Gus and Aunt Marigold continued their winding journey. Gradually the darkness gave way to a muted light colored as if it were filtered by stained glass. The steps, though, became increasingly narrow and steep and Gus had to walk sideways to climb them. He felt as if he were scaling a very high hill and he could tell that something was at the top of the hill, above where they trudged. Just as Gus believed he would have to give up, he heard a few sounds as if they came from a bell just below their feet. He counted, and the bell sounded twelve times.
“Oh, my,” Marigold said, sounding a little winded herself. “I miscalculated. It’s the noon hour and we’ve still a few more steps to go. Randy, is everything all right up there?”
“Just fine. And it’s cherry, just like you said,” Randy’s voice echoed. “No sign of anyone.”
“Come, come, little Gus! This is the hardest part. We can take a well deserved rest and the remainder of the journey will go so much more quickly.”
I’m just behind you.” The box that had seemed so light felt terribly heavy in his arms as he finished the climb. When he took the last step, Gus couldn’t believe the abrupt change—the bright light, the flat area filled with plants that surrounded a very ornate fountain. Just beyond it, a narrow spiral staircase waited for them, but Gus ignored it, so happy to be able to set down the heavy lunch box onto a red checkered cloth that had been laid out for them. He noticed Randy slinking back behind one of the plants.
Marigold took the box from him and opened it to unleash a wisp of steam and a wonderful aroma. “I hope you like my special stew, the one I always bring to holiday dinner.”
“I do.” And Gus didn’t think it would ever taste as good as it did then.
“Here’s fresh baked rolls and a nice piece of pie—plum and raspberry and a touch of cardamom. There’s plain water on one side of the fountain and sparkling cherry on the other.” She handed him two cups. “Would you be so kind as to bring me some of the plain water? And here’s a glass for whatever you’d like to drink.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Gus happily took the glasses while Marigold assembled the food on the checkered cloth. As he got nearer to the fountain adjoining a wall, he noticed that it wasn’t like any fountain he’d ever seen before, but more like a trickling stream coming from the wall that split to fill two troughs. On one side, the water ran through a clear bowl filled to the brim with fruit that turned it a pale pink.
As he filled the glasses, a familiar voice came from a cluster of ivy near his feet. “I can stand outside the door.”
Gus startled and sloshed some water onto the floor. “What?”
“I can stand guard outside your door while you’re up there. I’ve done it before. Keeps everything safe and sound.”
“From what?” He set the glass down to keep it from spilling due to his slightly trembling hands.
“From you know who.”
“But I don’t know who.”
“And you won’t know who if I stand guard. Best that way.”
“Gustavo!” Marigold said, clapping her hands. “Come here and eat so that we can make it the rest of the way before it gets too late.”
“Yes, Aunt Marigold.” He picked up the two filled glasses and brought them to her, setting his own down by his food which he ate without mentioning Randy’s offer.
After the food was gone and the plates and forks and glasses wrapped up and set aside, Gus and his Aunt Marigold rested for only a few minutes before she urged him up and onward to the spiral staircase.