"Even if we find the trail again, we won’t be able to get past those men in the clearing. They’ll still be there”
He couldn’t go back to sleep now. Not after the fear and the adrenaline rush; the shock of the noises outside and the desperate urge to call out to the search party; the awful, sinking feeling as the search party moved away from the area.
They were nearly rescued. They were nearly home. But then they weren’t. They were just stuck in a tiny tent in a forest full of dangers, as small as shiny creepy crawlies and as large as a dozen armed, dangerous men.
Avi’s eyes burned with fatigue, but there was no way he could sleep now.
“It’s gone,” Elchanan said, suddenly.
Avi turned his head in Elchanan’s direction. “What, the search party? They left ages ago.”
Elchanan shook his head. “No. The noise outside. I haven’t heard it in ages. I think whatever it was must be gone.”
Wait. He could see Elchanan shake his head... he could see Elchanan’s face, pale in the dimness... that meant —
Dawn had arrived.
Avi had a sudden, desperate urge to leave. Leave the tent, leave the area where they’d spent the night, and most of all, leave this horrible forest and never come back.
“It’s getting light enough to see. Let’s pack up and go,” he told Elchanan.
“Go?” Elchanan raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Where? It’s what, four in the morning? Even if we find the trail again, we won’t be able to get past those men in the clearing. They’ll still be there.”
Avi couldn’t explain it, the itch, the need to move already. To escape the unexpected and very much unwanted adventure.
“Let’s just go — somewhere. Try and find the path. Maybe we’ll meet the search party.”
He knew he was being unrealistic — what were their chances of meeting the search party that had already moved on from their area? — but it was something, a sliver of hope to hold onto.
Elchanan looked at him, shrugged, and began to pack up the tent.
“Hey.” Avi pointed a mud-splattered sneaker at the ground. “Look at this… we left this out last night.”
It was one of his mother’s salads, missing the lid. The container was empty. Scraps of lettuce and pickles were scattered on the ground around it. They hadn’t done that.
“Must’ve been an animal or some kind, scrounging for food,” Elchanan said. “Look, could these be its tracks?”
Avi squinted at the ground, but he couldn’t figure out what were tracks and what was simply a regular part of the rough, leaf-and-branch-strewn forest ground.
“Maybe,” he said.
“Healthy animal we got there, huh?” Elchanan chuckled. “Going after lettuce salad of all things. Guess it wasn’t the meat-eating kind. Lucky for us.”
“Herbivore, not a carnivore,” Avi supplied automatically.
Elchanan looked at him with a mixture of curiosity and something else indiscernible in his expression. “How do you even know these words?” he asked.
Avi didn’t answer. He was examining the ground, the remains of the lettuce salad he’d never planned to eat (didn’t Ma know by now that he didn’t like lettuce and tomatoes?) but that now, he’d give anything to have. It was an animal rummaging in the darkness last night. An animal that made those noises that had woken him, made them huddle in terror and not answer the search party when they’d called their names over and over.
Despair rose inside him, deep and choking. He sank down to the ground, mindless of the mud and the scraps of food.
“They could have found us! We could have been home by now. If not for that… animal, whatever it was…”
Elchanan was wrestling the collapsed tent back into his backpack. “They’ll come back. They didn’t come right past our tent, you know, they would have seen us if they did. And they really comb these places, they know what they’re doing… if you want to stay here, I’m sure that eventually, they’ll find us.”
“Why should they come back here?” Avi spoke with his head buried in his arms, voice muffled. “They called out to us. They must have been near enough. We didn’t answer, so they moved on to another area. The forest is big, you know. It might take days till they find us.”
“Okay, so we’ll walk. We said we would.” Elchanan glanced back, and his tone shifted. “Listen, Avi, it’ll be fine. They’re not going to give up on us because we didn’t answer. They’ll keep searching, they’ll get more people involved, they’ll probably catch those criminals too while they’re at it.”
Hope flared in Avi’s heart, then sizzled out. “Unless the criminals get them first.”
But the thought of getting out, or of stumbling upon the search party, galvanized him back into action. He stood up, swaying a little with the ache of strained muscles down his legs, arms, and back.
“Good to go?” Elchanan asked, hoisting his knapsack over his shoulders easily. Avi looked at him, full of energy, with seemingly no residual aches and pains from a long day of tedious hiking and a night — or half a night — sleeping on the ground.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said.
Still, he felt a pang at leaving the small area where they’d spent the night. It felt, oddly enough, like familiar — safe — territory.
Elchanan didn’t seem to have any such compunctions. “Let’s see, we came from that direction…”
“East,” Avi supplied. Elchanan looked at him, surprised, and Avi pointed upward. “The sun’s rising over there… look. So we must be walking east.”
“Okay, cool, but it doesn’t help us find the trail. Wait,” Elchanan said, suddenly excited. “Here, I think these are our tracks, look. We must’ve broken through this bush here, it doesn’t look natural.”
Avi followed him, hesitantly. “Are you sure? Everything looks the same to me…”
“I think so.”
They walked for a few minutes, Elchanan pausing every so often to consider the direction. Then he stopped.
“We didn’t run for that long last night. I really think if we’d have gone in the right direction, we should be nearly back on the trail by now.”
Avi looked around. Trees, trees, more trees. The sun beginning to rise in the pink-streaked sky. Then he drew in a breath sharply. “Look!”
Just ahead of them, a thin column of smoke was curling upward.
“I think we’re around the back of their campsite,” Elchanan whispered, thoughtfully. “Look — over there. Isn’t that the back of a tent?”
Avi craned his neck. “I… yes — I think you’re right!” he said. “That means — we’re near the trail! If we can just get around there without those men seeing us, we’ll get back to the road in no time and can call for help! And we’ll make sure to let the police know about what’s going on here…”
“Not so fast.” A jeering voice spoke behind them, and a tall, sunburned man with long hair and a cruel, thin-lipped smile stepped out from between the trees. “Oh no, you boys won’t be going anywhere for a while.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 878)
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