“The boys were here,” he breathed. “They were here... in this clearing”
They’d been searching for eight hours. But who was counting? Not Mr. Shine, not when his Avi was lost somewhere in this dark, looming forest, with its twisting trails and the sound of animals in the distance.
“Are there bears in the forest?” he asked.
Mordche Fishman, an experienced Chaverim volunteer and the leader of their search party, half-turned. “Let’s hope not,” he said tersely.
In front of them, David and Tzviki were combing the undergrowth on opposite sides of the path.
“Aaaaaaviiii! Elchaaaaannnaaaann! Can you hear us?”
Their voices were hoarse from exhaustion, but they weren’t about to give up — and neither would Mr. Shine, despite the aching of muscles he’d forgotten he owned and the expensive business suit that was now adorned with a crusty layer of mud and leaves.
“Avi Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine! Elchanan Staaaaaaaaark!”
The group came to a small circular gap between the trees. The trail didn’t seem to continue in any particular direction, but that didn’t matter; the main thing was to cover the entire territory they’d been assigned.
“Wait a minute, guys, let me check the grid.” Mordche beckoned at Dov Ordman, another experienced volunteer. “Let’s figure out where we are and divide up to cover the next areas. It’s much lighter now, that should make things easier...”
Most of the group seemed happy for the brief respite. They pulled out water and energy bars, downing the meager breakfast quickly but with hearty appetite. Mr. Shine, on the other hand, felt his stomach recoil at the mere thought of food. How could he eat now? How could anyone eat now? Avi and his friend had been missing overnight. Were they okay? Were they injured, lost, terrified? How far had they walked? When, oh when, would one of the search parties find them?
He paced back and forth beside the trees, keeping apart from the group. Mordche had folded up his papers and was now giving instructions. Avi’s father didn’t care where he was going; he’d just stick with one of the groups and search, search, search, until his son was found. He would’ve gone off on his own in a heartbeat were it not for the fact that he had zero equipment and zero experience with forest hiking or search and rescue missions.
“Are we ready to continue yet?” he blurted out, unable to contain himself any longer.
Mordche opened his mouth to answer, but before he could say a word, there was a sudden exclamation. David was holding up a small item in his hand, waving it wildly in Mr. Shine’s face.
“What is—?” He broke off, taking the small, round plastic lid in his hand. It was the kind that came with reusable salad containers, the same ones that his wife liked to pack his and Avi’s lunches in each morning. And there, in Mrs. Shine’s tiny but clear handwriting, was the name AVI SHINE.
He looked up. The men were still, silent.
“The boys were here,” he breathed. “They were here… in this clearing.”
Mordche was already reaching for his radio. “We’ve found their trail,” he said, a note of newfound energy in his voice. “If the boys were here, they’re likely to still be in the area. I’m calling for more volunteers to join us in this part of the forest.”
It happened too fast for them to even think of a way out, let alone communicate a plan with each other. One minute they were cowering in the corner of the tent, the next they were being led deep into the forest by three of the men, the ropes still bound around their wrists.
Avi stumbled along the path, every nerve straining as he tried desperately to think of some way — any way — they could save themselves. In front of him, the man called Stefan marched at a rapid clip, half-dragging Elchanan beside him. Avi himself had Ivan gripping his upper arm tightly, and even if he could get away — which he doubted — where would he go? How far could he run with his hands tied? And most importantly, how could he leave Elchanan behind?
Matt, the thin, light-haired one, who always seemed nervous, was walking on ahead. He seemed to be leading the way, telling the others where to go, although he didn’t have a map of any sort. Avi wondered how he knew where to take them; the trees around him were just a blur by now, and everything looked the same to him.
“To the right, here,” Matt said, turning to face them. Was it Avi’s imagination, or was the worried crease between his brows more pronounced? Had he lost the way?
A tiny hope flared in Avi’s heart.
Maybe they wouldn’t find the river that the Boss had been talking about.
Maybe the search party would find them before anything happened…
Ivan seemed to think of the same thing. “What’s taking so long?” he snarled back at Matt. “Don’tcha know the way?”
“I know the way,” Matt said, his light-colored eyes darting from side to side. “We just have to keep off the main path, so it’s more complicated. We don’t want to meet any hikers or anything.”
“Don’t make it more complicated,” Ivan growled. “Just get us there already. The sooner these brats are off our hands, the better for everyone.”
Matt looked at him for a moment, but then nodded. “We’re not far away. Maybe ten minutes.”
Avi’s heart leaped into his throat. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe.
Ten minutes! What were they going to do?
Elchanan suddenly twisted around. His eyes looked desperate, pleading for Avi to do something. But what?
The awfulness of their reality hit Avi, full force. Nothing. There was nothing to do, nowhere to turn. Except…
“Daven, Elchanan,” he dared to croak out. “Daven!”
Ivan yanked on his arm. “No funny business!” he barked. But Avi barely heard him, his lips were moving, trying to form words of Tehillim. His mind was blank. Modeh Ani… no, Shema Yisrael. Not Shema Yisrael. No. They weren’t going to die. They weren’t!
Please Hashem, he whispered silently as they plodded onward after Matt. Please save us… please help us. Me and Elchanan… both of us. The past few weeks passed through his mind. The fight, him against Stark… now, the irony almost made him laugh aloud. I’ll stop fighting with him, he thought. With him, and with the other kids in the class… I’ll do better, just please save us! Don’t let them hurt us!
A ray of sunlight slanted through the trees, dazzling and painful to his eyes. Avi squeezed them shut, and a tiny tear escaped onto his face. Help us, Hashem, help us.
“Wait, wait,” Matt said suddenly. Avi’s eyes flew open. Stefan and Elchanan had come to an abrupt half in front of them.
“Don’t move, and don’t make a sound,” Matt breathed, his eyes fixed on the two boys. “I think… I think I hear noises.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 882)
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