“What are we going to do? We can’t just stand here with two boys tied up"
For a moment, the small group stood completely still. Avi strained his ears, but all he could hear was rustling leaves and birds chirping.
“I’m telling you. I heard something... voices,” Matt said insistently. “From somewhere in front of us.”
“Well, go and check it out then!” snapped Ivan. He sounded nervous — and no wonder, thought Avi. If the search party was nearby... if the men were caught with their captives....
He shifted, trying to loosen the pincer-like grip on his arm. It hurt. As a matter of fact, everything hurt: his legs, his arms tied behind his back, even his head. What time was it? How long since they’d eaten? Slept? Was it only yesterday that Ta had dropped them off at the forest? It felt like a lifetime ago.
Stop thinking about it. Focus.
Matt and Ivan were arguing now, Matt blinking furiously as he spoke.
“I can go ahead and look around, but I’ll need a weapon. I don’t have anything, and if they see me...”
“No chance!” sneered Ivan. “There’s a reason the Boss doesn’t trust you with arms, you know.”
Matt flinched, but held his ground. “Listen, I’m not going alone. What if they catch me? What if I can’t get back to you without them seeing? It makes no sense.”
Ivan spat at the ground. “Fine. Fine! You stay here. I’ll go see where the noises were coming from. Which direction?”
Matt shrugged. “Not sure. Try the footpath to the right. If they’re not there, retrace your steps, and cut through where that fallen tree is to a wider trail on the left. If both those paths seem clear, we can keep going.”
“One minute,” Stefan said suddenly, speaking up for the first time. “What are we going to do? We can’t just stand here with two boys tied up. What if the people come this way?”
“It’s fine, there’s some sort of cave around here, we’ll wait there,” Matt answered quickly. He seemed to be relieved, probably because Ivan had agreed to go ahead instead of him. “Not like the big cave where — you know what I mean — but a small kind of tunnel underground. Just behind that low bush over there.” His eyes darted between the boys. “We’ll have to untie their hands, though. It’s a bit of a climb to get inside.”
“Well, do it by the entrance, and make sure they don’t move an inch while you’re there,” growled Ivan. Avi hardly dared to breathe. But maybe… they would be untied soon, and without Ivan there — maybe this was their chance?
Matt led the way to the cave, his grip on Avi’s arm much lighter than Ivan’s. Maybe…
Behind the bush yawned a narrow, utterly black hole in the ground.
“It’s kind of a slope. You’ll need to climb down,” Matt said, crouching by the hole and reaching for the ropes.
“Watch out,” Stefan said warningly, waving his finger in front of Avi’s nose. “If either of you try anything stupid…”
Avi bit his lip. Could they try to make a dash for it? He tried catching Elchanan’s eye, but as soon as his hands were untied, Matt hauled him behind the bush and into the dark cave opening below. A moment later, Elchanan stumbled down the rocky incline at the cave’s entrance, landing beside him.
Stefan’s face appeared in the slit of sunlight above.
“I’m going to stay up here on guard. Alright?”
“Fine,” Matt called back. He was breathing hard, and as Avi’s eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, he realized the young man was sweating profusely. Was he scared?
Elchanan tugged at his arm. “Avi, let’s go, let’s jump him. We need to get out of here.”
“Don’t do it,” Matt said, but his voice had changed.
Avi opened his mouth to speak.
“No, wait, listen to me,” Matt said, lowering his voice and whispering urgently. “You can escape. I can tell you how. This cave… it has another entrance. Follow me.”
Avi’s mind whirled. Was Matt trying to help them? Or… could this be a trap?
Matt was already heading deeper into the cave. “Come, quickly! I don’t know how long we have until they come… you need to get out of here. I’ll tell them you overpowered me, knocked me out or something. They’ll come after you, but you can have a head start….”
Elchanan looked at Avi, shrugged with a gesture that said, We have nothing to lose. Avi closed his eyes briefly. Matt sounded genuine, but…
Matt was still talking, still moving relentlessly through the black tunnel-like cave with a sure step. Elchanan and Avi followed. “Listen. When you come out, you’ll be on a wide path. Follow it until there’s a fork, and then go to the left. It’s a narrow path, but you should be able to see it clear enough. Follow that trail, it will lead out of the forest.”
Avi was breathing hard, both from the exertion of the steep walk, and the tension in his chest. “But why? Why are you helping us?”
Matt hesitated. Then he said, “Because I’m one of you.”
“You’re one of what?” Elchanan asked.
They stopped in front of a pile of rocks that seemed to have fallen from the cave roof overhead. Matt gestured to them to climb over it. When they were safely on the other side, he said, “I’m Jewish. Grew up in a frum family, in a regular neighborhood. I had friends my parents didn’t like. We hung out, the forest was our second home. Then, one of them asked me to help him with a business deal.” Matt slowed his step. “Careful here. It’s slippery. But the business deal… It’s the biggest regret of my life. The ‘deal’ was this… this thing that I’m involved with now. And once you start working with these people, you can never leave. I’m finished.”
“But why can’t you just go home?” Elchanan asked. “You know the forest, just escape from here. Like you’re helping us….”
Matt gave a bitter laugh. “I can’t escape. They know who I am, they know my family. I have nowhere to run. So I’m stuck in this miserable life, with people who hate me, but that’s it, I guess. It’s with them until we’re all slammed in jail someday.” He bit his lip. “Or rather, till I end up being their scapegoat. The Boss keeps himself safely out of the police’s hands. But I’m not stupid, I know what’s going to happen if we ever get caught. I’ll get the blame, and the Boss and Ivan and the others will get off.”
Avi struggled to process what he was hearing. “But why do they work with you if they hate you so much?” he asked.
“They need me,” Matt responded shortly. “I’m their navigator. I know the forest like the back of my hand. Not many people do.” He paused. “Besides, I know too much about their… activities… for them to ever let me go.”
Avi could see faint forest light pooling at their feet. The tunnel exit was above their heads.
Matt gave them a glimmer of a smile. “I messed up my life, but at least I can do some good here. And if you could do me one favor… I have no way to contact my family. If you could tell my-my parents…” His voice cracked. “Tell them Motty is alive… and that I’m sorry.” He pressed a scrap of paper into Avi’s hand. “This is their phone number,” he whispered. “And maybe… maybe you boys can pray for me.”
“You can pray, too,” Avi dared.
Matt gave a humorless laugh. “Not anymore. I doubt G-d wants to hear from me now.”
“Of course He does,” Avi said. “It’s never too late to do teshuvah, Matt-Motty. Even now. Even here.”
“I don’t think—” Matt began, but they were interrupted by a sudden shout from the far end of the tunnel.
Elchanan grabbed Avi’s hand, and hauled him up to the opening.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 883)
Oops! We could not locate your form.