The crickets were loud, slicing the still night with screams that Matthew felt building up inside his throat. He leaned against a tree, his back digging into the sharp chards of the bark. He would rest here for awhile, maybe until morning, and then start out again. He’d long since lost sight of the campground. Heard none of the laughing voices. The only hint to how much time passed was the full moon lighting the sky above him.
“We gotta keep the campfire going.” Brandon poked the burning embers around in the pit, making the flame leap up again. “The smell of smoke will help him find us, or at least, the fire itself.” He pushed dirty blonde hair from his eyes and tried to remember what his friend told him as he left the group. Something about looking for wildberries, and mushrooms. He’d joked about going shopping in the forest for free. The best mother nature had to give. But that was more than fourteen hours ago.
“Okay,” Julie said, her voice loud, shakey. “We need to start a serious search in the morning, just as soon as we can see. Allison, you stay here in case he makes it back. Brandon, Steven, and Sharon, you come with me.” The group of friends joined hands to make a pact.
The morning light pushed itself against Matthew’s eyes, prying them open, moving the groggy sleep from his brain. He shook his head, trying to get a grasp of what was happening. Beside him in a little heap, lay a pile of wild mushrooms. He remembered now. He was going to eat them, along with the berries in the plastic container strapped to his waist. But he fell asleep instead. Surely they were coming to look for him now. Surely they would find him soon. All he could see were thick black trees like pillars surrounding him.
The tiny group left the campsite as soon as dawn hit. Julie hadn’t slept most of the night, listening for any sound that might be Matthew. He was her brother, her younger brother that for most of her life, had been more of a nuisance, than a companion. Now it was different. She would give anything to have him back by the campfire, spouting off about the gifts of the forest, the beauty of nature and how to look for everything it had to give. Now they had to look for him. Maybe the forest would prove to be his friend and give him back.
“We should separate so we cover more territory.” Brandon suggested. “We can each grab a piece of this rope so we don’t lose each other.“
Matthew stood and watched for the glow of the sun. He would follow it’s direction. At least he would know he was on a straight path and not circling. He started to move toward its still dim light blocked by the laced together green branches overhead.
By mid-day, the group still hadn’t located Matt. They could hear the echo of their voices in the thick of the forest, but no answering call. Soon dusk began to cover the light they needed to keep going.
“We have to turn back Julie.” Brandon tugged at her hand, pullng her back toward the campsite. The rest followed.
The next morning there were police and hunters and neighbours and people from the community scouring the woods, calling his name. Nothing.
Matthew kept walking toward the sun, kept his direction straight, stopping only for a rest against the cool of the forest floor. The trees seemed to grow thicker, and the forest more still.
Five years later, a small group of scouts set up camp in the centre of a clearing. “Hey,” one called. “Check this out.”
A small plastic container lay black with dirty water and molded berries. “Looks like someone was here already. They said nobody ever came this far in before.”
Matthew never made it back to the camp that summer, was never found. Julie comes to the forest every year, and sits at the same site, watching. She knows he’ll never come, but she can’t help but hear him say, “Look Jule, see how beautiful everything is. Everything we need to survive is here, in this forest. We just have to look for it.”
“I’m still looking Matthew.” She whispered to the forest. “I always will.”
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