ALONE IN THE FOREST
Short Story by James Strauss
The hike was not a real challenge. Though it would’ve been impossible without his mom’s last gift; the special aluminum snowshoes. Alone in the forest, Thomas floated across the top of the pure white surface, even though his backpack weighed more than half as much as his own ninety pounds. He counted out loud every forth thrust of the webbed shoe, keeping track on fingers inside both of his mittens. With the day beginning to wane, and his count reaching ten thousand, he flowed between the huge pines knowing he had covered just a bit more than nine miles. Nine miles of thick snowy pines, leaving the horror of his life behind, all the while knowing that even the entire state of Maine wasn’t big enough to hide in. Only the hugeness of Canada could allow for that. Thomas knew that from his intense study of old maps, collected by someone who’d then left them at the bottom of the cabin’s firewood box, long before he and his mom moved in.
In two days Thomas would be twelve, big, and strong enough to make a successful escape, but not big, or strong enough to confront his fake stepfather. The thought of that manmade Thomas count louder, until Harry began to protest, raising his meow with each cry. Although the sound was not his loudest complaint ever since, the cat’s muzzle was squeezed through a crack in the pack’s cover right next to Thomas’s right ear.
“Alright Harry, we’ll call it a day. I’ve got to gather some dry wood from under the trees and you have to sniff everything in sight.” Thomas knew he wouldn’t lose Harry, as the fifteen-pound predator absolutely refused to step on snow. Thomas searched for the biggest pine among the giant evergreens, until he found what he was looking for.
It was a great, dense, pyramid of a tree, with extremely wide branches spreading out at the bottom. Covered with over a foot of snow from the night before alone, it looked to Thomas like a colossal gingerbread cookie with thick frosting. It was not a Christmas tree, really, because it had no lights or decorations, but it would have to do for both of them. There had been no real Christmas since his mother had died. Thomas crawled under the lowest of the branches, Harry complaining loudly at the jostling. Once underneath, the boy grinned. It was wonderful! He laughed out loud.
“Plenty of old dry branches right here,” he informed the cat, before gently unstrapping the pack and easing the animal out. Before letting him loose, Thomas massaged the scarred lines of missing fur, six of them in number, one for each time Thomas had run away in the past. Releasing Harry, he then removed his snowshoes, as the cat climbed inside the center of the tree, winding upward around the trunk until the boy could only hear him.
“Don’t stay up there. As soon as I get a fire going you’re going to want dinner. The only mice out here are under the snow and you know how you are,” he yelled quietly with cupped hands. It would not due to have anyone hear, as both of his last two attempts to get away had been thwarted by well-meaning strangers. But this time Thomas just knew it would be different. It was why he’d decided to take Harry. They were going to make it together, or die together, in the wonderfully beautiful forest of Maine. There would never again be a terrible punishment delivered by the man his poor sick mother had thought would take care of Thomas when she understood her disease was terminal. Before unpacking any of his supplies, Thomas took out the roll of tin foil stored vertically on the side of the big pack. He unwrapped four long sections, approached the trunk of the tree, and then began to work the material up against the bottoms of the lowest branches until he had what he thought resembled a flattened silver umbrella.
Thomas read a lot. A lot. His mother said it was the people of the past teaching the people of the present about how to do things. You didn’t have to learn everything yourself. The Terrible Times Survival in Hell Guide had given up all of its information to the boy’s prodigious memory. He gathered and stacked pieces of wood, the smallest at the bottom. His stack eventually resembled a short thick Eiffel Tower, just as the guide said it should. With his Swiss Army Knife blade extended, he opened a small can of Sterno, gouged out a good sized chunk, and then shoved it carefully through the slots at the bottom of his ‘tower.’ Unscrewing the back of his stolen knife handle (now his, and not his fake stepfathers), Thomas took out a single waterproof match. He scratched it once, firmly, on the haft of the knife. Quickly he pushed the burning sulfur tip into the Sterno. In moments he had a small, blazing fire. It’s ascending heat drew the cat back down the tree to his side. Thomas was nearly exhausted from his long escape. After consuming four cans of Vienna sausages, with Harry assisting, he unfurled a cut piece of old rug. Lying on that, he covered himself with a shoplifted space blanket and instantly fell asleep. His last thought, with the cat lying on top of his small chest, was that he should have put more wood on the fire.
