I heard my uncle pacing back and forth on the porch, could see his figure as a brief blur from a gap between the branches. Then he stopped for a moment. When he started walking again, it was off of the porch and down the drive. He walked with purpose, each step thudding on the ground. He walked down the sidewalk, and up Ms. Cleary’s little stone path, and to her door.
When she answered she looked surprised. I was close enough to just make out their conversation.
“How can I help you?”
“The boy. Where is he?” said my uncle.
Ms. Cleary gave him a look of genuine confusion. “I’ve not idea what it is you’re talking about, sir.”
“Don’t play games with me. I know this is the only place he has to go. You tried to get him to come over the other day.” He crossed his arms.
“Why, that was only so that he and Clara could play together. But she left just this morning. Her mother came to get her.” She smiled sweetly, the perfect picture of a gentle old woman.
I could see their feet from my hiding place. My uncle’s big brown work boots on the porch, facing Ms. Cleary’s own fuzzy blue slippers on the other side of the door. I could see her bare calves above them. They were wrinkled and pale, lined with varicose veins. The boots shifted every couple of seconds, almost fidgety and uncomfortable compared to the unyielding slippers.
The door to my house opened again, and my mother came out. My uncle called her over to the other side of the hedge.
“What’s going on?” she said, her voice flat, and unemotional.
My uncle spoke, and I could imagine him gesturing in agitation. “He’s in there,” he said. “Tell her you want your son back, and it’s time for him to come home now.”
A second’s hesitation. Then, “I want my son back. It’s time for him to come home now.”
Ms. Cleary spoke very slowly and deliberately, as if she were trying to explain something very simple to a pair of morons. “He, is not here,” she said. “I, have not seen him today, for the last time.”
There was silence then, and my uncle’s boots fidgeted again, one stepping over the toe of the other. It was the kind of embarrassing silence of someone waiting for something to happen, and then becoming uncomfortable when it never did. My elbows dug into the dirt, as I kept myself propped up, waiting in my own way.
“Well,” he said, after a good minute. “Perhaps he isn’t here then. Sorry to bother you.” And then the boots turned and walked away. My mother’s gray flats followed, and the blue slippers stayed where they were for awhile, before the door closed, and they were lost from sight.
When my uncle and mother went back inside, the door slammed behind them. I found that I could not keep a grin off my face. They hadn’t found me.
I began to crawl then, down the tunnel-like inside of the hedge, and toward where it met the two fences in the back. I crawled like a soldier, and imagined myself as one, escaping enemy lines across a border. As I pulled myself along in the dirt, I realized that my mother would be furious when she saw the state my clothes were in. I smiled, and kept moving.
When I reached the the end of the hedge I paused. I was a little reluctant to leave, considering how safe I had been in the hedge. But I knew it would only be a matter of time until my uncle thought to check there. I was surprised that he hadn’t checked it yet. I gathered my courage, and pushed through the tangle of thick brush.
I was on the other side, in Ms. Cleary’s yard, standing next to the tall wooden fence. Keeping my head down, I moved along the edge of the fence.
The door to my house opened with a loud creak, and I heard my uncle’s voice calling out, “I’m going to get some beer. Back soon.”
There was no time to think. He would see me any second, as soon as he turned his head this way. I whipped my head around wildly, searching for another hiding place. I was too far from the hedge now, and didn’t want to move closer to him. The door to the garden was just ahead, though. I reached out to turn the knob. And it was locked. The keyhole was round and large. Knowing that it had to work or I was done for, I thrust my hand in my pocket and brought out the key. Then I slid it in, and turned the knob. The gate opened inward on oiled hinges, and I slipped inside, as silent and unnoticeable as a spider.
I put Clara’s key back in my pocket, and closed the door. It made no noise as the latch lowered. Ms. Cleary’s garden was the same as I remembered it, wild and jungle-like. The flowers and plants all grew tall and close together. I could not see the door to the kitchen from where I stood, but knew it to be somewhere straight ahead and to my left, so I walked forward, into the bushes, hoping that I was right.
As I walked, the leaves and vines brushed my shoulders with gentle strokes, swaying in the breeze. I heard a crunch, and felt something. I stopped, lifted my foot, and looked down.
I had stepped on a little snail, crushing its shell. It looked to still be alive, but barely squirmed amidst the broken casings of its mobile home. I felt bad for the snail, and crouched down next to it. I didn’t mean to hurt it. Shards of its shattered shell stuck into its slimy body, oozing mucus.
There was a cluster of dandelions near the snail, and I noticed that the color seemed to be draining from them. They were losing their bright yellow shine, and growing gray and dull, wilting. Then I looked back at the snail, and my eyes grew wide. It’s shell was being pulled back together. I watched in amazement as thin tendrils of light, thinner than the lines that patterned the shell, spiraled across it, picking up the broken pieces, and molding them back together. Within a matter of seconds, the snail was whole again, and began to slither away, barely inching forward. The dandelions were withered and dead. Their petals crumbled, and fell to the ground, only to be swept away by the gentle breeze.
I stood back up, and continued on my way through the garden, making sure to step over the snail, and keep my eyes open as I moved along.
It took some maneuvering, and I got turned around more than once, and had to backtrack until I found the fence again, and start over, but eventually, I reached the sliding glass door that led inside. I knocked on it, and Ms. Cleary answered two breaths later.
“There you are,” she said. “About time, too. I was five minutes away from coming out here and dragging you inside, you took so long.” She stepped back to let me in.
The kitchen was warm, and I figured Ms. Cleary must be baking something, but I couldn’t smell anything. Then I saw that the warmth was coming from a great fire roaring in a wood-burning stove at the back wall. It was the middle of summer, much too hot to need a fire. There were also candles lit up, and strewn about, adding little heats of their own, and casting tiny lights in the dim room. All of the curtains were pulled over the windows, blocking any light from the sun. The place had a dull, orange glow to it.
“Are you going to help me?” I asked immediately. The hope had never left my mind, had only become more real since I left my house.
Ms. Cleary was fixing herself a cup of tea, and hardly made any acknowledgement that she had heard me. She took her mug of tea over to the table, sat down, and took a sip. Then she gestured for me to join her at the table. When I sat down, she spoke to me.
“It’s complicated,” she told me. “This whole thing, just very messy.” She took another sip of her tea, and then coughed, as if it had gone down the wrong pipe. “Very messy,” she continued, “what with your mother an’ everything. And he’s taken a liking to your uncle’s body. Won’t be easy, no. Won’t be easy at all.”
“But you can do it?” I asked, leaning forward.
“Who me? No. I can’t. But there is someone else who can. Only thing is, I don’t expect he’d like being bothered. An’ once he is, you may find you don’t like what you get.”
I shook my head. “I don’t care. Anything’s better than him. Anything.”
Ms. Cleary shrugged, as if it didn’t much matter to her either way. She drained the last half of what was left of her tea in a single, long gulp, and set the mug down, smacking her lips.
“Well then,” she said. “That’s that, then. Get ready boy, cause we’re ‘bout to call up one who’ll make that little wisp next door quake in his boots, Owd Hob.”
I did not recognize the name, but the way Ms. Cleary said it sent a shiver down my spine, and the hairs on my arms straight up. I hoped that I was doing the right thing, but didn’t have much else of a choice. Owd Hob it was.