Here’s part 1 of 2 of a story I wrote a few years ago and dusted off for this month’s “From Another World” post. Part 2 of the story will post tomorrow!
I’d always been told that falling off a cliff would kill you. That’s why I was surprised to find myself still breathing while squinting at the rocky overhang thirty feet above me. I sat up slowly. My breathing was ragged, but other than that I felt perfectly normal.
“Huh,” I said, still staring at the cliff. “Who knew?”
“Who knew what?”
I jerked my head around. A boy stood at the edge of the woods. “Who knew what?” he repeated.
“Uh, who knew I could survive falling off a cliff like that?” I stood, feeling a little stiff. “Hey, kid, what—”
“You didn’t fall off the cliff. You just showed up on the grass. I saw you.”
I stared at the kid. What is he talking about? I could still feel the adrenaline pumping through my veins from the rush of the fall. I had distinctly felt my foot slip off the edge . . . at least I thought I had. I realized I didn’t remember how I had gotten on the cliff, and I wasn’t sure where my camping supplies were either. Maybe that fall messed with me more than I thought.
I decided to ignore the kid’s odd statement. “Look, kid, what are you doing out here by yourself? Shouldn’t you be at home? Where are your parents?”
He suddenly looked confused.
Glad I’m not the only one.
“I—I don’t know,” he stuttered.
He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight and innocence was still written all over his face. Probably not a runaway, I decided. “You lost, kid?”
He shrugged. “I guess so.”
“Well, you’ll have to come with me then.” I squinted at the sky, trying to get the compass in my head working again. “You got any idea where we are, kid?”
“My name isn’t ‘kid.’ It’s Samuel.”
“Sure. Samuel. So, do you know where we are?”
I sighed and glanced at the sky again. “So, assuming I camped on the cliff and hiked there from the north, the interstate must be . . . that way!” I said in triumph, pointing to the woods.
It has to be, I assured myself. I searched my pockets and found a pocketknife and a flint and steel set. Even without my supplies, this would probably be enough to make it through a night in the woods if we had to.
Alisa wouldn’t be happy with me for losing the supplies, but then she wasn’t happy with me for going camping while she stayed home, eight months pregnant with our first child, either. The missing supplies were the least of my worries.
I silenced my thoughts by starting toward the woods at a quick pace. “C’mon, kid—er, Samuel. Let’s get going.”
* * *
Two hours later, I was wishing I’d never even come here. The place gave me the creeps. The trees should have been bare, and the air should have been cold, but instead, the air was warm, and everything smelled like summer. But some of the trees said it was autumn with their red and orange leaves, while others said it was spring with their budding flowers.
I glanced over my shoulder at Samuel. His feet dragged along the ground, and his shoulders sagged. Still, he wasn’t complaining. Most kids his age would have been whining after the first quarter of a mile.
Then again, I thought as I turned back around, this whole forest is acting odd, so it’s no wonder the kid is, too.
The strangest thing about these woods was the lack of normal noise. Not only were there no bird calls or insect noises, but I couldn’t even hear any wind in the tree branches. In fact the only hint of life I’d seen were a few bear tracks . . . not exactly comforting. Once, I thought I heard a siren, screeching tires, and several people shouting, which made me think we might be close to the interstate, but I couldn’t see any sign of it through the trees.
Now, a new, normal noise took over—rushing water. Ahead, I noticed a thick log stretching across a gap in the ground. As we came to the edge, I peered down. A river had cut deep in the earth and roared by about six feet below us. I groaned. Of all the luck. First, I fall off a cliff. Then I get stuck with a lost kid. Now, I have to cross white water rapids on a log bridge. Figures.
Samuel shifted on his feet beside me. When I looked over, he was biting his lip. At his sides, his hands clenched and then unclenched.
“Think you can make it across that log, Sam?” I asked him.
“Samuel,” he corrected. He looked at the log, then at me, then back at the log. Then he stood straighter and stuck his chest out a little. “I can make it.”
I grinned, chuckling inside. “Okay. I’ll go right behind you in case you have any trouble.”
The first four or five feet went great. Then mossy patches appeared, and the log became more slippery. I was concentrating on my footing when I heard a shriek from Samuel. I looked up in time to see his arms flailing wildly as he tipped sideways. I made a mad grab for one of his arms, missed, and watched him topple toward the river. Without thinking, I jumped in after him.
The icy shock of the water stiffened my limbs, and the current kept me under for several seconds. Then my head popped above the water, and I desperately gulped in air. I looked around and spotted Samuel’s blond head bobbing in the river just ahead of me. I swam toward him and, a minute later, snagged his arm and pulled him to my chest.
A tiny waterfall sent us both under again, but I managed to hold onto him. When we came back up, I looked frantically for a way out of the river. The bank sloped steeply upward for six feet on either side of us. Wait . . . look there. A small tree grew crookedly out of the bank’s slope. It would be tough, but it just might . . . .
There! I grabbed hold of the tree with my free hand and managed to resist the river’s tug pulling us farther downstream.
“Sam! Samuel!” I yelled over the water’s noise. “Climb onto the tree.”
For a moment, he clung to me, but then he raised his gaze to the tree and reached out tentatively with one hand, still gripping my shirt with the other.
“Both hands, now. Hurry!”
