“Superheroes, zombie monsters, sis-boom-bah! Red Hawk’s Rangers, rah, rah, rah!”
Eric watched as almost a dozen boys around the campfire jumped up and down, cheering and whooping and waving their hands in the air. Their counselor, Deshawn, grinned at his youthful charges for a moment, then grabbed his knapsack, rummaging around a bit before producing a box of graham crackers, a package of StayPuft marshmallows, and three large Hershey bars.
Sitting on a stump about six feet behind the ring of happy campers, Eric rolled his eyes. Great. Like this rambunctious group needed more sugar. As it was, last night he’d been kept awake until the wee hours by cross-bunk silliness—the kind of stuff that passes for humor when ten to twelve year old boys are out of hearing of adult supervision. Knock-knock jokes, elaborate plans to T-P the girl’s cabins, and unrestrained farts. Sure, he’d managed to sneak in his smartphone, but when he had turned toward the wall and tried to use it under the covers, he discovered that not only was there no WiFi, but no cell service at all. Not even 3G! The only thing he could access was his personal log, and he knew better than to call up that app where someone could potentially see and grab his phone. Gangs, even artificially created gangs of suburban grade-schoolers, have little respect for personal space or privacy.
The camp counselor’s cheer was, Eric knew, supposed to build team spirit and camaraderie among the bunkmates in Red Hawk cabin, and making s’mores over an open fire was one of those things that parents thought kids should do when they were young, like setting processed sugar fluff aflame had some kind of magical properties. Everything about Seneca Springs Campground screamed “Greatest Hits of the 70s,” starting with the decidedly racist “Indian” names for almost every location and structure strewn about the hundred acre wooded parcel, including designated outhouses and shower stalls for “Squaws” and “Braves.” Jeez, he was barely twelve, but even he knew the Washington Redskins were getting blasted for this kind of thing on The Daily Show.
He prayed that none of the scheduled arts and crafts activities included putting on war paint. There was no way he was going to put up with that. For now, he just sat behind the group of rowdy boys, who had started brandishing glowing twigs and flaming marshmallows like they were light-sabers, and watched the flames of the fire leap and flow, while doing his best to disappear into their dancing shadows. He didn’t even bother to move when the breeze shifted and the smoke wafted his direction. Better to inhale a few particulates than risk being noticed.
Over time, the flames diminished, retreating to red coals as Deshawn told a story about a serial killer in the city. It drew the attention of most of the boys, but Eric found it predictable and of dubious credibility. Still, it was quiet enough he could listen to the sounds of the woods: owls, frogs, the rustle of leaves in the breeze. Red Hawk cabin never got this quiet.
Finally, it came time to head back to the cabin for the night. Deshawn did a good job of dousing the embers, stirring them and adding more water until they were soaked and dark. For a few moments, everything was black, darker even than Deshawn’s skin, but then Deshawn flipped on his flashlight and swung it around from boy to boy, mumbling a headcount as he went. When he got to eleven, he paused, frowning for a moment, until Eric raised his hand and waved to get the counselor’s attention. Maybe he’d done a better job of being invisible than he thought. Deshawn noticed him and smiled, giving him a wave of acknowledgement back. Then one of the ten-year olds yelled “Ow!” and started cursing at the mosquitoes and Deshawn shook his head wearily and started corralling the herd. More flashlights flicked on and as the group trailed away following behind their counselor, their lights appearing and disappearing as they waved them about haphazardly in the distance.
Eric lagged behind as much as he dared. He could follow the ragtag line of cabin mates at distance and, by doing so, he could enjoy some peace and quiet on his walk home. He stopped for a few moments, turning away from his “tribe” and closing his eyes, so as to help them adjust fully to darkness, in the hopes it would help him pick up a few firefliesfluttering about in the pitch black, though it was already late in the season for them.
He opened his eyes. Nothing but blackness.
He closed them again, longer this time, then opened them and scanned about.
There! A bluish glow emanated at some unknown distance to the right. It was hard to tell, but when he shifted his head from side to side to try and get a fix on it, it looked like it was on the ground, well to the side of where the trail of campers had been hiking and a bit uphill.
