Herbert stared daggers at her. “You don’t know how bad it is with Dad now. He’s not the same.”
Esther was weeping in silence. She took a breath, wiped her face, and cleared her throat. “I wish we could go back in time and change it all,” she said.
Herbert nodded in agreement.
Marian rolled her eyes and looked away. “It’s over. The only thing we can do now is throw that artifact away for good and hope nothing else ever happens.”
The Dolors leaned against the tree trunk and waited for time to pass. In the yard, a squirrel chased another. The crickets stopped singing and the woodpeckers and flickers cried in the distant trees.
At the base of the live oak, a piece of silver unicorn horn jutted out of the side of the trunk. Long ago, before life stopped making sense, the girls had watched a beautiful silver and black unicorn prance in their backyard. They tried taking a photograph of it and thought the flash of the photo provoked the unicorn to propel its horn into the tree and snap a piece off. But the unicorn wasn’t there by chance. It was sent by the Ghost of Ponce de León for that exact moment. And the horn was there for a reason too, for the unicorn placed it especially for the Dolor children. And now the piece of horn was glowing.