The boy was in the woods, he was lost, and he was questioning everything he had ever believed. He had been wandering the immense Oregonian forest for the better part of an hour; having been separated from his Boy Scout troop when he stopped to pee.
He should have told his assigned buddy, Shawn Bumperton, to wait for him while he relieved himself, but Shawn had always been so malicious. He was terrified Shawn would alert the rest of Troop 14 and they’d all make fun of the size of his penis. In truth, that’s why he had travelled so far from the trail: to find the proper fern large enough to hide behind.
After he finished urinating, he realized he had been so worried about hiding that he couldn’t find his way back. He had found a trail, but it was now apparent this was not the trail. It was what Scoutmaster Rick called a “game trail.”
Holy shit, the boy thought. I’m going to die out here.
He stumbled in an aimless wend through a thicket of prickly sage and fern. The game trail had disappeared, leaving the boy amongst dense brush and monstrous redwoods. Beads of sweat, born from panic and lassitude, coated his flesh. His face was crimson and sucked for air like a largemouth bass writhing on a riverbank. He stopped to rest his hands on his knees. He tried to collect himself and remember his Scout’s training.
What did Scoutmaster Rick always say about getting lost, the boy asked himself.
He strained to remember. Did he have to find north? What if he went north, but the boys from Troop 14 had gone south? Was he supposed to stay where he was? That didn’t sound right. What if the trail was just up ahead?
Fuck Scoutmaster Rick, the boy thought. His training was utter nonsense. What kind of Scoutmaster allows a corpulent twelve-year-old to wander the woods unaccompanied? What kind of shit-for-brains Scoutmaster puts his trust in the “buddy system”? Scoutmaster Rick should have known not to pair the boy up with the infamous Shawn Bumperton. Didn’t he know that Shawn incessantly teased the boy? They hadn’t made camp for ten minutes when Shawn pantsed him in front of all of Troop 14. He flung the boy’s shirt over his head like the bruiser of a hockey team and slapped his tummy until it was pink. The boy couldn’t see the others laughing, but he heard their tittering sprinkled amongst Shawn’s obnoxious pig sounds.
Fuck Scouts, the boy thought.
He didn’t care for the wilderness in general. It certainly wasn’t better than staying home and playing video games. What with the booming tech industry, the boy figured he was more likely to find a career in computer programming than knot tying. Maybe he’d invent some kind of ingenious software, or build intricate machines that could save lives and win wars. Maybe he’d be the one to finally crack the flying car. All the while, Shawn Bumperton and the assholes of Troop 14 would fritter away, cooking in dutch ovens and sleeping on rocks. They’d amount to nothing more than gas station attendants. Gas station attendants who would fill the tank of his flying car. They would recognize him and say, “Hey, man! Remember me?” But the boy wouldn’t, or at least he’d pretend not to at first. He’d squint, making a show of his attempt to place them. Then he’d say something like, “Shawn Bumperton?… From Scouts?! I hardly recognized you!… Yes, things are great with me. I married Beatrice Vawter. You remember her? Class president and voted Most Congenial and Most Likely to Succeed? Also Prettiest Eyes. Well, she just gave birth to our sixth child. Our oldest is a certified genius and he’s my best friend. We have an ice cream machine in the kitchen of our enormous mansion, along with three trained Komodo Dragons that attack anybody I tell them to. We’re in the midst of planning the big move: we’ve been selected to help colonize Mars. Pretty pumped about that. Anyway, I must be going. Can you believe we blast off tomorrow, and I’ve yet to pack?!” Then he’d give a boisterous laugh, toss Shawn a gold coin, and fly away.
The sky had nearly vanished from underneath the sprawling canopy of redwoods and pines. The portentous color of shaded woods engulfed the boy. The needle-covered ground was damp and cold. A slight breeze grazed his sweaty skin, sending chills to his bones. He stopped to listen: nothing. He was wrapped in silence. The forest felt like a massive monster of stone and timber with redwoods for teeth and rivers for veins. It had opened its savage jaws and swallowed him like a Flintstone Vitamin.
This was all Dad’s fault, the boy thought.
His father had insisted the boy join Scouts. “It’ll make a man out of you,” he always said. “It’ll get you off your ass and melt away some of that fat.” His father wore the disappointment of having a chubby son on his sleeve. After a couple beers, he’d get big ideas on how he could whip the boy into shape. Like the time he signed him up for football. It was the first day of practice and Coach Boon, at the urging of his father, told the older players to surround the boy. He was at the center of a circle made of burly fourteen-year-olds on heavy protein diets. Coach Boon ordered them to charge the boy one at a time. The goal was to catch the boy by surprise, hitting him from behind. Monkey in the Middle, it was called. Boy after boy flew at him like charging rams, bashing their shoulders into his spine, and ramming their helmets into the back of his head. Finally, an older boy charged straight at him and hit him so hard between the eyes he fell square on his back. His ears rang with the sound of a thousand church bells and the backs of his eyes throbbed. He tried his best not to, but tears gushed down his face. The rest of the team grew quiet and uncomfortable. His father stomped into the middle of the circle, grabbed the boy by the arm, and dragged him to his pickup. That was it for football.