He could still hear his bunkmates crashing through the forest behind him. He started to look, to gauge their distance, but then stopped. He dared not risk losing his night vision by looking toward their flashlights. Instead, he kept his eyes fixed on the bluish glow.
He decided to investigate. No doubt he could find his way back to the cabin from the noise alone. Besides, how lost could he get? The worst that could happen was that he would wander into the girl’s area and get caught by one of their counselors. Three boys from his cabin had already been caught doing just that, not that they’d gotten much punishment for being creepy peepers. This place really needed to move into the present day.
The glow was farther—and the going slower—than he’d estimated. The rolling hillsides weren’t dangerous, but he still had to watch for roots and rabbit holes. He didn’t know what the glow was, anyway—it could be some kids, maybe even counselors, sneaking out into the woods to puff on a bong or whatever. He didn’t want to get into any trouble.
Finally, he was close enough to see what was actually glowing.
It was a log.
An old, fallen log was just sitting on the floor of the forest glowing blue.
Some kind of bizarre prank?
He had to know. He crept forward, eyes darting about, looking for … barrels, spaceships, crouched figures—alien or human—hiding in the bushes, or whatever.
And then he was beside it, crouching down to inspect it.
It looked just like any other rotting branch. Just a piece of wood, barkless and a bit roughed up.
He poked at it. It felt like wood, he could feel the sinews of the grain, and it was firm, but not hard. Just a bit softer than he expected it to be, but not spongy.
He scraped at it with his fingernail, trying to loosen a piece.
Great. A splinter underneath his fingernail. He instinctively raised his injured finger to his face, to see if the splinter stuck out beyond his clipped nail so he could grab it with his teeth and pull it out, then stopped midway. There was no way to see anything in the dark. Since he’d looked away from the flashlights, he’d been unable to see his hand in front of his face. But now, a tiny blue shard glowed at the tip of his index finger. Sure, it was just a sliver—not some weird, scifi, E.T.-phone-home, pulsing glow, but it was certainly the coolest thing to happen to him at Seneca Springs Campground all week.
He wanted to use his teeth to pluck the glowing blue sliver out, but decided to not do so. He didn’t know if the glow was bio-luminescence, like fireflies had, or something more like the stupid glow sticks and necklaces people wore at parties, produced by unpronounceable toxic chemicals, but he didn’t want to ingest either one. Besides, he didn’t want the inside of his mouth to start glowing. That would get his parents called for sure.
All of the sudden, he realized he couldn’t hear Red Hawk’s Rangers crashing along the path anymore, that he hadn’t heard them for some time. He wasn’t sure how long his detour to the glowing blue log had taken. He was pretty sure, though, that by now he had little chance of finding the path again, following it to the cabin, and sneaking in before Deshawn did his nightly bed count. He turned to leave, guesstimating the angle from which he had approached the log from the path, but quickly realized that without a beacon of light to focus on, it was going to be almost impossible to simply walk in a straight line in the deep black of the woods. Worse yet, he wasn’t even sure he’d notice the path when and if he intersected it. If he didn’t, he could end up wandering in the woods for a long time. The prospect of spending the night in the woods didn’t scare him, but he didn’t look forward to a row of grouchy, sleep-deprived camp counselors combing through the area calling his name. That was no way to maintain a low profile.
He quickly returned to the glowing log and gave it a hard stomp at the most rotten end. A chunk splintered and he stomped at it a few more times until a hunk about the size of Deshawn’s flashlight broke off. Interestingly enough, even the inside of the log glowed blue.
He picked up the loose chunk, pointing it down and forward. The dim blue glow was far weaker than the LEDs in his counselor’s flashlight, but, with his eyes well-adjusted to the night, the feeble luminescence was enough to guide his steps and increase his pace.
Finding the trail took at least ten minutes, best guess. He made better time after that, but even so, he knew that he would arrive at the cabin well after the other Rangers. Finally, he saw the kerosene lamps of the girls’ cabins across the way, and recognized the curve in the path near the showers. He took his chunk of log and tucked it in the back waistband of his jeans, like gangbangers did on the cop shows, untucking his t-shirt so it would cover his discovery. He walked into the clearing near the cabin doing his best to appear casual, like he wasn’t even late.