An inner alarm awakened the boy! It was too warm. He opened his eyes and adrenalin shot through him. A giant of a man sat, legs crossed, only inches away from him, one hand feeding small pieces of wood into the fire, the other stroking Harry’s back. Frozen into immobility with fear, Thomas could only continue to lay still and stare upward.
“You’re awake,” the man said, “that’s good. The snow’s so thick on these trees that carbon monoxide from your fire can be dangerous. Thomas stared at the huge man, his eyes unwilling to blink.
“What’s his name?” the man asked, smiling softly at the pleased animal.
“Harry,” Thomas squeaked out, trying to come to a sitting position as far from the man as possible.
“Named after Harry Truman?” Thomas shook his head, having heard the name in school but not remembering.
“No, after Harry Houdini. Harry can get away from almost anyone or anything.”
“Hmmm,” the big man remarked, “seems like he’s had a few close calls.”
“My fake step-father hurt him,” the boy replied, surprised at himself for answering the stranger truthfully. Thomas clutched the unwilling cat back to his own chest, dislodging his shirt and sweater. He quickly pulled the material back into place, noting that the man’s eyes glanced there.
“What’s your name?” the man asked, looking away to stare deeply into the fire.
“I suppose that’s after somebody famous too?” The man inquired.
“Thomas Aquinas,” the boy responded.
“Who’s that?” the big man asked, frowning.
“The famous saint!” Thomas said, forcefully. “Haven’t you been to school?”
The man smiled, “that’s quite a fancy moniker.”
“They call me by my nickname at school; Checkers. How’d you find me so quickly?” Thomas asked. The man frowned again.
“Find you? I wasn’t looking for you. I’m hunting.” He pointed toward a nearby branch, against which a rifle leaned. The rifle wasn’t like any Thomas had ever seen. It looked more like a machine gun from a television movie, than a hunting rifle.
“What are you hunting,” Thomas asked, a glimmer of hope beginning to glow in his chest.
“I don’t know. I’m trying to learn to hunt again. Just can’t seem to do it. So I’m out here trying. Maybe I’ll shoot a Christmas buck,” the big man answered, scratching the top of his totally bald head.
“How can you forget how to hunt? Nobody forgets something like that. That’s just dumb,” the boy shot back. The man moved his hand to massage his forehead for a long moment, until Harry pawed him for a bit more attention. This surprised Thomas, as the cat did not normally take to any one else but him.
“I was in some places you’ve probably never heard of. I was in something called Desert Storm, and then Afghanistan. After I got home I went out to hunt, which I’d always loved, but found I couldn’t do it.” The man shrugged, extending both long arms when he finished, revealing a blue tattoo atop his right wrist.
“Don’t you just aim that gun at something and pull the trigger?” the boy inquired, pointing at the menacing weapon.
“Yeah. But I can’t do it. I can’t pull the trigger anymore. And its like the animals all know. Earlier, just after dawn, a big buck walked right up to me, snorted, and then walked away, like he knew.”
“He did know. Like Harry knows,” Thomas concluded. “It’s okay though, ‘cause I’ve got plenty of Vienna sausages. Harry and I love Vienna sausages.” He rummaged through his pack pulling out two cans before handing one to the man.
“What’s your name and how’d you get that tattoo?” the boy asked, as he and Harry rapidly consumed the small canned sausages.
“I was with the French Foreign Legion, but I wasn’t a Legionnaire. I was a Marine, but the Legion liked me, so they gave me their tattoo.” He held out his wrist for the boy to see. “Name’s Jim Nelson, but they call me Hugo.”
“How’d you get your scars?” Jim asked, keeping his tone light.
