Ms. Cleary set the jar on the table, and the thing inside rattled against the glass.
“This,” she said,”is how we get Owd Hob to go after what’s inside your uncle.”
I looked inside at the tiny sphere, like a marble, and remembered the feeling of it being lodged in my hand. “That?” I asked, “How?”
“”It’s the heartstone of the boggart. When he meant to use you as a vessel, he stuck it in with his bite. It was a gamble on his part, but I’ll bet he was so desperate to get here, he was past caring for such risks.”
A heartstone. It had such a pretty, magical sounding named, but it looked so normal. It was a dull, steely gray, and did not shine, or emit a pulsing glow, as I would have expected. It just sat there, looking like it belonged on the ground, forgotten.
“We also have to go back to the fairy ring, boy. That’s where we’ll call him. That’s where he’ll come.”
“Okay.” I swallowed back a lump in my throat.
“And there’s something else I need you to do too,” said Ms. Cleary, standing up and walking to the counter. She fished around, and opened a few cupboards before returning to the table, with a blue cylinder in hand. She set it on the table with a small thud. It was a normal container of salt.
“Salt?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “Salt. You need to take this, and draw a circle around your house with it. It should keep your uncle from getting away.”
“Salt?” I said again.
“Yes. Make sure there are no gaps in the line, and that the circle completely connects.”
“How big should I make the circle?”
She shrugged. “As big as you want to make it. But remember, you only have so much.” And she tapped the side of the salt container with a finger.
I grabbed the salt container, and looked at it. The covering was blue, and there was nothing on it, except ‘SALT’ in big, white letters. A swarm of resting butterflies began to flutter their wings in my stomach. I was nervous, but also strangely clear-headed. There was something for me to do now, something that would help. I could recognize that, and though I was indeed afraid, I knew that this was what I had to do, and did my best to quell my nerves.
“Go now,” Ms. Cleary told me, “and come back once it’s been done.”
I held the salt close to me, and got up from the table. Ms. Cleary showed me to the side door, and out to the garden. I prepared myself to make my way again through the labyrinth of leaves and flowers, but Ms. Cleary took care of it. I couldn’t see whether or not she waved her hand, or nodded her head. I didn’t hear her say any magic words. But she must have done something, for the plants parted, down the middle, making a clear path from where I stood to the wooden gate in front.
I turned back to her, and smiled. “Thanks,” I said.
Ms. Cleary said nothing in return, just looked at me, and gave me a reassuring smile, and nodded at me to go on.
I walked quickly down the grassy path, making sure to watch my step. When I reached the gate I turned back again, hoping to see what Ms. Cleary had done to bring the plants down, and if she would do it again to put them back. But all I saw were towering bushes and branches. The house was already blocked from view, and Ms. Cleary was gone.
I hefted the salt container with both hands, trying to guess at how much was in there. A good bit, I figured, easily more than half-full. I planned on going around the outside of our fence. I could hide behind the trees in the back, and had less of a chance of being spotted. With my mind set, I didn’t give myself another moment to second-guess what I was doing, and plunged into the hedge, and out to the other side.
I was at the side of our house, and there was a thin gap between the two fences that I could just squeeze through. I opened the spout on the salt container, and began trailing a thin line of salt behind me. The going was slow; I wanted to make sure that I was keeping an even, uniform line, and poured it as sparingly as I could. I reached the corner, and curved around it. It would not be a very good circle, and I hoped that that would be okay.
As I continued around the outside of our fence, I made frequent, darting glances to my house, fearing that at any second I would see my uncle tearing out of it toward me. I was still baffled by how easily he had given up looking for me. I wondered what it was he was up to in there, and if my mother was safe, and unhurt.
I came around to the other side of the house. I was more than halfway done now, and could even see the hedge, where I started. I let the heavy weight that I had been carrying on my shoulders to ease somewhat, and relaxed a bit there. But, knowing that this last part would be the most dangerous and risky, I made sure to not let my guard down completely.
We usually kept the front window with the blinds open, and anyone sitting in the living room would easily be able to see if someone was spilling salt down the sidewalk. I had to go up close, underneath the window, and onto the porch, to remain unseen.
I crept slowly, across the driveway, in front of my uncle’s green truck, parked so that it was nearly touching the garage door, and squeezed through the gap. Then I turned back to connect the line of salt through it as well, and continued to the porch.
There was a step to get up onto the porch, and I stopped there, and stared at the spot where it met the cement drive. I would have to go around, on the outside of the porch. I wasn’t sure whether or not I would be seen there, and it was a large gamble to make. I’d have to run if spotted, and hope that I would not leave a single hole in the circle of salt, otherwise I would be done for.
I took a deep breath, and crouched as low to the ground as I could without crawling on my belly. One hand moved along with me, like a third foot, keeping my balance, while the other held the salt container, and kept the steady stream going. The container had grown considerably lighter, and I prayed that it would have enough to close the circle. While I crawled, I kept my eyes trained on the door. I was fully prepared to bolt for the hedge again, the second I saw the handle move.
Nothing happened, though. I was not seen, and I passed the front porch, and then the windows of my bedroom and playroom, respectively. I was just reaching the corner of the house, when the door burst open.
I jumped in surprise, and the salt dropped from my hand. I fumbled for it, but my eyes were fixed on the porch in fear. My uncle was there, and he was staring right at me.
“There you are,” he said, and started walking slowly, toward me. He walked like a wild cat stalking its prey, raising its haunches and getting ready to pounce.
I lowered my eyes for one second, and picked up the salt, and started pouring again. I was close. I was so close to the end now, could see just a few feet away, where the other end lay in the grass.
“What are you doing with that?” My uncle asked, still taking long, creeping strides.
I didn’t answer, and kept pouring. I was going to make it, was inches away now. But my uncle was closer too, and moving faster.
“It’s time to come inside,” he said, and reached out a hand for me, just as I dropped the last bit of salt, and completed the circle. I had made sure to close it while staying on the outside of the ring, not knowing or wanting to find out if it would trap me as well.
There was a sizzling sound and a spout of steam, and my uncle shrieked. I hadn’t seen what happened, had been too concentrated on making sure to connect the circle of salt. When I looked up he was holding his hand, which was still steaming, and cradled it against his body.
“What is this?” he hissed, and it didn’t sound like my uncle’s voice at all. It was feral and grating, like his laugh. His eyes were all-black now too, and his face contorted with rage. He was not fool enough to reach out the other hand, or try and cross over the line of salt. He then covered his face with his hand, and took some deep breaths. It looked like he could have been sobbing, but I heard no noise.
When he lowered his hand, the black eyes were gone, and my uncle’s face was back to normal, smiling and sweet. He reached out his hand, the uninjured one, and held it out to me, just shy of the line.
“Come on, buddy,” he said. “Let’s go inside, and get some ice cream.”
I did the something rude then, something I had seen boys do on the playground at school. I stuck my tongue out at him, and showed him my middle finger.
Then I walked calmly away, around the hedge, and up the walk to Ms. Cleary’s door.