Deshawn was sitting on the steps of the cabin, waiting for him. The cabin itself was dark and, frankly, quieter than Eric could remember it ever being so soon after lights-out.
“You wanna tell me where you’ve been?” asked Deshawn, tilting his head down and giving him a Mom stare.
“I was trailing a bit behind, then I had to stop at the out …”
Deshawn interrupted. “You’re a good kid, Eric. Don’t make me change that opinion by lying to me. That’s not what men do when they talk with their friends. I’m responsible for your safety, you know. There are coyotes out there in the woods, thorn bushes, poison oak … you get the drift. Something bad happens to you, bad things happen for me. I get in trouble with the camp, maybe get fired, and have to go back to my neighborhood in the city where, believe me, things are a whole lot more dangerous for me than out here. Maybe I get arrested, even, for child endangerment. That’s not the kind of thing you do to a friend.”
Eric knew he was in trouble, but he kind of liked that Deshawn talked to him like a man and called him his friend.
“I’m sorry,” said Eric, and he meant it. “It won’t happen again.”
Deshawn nodded at him. “I believe you. But you still haven’t told me the truth about why it happened this time. Were the other boys harassing you? Is that why you stayed away? I don’t tolerate bullies, not in my cabin.”
Eric shook his head. “No. I mean, sure, we don’t have much in common and I don’t really fit in, but they’re not hitting me or teasing me—at least not any more than they tease anyone else, I guess.” He paused, but Deshawn just looked at him without saying anything, so Eric continued. “I let the group get ahead, just to, you know, have some time on my own.” Eric glanced at the cabin and lowered his voice to a whisper. “They can be kinda noisy all the time.”
Deshawn laughed. “Yeah, they can. But, mostly, they’re good kids. Sometimes they act out ‘cause they got problems. Brandon’s mom has been overseas, fighting in Iraq, for more than six months. Jacob’s parents are divorcing, with a big custody fight over him. Kent’s got six brothers and sisters—he needs to be loud just to get attention. Is that what you were looking for, Eric? A little more attention?”
“No. I was just walking on my own, and then I noticed this log in the woods.” He reached behind him and took out the piece of rotting wood from his waistband. In the coarse light of the kerosene lantern, it looked plain. There was no glow, just a chunk from a dead tree.
Deshawn raised his eyebrows and tilted his head as Eric furrowed his brow. Had the glow worn off?
“It glowed blue—not just this piece, but the whole log,” he tried to explain.
“Yeah,” said Eric, a bit louder than he intended. “Honest, it did. Really.” He paused, trying to think of something that would convince Deshawn he was telling the truth, that he wasn’t some little kid with an overactive imagination who simply made stuff up when he got into trouble. “Ranger’s Honor,” he finally blurted.
“Ranger’s Honor,” repeated Deshawn in a low, smooth voice. “Gotta respect that.” He stepped closer and held out his hand for the piece of wood. Eric gave it to him. Deshawn studied it, turning it over in his hands and poking at the soft grain with his fingernail, much as Eric had.
“Careful,” said Eric. “You might get a splinter.”
Deshawn nodded as he continued to stare at the chunk of log. Finally, he took a step back toward the cabin and reached up for the lantern with his hand. “Let’s try something.” He handed the chunk back to Eric. “You hold this while I dim the light.”
Eric did as he was told and, when the light dimmed almost to extinguishing, the chunk of log took on a bluish hue. Deshawn raised the globe on the lantern and gave a puff, blowing it out.
The log glowed blue.
“Y’see?” exclaimed Eric.
Deshawn chuckled. “That is cool. That is worth coming back to the cabin late.”
“Is it … y’know, safe?” Eric asked. “Is it glowing because of toxic chemicals?”
Deshawn smiled. “I think it’s safe. I think you’ve just found what they call foxfire.”
Eric wrinkled up his nose. “Isn’t foxfire a computer program or something?”
Deshawn laughed out loud, then glanced at the cabin and stifled his laughter. “Well, yes, it’s an operating system, but lots of programs take names from real things. Like Java, that’s a computer program, but it’s also another name for coffee. This kind of foxfire is just something found in decaying trees sometimes.”
