“There he is!”
As the words echoed through the radios and spread across a two-mile stretch, Dennis felt a lump of grief lodge itself in his throat. He had been dreading those words for nearly three weeks and now that they finally arrived his mind went blank. He’d planned for this. He knew what he was going to do when they found the boy from the woods, but now that it was actually happening he couldn’t make his body work with his mind.
Nerves are such cumbersome things. They help build a person up, prepare him, protect him… only to betray him at the moment of need—a feeling that Dennis was all too familiar with as he struggled to keep up with his father. His plan could still work, that much was certain, but he was beginning to doubt himself. After all, he wasn’t the most athletic person, nor was he the brightest or loudest or strongest; all of which he was going to need for his plan to work.
People were rushing past him so fast that they looked like blurs of neon-orange lights, an effect provided by the safety vests everyone was wearing to tell possible hunters that they were not their prey. Dennis tried to keep up, but the freshly fallen snow was wet and sticky and causing his feet more confusion than normal. He couldn’t stop, though. The voices were echoing, closer by the second, directing more and more people to the boy from the woods.
“He’s over here!”
Their yells made Dennis angry. They were treating the boy like an animal, herding him through the trees as if he were being hunted rather than rescued, and there was nothing that he could do about it.
By the time Dennis caught up with the group, he was held back by his father’s protective arm. The chase had ended and a flock of people now formed a semi-circle around a small clearing in the woods. Dennis tried to see what was happening, but there was too much commotion and too many people in front of him.
This was it, his one and only chance. He had to do something now or the boy from the woods would be captured, brought in, never to be seen again. Dennis’s feet felt like half-frozen jelly, but he couldn’t afford to wait any longer. The circle of people was getting tighter, narrowing in on the hissing and growling boy in the centre.
Taking one last deep breath, Dennis dropped down to the snow, onto his hands and knees, and propelled himself forward between the legs of the surrounding mob. The wet snow soaked through his gloves and ski pants almost instantly, and he could feel his skin already becoming numb from cold, but he couldn’t stop.
As his heart threatened to burst from his chest and out onto the snow, Dennis thrust himself out from the crowd, stumbled forward as he attempted to climb to his feet, and fell face-first back down into the cold mushy ground. By the time his thoughts caught up with his feet, Dennis found himself in the middle of the circle, only feet away from the boy from the woods.
The boy was scared and angry, and definitely not happy to see Dennis again, which he expressed by growling at him while waving a sharp, pointed spear above his head and swinging it toward Dennis’s face. By the time Dennis realized what was happening it was too late. The spear was aimed at his throat, only inches away from his jugular.
Dennis swallowed nervously. This wasn’t how he had seen his plan taking shape. In fact, now that he thought about it, he couldn’t even recall what his plan was.
“Jesus Christ, Dennis!” shouted a panicked Mr. Hayes. “Dennis, what are you doing?!”
Looking up at the boy from the woods, Dennis forced an awkward smile and slowly reached for his beanie. The boy grunted, prodding the tip of the spear against Dennis’s neck, warning him to stop moving, but Dennis continued and removed his hat.
The boy from the woods’ eyes widened and his lips almost stretched into a smile when he realized who was in front of him, but then the nearing people encompassing them made him angry again, and he stiffened his arms to prevent Dennis from moving.
“Wait!” Dennis screamed in a high-pitched, panicked voice. “Stop!” he pleaded to the crowd.
Mr. Hayes forced his way to the front of the search party, waving his hands from side to side as he urged the people to stay back.
The boy from the woods watched the man as he forced the crowd back. Dennis could tell that the boy recognized his father too, and he tried to use that to his advantage. “See?” Dennis said quietly, just loud enough for the boy to hear. “We’re here to help you. Do you understand?”
The boy looked down at Dennis then back at the man and grunted as he stepped back and allowed some space between the point of his spear and Dennis’s throat.
Dennis sat up slowly and cautiously rolled onto his knees so that he could stand up. The boy seemed to be okay with this, and Dennis carefully stood up. “Keep stepping back,” Dennis whispered. “Just go with it, okay?” he said as he stepped closer to the boy. “You can understand me, right? At least… a little?”
The boy nodded once while keeping an eye on the crowd. Just then, Dennis jumped toward him, grabbed the spear and spun back around while pulling the stick hard against his own neck. “Ahhh! Step back!”
