| Out of the Woods |

Out of the Woods: Chapter 12 

The thought of sitting in a huge, desolate, and possibly dangerous forest for hours on end with just Avi Shine for company was worse than the idea of confronting the criminals


“We’re in the wrong forest,” Avi repeated, staring at Elchanan. It sounded like he was trying to wrap his mind around it.

The wrong forest. Elchanan’s mind clicked rapidly. So that was why the trail was so hard to follow. That was why they hadn’t seen any sign of the guides, that was why the path was narrow, steep, rocky, and didn’t look anything like the path on the map they were given.

Then the ramifications hit: If they were in the wrong place, then their classmates were deep in another forest across the highway, and they were following a trail that might lead nowhere — and certainly wouldn’t have a barbeque at the end of it.

His stomach clenched, and he wheeled around in the direction they’d come from. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Hold on,” Avi said, peering back down the map. “We don’t want to head back that way. There were those people there... with the gun.”

“Maybe. It might have been... something else,” Elchanan finished lamely. “Anyway, they’re probably long gone from the forest. They were pretty near where the trail started, weren’t they?”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Avi’s jaw was tight. “The point is, we need to think about what we’re doing, make a plan. Now that we know where we are, we can figure out what to do.”

Elchanan blew out a breath noisily. “Listen, I’m not sure there’s very much planning involved here,” he said. “I know we used the map to figure out that we’re in the wrong forest, but now that we’re here, we pretty much have two choices. Follow the path forward, or turn back to the beginning.”

“Or, we can stay right here, save our energy, and wait for someone to come find us,” Avi countered.

The thought of sitting in a huge, desolate, and possibly dangerous forest for hours on end with just Avi Shine for company was worse than the idea of confronting the criminals. Elchanan raised his eyebrows. “Why would we do that?” he asked. “I mean, let’s say they get worried and ask your father where he dropped us off... it would be ages until they get here. We’ve been hiking for hours.”

Avi bit his lip. Again, Elchanan had that strange feeling of… was it pity? Or understanding? It was just so unfamiliar, seeing Avi Shine hesitant, uncertain, afraid.

“Let’s keep walking, okay?” he said. “Let’s just follow the path forward. See the map, there are a few footpaths leading into here, they all meet eventually. Maybe we’ll find a fork soon and it’ll lead us back to the road.”

Privately, Elchanan thought it was more likely that they would land up even deeper into the heart of the forest. Glancing back at Avi’s face, already looking a little pale, he decided to keep that thought to himself.


The shadows were deepening.

Avi plodded forward, one step and another. A blister had erupted on his left foot, courtesy of the brand-new sneakers that were clearly not designed for forest hikes. Elchanan paused every few minutes, looking back wordlessly to check that he was still following. Avi gave a curt nod, and they kept going.

But now, Avi thought, tilting his head back and searching for splashes of color between the treetops —  now, it was starting to get late. The sky, which had been a pale, luminous blue all day, was turning violet.

His stomach growled.

“Wanna stop and eat something?” he asked Elchanan. The words emerged like his voice was rusty, and he coughed.

“Sounds like a plan.”

Avi rummaged through his bag for the bagel, suddenly grateful that Ma had packed so much food. Elchanan stuck a hand into his knapsack and pulled out a slightly squashed package of sandwiches.

They washed and ate in silence, and Avi had the sense that they were conserving their energy for more important things than talking. When they’d bentshed, Elchanan brushed himself off and started to walk again.

Avi got to his feet more slowly. While they’d been sitting down on the hard earth, his muscles had stiffened up, and every move was painful.

“I’m just thinking…” Elchanan said, turning back towards him and pointing at the sky. “It’s getting dark… we won’t be able to see where we’re going. I’m not so sure about this…”

“Let’s turn back,” Avi said. He didn’t know where the words came from; he was just so tired, sick and tired of the hiking and the stumbling and the searching for a path. “It’ll be hard enough to go the way we came in the dark, let alone trying to figure out going forward…”

Elchanan hesitated. “And… what about the people we heard earlier?”

Earlier felt very, very far away. And getting back to the road — where his father would surely be telling someone to come, to find them — was more and more tempting as night fell and the forest grew colder. “They’re probably gone by now,” Avi said, trying to convince himself at the same time. “And we’ll be careful… we’ll go slowly. I just think… we need to get out of here, and we know that this path will lead back to the road. If we keep going forward, it could go on forever.”

Elchanan looked at him for a long moment. He seemed to be on the verge of saying something, but held himself back. Avi was grateful — and embarrassed. It was his fault that they’d just walked for hours into the forest; Elchanan had wanted to turn back long ago.

“Thanks,” Avi mumbled. “And — sorry. I really thought this path would get us somewhere.”

Elchanan nodded shortly. Then he pulled out two flashlights, handed one to Avi, and they turned back.

Retracing their steps felt even longer than it had felt the first time. The tree trunks blurred in the dusk, and everything looked familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

Elchanan stopped suddenly, and Avi, too exhausted to notice in time, bumped into him. He lost his balance momentarily, but Elchanan reached out and steadied him with one hand.

“Sorry,” Avi mumbled. Now that they weren’t walking, he just wanted to sink to the ground and go to sleep. “What’s going on?”

Elchanan shook his head slightly. “I don’t know. I thought I heard something… but maybe not. Let’s go on, but quietly, okay?”

They crept forward, flashlights beaming small circles of light ahead of them as darkness fell. Avi felt fear and adrenaline rush through him. The exhaustion moved aside, and his whole body felt tense and alert.

“I think we’re near that big open area we passed earlier,” Elchanan whispered to Avi, close enough that his breath tickled Avi’s ear. “And do you smell anything?”

Avi sniffed. It was true, the woodsy forest scent carried a hint of smoke. “Something’s burning… is it a fire?” Horrific visions of forest blazes flashed through his mind, and he cast desperately around them for an escape route. They were deep in a flammable forest, they would never get out in time…

“Not a fire, a campfire or something,” Elchanan breathed. “Look up, there’s no smoke above the trees. If it was a forest fire, we’d see it.”

Avi wasn’t so sure, but he hoped Elchanan knew what he was talking about. They walked forward cautiously.

“Keep to the side. Behind the trees,” Elchanan said.

Tree by tree, the two boys approached the clearing, staying out of sight at the side of the trail. The smell of fire grew stronger.

“Looooook,” Elchanan mouthed soundlessly, grabbing Avi’s arm.

From behind a thick tree trunk, they could just see into the large clearing in the middle of the woods. Earlier, it had been completely empty. Now, there were three large tents pitched around it, and a small campfire in the middle with a huge man sitting beside it, stoking the flames. As they watched, men began emerging from the farthest tent, standing here or there without speaking. It was oddly silent as they all faced the campfire — and the man, who must have been the leader.

Elchanan’s fingers tensed around Avi’s arm, nails digging into his skin. Avi knew Elchanan had just noticed what he had: The enormous man sitting beside the fire had two revolvers strapped to his belt.

to be continued…

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 874)

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