Thomas ignored question. “After the author, Victor Hugo?” he inquired instead, proud of himself for remembering.
“Nah, ‘You Go,’ Jim said, spelling it out, ‘not Hugo’.” They looked at each other for a few seconds and then began laughing.
“The scars. Where’d you get ‘em? That why they call you Checkers?” Jim asked,
His tone turned back to serious.
The boy nodded with a sigh, unconsciously rubbing his stomach. “My fake step-dad takes metal hangers and straightens them out. When you get hit by the end of the wire it leaves a very small mark, like a little ‘v’ or a check-mark.” he held his hand very close to Jim’s face so he could see. “One of my teachers said that the marks would probably fade over time, so I’m just waiting.” He put his hand down and finished eating what Harry had left of the sausages.
“What are you doing for Christmas?” Jim asked, to change the subject.
“Goin’ to Canada.” Thomas answered, wiping his mouth with one sleeve of his sweater. “But we’re staying here for Christmas. This’s our Christmas tree,” he waved one hand up and around at the tree surrounding them. Harry’d jumped up and crouched down on a branch just over their heads.
“What about music, decorations and presents?” Jim asked, in an interested but analytical tone.
“We don’t need any of that, and I brought this.” The boy hauled out a thick two-piece recorder and started screwing it together. “My Mom taught me,” he went on with a great smile. “And we’re not going back. Not ever. Even if we don’t make it.” Thomas’s smile left his face, as he stopped his labor for a moment to look Jim in the eyes. “We’ll just stay out here in this wonderful forest.”
“Okay,” Jim said, after a moment’s reflection. “Okay. We can do that. You can come with me. Karen, my wife, is back at the cabin a few miles from here. She’ll think you’re just great and she loves cats. Her cat died awhile back so you’ll have to watch Harry, or she’ll run off with him.” The boy looked at Jim with a frown, then laughed when he realized that the big man was teasing him.
“My fake step-dad will come looking for me. I’ve got to keep moving,” he said, in a whisper, his expression turning to one of dark foreboding.
“Why do you call him fake?” Jim asked.
“Cause he’s not real. He and Mom never got married. Never did the adoption thing they’d talked about. But nobody really knows that.” He finished assembling the recorder and blew a few experimental notes. Holding the instrument like a professional, he delayed for a moment.
“You can’t help me. He’s real tough and he’ll hurt anybody who helps me. Said he would kill them.” The big man across from him started to laugh. The recorder sank to Thomas’s lap in surprise.
“Oh, that would be okay, I might just like encountering him” Jim said, when he settled down. “I haven’t had to do anything like that for some time. That’d be like a kind of a strange Christmas gift from God, although I don’t think the man you’ve described would actually stand against anyone who wasn’t a child. And you won’t have to go to Canada, I’m thinking, unless we want to. By the way, Checkers isn’t your nickname anymore.”
The boy stared at the smiling man, seemingly so elated at the idea of meeting his brutal step-dad. He took him in, eyes sweeping over to the automatic rifle leaning against the branch, then down at the man’s tattoo. Suddenly a warm feeling began to flow through his entire being. Being with the man made him feel safe. He realized that he had not felt this way since his Mom died. And the man had said “we,” not “you” about going to Canada. Thomas started to play the recorder, moving through the haunting notes of the entire piece without error until he was finished. The man brushed a tear from one eye, turning his head slightly in an attempt to hide the fact.
“What was that song? I’ve heard it before, but I didn’t know it was a Christmas song.”
“Mom said it was the best one of all. It’s called Greensleeves. It’s about not being loved and being sad about it, but how everything will turn out alright anyway, if you keep on going.” Jim nodded, putting a few more sticks on the fire. His life had changed again, and he knew it. They’d leave the Christmas tree soon, but he wanted to stay under it, with the boy and Harry, for as long as he possibly could. Besides, he thought to himself, it would take some time to work out a more suitable nickname for the boy.
Alas my love you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously;
And I have loved you oh so long Delighting in your company.
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold
Greensleeves was my heart of joy
And who but my lady Greensleeves.