The boy from the woods looked even more startled than the mob, but Dennis’s screaming ensured that the crowd was looking at him and not the boy. “Get back! Please!” pleaded Dennis as he began stepping backward with the boy.
Without taking their eyes off the surrounding people, the two boys disappeared into the trees, stepping backward until they were out of sight. It wasn’t long before they arrived at a half-frozen stream that was still fighting its way through the ice and rock as it rolled down toward the valley, leading into town.
As soon as Dennis was sure they hadn’t been followed, he pushed the spear out from under his chin and turned around. “You have to go,” he told the boy. “Follow the water away from town.”
But the boy didn’t move. He just stood in front of Dennis, grinning from ear to ear.
“Go!” Dennis urged the boy, but still he didn’t budge. “Please! They’ll catch you!” he begged.
The boy turned his head and his eyes followed the water upstream and then he looked back at Dennis, smiling wider than the Cheshire Cat. Instead of leaving, the boy drove his spear into the ground, stepped closer to Dennis, and reached out with his hand and placed it on Dennis’s chest, directly over his heart.
Dennis watched the boy in curious apprehension, partly from the boy’s touch but mainly due to the inevitable mob that would surely soon follow. “You have to go,” he said softly, staring deep into the boy’s bright hazel eyes. “Please.”
The boy then gripped his hand against Dennis’s coat, closed his eyes and bowed his head. “Friend.”
Dennis’s throat dried and he involuntarily whimpered with excited surprise. The boy’s voice was raspy, as if he hadn’t spoken a word in years, and it caused Dennis’s eyes to water with pride. “Yes,” he croaked back, his eyes glistening in the cool air as the sound of footsteps could be heard behind them. “Now go, please. They’ll catch you.”
The boy looked back up at Dennis, still smiling, and he nodded before stepping back and retrieving his spear from the snow and running alongside the stream toward the thickest part of the woods. But as soon as the boy had taken several steps away, and just as Dennis felt relief begin to sink in, the boy stopped and turned back around.
Dennis wanted to react, to yell at the boy to run before it was too late, but the spear had already been driven back into the snow, and the boy had already grabbed either side of his head, pulled him forward, and planted his nose deep into his hair.
The boy’s cold hands sent shivers down his spine as the sensation of warming air moved against his scalp and through the boy’s nostrils. Dennis couldn’t move, even if he wanted to. A part of him even craved for this moment to last forever, regardless of how dangerous and awkward it was. And then it happened, just before the boy backed away, Dennis felt the boy’s lips press against his forehead.
* * *
The boy had kissed him. It was all that Dennis could think about, even after he had disappeared into the woods, even after his father had found him beside the stream, and even now as he sat at the kitchen table, sipping hot chocolate and listening to his father lecturing him about what he had done.
“You think I’m a moron, Dennis?! I know what you did,” said Mr. Hayes for the fourth time in a row. “I just… why? You know the boy needs help!”
“Dad, stop!” Dennis begged. “I know, okay!”
Mr. Hayes’ shoulders slumped as he turned back around, feeling defeated, and he sat down at the table next to Keegan. “Then why did you do it?”
“Because what? That’s not an answer!”
Mrs. Hayes came up behind her husband and placed her hands on his shoulders. “Calm down, Eddy Bear. Let yourself warm up a bit first, okay?”
“Because he needs us,” Dennis finally answered, feeling strangely embarrassed by his reasoning.
Both of his parents looked at Dennis in confusion, but his mother was first to ask. “What do you mean?”
Dennis sighed in annoyance. He just wanted to go to bed and be done with all of this. “How would you like it?” he said angrily, “living alone in the woods forever and then being taken away, probably to live in some mental institution for the rest of your life?!”
“That’s not what’s going to happen,” replied Mr. Hayes. “They’ll take him to the hospital, place him in foster care and get him the help he needs.”
Dennis rolled his eyes and crossed his arms without even realizing how childish it would look before it was too late. “Right, because everyone’s equipped to deal with a kid from the woods? No one’s going to want him.”
“And what makes you think we want him?!” added Mr. Hayes. “We’re definitely not equipped to handle a child like that.”
“Exactly! No one is. That’s why he’ll end up in an institution.”
“It doesn’t matter,” decided Mr. Hayes. “You’re not coming out with the search party anymore. In fact, you’re grounded until this boy is found.”
“What?!” Dennis jumped to his feet, forcing his chair back and grinding its legs against the hardwood floor, as he slammed his hands down against the table. “That’s not fair!”
