I sat back in my chair, and couldn’t think of anything to say. The thing in Ms. Cleary’s jar looked like a normal glass marble, completely clear, completely harmless.
“So,” I managed, “so that, thing, was in my hand this whole time?”
Ms. Cleary nodded. “It’s a heartstone, a remnant from his world. He imbued it with a piece of his spirit, and transferred it to you when he bit you. If I hadn’t given you that charm, you’d be in the same pickle your uncle is in right now. Clever devil. It was the only way he could bypass the normal rules.”
“What do you mean, rules?” I asked.
“Everything has rules,” she said with a small shrug. “And this is no different. He couldn’t touch you outside the ring, so when he bit you he bought himself a contingency plan as well. With a part of himself already inside you, he could have nabbed you too. Your uncle was just unlucky.”
“So am I safe now?”
Ms. Cleary frowned. “Probably. Possibly. If you stay in your house, you’ll be safe from harm, at least. He won’t be able to just waltz right in and start causing a ruckus. He’ll have to be invited inside. So make sure you don’t do that. But it’ll be up to you to recognize him, and keep him from coming in. I can’t do that for you from here.” She took a sip of her tea.
Clara hadn’t spoken up nearly the whole time. She was silent, watchful and observant, eyes focused, and yet still, somehow distant, as if she were paying complete attention, and also fully in her own head. She narrowed her eyes at me. “Is there something you haven’t told us yet?” she said. “Something that you’re still afraid of?”
I took my ceramic mug in both my hands. It was very warm to the touch, but not quite burning, and I drank the hot, herbal tea, and tasted mint and raspberry. “Well,” I said, still holding onto the mug, “I did have a bad dream last night. One where there was a black cloud coming down on my family, and you, and it had a wolf’s mouth, and my dad was there too. You were all tied up and screaming.” Then, “That’s not going to happen, is it?”
Clara smiled at me, and reached over for my hand. “No,” she said. “It isn’t. That was the raven trying to scare you, get in your head and muck about. Boggarts thrive on fear, and that was what it was trying to do, make you afraid. That won’t happen anymore. You don’t need to be afraid.”
“Good,” I said. “But, why can’t I just stay here with you?”
“There are rules on this side too,” Ms. Cleary said. “If we kept you here, eventually your mother would come and find you, and take you back home, where you belong. We can’t keep a child away from his mother. Speaking of which, we ought to get you off and home soon. It’s about time. Your mother will be home any minute now.”
I hadn’t realized just how much time had passed since lunch. Things had seemed so much simpler then, merely a few hours ago, when my uncle and I were eating cheeseburgers, and planning the revival of my treehouse. It seemed so distant, and removed from my current experience, like a half-forgotten dream, a snapshot memory, from the time when my biggest concern had been whether or not my uncle was lying to me about giving me something. I felt foolish and stupid for thinking that those counted as real problems now.
“And, speaking of her,” Ms. Cleary continued, “best not to mention what happened today to your mother. She’ll only accuse you of telling a fib, and think worse of you for it.”
Ms. Cleary led me to the door after I had finished my tea. I walked slowly, not wanting to return to my empty house alone, and not wanting to spend anymore time with my mother when she got back. I knew she would still be mad with me from the other day, and I did not want to yell, or be yelled at. I was tired, and wanted this whole business with the new house to be over. I had had nothing but problems since we arrived. But I did what I was told. I let Ms. Cleary usher me out of the too-big house, and wish me luck, as I walked back around the hedge, and over and into my house.
When I got inside, I locked the door, and walked over to lay on the couch. I did not want to think or move or do anything. I just wanted to lay there, on the soft, corduroy material, and feel the minutes move past me, one second at a time. With my eyes closed and face pressed into the armrest of the couch, I concentrated on the sound of the seconds, ticking away with each swing of the pendulum clock on the wall. The sound matched the pounding of my blood, pumping through the veins in my ears.
I wanted that moment to last forever, sitting on that couch like that, with nothing going wrong, and no one telling me what to do, or getting mad at me. But, as I knew even by then, these moments never seemed to last as long as the breadth of a single minute could, or the length of a heartbeat, when you were really concentrating hard on them, and, in what seemed like no time at all, I could hear my mother coming up the drive. I heard her walking up to the house, keys jingling, unlocking the door, and then opening it, and then she was home, and the moment was over.
“Hey sweetie,” she said. “How was your day?”
“Fine,” I lied. I knew Ms. Cleary was right. My mother wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say. She wasn’t one to believe in ridiculous stories, and was skeptical of the unknown. As a result, growing up I had never attended a church. My mother had sat me down one day, when I had asked about it. I had some friends at school who went to church. She had told me that she simply didn’t buy any of it. And in the same conversation, she told me that Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny weren’t real, and that magic and fairies were only the stuff of dreams and imaginings, and that stories in books were only stories, and nothing more.
My mother came over to sit next to me on the couch. “I’m sorry about the other day,” she said. “I was wrong to yell at you like I did. I heard the most dreadful news today. My friend Susan, at work, told me about her cousin, whose daughter went to get ice cream from the ice cream truck, and never came back home, and she’s missing. Her mother is worried sick.” She hugged me close, and kissed my forehead. “I’m just so glad I have you. Did you have a good lunch with your uncle? Where did you two go?”
“McDonald’s,” I said. I didn’t want to tell another lie, and I doubted that it would come back to hurt my uncle anymore than he already was, now.
She didn’t say anything for a while. Then, “Well, I hope you had a good time, but you know how I feel about that junk food. Next time, just try and pick a healthier choice, or stay in and make a sandwich and some carrots.”
I nodded my head, the automatic response.
My mother was unusually nice to me that night. For dinner, we ordered in pizza from my favorite place, and ate it with a veggie plate my mother made for the two of us. She even let me eat dinner in the living room with her, on the couch, while we watched game shows on the television.
At one point, while we were watching, the phone rang, and my mother got up and answered it. “Hello?” she said. “I’m good, how was your day?” She walked around the corner to the kitchen, the coiled telephone cord hugging the wall. I could hear her murmuring, and pausing, then laughing. “No, no,” she said loudly, “that’ll be fine. I’m sure he’ll love it.”
When she came back into the room, after hanging up the phone, my mother was beaming, and her face carried a slight tinge of pink in the cheeks.
“Your uncle was just talking to me,” she said. “He said he had a great time with you today, and that he wants to help you build your treehouse this week. He’s even taking off time from work, isn’t that nice? He’ll be by again tomorrow to spend the day with you. I’m glad you two are getting along now. Family’s got to stick together, after all.”
My stomach dropped down into nothing, and the inside of my chest was a hollow cave. I thought of the last time I had seen my uncle that day, that final glimpse as I was turning away.
His eyes had been blank and staring, and full of nothing. And he was coming to spend the day tomorrow.