I guess this is where I die, the boy thought.
He found a small clearing with a fallen log. It was covered in rich, verdant moss. As he sat on the trunk, he dug his fingers into the rotted bark and pulled chunks from it as if he were peeling blubber from a dead whale.
I wonder where Dad is right now, the boy thought.
His father was probably watching TV in that big recliner he never allowed the boy to sit in, having a “cold one,” and hurling insults at baseball players. Maybe it’d be a relief, the boy thought, when they told him that his son froze to death in the woods. Maybe his father would be thrilled to know that he could start over, have another son, and maybe get this one right.
The boy noticed a small blackberry bush nearby. He plucked a ripe berry from the vine and popped it into his mouth. A burst of delicious, raw flavor. Just then, the sun peered through the trees, warming the boy’s face. He felt the toasty comfort of confidence.
What if I chose to survive, the boy thought.
He didn’t have to die. Nay, he could flourish. He was well equipped with a Swiss Army knife, his fire starter kit, and the Scout’s Manual. In his pack he had a tin drinking cup that he could use to boil water, a pack of bison jerky, several Capris Suns, along with two Snickers bars. Finally, being a fat kid had paid off! Between the mixture of his supplies and wild blackberries, if he did it right, he could survive for a month. Easy.
This is where I live now, the boy thought.
He leapt to his feet. He surveyed his new, wooded kingdom. He reached down to tenderly graze the granite stones on the forest floor, as if he suddenly felt one with wood and rock.
Nothing matters anymore, the boy thought.
He’d never attend another gym class. Shawn Bumperton would never make fun of his abhorrent pull-up technique. He’d never feel emasculated when he had to run laps in front of Beatrice Vawter. Math was the least necessary in this new, brutal frontier. A man of the woods need not concern himself with fractions. The lowest common denominator was now a little something called “survival.” He’d never attend another Scout’s meeting with Troop 14. He’d master the wilderness, establishing a relationship with forest critters, and write his own Scout’s Manual.
I guess that means no more Dad, the boy thought.
No longer would he be the butt of his father’s ridicule. No longer would he feel his father’s glowering from across the dinner table when the boy reached for seconds of beef stroganoff. No longer would he be subject to drunken expeditions to “whip you into shape, boy!” Such was the time his father brought home boxing gloves. He took the boy into the garage to show him how to defend himself. The boy had been complaining about being bullied by Shawn at school. The training started somewhat earnestly. He showed the boy how to throw a jab. Then a cross. He showed him how to duck and parry. But the boy just couldn’t get the hang of it. As they sparred, he grew winded very quickly. He didn’t move well, so his father’s gloves kept landing. No matter where the boy went, he could not escape his father’s gloves. He became increasingly frustrated with the boy’s stamina and lack of enthusiasm. After a while, his father stopped teaching, but he kept throwing.
They’ll all be sorry, the boy thought.
He knew Troop 14 would discover his absence. They’d double back and search for where the boy had left the trail. They’d search night and day, but they wouldn’t find him. The boy would hide. He’d watch Scoutmaster Rick panic and then upbraid Shawn for being an imbecile. He’d scold Shawn for being a horrid choice for the boy’s “buddy,” and chastise him for being so cruel to the boy in the past. Then, Shawn would cry in front of all of Troop 14, and everyone would laugh at him. Scoutmaster Rick would notify the boy’s father, who would come looking for him. He’d scour the wilderness, crying out, “Where has my boy gone? Why was I so mean to him?!… I should have shown him more kindness. All he ever wanted was for me to like him!” That’s when the boy would show himself. His father would be so relieved to see him that he’d beg the boy to come home. “Please, son,” he’d cry. “Forgive me and come home. I’ll be better. I’ll be kinder. I promise.” His father would sob, “I love you, son. I know I’ve never said it out loud. I guess I never knew how, but I’m sorry, and I love you.” The boy would rest a hand on his father’s shoulder, mustering the strength to forgive him. Finally, he’d say, “You are forgiven, Dad. Though you never said it, I always knew you loved me. But if that is true, then you must respect my wishes and leave me here.” His father would reluctantly leave the forest. Everyone at school would miss the boy and they’d feel terrible for treating him so badly. Beatrice Vawter, who he had asked to slow dance at the Winter Formal, but who had snickered and rejected him, would finally realize that she had secretly loved him all along. She would descend into the wilderness on a quest for true love, only to find the boy (now muscular and bearded), and pledge her undying love for him. They’d have a family of wilderness children who were friends with the likes of bears and wolves and who could speak to hawks. Finally, the boy would be loved. He would be strong. He would be happy.