“It is fair!” yelled Dennis’s father, who also stood up and slammed his hands against the table. “We could have had the boy in a warm hospital bed tonight. There’s a storm coming, Dennis. Lots and lots of snow’s expected. What’s going to happen to that poor child in the middle of a blizzard?”
“Exactly. You may feel like you did the right thing, but you could just as easily have sentenced that boy to death!”
Dennis couldn’t deal with it anymore. The guilt, anger, fear, horror, apprehension, regret, it all happened at the same time, and all that Dennis could think to do was to turn and stomp up the stairs and bury his face deep into his pillows.
Now in his room, alone, Dennis’s emotions began to transform again. He was humiliated, felt stupid beyond help, and all he could think to do to deal with everything that had happened—that he had caused—was to go and sulk in his room like a child. At fourteen, he thought he was better than this, more mature and independent. But even now, after everything he had done and all that he had tried to be, he still wanted his mommy to come and make everything better.
That didn’t happen, of course. Dennis waited for it, for her. But she didn’t come to his rescue. He knew he had really screwed up this time; he must have if his mother didn’t come to talk him down and make him feel like less of a screw up. Instead he stayed curled up on his bed, clutching at his pillow like he had once done to Mr. Feel Good, which was his childhood bear—not some creepy pervert—until he fell asleep.
* * *
“Denny! Denny, wake up!”
Dennis groaned and swatted his hand at whatever was poking at his cheek.
“Denny! The plate is empty!” Keegan shook his brother urgently until his eyes opened. “Get up already!”
“Stop calling me that,” grumbled Dennis as he rolled over. “What do you want?”
“The plate’s empty!” his younger brother squealed with excitement. “It worked!”
The moment his brother’s words registered, Dennis jumped out of bed and ran to the window. “Like… empty, empty, or empty because the racoons got at it again?”
“All the way empty!” Keegan beamed. “I checked it carefully.”
Dennis whipped around, running toward his door, and then realized that, at some point during the night, he must have undressed himself because he was only wearing his black boxer briefs and a pair of still-damp socks. “Shoot… Where are my pants?”
“Right there!” shouted Keegan, pointing at the floor beside the bed. “They look wet, though.”
Dennis ran to his closet and pulled out a pair of old sweats and a t-shirt. “Were there tracks?”
“No… it snowed again.”
“What about Dad, where’s he?”
“Making breakfast. What are you gonna do?”
“Distract Mom for me, okay?”
Keegan frowned and looked at the floor. “I dunno… Mom can always tell when I’m up to something.”
Keegan gasped and ran for the door. “I’m telling!”
“Wait, Keegan!” Dennis attempted to stop his younger brother, but it was too late.
“Mom! Dennis swore at me!”
“Dennis, watch your mouth! And don’t be mean to your brother!” Mrs. Hayes yelled predictably.
But Dennis didn’t reply. He had to get out of the house without his mom seeing, and he was hoping that Keegan’s tattling would supply him with just enough of a distraction.
Tip-toeing down the stairs, Dennis eased his way around the corner and toward the front door. His bladder was screaming at him, begging him to turn back, but he couldn’t chance the noise from a flushing toilet gaining his mom’s attention and preventing him from sneaking out the door.
Dennis bent down to collect his boots, and he carefully slid them on his feet before reaching for his coat, hat and then gloves. Now he was ready to brave the cold. He could see the snow still blowing hard against the front of the house, but his final task prevented him from venturing further–the alarm system. It was the tattle of all tattlers; ready to squeal on him the moment he opened the door.
With one last, dry gulp of adrenaline, Dennis reached for the doorknob and gave it a gentle turn to the left. He knew that the very moment he pulled it open, the dreaded triple-beep would sound and alert his mother of an escape. Playing it out in his head one last time, Dennis whipped open the door, threw himself through, and closed it as fast as he could. Not stopping to see if the noise had summoned the curiosity of anyone, Dennis jumped down the steps and bolted to the left and around to the side of the house.
The snow was already three times as deep as it was the night before. What’s worse is that the warmth from yesterday’s sunlight had melted the snow just enough to freeze and form a treacherous lining of hard, jagged ice underneath the freshly fallen powder, which was something Dennis hadn’t taken into consideration.
The moment he turned the corner, Dennis’s feet lost their traction, skipped, bounced, and then rose from the ground as if defying gravity, and within a fraction of a second, Dennis found himself staring up at the branches of a large, naked elm. The force of the fall had knocked the wind from his lungs, and as he struggled to force the air back inside of him, he heard the tattling-rattle of the triple-beep.