“How do you know all this stuff? I mean …”
Deshawn gave Eric a hard stare as Eric’s voice trailed off. “You mean, how’s a black guy from a bad neighborhood in the city know about camping and computers and stuff?”
Eric felt small, ashamed.
“You know,” said Deshawn, “it’s not good to make assumptions about people based on what they look like or where they’re from. You need to learn about people from interacting with them, finding out about them firsthand. The community center in my neighborhood sends kids to camp—sent me to camp here, when I was your age. And I’m studying science and computers in school, so I can get a good job when I graduate. Sure, I know some things about the streets and gangs, stuff you don’t know and I hope you never have to learn. You need to give people a chance.” He nodded toward the cabin. “Give those guys a chance. You might be surprised.”
Deshawn handed Eric back the piece of wood and tilted his head toward the cabin door. “Now get on in to your bunk. Morning comes early whether we want it to or not.”
Eric went on in, got undressed quickly, and crawled into his bunk, tucking his log between the mattress and the wooden bunk frame for safekeeping. Within a few minutes, the usual hubbub of jokes and farts started up. Eric still didn’t join in. He didn’t know any jokes and still didn’t see the humor in farting on command, but he did listen to see what he could learn about his bunk mates from actually paying attention to them.
The next morning, Eric made a special effort to sit next to Jacob at breakfast. He’d noticed the night before that, like him, Jacob hadn’t participated in the late night chatter in the cabin.
“Hey,” said Eric.
Jacob looked at him, his head jerking a bit, as if startled. “Hey, yourself.”
Okay, so that was a bit of a slow start. But, t Jacob’s response was probably about the same as Eric’s would have been if their positions were swapped.. Sometimes, he guessed, you actually have to work at getting to know someone, even if they’re feeling lonely. So he pressed ahead. “Powdered eggs again, I see,” said Eric as he picked at his breakfast tray.
“At least they’re made out of real eggs,” said Jacob, picking up a bacon strip. “This is clearly soy. Nothing like tofu and powdered eggs to start off your day right.”
By late afternoon, they’d gotten close enough that Jacob asked about where Eric had sneaked off to after s’mores the night before and Eric felt comfortable enough with his new pal that he told him the whole story. He even showed him the foxfire chunk, but of course, it was still daytime and it just looked like a hunk of rotted wood. But, Jacob still oohed and ahhed over it, like it was found treasure.
That’s when Eric knew he had made a new friend.
Eric let his friend hold his treasured find as the two of them headed off through the woods in the direction of the lake, chatting. Soon, Eric was paying more attention to his new friend, than to his find or the woodsy environment, laughing and interrupting Jacob’s imitations of the camp counselors with his own. As they continued along, the conversation turned to stories about favorite books, games, and movies. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed to Eric like he was in the middle of a movie action scene, as a big man wearing a dark trench coat and an Indiana Jones style black hat jumped out from behind a tree and grabbed Jacob, slinging him, kicking and hollering, over his shoulder and running into the woods.
“Help!” yelled Jacob, as he tried to squirm out of the man’s grip. “Help! Help!”
Eric wanted to help, but he didn’t know how. He started to run after his friend, but then stopped. The man was running away faster than Eric could possibly follow. Besides, Jacob was already beating on the man’s back with his fist and Eric’s chunk of foxfire. Eric wouldn’t be any more effective than Jacob in fighting the guy off. So, he did the only thing he could do, he took off his shirt to mark the spot, then ran down the path as fast as he could toward counselors at the lake.
“Help! Help! Come quick.”
He was so out of breath when he got to the lake, he could barely catch his breath to explain, but did his best, gasping out the essentials. Then Deshawn and three other counselors (Tyrone, Caleb, and Bethany) went rushing with him to the spot where he’d last seen Jacob while another counselor ran to the cookhouse to call the sheriff for help.
