(The characters and events portrayed in this story are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author. All rights are reserved under U.S. Copyright Act of 1976. Les Stroud from the Discovery Channel’s Survivorman is a real person and I encourage you to check out his TV show…you never know when you may find yourself in a strange survival situation. Oh, and I probably got the logistics for starting a fire with a magnesium/flint stick wrong…but hey, it’s my story.)
The boy squeezed his eyes tight as shivers rolled down his arms. Visions of blue walls, a pirate ship kite hanging over the bed and a dismembered Lego helicopter flashed across his mind. School books and baseball cards, stacked like a Main Street square, cover his small desk…
His eyes popped open. The sun setting behind the mountains painted the fingerling clouds dazzling tangerines and pinks. The air had retained the heat of the day, but a chill graced the late afternoon breeze.
Stupid butterflies! Go away! Stupid beetle! Get off my foot!
The striped insect tumbled through the air as the boy kicked his leg. The orange and blue butterflies flittered into the trees, leaving him all alone in the shadows of the gnarled oaks. The dark forms of the warped stones scattered across the hills stretched and extended as if they were flowers, nurtured and fed by the vanishing light. The grass swirled in the wind, releasing the tangy-clean scent of center field.
The boy wished he had his ball and glove while he waited for Mom.
Just beyond the arching stones, a weeping creek trickled down the hill and the sunset ignited the water into flowing red lava.
The wind ruffled his hair, sending goose pimples down his arms. He traced a finger over his skin, mesmerized by the hairs standing at attention. A hand-sized maple leaf somersaulted across the grass as he glanced around for his ride…home.
Tired of just sitting, the boy pushed himself up, brushed the dirt from his jeans and tossed his backpack over one shoulder. It was going to be dark soon and he didn’t want get stuck out in the open.
He studied the jagged mountain range. Was there a town along the baseline? Should he head that direction? Downhill, a wooded valley ran parallel with the mountains and the creek likely flowed into a bigger stream. The guy from Survivorman always said to follow a river because it will lead you to people.
The decline was steeper than it looked as he angled his feet and allowed gravity pull him down. Upon entering the forest, the absence of light was unsettling. He jumped at an owl hooting. Quivering, the boy snapped his head around as unseen critters skittered under bushes, rustling the low stems. Thick twigs snapped under his Vans and echoed off the dense trees like rifle shots.
Dropping the backpack on a log, the boy rooted inside for his green hoody and flashlight while commending his intelligence on packing all the necessary survival gear. Just like Les, his Survivorman hero, recommended.
Locating the stream, the boy hopped along the flat rocks until his flashlight flickered. He froze, prickles of fear crept up his chest as he shook his only light-source. Moments later the yellow beam steadied and he exhaled a huff of relief.
Walking in the woods at night wasn’t such a good idea. Survivorman would have created a lean-to, built a fire and foraged for edibles by now. The boy ambled over to a fallen tree, rustled around for kindling and created a ring with fist-sized rocks. The magnesium bits he scraped off sparkled like Fourth of July fireworks as they rained upon the dry twigs. He lowered his face and blew on the smoky embers until a flame erupted. After savoring his chocolate chip granola bar, the heat from the dancing flames lulled his heavy eyelids closed.
A thunderous snap-crunch! yanked him out of a dreamless sleep. Bolting upright, the boy banged his shoulder on a branch of the tree.
“Wh-who’s there?” His voice trembled.
Rubbing his sore shoulder, he focused on the inky black stream snaking along the ground. Shadowy trees bowed in the howling wind while pairs of glowing green orbs peeked out of murky nooks.
Tossing sticks onto the dying fire, he blew until flames licked high into the air, forcing back the encroaching darkness.
A high-pitched yowl pierced the air. A phantom, straight from H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks, wailed and cackled until the wind whipped it into hiccupping sobs. Leathery wings beat against his head and chest and the boy jumped up, thrashing his hands around.
“Keee…laaaaan…” the wind whistled. Mom always said “Keelan” fit him perfectly. It was Irish for small and fair.