Dennis rolled over onto his belly and ducked down as close to the ground as he could manage, without causing himself to suffocate and choke on the snow.
“Dennis! Get back here now!” shouted Dennis’s mother. “You’re grounded and you know it!”
Dennis kept quiet and slowly inched himself behind the side of the house. He knew he’d only have a few more seconds before his mother closed the door and journeyed back through the house to the back, which meant he had no time to waste.
Pushing himself up to his feet, still feeling slightly woozy from the fall, Dennis turned around and trudged as quickly through the snow as his legs could take him. When he began his venture through the back yard, even though he knew he shouldn’t, he couldn’t help but to look over his shoulder at the back door to see if his mom was watching. She wasn’t there, though. Not yet. Instead, there was Keegan, waving happily from the other side of the window.
Dennis turned back and faced the fast-approaching trees to follow the nearly-invisible footprints from his brother who had checked on the plate only moments ago. He knew the plate was already inside, but that’s not why he’d come out. He had to search through the trees, even if just for a moment. He needed to know if it the plate had been emptied by the boy from the woods or, for the umpteenth time, an animal.
Dennis briefly stopped in the spot where the plate had been and studied the snow. All that he could see was his brother’s footprints, but he was hoping that the trees, further in the woods, would prevent the snow from covering all the boy’s tracks. Despite the fact that Dennis wasn’t completely sure what he was hoping to accomplish by finding the boy himself, he at least wanted to give his parents a chance to realize that he had been right all along, that the boy needed a family, not a shrink. However, as Dennis ventured into the trees, the only thing that occupied his thoughts was his father’s words from the previous night. He didn’t want the boy to freeze to death, and, as bad as it sounded, he really didn’t want that to be his fault.
Dennis stopped in his tracks and looked around. He knew it was still daytime, still early, but the sun was nowhere to be seen and the sky was getting darker. Nothing looked familiar anymore. The trees all looked the same, barren and dead, and the footprints he’d just made, no more than twenty feet back, were already disappearing. He could feel worry begin to set in, and he realized he had no idea how long he’d been walking or for how far. Now, more than anything, he wanted to turn around and head home, but his conscience wouldn’t let him.
The boy was still out there. Dennis couldn’t turn back now. If he was cold, the boy was surely colder. And the fact of the matter was that, to everyone else, the boy from the woods was just an animal to be tamed, or merely their annual Christmas good deed, but to Dennis the boy was much more. He was human, compassionate and… alone, and he needed Dennis’s help to survive.
Thoughts of the day before with the boy replayed in Dennis’s head. The way the boy’s rough hands had felt on either side of his face, the sensation of the boy’s nostrils breathing in the scent of his hair and then the tender kiss—if that’s what it was—against his forehead; the boy was gentle and kind, and Dennis had to find him before anyone else, to show him what life outside of the woods is really like, that people were kind too. It’s what he deserved, after all.
Just as Dennis had realized his true motive, the sound of a breaking twig startled him and he whipped around to see what it was. “Hello?” he said quietly as his frozen fingers and toes burned and ached from the sudden movement. “Who’s there?!” he said louder.
A shifting in the snow behind him caused Dennis to spin back around, just in time to see the form of a large, golden cat pouncing down from a branch nearly ten feet above his head. Before Dennis could even think to scream, a dark, shadowy creature catapulted from the nearby bushes and collided with the animal in mid-air, and as they hit the ground a cloud of powdered snow flew up into the air and mixed with the wind, temporarily obscuring the beasts in a blanket of white mess.
Dennis stepped back and readied himself to run, but before he could convince his toes that they wouldn’t fall off if he had to sprint through the snow, the dark and shadowy creature rolled backward, away from the cat.
It was the boy from the woods, covered from head-to-toe in furs and holding his spear out in front of him. He was yelling and growling at the animal while he waved his spear from side to side as he backed away. To Dennis’s surprise, the cat looked even more afraid of the boy than the boy was of the cat, and as it struggled to regain its balance, it hissed once in warning before retreating into the shelter of the trees.
Adrenaline surged through Dennis’s veins like wildfire as the world around him began to spin. The boy was grinning at him and looked to be moving closer, but Dennis couldn’t smile back. He was too cold to move or even think, and the damn trees appeared as if they were getting ready to topple over until, without warning, everything went black.