They found Eric’s shirt and he pointed them in the right direction, but they couldn’t find any sign of Jacob or the trench coat man. Fifteen minutes later, the sheriff arrived. The cop and the counselors tromped around calling Jacob’s name to no avail for a while longer as dusk approached. Then, the sheriff called everyone back to the trail and told them there was nothing else they could do before dawn. He’d be back then with a team of searchers and, he hoped, a bloodhound from two counties over to take up the search. In the meantime, everyone was confined to the mess hall on lockdown. With water, electricity, and a phone, it was the safest place for everyone, even if they had to sleep on the floor.
Eric didn’t want to go, didn’t want them to give up on his friend, but Deshawn put his hand on his shoulder and squatted down to talk with him eye to eye. “You did everything you could to help your friend, Eric. Marking the spot with your shirt was a very smart thing to do. Now, in the morning, the dog will have the start of a path to follow. Everything will work out. It’s just got to.” He stood up and tilted his head down the path to the lake. “Now, c’mon. Time to join the rest of the camp.”
The mess hall was ablaze with light and crammed with campers, counselors, and bedding by the time Eric and Deshawn got there. Apparently, the sheriff had radioed ahead to gather everyone up even before he had given up on the search for the evening. Eric got some food, but just picked at it. He wasn’t really hungry. Eventually, he joined the rest of the Rangers and dealt with their barrage of questions and speculations about what had happened until they got increasingly repetitive and silly. Finally, he laid down to sleep, doing his best not to let their wild theories about serial killers, kidnappers, wendigos, and aliens distress him too much.
He awoke well after lights out with a powerful need to pee. That’s what happens when you go to sleep early without taking care of business. Oh well, he knew where the restroom was.
When he started to get up, that’s when he noticed that his hands were glowing faintly blue, no doubt from handling the foxfire log all day.
He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and got up, quickly used the facilities and came back to the area housing the Rangers and found Deshawn, in a sleeping bag near the door. Eric nudged Deshawn’s shoulder with his foot.
Deshawn started awake. “What the … Oh, Eric. Having trouble sleeping?”
Eric shook his head. “No. I think I know how to find Jacob.”
Deshawn pursed his lips. “I know you want to find your friend. But there’s nothing we can do until morning.”
Eric pulled his hands out of his pockets. “I think I know how to find him now.”
Deshawn’s eyes narrowed. “We’ve got flashlights …”
Eric shook his head again. “Jacob handled the foxfire. He has the foxfire. He’s smart. Somebody probably read Hansel and Gretel to him when he was younger. He might have left us a trail. We have to look now.” He turned the palms of his hands toward Deshawn; they glowed a ghostly blue. “It won’t show in the morning.”
Deshawn’s eyes grew wide. He got up. “You wait here. I’m going to get us some help.”
Deshawn brought Tyrone, Caleb, and Bethany back with him. They all had flashlights and first aid packs. “Okay, let’s go.”
Bethany jerked to a stop. “We can’t take the kid with us!” She spoke softly, but with urgency.
“It’s his idea,” replied Deshawn. “It’s his friend.”
“That’s nice,” she said, “but we don’t need him. He’ll slow us down.”
Eric showed them all the foxfire glow on his hands.
“That’s nice, kid,” said Tyrone, “but Deshawn already explained about the foxfire. It’s a good idea, but we don’t need you to follow a path, if there even is one. What makes you think you won’t just get in the way?”
There was a long pause. Eric didn’t know what else to say. Then, just as the group was beginning to turn away, he blurted out: “I think like a twelve year old kid. I think like Jacob. That might come in handy.”
Eric sensed them wavering for a moment, considering his words, but he wasn’t sure he had them until Deshawn spoke up. “I’ll take responsibility for bringing him along. You can all say you were against it.”
The others never actually said he could come; they just all turned away and went out the door. Deshawn motioned him forward and they all stepped out into the night.
When they got to the abduction spot, Caleb took charge. “Flashlights off. Let’s form a line about six feet apart from each other and move the direction Eric saw them go. Eyes down, looking for pieces of foxfire on the ground.” He looked over at Deshawn. “The kid stays with you at all times, understood?”
Deshawn nodded. They headed out, with Caleb at the left, Tyrone and Bethany in the center of the line, and Deshawn at the right. Eric tried to move six feet farther out, to Deshawn’s right, but his counselor reined him in. “No, Eric. Caleb’s right. You need to stay right next to me, between me and Bethany. Got it?”
