Elchanan was nowhere in sight. Which direction had he even gone in?
Elchanan was walking very fast, as if he wanted to leave Avi behind. Avi quickened his pace, trying not to stumble on the uneven earth, biting his tongue to restrain himself from asking Elchanan to slow down.
He didn’t need to embarrass himself even more. If Elchanan could handle the trail, he could, too.
Up ahead, Elchanan stopped for a moment, looking first in one direction, then another.
“What’s going on?” Avi asked, finally reaching his partner, his breath catching a little from the exertion.
Elchanan looked at him curiously. He didn’t seem out of breath in the slightest. “Just the path. It looks like there’s a fork... I’m trying to figure out which is the one we’re supposed to be taking.”
Avi studied the trail before them, but he could hardly identify the path. The ground looked the same to him everywhere — narrow, dusty, strewn with tree roots and fallen branches.
“Why don’t we just use the map?” he suggested.
Elchanan didn’t answer. He took a few experimental steps forward and peered into the distance. “No path ahead,” he informed Avi.
Avi looked around too. Trees towered above them in all directions. He tipped his head back, searching for patches of sky. Between the dense branches, he could see snatches of blue, interspersed with white-gray clouds.
It was so vast, this forest and the trees and the sky and the nature stretching in all directions. Avi suddenly felt very, very small and alone.
“Where is everyone else?” he asked, hoping he sounded casual. “Shouldn’t we be able to see some of them… hear them… don’t the trails cross at some point?”
“No,” Elchanan said, a bit patronizingly. “That’s the whole point, remember? We don’t see anyone else. Everyone has their own starting point, we each follow our trail to the meeting point… Forests are big, you know. Plenty room for everyone.”
“I know that,” Avi said, one shoulder rising defensively. “I’m just saying, the trails can’t be too far apart… at least on the map it shows that some of the others should be pretty close by. Unless they haven’t started yet…”
“Then we get a head start,” Elchanan shrugged. “We’ll get there first. Wouldn’t that make you happy?”
Avi’s jaw tightened. There went Stark, making a fool of him again. He hated this… this not knowing, this being in the weak position. In the classroom, he was the star. In the forest, he was…
Avi banished the thought forcefully. Not afraid. He wasn’t a scaredy-cat, terrified of his own shadow. This was a safe place, the forest was under surveillance, there were guides who checked all the trails… Mr. Kreiser had told them all about it. Their classmates were on other trails, in the distance, Rabbi Glazer and Mr. Kreiser’s team were patrolling, and there was nothing to be afraid of. He was just a little out of his depth doing a forest trail, that was all.
That was all.
Avi took a deep breath of woodsy forest air. “Okay, whatever, let’s just keep moving then.”
But now Elchanan seemed to have stalled. He took a step forward, peered at the ground, and then looked back at Avi. “You know what is strange?” he said. “It doesn’t look like this trail has been very well-kept at all. And Mr. Kreiser said that the guides walk all the paths every morning… it shouldn’t look like this. Both ways, the trail seems to just fade out. I can’t tell where we’re supposed to go…” He shaded his eyes and squinted over Avi’s shoulder. “Maybe it’s down that way? Was there a fork back where we came from, that we didn’t notice?”
Avi’s hand closed over the ragged sheaf of papers in his pocket. “We could use the map,” he said again.
“Or we can use our heads,” Elchanan said, irritably. “We’re just looking for where the path continues. I know what I’m doing, okay?” He threw Avi a condescending look. “When was the last time you hiked a forest trail, anyway?”
Avi felt his face go hot. Instead of responding, he unfolded the map and frowned over it. Elchanan could say what he wanted, but they had the directions right there; Mr. Kreiser had given them maps for a reason…
“I’m going ahead to check if the path continues anywhere nearby. You can wait for me here,” Elchanan said over his shoulder.
Avi moved his finger along the path they were supposed to be following. There was the entrance, the drop-off point where Ta had left them, right by the main road. Then they’d headed into the forest, and now…
Avi looked up. Elchanan was wrong; they did have to use the map. Because according to his sense of direction — which admittedly wasn’t his greatest asset — they were veering completely off the path.
But Elchanan was nowhere in sight. Which direction had he even gone in?
Avi stood stock-still. He was suddenly sharply aware of every movement of the forest around him. Leaves rustling. Bugs creeping on the ground. A bird hopping from one tree to another.
Where was Elchanan? Where was he?
There was a crunching sound to Avi’s left, and he whirled around. Elchanan was clambering over a tangle of tree roots, signalling him to come.
Avi never thought he’d actually be happy to see Stark, but the wave of relief that washed over him made him almost forget that he and Elchanan actually couldn’t stand each other. He caught himself just before a smile could break out on his face.
“This way, the trail’s over here,” Elchanan said, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder.
“That way?” Avi consulted the map, then held it out for Elchanan to see. “Can’t be. See here — we must be just past this bend, look. Although I don’t understand how it’s showing up so close to the road… we’ve been walking a while.” He frowned at the tiny orange line snaking across the page. “But anyway, according to this, the trail goes straight ahead.”
“Well, it doesn’t,” Elchanan informed him. “I just checked, there’s no sign of a trail behind us or to the right. The trees just get thicker. But if we go a few minutes to the left, we’ll get back on the trail.”
“To the left?” Avi stared at him. “But then we’ll be totally off the trail. Look.”
Elchanan waved a hand dismissively. “Listen, you can go straight ahead if you want, but you’re gonna get stuck,” he said, impatiently. “Or you can come this way, and we’ll get on the trail again. The map’s just a distraction.”
“A distraction?” Avi’s eyebrows drew together. “We’re supposed to use it, not think we’re smarter than everyone else and do our own thing.”
“No one thinks that, except you, maybe,” Elchanan shot back. “But if you want to use the map, go ahead. Try it your way. We’ll meet at the barbeque later, because I’m going to stick with the trail that I found.”
“But—” Avi’s mouth suddenly felt very dry. They had to follow the map. But the map showed a path ahead of them, and there was no path. How could it be? Was there a mistake on the map? Had he read it wrong?
Elchanan didn’t wait for him to finish speaking. He simply turned and plunged, once again, into the trees.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 870)
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