“What are you—” Elchanan began, but then he heard something. Was that a voice?
This was not how he’d expected the long-awaited graduation trip to turn out.
Elchanan scowled to himself as he scrambled up a steep hill, the trail barely discernible under his feet. Avi was lagging behind, again, still talking about the map.
Map or no map, he’d have to be blind to think the trail went in any other direction. To their right and left, the trees were packed so densely they would probably be lost within minutes.
For a minute, a twinge of doubt assailed him. Could they be on the wrong path? It didn’t look like it was supposed to; Mr. Kreiser had insisted that all paths were well-maintained and easy to follow.
“Can you — hold on — a minute?” Avi called from behind, words coming in spurts between breaths. Elchanan rolled his eyes. To think the great Avi Shine couldn’t handle a couple hours of hiking...
He checked his watch. They’d been walking for well over an hour. Mr. Kreiser had told them the trails would take them three to four hours if they followed the directions correctly and moved at a reasonable pace. Avi’s pigeon steps, though, could hardly be considered reasonable.
“Why do you keep running ahead?” Avi finally reached him, breathing hard and angry. “You don’t need to show off, you know.”
“Running ahead?” Elchanan asked, incredulous. “We’re on a forest hike, not a kindergarten stroll. Do you want to get there after the barbecue is over?”
“We’re not gonna get there quicker by refusing to check the map.” Avi was holding out the sheaf of papers again. They were starting to look dog-eared.
“We’re not going to get anywhere by just running down whatever path we see. Mr. Kreiser gave us this for a reason, and I think we should be using it to check where we’re going.”
Elchanan sighed, exasperated.
“Look. Look around you. Do you see any other possible path at all? Have you seen one at all in the past hour? What do you think we’ll do if the map shows that we should be turning right now? You gonna go off into the forest by yourself? Because I’m not going to be joining you.”
“We’ve been following you for an hour, on a trail that keeps fading and is ridiculously steep, and I think we’re making a mistake!” Avi said stubbornly. “We might have to go back to where we started and begin again. I’ve been trying to figure it out, something doesn’t make sense…”
“Go back and start again?” Elchanan yelped. “You’re crazy! No way am I doing that.” But he wondered whether Avi had a point. The path was a lot harder to follow than it should’ve been.
“We’re on a path here, there weren’t any other paths, and this is definitely leading somewhere,” he told Avi, hoping he sounded convincing even while his mind raced, trying to remember. Had they missed something? Had there been a fork in the trail? But surely he would have seen it… and what other option did they have but to keep going?
“Remember, Mr. Kreiser said all the paths cross at the campsite. Even if we’re on the wrong trail, it’s gotta meet the central area sometime.”
Avi frowned. “But what about the guides? You said they followed the paths every morning. This does’t look like anyone’s been here recently. What if it’s an old path that they don’t use anymore? What if it doesn’t meet the campsite? What if—”
“We’re not going back to the beginning of the trail!” Elchanan’s fist clenched, and he just about managed to restrain himself from punching the nearest tree trunk. Imagine how embarrassing it would be, the rest of the class arriving at the campsite and he, Elchanan, still at the start of the trail. No way.
“So at least—” Avi was holding the map open again. Elchanan plucked it from his hands, folded it haphazardly, and shoved it inside his knapsack.
“What is wrong with you?” Avi made as if to snatch back the map, but Elchanan dodged and Avi stumbled, catching himself just in time with a muffled cry.
“There’s nothing wrong with me, okay?” Elchanan said gruffly. He hadn’t meant to make Avi trip, and there was something disconcerting in seeing the great Avi Shine so… vulnerable. “I just want us to get there, and the map is a waste of time. Whatever it shows, we’re going to follow the path anyway, because if we go somewhere else, we’ll get completely lost. Remember what Mr. Kreiser said — never leave the trail. Forests are big places, y’know.”
Avi glared at him. “Can I have my map back?” he asked.
Elchanan tossed it to him. “Yeah, but we’re not wasting more time on it, okay?”
They walked on for what felt like at least an hour. Elchanan made an effort to slow down a little; he felt kind of bad for how he acted over the whole map situation. But the kid just didn’t know what he was talking about. He, Elchanan, had gone hiking a million times. He knew how to follow a trail, whether it was the one on the map or not.
The forest was quiet, and the silence between the boys felt awkward. Elchanan wished that he had been assigned a different partner — any other partner. Even Shaya Goldberg would’ve been better than this.
“Wait,” Avi said suddenly, stopping short.
Elchanan spun around, impatient.
“What is it now? You need a rest or something?” He meant it sarcastically, but Avi didn’t respond, just shook his head in a distracted way and hissed,
“What are you—” Elchanan began, but then he heard something. Was that a voice? Other people on the same trail? But it was coming from a different direction…
Avi had a finger on his lips and a deep frown on his face. From between the trees, a voice floated towards them, too far off to make out the words. Then there was another voice, answering… was it a few people?
Elchanan felt relieved. Despite all his earlier bravado, he’d found it strange that the trail was so deserted. If there were other people around, that meant they were on the right track. Maybe they were nearing the campsite already? Or it could be the guides Mr. Kreiser had told them about… In any case, voices were good news.
“This means we’re following the right trail. It’s good news,” he told Avi.
“Or it means they’re lost, too,” Avi shot back. He didn’t look happy at all.
“Should we follow the noise, go meet them?” Elchanan suggested. Maybe there was a quicker route to the meeting point. Or maybe it was just another pair of boys on their own trail, but honestly, hiking with a group would be worlds better than continuing onward with just Avi for company, lagging behind and complaining that they needed to check the map.
Avi stared at him. “Are you crazy? Leave the path when you’ve just been insisting that we have to stay on it or risk getting lost? Besides, we don’t even know who these people are. What if it’s not anyone from our group? It could be—”
He broke off. The voices were growing louder, closer. One voice rose above the rest — it didn’t sound like one of their classmates. It sounded like a man’s voice, shouting, raging. There was a thud and something that sounded eerily like a gunshot. And then there was a sudden, deathly silence.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 871)
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