Eric huffed. “But we can cover more ground if we spread out more. We might miss a clue.”
“Sorry, dude,” replied Deshawn. “My butt is on the line for you. You need to stay right next to me.”
Eric nodded. Deshawn had stood up for him; he didn’t want to cause his friend any more trouble than he was probably already in.
They started up and walked slowly through the woods, eyes down, moving methodically. Truth be told, Eric felt silly looking at the same ground he knew Deshawn was already staring at, so he decided to look up and ahead, maybe he could short-cut the process by seeing something from a distance.
That’s when he saw it, only a few feet from Deshawn’s downward-tilted head.
“There! There’s one.” He pointed at a blue smear on a large leaf well off the ground, at about the level Jacob had been on the strange man’s shoulders. “He smeared some foxfire on the leaf as they went by.”
Deshawn gave a hoot and the group gathered to look at the clue. “So, the theory’s sound,” said Tyrone. “We just don’t know for sure which way they went from here. How’re we going to know when they turn?”
“Beats me,” said Bethany, “but we gotta look.”
How could they not see it? “Don’t you see?” said Eric. “He put his whole hand on the leaf, then grabbed it between his thumb and his middle finger. The mark is narrower at one end, because that’s the direction they’re traveling. When they turn, it will point the direction they’re going or he’ll drop two pieces of the log on the ground, one right after the other, to show the new direction. That’s what I’d do.”
“Makes sense to me,” said Deshawn with a wink.
“Okay,” said Caleb. “Fan out from here and head out again in the direction the glow points.”
They followed the trail for what seemed like hours. More than once they worried they’d lost it altogether. But everything worked just as Eric said it would. When the leaf smears grew fainter, tidbits of foxfire appeared on the ground, instead, sometimes several in rapid succession. The trail led over the fence around the campground’s property and through the woods, finally ending miles from the campground at the edge of a rest-stop for the northbound side of the Interstate Highway which cut across the state.
There were no cars in the parking lot, but a score of eighteen-wheelers stretched along the entrance and exit ramps, the drivers taking some shut-eye during the deepest part of the night.
“Well, that’s it, then,” said Bethany. “He could be a hundred miles away from here by now if he had a car stashed here.”
Tyrone fished out his cell phone and swiped it. “At least there’s cellular service by the highway. I’ll update the sheriff’s office. Maybe they can set up roadblocks or something.”
Caleb nodded. “See if he’ll send a car to take us back to the campground while you’re at it.” He nodded toward the restrooms. “In the meantime, I need to make a pit stop.”
“Me, too,” said Bethany.
“I think it’s unanimous,” chuckled Deshawn, and the group turned toward the restrooms, lit from above by a large sodium vapor streetlight, just as a man in a dark trench coat exited the men’s side.
Eric pointed. “Maybe that’s him!”
“You said he was wearing a hat,” said Caleb.
“There’s nobody with him,” said Bethany.
The man turned down the row of trucks parked along the entrance ramp back onto the highway. As he walked farther away into the gloom, he was swallowed by the darkness, except …
… except for a pale blue glow on the back of his trench coat.
“That’s him!” yelled Eric.
Deshawn took off at a run. “Quick, before he gets in a truck and gets away!”
“I got your back,” said Caleb, following close behind.
“I hope we don’t regret this,” muttered Bethany, as she joined the others. “What if he’s got a gun?”
Tyrone looked up, startled. “Come quick,” he snapped into his cell phone. “The guy’s here at the rest stop and we’re about to try to grab him.” He shoved the phone into a pocket and tore off after the others. Eric ran, too. He didn’t know what he could do for his friend, but he had to try.
Their approach was not exactly stealthy, so it wasn’t long before the kidnapper turned to look. When he saw them, he bolted, his trench coat billowing out as he ran.
Deshawn reached the bad guy first, executing a flying tackle that encircled the man’s arms and tangled up his legs. He went down hard, but rolled to one side, shaking Deshawn off of his torso. He started to clamber up as Caleb arrived, delivering a roundhouse punch to the man’s jaw. Bethany followed up with a running kick between the man’s legs. As he doubled over in agony, Caleb finished things off with an uppercut that threw the man back and down.