Thanks Ronnie, for your cryptic comment. Compliment. I’ll take it.
Thanks for writing on here and reading the story…
Keep up the good work (writing). Looking forward to more.
Thank you John, I am working away at it as I write this response.
It’s a motivational pleasure to hear from people like you and the compliment
that’s important because you took the time to bother…
Another great story James. Your writing is very diverse, Yet seems focused. I very much enjoyed this piece. Keep up the good work.
Thanks you Daniel. It’s interesting to be more ruled by the vagaries of life than to rule them.
Probably a whole lot more accurate as an observation about life too. I run into things and then
have my own experiences…so many varied ones, that work their way into the stories. Alone
is an assembly of four of those and, as usual with so many of my works, continues on although I have not published
Part II of that story yet. Thanks for he compliment and commenting about it here.
Nice story Jim. Please keep posting them and (of course) your 30 Days Episodes.
I am working away today, Sunday, to get the next segment up. Editing is harder than the writing
in many ways. But I am hard at it.
James, you never cease to amaze. This story about two lost souls at Christmas time touches deeply. Please continue it.
Thanks Craig, I seem to write a lot about lost souls. I wonder why that is.
Anyway, thank you for he nice compliment. Those help to keep a writer going
since publishing mainstream sort of disappeared over the last twenty years.
Got me started on the 30 days story line and now this. I do hope to see more on this line as well. Your writing is turning me into a stalker of the good variety.
Thank you Peter. You have to be a ‘Stalker’ to find my work! Isn’t that the truth with modern day literature.
There’s no place to get out there and spread it around. The publishing business left, along with books stores, and what’s
left? Not much. Anyway, I’ve never been happier to have stalkers working to find my stuff…
Excellent story James. You have a way of making the reader feel they are right there.
Thanks Terry, it means a lot for a writer to know he actually reaches the reader on almost any level.
The story is not over, in typical Strauss fashion, as part II is about to be published.
Thanks for the neat comment and you bothering to come on here to make it…
I feel your humanity comes trough in this story too. The boy is an innocent child caught in sad life altering situation and by chance he meets this man who has been through his own soul rendering actions. I see both of their lives changing because of this chance encounter in a moment when they are in so much need. They bring the best of humanity forward. Great story, Jim.
Thanks Doug. Children and animal life around us have elements of foundational goodness built into them
that are curative, it they can be brought close and treasured.
Thanks for the comment and liking the story.
Please write more, it brings back memories of going on tramps as a young lad.
Escape is not always bad. And sometimes we find ourselves while attempting to escape other things.
Yes, Lloyd, the second part of the story will be forthcoming shortly.
Appreciate you asking for it before I’ve even put it up here.
I am still crying, thank you, thank you, thank you that Thomas and Harry found Safety and will never be hurt again…. I am almost 65 yrs old but the little girl in me gets so scared sometimes still……… :'(
Thanks so much Marsha. I have written Part II of the story so you will have a better
understanding. And, of course, with almost all of stories, there are elements of truth woven
into and coming out of it.
Thanks for writing what you wrote here and caring…
You are such a wonderful writer. Everytime I read one of your stories I get totally lost in it. I look everyday for more of 30 Days.Keep up the good writing please.
Thanks Sam, being a writer is also being unable to evaluate the effect the writing has on the readers.
This is the only place I find out since traditional publishing died somewhere back there twenty years ago.
Back then you could get an idea by sales but not today. Thanks for coming on here to write what you wrote
and the support endemic in that meaning…
Great story. Hope there is a continue on it at some point in life.
Yes, it does continue and I will put Part II up soon.
Thanks for wanting to read it and your support in commenting here.
I love the story and the comments. It seems to me that the child is helping the “broken” man just as much as the man is helping the child. I too hope to read more of this story. Especially when Jim meets the fake step dad!
Yes, I will be publishing Part II soon. As with most of my stories, the reality of what wove them
together was and remains real…so there is more to the story. I will get it up soon.