The sobbing wail came again, only further away and somehow familiar, less frightening. Keelan slid down the dead tree until his butt smacked the ground, pulled his knees tight to his chest and ignored the pressure in his bladder. Not even the burning desire to pee would pull him from his fire tonight.
The misty morning washed away the eerie vibes from the night before. Red-breasted Robins kicked at leaves and clenched squirming worms between their beaks. With the fire safely out, Keelan resumed his hike along the bank of the stream. The sun climbed higher and burned away the haze. The trees thinned and the creek narrowed until it was swallowed by a muddy pool at the base of a terracotta-red precipice. He inhaled the mildew-silt aroma and exhaled a stream of vapor. Craning his neck, there was only one way out of the chilly dead-end valley.
Hand over hand, the boy clambered up the cliff wall like a small, green Spiderman with a lumpy backpack. He grabbed onto roots and found footholds just big enough for the toe of his checkered Vans.
“KEEE…LAAAAN!” The wind roared and gusted across the crag, swirling around the boy and threatening to knock him off. His hands grappled with the lip of the cliff, his arms shook as he struggled against gravity and Mother Nature.
Suddenly, a hand seized his wrist and yanked. He flew over the edge, landed hard on his stomach and oxygen evacuated his lungs in a long whoosh.
“Hey kid, you okay?”
Wiping the stinging sweat out of his eyes, he caught his breath and looked up at the strange boy. Keelan could have been staring at his reflection in a mirror were it not for the twin’s eyes. They were two shimmering pools of the brightest blue Keelan had ever seen.
“Who are you?”
The twin smiled and shifted his backpack higher, threading an arm through the strap. Even his clothes and hair were the same as Keelan’s. Mom always told him he had chameleon hair; auburn indoors and strawberry-blond in the sunlight.
“My name’s Brennen. Mom says it’s Irish for teardrop.” He kicked a rock into the ravine. Bouncing, the lone stone knocked other pebbles free to keep it company until they reached their destination.
“I’m Keelan.” He didn’t share his name’s meaning. That was his secret.
“C’mon. We have to go.” The twin bounced on the balls of his feet, seemingly in a hurry.
The sun trekked closer to the snow-tipped mountains. It would be dark soon and Keelan wanted to make sure he was a better Survivorman tonight. He needed a head start to scope out a good place to make camp.
“I can’t go with you. I-I have to get home,” he lied.
Brennen jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “Look over there.”
He tore his gaze from the boy’s glowing eyes. The hills beyond the valley seemed to throb as the carpet of clover rippled in the wind. Twisted oaks and rounded stones dappled the rolling knolls.
“I was here yesterday! But…how did I get back?” Smacking his hand to his forehead, he muttered, “I hiked in a circle?” Survivorman never would have made that mistake.
“C’mon,” Brennen repeated and tugged Keelan’s hand. He trudged forward, resigned to trust the surreal child.
They padded across the spongy turf as brilliant butterflies darted and danced around their heads. Stopping in front of one of those funny arched rocks, Brennen’s tingling fingers released his hand. This wasn’t a normal rock at all, but a headstone straight from a creepy Halloween graveyard. Keelan shook his head. But…this was a good place.
“That’s yours,” the twin said. Speckles of refracted light dotted Brennen’s cheeks and nose with blue freckles. “You are home.”
Keelan’s knee sunk into the soggy earth as he knelt to inspect the name and dates carved in the silver granite.
“Open your bag,” the twin instructed.
Keelan reached into the backpack. Between a pocket knife and the flashlight, he pulled out his warn baseball glove. He sniffed the musky leather and smiled. Then he pulled out a crisp ball, dug his fingertips in and tested its weight. Sitting criss-cross-applesauce, Keelan leaned against his stone. A pulsating heat began to spread along his spine and into his limbs. His arms and legs absorbed the warmth like roots soaking up water.
“Close your eyes, small and fair one.”
The boy squeezed his eyes tight as shivers rolled down his arms. Visions of blue walls, a pirate ship kite hanging over the bed and a dismembered Lego helicopter flashed across his mind. School books and baseball cards, stacked like a Main Street square, cover his small desk.