Tyrone arrived next, but the guy was already down. He pulled up, put one foot on the man’s back and secured the man’s hands behind him with his belt, then rolled him. Deshawn got up as Eric arrived and they all glared down at the kidnapper.
“Where’s the boy?” yelled Tyrone.
“Where’s Jacob?” echoed Deshawn.
“Don’t make me kick you again,” warned Bethany. “I don’t want to, but I will if I have to.”
“What boy?” sneered the kidnapper. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m going to have you all arrested for assault.”
Caleb looked at the others. “The sheriff will be here soon. Right, Tyrone?”
“Then,” Caleb continued, rubbing the knuckles of his fist, “let’s let him take it from here. We’ve got the kidnapper. Jacob must be nearby in one of these trucks.”
“I don’t know …” said Tyrone, still breathing heavily from the run.
“What if Jacob’s hurt?” asked Bethany.
Deshawn spoke up. “Everything we’ve done so far is justifiable. Maybe Caleb’s got a point. Maybe we should wait until the sheriff gets here.”
Eric turned away. They could talk; he still needed to find Jacob. He still needed to find his friend.
Just then, one of the trucks down the row started up. Maybe the commotion had disturbed a sleeping driver. Maybe it was just getting close to sunrise. But, maybe the man in black had an accomplice who was trying to get away. Eric didn’t know, but he couldn’t let the truck leave. He ran as fast as he could along the length of the stirring giant.
Maybe he could at least get a look at the guy or something.
That’s when he saw it, a faint glimmer just as the first stirrings of pre-dawn began to touch the horizon behind and to the right of him. On the window of the cab behind the driver, up in the compartment where driver would sleep when he was parked, was a handprint on the glass, a pale blue sign from his friend.
Eric didn’t think. He didn’t slow. There was only one thing to do.
He put on a final burst of speed as the truck-driver slowly began to turn off the shoulder onto the exit ramp, rumbling from first to second gear. He ran as far as he quickly could in front of the truck, then spun around and stopped, his hands up, his legs spread, making himself as visible as possible, praying the driver would stop.
A shuddering bass whine trumpeted from the truck’s brakes as the cab barreled toward Eric, massive and frightening. He closed his eyes at the last second and instinctively took a step back, but no impact came. He opened his eyes a second and stared directly into the vibrating, slatted grill of the behemoth, which pulsed hot air like an angry dragon about to swallow him whole. Fortunately, Eric had taken one step back. More fortunately, the driver had braked just in time.
Everything was a blur of movement and color after that. Deshawn ran up, ready to grab him, Eric was sure, out of the way. Caleb and Bethany jerked open the truck door and pulled the man out after turning off the motor. Farther back, Tyrone sat on the kidnapper, making sure he didn’t get away. Bethany leaned back into the truck, and pulled Jacob out of the sleeping compartment.e Jacob came out crying and grabbing everyone in hugs, especially Eric, as flashing red lights came down the southbound lanes, crossed over the median strip and converged on the rest stop.
The sheriff reported the driver was actually Jacob’s father. He’d lost the custody battle days earlier and had hired a sleazy private detective to nab his son, hoping to get Jacob out of state.
It all seemed so bizarre to Eric.
“It’s not that my dad loves me so much,” Jacob confided to him later, “ He just can’t stand Mom winning. He probably thought he could force her to give him more money. Maybe he just wanted to remind her who was boss. He’s done that a lot at home, usually with the back of his hand.”
Suddenly, Eric realized, being the odd kid out didn’t seem like such a big deal anymore. Other people had bigger problems than a little social awkwardness and loneliness. They had parents who hit them, or used them as pawns in fights about money, or who had to go away to war.
Besides, Eric’s loneliness wasn’t a problem anymore. He had friends. Not only Jacob, but Deshawn and Bethany and Tyrone and Caleb and all of the gang back at the cabin, who gave a cheer when they got back to the campground later that day.
“Superheroes, bad guy chasers, sis-boom-bah! Eric, Deshawn, and Jacob, rah, rah, rah!”