Great story James! I have been reading your 30 days story and thought I would read some of your others. I am a Vietnam vet from Wisconsin . Combat Engineer 1969-70 in 3 corps. Keep on writing and I will gratefully keep on reading.
Thanks Chuck. I really appreciate hearing from you and your spreading out to
take in more of the stuff I put out.
And the Wisconsin thing, of course.
Combat Engineers doesn’t hurt either.
You must be quite something in real life.
You will have to come over or down to Lake Geneva and have a cup at my coffee shop!
Thanks for coming on here to comment and
really for the support you give me this very morning…
James my wife read your story and she said it is one of the best she’s ever read. She hopes you continue on with these types of stories . We hope to get over to see you sometime . Chuck &Jane Cyr
Thanks Chuck and Jane. It’s an interesting story and I thank you for enjoying it.
The real circumstances that caused me to write it should also be written one day
as they are interesting too. The boy was real, the scars real, the man real although
not as contiguously set together as in the story.
Thanks a lot for liking the story and coming on here to say so.
A fire under a snow covered tree could result in melting snow sliding down and putting out the fire, or a life, if it was enough snow.
Interesting observation, although it didn’t really work that way with the thickness of the pine
needles in that forest. A lot of insulation.
Thanks for the comment and the reading.
Another excellent piece! I also would like to read more about these charactors.
Thank you Christopher. I can’t recall when I wrote that story.
It was a while back and, as usual in my stuff, there are some real solid roots
in reality. I will think about what you wrote, about wanting to know more.
There was more.
James, as usual you hit it out of the park, thanks for sharing, Duty First
Thanks for the great compliment and for taking the time to write it on here Denny.
Real life interweaved with a fictional setting. Thanks again.
I will get Part II up as fast as I can.
Wonderful story, it is nice when a new page is turned in life. Thanks James.
Yes, sometimes oure chance plays a big role, or is it pure chance?
The vagaries and twists and turns of how our lives play out are the subject of much
deep consideration, mostly after they play out. Thanks for coming on here to comment and for liking the story.
Nice story James. Hope you continue with it.
Yes, thank you. Part II will be up soon. I wasn’t sure the story would be as popular
as it’s turned out here.
But then, being a writer, it is very difficult to figure out how others
are going to take the graphic descriptions I put down on paper.
Thanks for making the morning a ‘smile’ morning…
Enjoyed this as I enjoy all your writing! Leaving a person hanging at the end of the story to make up their own mind about what happens is talent in and of it’s self! Write on James!
Thank you Anna, although there is a Part II to the story that takes things a little bit further than
the first part. I should have that up soon. Thank you for coming on here and giving that nice compliment.
Makes my day!
Wonderful story. Two “men” who have both lost something then found something even more valuable upon meeting. Thanks for the heads up on this one. I truly enjoyed it. And keep the 30 Days coming, they are great also.
Thanks Michael. I am glad that your depth of mind reached into the story and plucked the meaning right out.
It’s nice to be understood, even when I can be a bit arcane.
I enjoyed reading this story, thank you for publishing it. I am happy Jim found Thomas and it is heartwarming the way he is helping him
Thanks again for reading our stories, Ginger
I also write stories about and for children. I have written them for my granddaughter since she was 5 and she loved them. I loved the story and hope you continue to write more about the little boy and his cat. I would enjoy them. Looking forward to more.
Thank you Carol for your comment.
Where can we find your stories?
Really enjoyed the story! I love the ending. Hope there’s more to come.
There are other stories relating to the wisdom and experiences of children.
As mentioned earlier we may publish a collection of stories focusing on the Wisdom of Children.
Interesting story, I glad the Thomas told the man why his step dad was his fake step dad. But is also sad what he has gone through at such a young age. So are you going to write more of this story?
I want to know what happens.
Thank you Deb for taking the time to read the story and picking up on the “Fake” step-dad.
My stories are mostly fact-based fiction. The character Thomas pops up in several other stories, but have been attributed another name.
We are going to publish a collection, soon, of stories focused on the wisdom of children.
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