He had no problem reading thrillers — or news items, for that matter
Avi’s heart pounded so hard and so fast that he wondered for one wild moment if his heartbeat was loud enough for anyone nearby to hear. Then his brain un-froze, his senses returned, and the thunderous silence splintered apart with the twitter of the birds and the rustle of leaves.
From the distance, Avi could hear the men’s voices again. They were fainter this time, more subdued. Avi clenched his fists together, his mind spinning. Had someone just been — murdered?
“They don’t know we’re here,” he muttered to himself. “We can get away, keep moving, hide in the trees. They don’t know...”
Elchanan edged to a thicket of trees, peering behind them back in the direction they’d come from. Avi’s hand flew out, and without thinking, he grabbed his partner’s shoulder. Elchanan whirled around.
“Listen,” Avi said, as forcefully as he could while keeping his voice at a whisper. “Listen, we need to be careful here. There are people around, and they — they sound dangerous.”
An expression of uncertainty flitted across Elchanan’s face, then the brash confidence was back.
“Dangerous? Maybe they were the guides... maybe there was a bear or something. Maybe...”
“Maybe they just killed someone and we’re hanging around like sitting ducks in their path!” Avi snarled. The ominous crack echoed in his head — it had been a gunshot, it must have been. They had to get away from this part of the trail, they had to move.
“So let’s find out what they’re doing. Let’s check out what’s going on. We can sneak through the trees. They won’t see us. But I’ll bet you it’s the guides and they just had to deal with some animal or something...”
Elchanan moved again, back toward the source of the sounds.
“No!” Avi threw himself across the path. Blood rushed to his head, heightening every one of his senses, so the trees stood out in sharp, vivid relief against the sky and the sound of the wind filled his ears. There was danger in the woods with them, he could smell it, feel it in the crawling goosebumps shivering up his arm. “Elchanan — no!”
Through the adrenaline, he realized vaguely that it was the first time he was calling Stark by his name. Maybe that was what did the trick.
Elchanan stopped, reluctantly. He turned an impassive face to Avi, raised one eyebrow. It was suddenly, blindingly clear to Avi that Elchanan Stark was afraid, too. He just handled fear differently than Avi did; he wanted to prowl back between the trees, find the source of the noise, fight them head-on if need be.
And yet they were two boys, alone in a forest, and not everything could be fought head-on.
“Elchanan,” he said again, his voice low and urgent and deceptively calm. “Listen. We need to figure this out. We need to think about the options before we move. Those voices — it didn’t sound good. It sounded like adults, they sounded angry. Someone shot something. I don’t think we should risk them realizing that we’re here. There are stories, you know, when people witness a murder....” Avi stopped and shuddered. He had no problem reading thrillers — or news items, for that matter — from the comfort of his bedroom. But here, in the middle of a huge forest, landing in the epicenter of the adventure — well, that was kind of a different story.
For one interminable moment, Elchanan hesitated. Then he gave one curt nod.
“Okay. I thought we should just try to see who they are, what they’re up to... it might help us to—”
“To what?” Avi could not think of a worse idea. Sneak up on what might be a bunch of murderers? No way was he going to agree with that plan.
“To know what we’re up against,” Elchanan muttered, finally.
“Rottman and Marks, check.”
Rabbi Glazer looked up from the creased paper he was holding. It was scribbled from top to bottom with his own none-too-neat handwriting, with a few names crossed out and rewritten, which made it even harder to read in the dim light of the forest clearing. Nearby, Mr. Kreiser was marshaling the troops, as he called it: some of the boys were gathering wood for the campfire, others were preparing twigs and branches for roasting marshmallows, and others were organizing the supplies tent.
Rottman and Marks, who had just arrived, headed over to join the wood collectors, and Rabbi Glazer skimmed his list again.
“How many are we still waiting for?” Mr. Kreiser called across jovially. “They’ve done well, haven’t they?” he added, indicating the eighth graders milling around the clearing. “Right on time, too.”
“Baruch Hashem,” Rabbi Glazer responded automatically. He looked around, comparing names to the ones on his list; most of the class had arrived at the meeting point, but there were definitely some still on the way… Goldberg and Hollander weren’t back yet, Berger and Schwartz…
The ink smudged beneath his skin as Rabbi Glazer ran a finger down the list. Of course — Elchanan Stark and Avi Shine. The class leaders. Without them, the eighth grade was strangely… quiet, almost devoid of personality.
He hoped that they were managing to work together. Both leaders, both so different… and with the history between them—
“Hey, we’re here!”
Rabbi Glazer turned to see Pinny Schwartz jogging over, Reuvy Berger hot on his heels. They were both panting with exertion.
“We went the wrong way, don’t ask,” he heard Pinny tell a couple of boys. “Anyway, we got here now, one of the guides met us—”
“Oh, you just got here? So we’re not the last,” Shaya Goldberg said, materializing behind Rabbi Glazer at the same time.
Mr. Kreiser clapped his hands. “Fantastic! Incredible! Well done, eighth grade. It looks like we’ve all made it back here now—”
“Wait,” Rabbi Glazer said, his voice carrying over the commotion. “There’s still one more pair of boys…”
“Avi Shine!” half the class chorused.
“Elchanan Stark,” the rest of the boys said, at exactly the same moment.
“Avi and Elchanan haven’t arrived yet,” Rabbi Glazer said quietly to Mr. Kreiser. Around them, the class had fallen silent. “Should we wait a little longer, or…”
Mr. Kreiser checked his watch, then shaded his eyes with his hand and peered in all directions, as if he thought he’d be able to see the missing boys from where he was standing. “I say we give them 15 more minutes, and then we send the guides to find them,” he said decisively. “I have copies of all the maps, we know which trail they’re supposed to be on… just to be sure, though, we’ll search all the paths. The guides know what they’re doing, it shouldn’t take long to find them.” He gave a confident, reassuring nod.
“That sounds like a plan.” Rabbi Glazer stowed his tattered list in his pocket. “Boys, let’s keep moving. We’ll be ready to start the barbecue soon!”
Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Kreiser radioed a message to the guides.
Roger. Got it. We’re on it, came the responses. Mr. Kreiser clipped the radio back onto his belt.
“They’re going to find the missing boys,” he announced unnecessarily. “They probably took a wrong turn somewhere. In the meantime, how about we begin?”
The boys looked at each other.
“Can’t we wait for Elchanan and Avi?” Meir Rottman said, finally. “It feels strange to start without them.”
The rest of the eighth grade, sitting around the unlit campfire, nodded in agreement. Rabbi Glazer looked at them, finally united, and he nodded too.
Slowly, the sky darkened, the hours passed, and the clearing got quieter and quieter.
A rustle sounded from between the trees, then the snapping of branches and the sound of several people walking toward them.
“Mr. K?” Four of the guides stepped out into the clearing. A tall man, looking too thin for his Forest Trails Guide shirt, led the group. “We’ve searched the forest, all the trails. I’m afraid the boys you’ve described are nowhere to be found.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 872)
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