It was hard to imagine that just this morning, his biggest problem had been being assigned Elchanan Stark as partner
“There’s nothing we can do.”
Elchanan’s voice sounded strange. Was it fear? Exhaustion? Or was it helplessness, as even Elchanan Stark himself admitted that they were stuck?
“Avi?” Elchanan’s voice spoke in the darkness again, tentative. “Still there?”
A wry chuckle escaped his throat. “Yeah. There aren’t many places to go.”
Avi heard movement. Elchanan seemed to be feeling his way around the small area where they’d sat down. “Unless... we could try? Going back, I mean.”
Avi shook his head vehemently, even though he knew Elchanan couldn’t see a thing. “No. It’s never gonna work. Firstly, how would we even get back to the path in the dark? Second, let’s say we manage to get back to the clearing, we can’t get through it without those guys seeing. And besides, there’s no point. The search parties will be coming from the other direction.”
“True,” Elchanan mumbled. “Guess we have to stay put, then…. You hungry?”
Avi thought about that. How many hours was it since they’d last eaten? He supposed he was kind of hungry.
“I guess so.”
Elchanan switched on the flashlight again.
“I have nosh,” he said, tossing packets of Bissli on the ground between them. “Or chocolate?”
For a brief moment, Avi thought longingly of the barbecue. Would the class be continuing the trip without them? Or were they busy searching the wrong forest for their two missing classmates?
It was hard to imagine that just this morning, his biggest problem had been being assigned Elchanan Stark as partner.
“Let me see what I have,” he said, wrenching himself back to the present. “My mother packed some salads and stuff…”
Egg, tuna, lettuce salad, crackers — even without the bagel he’d eaten earlier, there was more than enough for both of them.
“Dig in,” Avi said.
It was good to eat something. It felt… almost normal, as if they were doing a regular hike together and would meet their classmates shortly.
“We should probably clean everything up carefully, you know, in case those men come this way,” Elchanan said suddenly.
If the men were really coming after them, Avi thought, a few pieces of garbage wouldn’t make much difference. But he didn’t have the energy to argue anymore. He began gathering the empty containers.
The light went out. Avi sat back on his heels, disoriented. “Can you put that back on? I’m not done here.”
Elchanan sounded as confused as he was. “I didn’t turn it off. It must be the batteries… wait, let me try again.”
He shook the flashlight, jiggled the switch. There was a feeble, momentary ray of light, then it flickered off again.
Avi closed his eyes, breathed deeply, and opened them to the same pitch darkness that was behind his eyelids.
“Let’s use the other flashlight. Just for a minute.”
He didn’t tell Elchanan that he just wanted one more minute of light. One more reassuring glance around that their spot was well-hidden by trees, that there were no dangerous animals — or people — nearby. Even one more look at Stark, to remind him that he wasn’t alone against the elements.
Elchanan scrabbled around in the darkness. His hand knocked into Avi, and Avi jumped back in a sudden panic, before he realized it was just Elchanan. Why did he keep on getting so frightened?
Maybe because this is pretty frightening.
Stark seemed pretty calm despite everything. “I can’t find the flashlight, but we’ll be fine,” he told Avi. “They won’t find us here. We’ll wait through the night, and in the morning, we’ll find the main trail, wait till the men leave the clearing, and then get back to the road. Bet you anything they’ll have someone there waiting for us. Search-party headquarters or whatever,” he added knowledgeably.
Avi hoped Elchanan knew what he was talking about. He himself could see about a dozen flaws in the plan. How, exactly, would they manage through the night, in the cold and dark? What if it rained? What if the men came while they were sleeping? For that matter, what if they came while the boys were awake? They had guns.
And even if they’d manage to wait until morning, how would they get through the trail undetected? What if the men didn’t leave the clearing? What if…
“Listen, there’s no point worrying, there’s nothing we can do,” Elchanan said. Avi’s lips tightened. He hated that Stark realized how anxious he was.
“Where’s the flashlight?” he asked, changing the subject. “It’s not in your knapsack?”
“No,” Elchanan said. “It must have fallen somewhere. I can’t find it. We’ll just have to manage without… it probably didn’t have much power left, anyway.”
So there was no escape from the choking, impenetrable darkness.
Avi’s fingers gripped the strap of his knapsack tightly. All he needed was to lose that, too. At least they had what to eat… for now. He felt a rush of gratitude for the amount of food Ma had insisted on sending along. Then the thought of Ma, and home, made his throat close up.
He was tired, so tired, and the ground was hard and cold and uneven and muddy. Every bone in his body ached, and to top it all off, somewhere not too far off were dangerous men with guns, up to something, probably some criminal activity. What had the leader said, guard the valuables?
Terror mounted in Avi’s heart. He could picture the search party making its way along the trail, calling out to the boys, not bothering to hide themselves… and stumbling upon the clearing, with two of those scary-looking men on guard. The leader had two guns… did the guards? What would they do? The search party wouldn’t have guns on them, why should they? They would be emergency responders, maybe Hatzalah or Chaveirim volunteers, or whoever was available to help comb the forest for two missing boys….
Whoever was available… Avi’s blood ran cold. He knew, he just knew, that his father would be one of them.
Then he and his father would be in the forest — with those men lurking between the trees.
“Here.” Mr. Shine pointed toward the forest. His finger trembled slightly. “Here’s where I dropped the boys off to start the trail.”
The search and rescue team nodded briskly. They were experienced; trained in search and rescue, they’d done this sort of thing over and over. But it wasn’t their son. And they weren’t the ones who had made the mistake with the directions….
One of the men looked back, his eyes warm and compassionate. “Mr. Shine, would you rather wait at the command center? We’ll update you immediately with any news. It’s not an easy hike, especially in the dark… and the search could take time.”
“Besides, it may be that another team will find them,” another one, short but powerfully built, interjected. “You never know how far they’ve walked. If you’re at the command center, you’ll be there as soon as the boys arrive back.”
The command center, parked off the road nearby, beckoned invitingly. Inside, Mr. Shine knew, was a fully equipped office with high-tech communication systems to keep contact with the teams of searchers even without cell phone service. There was also food, water, maps, medical equipment — and somewhere to sit down. He was bone-tired, weary from the shock and strain.
But then he thought of Avi, and Avi’s friend. They must be cold, hungry, exhausted — and scared.
“I’m coming with you,” he said, in a tone that every one of his employees back in the office knew brooked no argument.
“Remember, this is the trail the boys believed they were supposed to follow,” the short man, David, reminded the group. “Chances are they’re somewhere along it. One of the boys was a pretty good hiker, his friends say.”
“If they’re smart, they’ll be sitting tight now that it’s dark,” another man added. He was wiry and athletic-looking, wearing a shirt with no jacket despite the nighttime chill. Mr. Shine pulled his own jacket tighter around himself.
“Let’s just go already,” he implored.
Together, they entered the forest.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 876)
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