The canopy began to shake with a frenetic rustle. Leaves, needles, and pine cones rained down upon the forest floor. Something lurked above. Just then, a mere thirty or so yards ahead, the boy witnessed a flash of yellow and brown plummet to the ground and disappear into the thicket. It landed with a crushing thud, cracking branches and flattening bulbous brush. He felt the thump of the animal’s landing through the bones of his feet, all the way up to his knees. The boy froze with fear. His heart pounded so hard he could feel his pulse in the tips of his fingers.
Scoutmaster Rick had always warned Troop 14 about mountain lions. He said they slept in trees during the day and hunted at night. With the sun descending, he knew it was hunting time. If a Scout were to cross paths with a mountain lion, Scoutmaster Rick advised for the Scout to make himself as big as possible by raising his hands into the air. Or was that bears? He knew with one of them you had to play dead, and the other one you had to make yourself bigger. But which one? What if he picked the wrong one, raised his hands, and the mountain lion slashed open his stomach and ate him while he watched?
Fuck, he thought. Scoutmaster Rick was such a douchebag.
The boy listened to the heavy paws crunch the earth as the animal slipped through the dense brush ahead. He couldn’t see the beast, but he knew exactly where he was. He was closing in at around twenty yards.
Run, the boy thought. I have to run.
But his legs wouldn’t work. His heart throbbed in his gut. Cold sweat secreted from every pour as if his fluids were even looking for an escape route. He felt like he was strapped into a rollercoaster that his classmates had forced him to go on, and it kept climbing, and climbing, and climbing. He could hear the cat’s hulking paws as they snapped branches and squished soil. He imagined its razor claws, probably the size of his chubby fingers, slicing through his midsection like a Scout’s knife through roasted marshmallow.
The animal paused, as if to smell the boy’s fragrant fear for a moment. The silence seemed to last forever, as if it were teasing him. Then, it crept closer. It was aberrant, unpredictable movement with an inherent wildness to it.
The animal was within ten yards, but still hidden. It stopped again.
The boy closed his eyes, lifted his arms into the air, and waited for the strike.
A crunch of a paw. Then another. And another. And on and on until the sound of the animal faded. Then nothing. The boy cracked an eye.
Am I alive, he wondered.
Adrenaline coursed through his veins like gasoline. His heart kicked into overdrive, pummeling his sternum like a stereo thumping against a teenager’s bedroom wall.
I’m totally gonna spew, the boy thought.
He went to puke, but only dry heaved. Spots of orange and turquoise infected his vision, floating through the air like bouncy balls on a children’s sing-a-long program. He steadied himself and gathered some semblance of balance. As he breathed deep, his vision cleared. A wave of triumph washed over him. He pumped his fist into the air like the ballplayers his father loved. He felt officially initiated into the wilderness; accepted as a fellow wild creature.
Thus begins my new life, the boy thought.
Another crunching of branches up ahead.
Not another fucking mountain lion, the boy thought, exasperated.
He threw his hands into the air, but kept his eyes open this time. Emerging from the thicket came a man dressed in an orange vest and camouflage. He held a deer rifle to his cheek, the muzzle pointed straight at the boy. He lowered it when he noticed what he was aiming at.
“What the hell are you doing out here, kid?” the man asked. The boy said nothing. He still had his hands in the air. “Seriously, buddy,” the man said. “You shouldn’t be out here. There’s bears, mountain lions, all kinds of shit out here that could hurt ya.” He noticed the boy’s uniform. “You a Boy Scout?”
The boy said nothing, his hands still in the air.
The man stared at him, puzzled by the piquant image of a portly boy with his hands in the air, standing in the middle of nowhere. “Okay,” he said. “There’s a campground not far from here. Let’s head to the trail and see if we can’t spot your troop.” He approached the boy and saw that his face was pale and his eyes filled with tears. The man softened and put a hand on his shoulder. “How long you been out here, bud?” he asked. No response. The man chuckled, “You must be one brave little guy.”
The boy stared up at the man. He dropped his hands and threw them around him in a full embrace. The man didn’t know what to do, having been thrown off by such a random, sincere show of affection. “Um…” he stammered. “There, there. You’re okay now.” He pat the boy’s back. “You did good, kid. You’re okay.”
The boy held the man tight. He enjoyed the gentle pat. With his eyes closed, if he let his imagination run wild, it felt like it could be Dad