“Elchanan, wake up, and don’t make a sound,” he whispered, straight into his partner’s ear. Elchanan’s eyes opened immediately, wide and alert
If they were stuck for the night, Elchanan thought, they might as well be a bit more comfortable.
“Help me here a second,” he told Avi, unzipping his knapsack. “I don’t want to lose anything. I’m going to hand you stuff as I take it out. We need to find the tent.”
“The tent?” Avi sounded incredulous. “You have a tent in there?”
“Well, I packed one, so I should have it... what’s this?” Elchanan’s fingers scrabbled against something hard. “Oh, no, it’s just — forget it. Here.” He dumped a waterproof jacket and a pack of spare batteries in Avi’s hands, followed by the lock-picking kit.
“What on earth?!”
“Got it!” Elchanan interrupted as his hand closed around a crumpled mass of canvas. “The tent. Leave that stuff, you can just put it back in my knapsack. It’s nothing.” He was glad for the dark this time. Last thing he needed Avi to see was the lock-picking kit, of all things. Why had he thought he’d need it in a forest?
Avi seemed to be examining the items in his hands, feeling them carefully all over and trying to figure out what they were.
“Here, just shove them back inside my knapsack, okay?” Elchanan said, brusquely. “I need your help putting up this tent. It’s not hard, but I’ve never done it in the dark... can’t really see what I’m doing.”
“So don’t,” Avi said. His voice sounded odd.
“Don’t…? What’s your problem? Why can’t we put up the tent?”
“I meant, don’t put it up in the dark,” Avi said calmly. There was a smile in his voice. “Elchanan, you know you have batteries in here?”
“I know. I passed them to you. What do you—” Then it hit him, and he nearly dropped the tent. “The flashlight!”
“Yes! I can’t believe you had these in here all along.”
“I forgot I had them,” Elchanan said. “I just need to get this open…”
He wrestled with the flashlight opening and replaced the batteries. The small clearing lit up. The two boys looked at each other. Avi had a small smile playing on his lips.
“Thanks,” Elchanan said finally.
“Sure.” Avi hesitated. “Thanks for packing them. Came in handy.”
Elchanan nodded. “Let’s put up the tent.”
With the thin beam of light guiding them, everything was easier. Elchanan rummaged through his knapsack again, finding not only the second flashlight, but also a sleeping bag, warm sweater, and a few granola bars. He broke one in half and passed a piece to Avi.
“Keeping the rest for breakfast.”
“A real gourmet breakfast,” Avi said, but the old bite was gone from his voice.
The tent was small — it was really meant for one person — but as they settled down for the night (Elchanan in the sleeping bag; Avi with a couple of coats and sweaters), Elchanan was glad he wasn’t alone.
Avi hadn’t believed he would actually fall asleep in a flimsy tent on the forest ground with dangerous criminals not too far away. But when he woke up, disoriented, a couple of hours later, he supposed he’d been tired enough to drop off out of sheer exhaustion.
Elchanan was sleeping deeply, his breathing even. Avi marvelled at how comfortable he seemed, curled up in a small sleeping bag on the ground. He, Avi, was so stiff that it was hard to even sit up. He tried stretching his arms and legs, stifling a gasp of pain as his cramped muscles protested.
A noise — from somewhere, he couldn’t be sure where — made him freeze halfway through a stretch. Was that Elchanan? But no, he was still sleeping soundly on the floor, in exactly the same position… so maybe the wind? An animal? A person?
The noise came again. A long, slow, rustling sound. It was definitely coming from outside. It didn’t sound like the wind.
“Elchanan,” Avi breathed. His forehead broke out in a sweat.
Elchanan slumbered on. Avi crouched on the floor and gripped his shoulder.
“Elchanan, wake up, and don’t make a sound,” he whispered, straight into his partner’s ear. Elchanan’s eyes opened immediately, wide and alert. Even in his fear, Avi was impressed.
“There’s something outside,” he whispered. Elchanan nodded and sat up, disentangling himself from the sleeping bag swiftly and silently.
Rustle. Pause. Rustle. Pause. Another sound… something dragging over leaves?
“Should we open the tent flap to see what’s going on?” Elchanan breathed.
The fear was paralyzing. Avi closed his eyes. “I don’t know,” he whispered back. He wanted to say, I’m terrified. I just wanna get out of here. But this was Stark, and he wasn’t saying anything of the kind.
Elchanan maneuvered the tent flap open, but it was no use. Outside was pure darkness.
“It might just be an animal,” Elchanan said, his voice so low it was hard to discern the words. “People would be carrying lights.”
“Unless… unless they don’t want us to see them,” Avi said, his voice barely emerging.
The rustling sound stopped, started. There was a noise further off, too, something loud. Avi’s heart felt like it was trapped in his throat.
It felt like déjà vu of their earlier experiences; the excitement of hearing voices nearby, and the shock of discovering that instead of their classmates or the guides, there were gun-bearing criminals. This time, neither of the boys said a word. They just stayed completely still, listening hard as the voices grew from in the darkness.
“…..vi?? …….anan? ….oo… rus?”
Parts of words floated on the wind. It sounded like shouting.
“Elchanan,” Avi whispered, “I think they’re calling our names.”
Elchanan’s reply was skeptical even in a whisper. “Those guys don’t know who we are. They don’t even know we’re here!”
“Not the criminals! It’s the search party. They’re coming to find us!”
The voices sounded again. “….vishiiiiiie? El….aaaa…….ark?”
“It’s us, they’re calling us!” Avi’s heart leapt. “But they sound far away… how will we get to them?”
“By calling back, obviously,” Elchanan said, not bothering to keep his voice low. He began crawling out from the tent. “Come on, let’s yell together, they’ll hear us better…”
“Wait!” Avi hissed in an agonizing whisper. “Wait! There’s something near us, we heard it! And the guys in the clearing, we’re probably closer to them than the search party, even! And if we call, they’ll hear exactly where we are…”
Even as he spoke, the rustling just outside their tent got louder. There was a faint call in the distance, an owl’s hoot, and a crack of branches that sounded like it was less than 10 steps away. Something — or someone — was right there, near their tent, much closer than the search party in the distance.
Elchanan froze, then dropped the tent flap back down.
“So… what do we do?”
“Nothing,” Avi said. “We can’t risk it. There’s something… someone… right near us. We can hear them. If they hear us… realize that we’re here…”
“…..anan…tark? Aaavvviii…. ine?”
There was a long pause, and then their names were called again, this time more faintly. Avi and Elchanan sat silently, helplessly, listening as the voices of the search party faded away into silence.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 877)
Oops! We could not locate your form.