The smoke cleared to reveal the floor covered with black and dark green snakes of all lengths and speeds. Benjamin turned white; he had a mortal fear of anything with scales and fangs. He was immediately cornered, stumbling back and trying to keep breathing. Riley was kicking them off his feet as they seemed to flock toward him. Oscar had climbed onto the table that was now nearly clear, and Eleanor was with him. She was more worried about Benjamin that anyone. He would pass out if he didn't calm down.
"Oscar!" Martha ordered, dropping a box onto the table by his feet. "Find a red bottle with a black stripe on it. Once they are taken care of, we can leave." Oscar didn't move. He was afraid to let Eleanor go. Martha stomped on the hissing snakes while looking for more boxes, kicking them out of her way with no regard.
"Benjamin, get up!" Riley called. He was using an umbrella he had found to beat the snakes back. Benjamin was trembling and white and trying unsuccessfully to push them back with a broken broom. In all this confusion, Eleanor turned to Oscar and caught his orange eyes.
"Oscar, let me go," she pleaded. "Please—Benjamin's going to pass out!"
"Eleanor," he stammered, tightening his grip around her, "we'll put them to sleep, and then you can let them go. By then we'll be so far away they won't know where to find us."
"Please!" she begged. She watched his masked expression turn soft with his hold. She leapt down from the table and carefully made her way over to Ben. His eyes were fluttering close.
"Eleanor, what's wrong with him?"
"Keep the snakes back, Riley!"
"Oscar," Martha barked, "find that bottle!" Oscar began to look for it, leaving Eleanor to her friends and breaking his own heart.
"What is that thing that held you?"
"Don't worry about him!" Oscar turned when she referred to him as a person. He paused and reached for the one jar that hadn't been put away—that black jar that contained Eleanor's spell. Suddenly, everything seemed to go still. Martha faced her son, the snakes disappeared like the blue smoke that had brought them, and Oscar raised the jar over his head.
"Benjamin," Eleanor whispered, holding him up and fanning his face. "Benjamin, wake up. The snakes are gone—come on." The color began to come back into the boy's face as he turned his brown eyes to his old friend.
"Oscar be very careful," Martha whispered, stepping forward. "You know if that jar breaks, the spell will end."
"I know, Mother!" Oscar cried. Now the other three were watching him. "This spell was wrong, everything about it was wrong!"
"Put it down, Oscar," Martha instructed.
"No, not until you set them free!"
"They can't go free! They'll ruin us!" Martha cried.
"Let us be ruined then," Oscar said softly through tears. "This isn't right, Mother. Nobody deserves this." A silence fell as Oscar's hands began to shake.
"Be careful—don't drop it! The contents are dangerous!"
"Oscar?" Eleanor said, stepping forward. "Oscar, do you know what you're doing?" Martha was worried about the spell, but if that jar could hurt Oscar, Eleanor didn't want him to break it. The hood from Oscar's cloak fell back, and Riley and Benjamin saw his face. His expression was of pure poetic sadness. His hands separated and the jar fell at his feet, bursting into a wave of flames. Everything old and wooden was caught in the fire, but Oscar's coat was first. He was devoured and the first thing Martha wanted to save. She reached for his coat and the flames spread to her. She began to shriek with pain while Oscar only dropped to his knees, welcoming death silently. Riley and Benjamin grabbed Eleanor and headed for the door as black smoke rushed toward them. Benjamin fiddled with the lock and threw it open.
"Come on!" Eleanor wouldn't descend the stairs.
"Oscar's still in there," she screamed, squinting to try and find him in the smoke. "He's…he's…"
"Let's go!" Riley yanked her down the stairs and into the street. The building was filling with flames, and in a matter of seconds, sirens were heard blaring down the street. Eleanor was free, Benjamin's arms were still around her, and her face was still clear aside from a few smoke smudges. However as soon as she had her footing on the sidewalk, she burst into tears. She could only think of that face, how Oscar had looked before he dropped the jar. He had sacrificed himself for them.
"Eleanor, you're safe," Benjamin said, trying to hold her up. Riley frowned at Ben and reached for Eleanor's cheek. She was fine—the spell was really broken. The mask still remained. By now, firefighters were putting out the flames that had swallowed the old wood. Aunt May was hurrying down the street to find her neighborhood and niece outside the disaster area. Everyone was asking how the fire got started and how unlucky those three kids were for being in the store when it happened. No one was talking about survivors.
"Your face," Riley muttered. "Whatever she did, it lasted."
"What was she, Eleanor?" Benjamin asked. "What did she do to you?"
"She was evil," Eleanor replied, swallowing back her tears. "She was evil, but Oscar wasn't. Oscar knew better."
"Oscar?" Riley repeated.
"So she gave you a spell to get rid of your scars?" Benjamin said, touching Eleanor's cheek. Eleanor turned away from both of them, walking toward the building a few steps.
"No, this mask is now the scar. I will always have to remember what it took to get this…this false beauty," she sighed. What it took was Oscar's death.
It was nearly midnight when Eleanor returned to her window, exhausted and depressed to all extremes. She saw the shadow shifting outside the glass and sighed, walking over to it and seeing Riley pacing outside.
"How long have you been waiting?"
"Not very long," Riley shivered. Eleanor slowly joined him on the escape, looking over the city. One of those busy cars would be taking Benjamin home. "Did he ask you to go back with him?"
"He said his parents had been fighting the courts ever since I left," Eleanor swallowed. "He said they wanted to take me in instead of letting Aunt May just carry me off…"
"So?" he interrupted a little too quickly. Eleanor looked down. Riley was staring, waiting for her answer.
"I can't go back. I want to believe that…that my parents are still there, and I'll never see them again." She wiped her eyes of tears she didn't even expect, and Riley hugged her. She sniffed and hugged him back.
"You didn't want to go with him?" Riley gently asked.
"I think if he had been there…here," she whispered, "none of this would have ever happened."
"No," she suddenly said, tearing away, "that's wrong. It's wrong to blame Benjamin—it's my fault. I listened to her, I believed her lies…"
"Hey, it's over," Riley comforted, taking her hand. Eleanor touched her face.
"It's over," she repeated. "It's over, and…"
"I love you."
Eleanor turned and saw in anxious, eager eyes a glimmer of the love she had missed for so long.