He hesitated and then lunged at the tree. The release of extra weight almost made me lose my grip, but I held on. Seconds later, I scrambled onto the tree trunk behind him. With a little maneuvering, I boosted him onto solid ground and pulled myself after him.
We lay there panting, our clothes soaked through. “You okay?” I asked.
He nodded but started to shiver. I pushed myself to my hands and knees and helped him to his feet.
“C’mon. Let’s go try to get a fire started. Maybe those old Boy Scout skills of mine will come in handy.”
* * *
To my surprise, I actually was able to get a fire started. It took us a while to find dry wood, but my flint and steel had stayed in my pocket during our tumble in the river, and with their help, I eventually got a few twigs to catch fire. I kept working, and once orange flames were glowing steadily, I dropped to my knees beside them, while Samuel squatted on the other side of the fire, holding his hands toward the heat.
Although we had only hiked for a couple hours, it had been late afternoon when we started, and the fire had taken a long time to build, so it was already growing dark. One look at Samuel told me I shouldn’t make him go any farther tonight. I worried for a few moments about how to keep warm, but then realized the air didn’t seem to be getting any cooler—another strange thing about this place—and we had gathered plenty of firewood, so we would probably be fine.
I looked up to find Samuel watching me. “Anything wrong?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “Thanks for saving me.”
I shrugged. “No problem, kid. I mean, Samuel.”
Even as I said the words, though, I had to admit I was a little surprised I had been so quick to jump in the river. I’d only known this kid for a few hours, and, however much I’d like to say otherwise, I’m not the heroic type. So why did I jump?
I shook off my confusion and tried to make conversation with Samuel instead. He was hesitant at first, but once we discovered how much we both liked baseball, he opened up and started chattering about his favorite players and teams.
And here I surprised myself again. Normally, I hated talking to kids, especially chatty ones. But as I watched Samuel’s animated face and listened to him name exact batting averages for half of the players in the last World Series, I found myself enjoying it. His enthusiasm wasn’t annoying, just kind of . . . cute. Besides, I had started the conversation—he’d been pretty quiet until now.
It wasn’t just his way of talking that I appreciated. The way he’d bounced back after his fall in the river and helped me look for wood without complaining was pretty amazing, too. He’s a cool little kid, I admitted to myself.
As we kept talking, I noticed something strange. He would talk about baseball, or any of his other likes and dislikes, without hesitation. But when I asked him about his home or parents, he got a confused look on his face and changed the subject. I didn’t push him, but it did make me curious. I wondered how I would get him back home when we reached civilization again.
There was something else about him, too. It was a feeling I couldn’t quite define, something that kept nudging me. It hit when Samuel gestured with his hands as he talked and again when he grinned and a dimple appeared in his left cheek. It was strongest, though, when he got angry and glared, his blue eyes staring me down after I said something against one of his favorite ball teams. A shiver crawled up my spine as I tried to shake the feeling away. There was something familiar about this kid. I wracked my brain, trying to think where I might have met him before, but came up with nothing. I pushed it to the back of my mind.
“C’mon, Samuel. It’s time to get some sleep.”
We lay down on our respective sides of the fire, and I closed my eyes, trying to settle my mind. Just as I was drifting off, I heard a whimper. Rising up on one elbow, I peered over at Samuel. He seemed to be sleeping, but his face was twisted like he was in pain, and his body shook. Sighing a little, I stood, made my way around the fire, and lay behind him, pulling his tiny body against my chest. His shaking slowed as he nestled against me. A warm, fierce emotion eased through me and settled in my heart. I tightened my grip on him and rested my head on my other arm, relaxing again and sliding into a vivid dream of my own.
I hurried up the stairs and into the apartment. “Alisa!” I called.
I hung my jacket in the closet and followed the sound of my wife’s voice, while pulling several travel brochures from my briefcase. I found her sitting at the kitchen table, sorting through a pile of bills.
“Alisa, honey, you have to take a look at these,” I said, spreading the brochures on the table. “You know Dan from work? He knows the owner of this place and thinks he could get us in for free. It looks awesome, and I thought it would be a great . . . .” I trailed off, noticing the frown on Alisa’s face.
“Rob, you know we can’t do that. I’m under ‘house arrest’ until the baby is born.”
She smiled a little, asking for a response to her joke, but all I could do was groan and run my hand over my hair in frustration. “But this would only be a couple hours away, and we could take it real easy . . . .” I trailed off, knowing she wasn’t buying it.
I pulled a chair out from the table and slumped into it. “Don’t you ever miss the way it was . . . well, before?”
Alisa had bent over the bills again, but now she looked up sharply. “You still wish I hadn’t gotten pregnant.”
She was staring at me. “Yes, you do. You won’t say it, but I can see it. Maybe we weren’t planning it, but since it happened anyway, can’t you be at least a little thankful? Try to see him as a gift?”
“A gift?” I laughed incredulously and gestured to the table. “Alisa, take a look at all the bills we have already. You think the money for the doctor bills is just going to fall from the sky?” My voice was louder than it needed to be, but I couldn’t help it. “You know my job is moving us to a different city every other year right now—how are we supposed to raise a kid like that? And you want me to call it a gift!” I spat out the last words.
Alisa flinched and cradled her growing stomach in her arms. Her shiny brown hair fell like a curtain over her shoulder, shielding her face from me, but I saw her shiver. I immediately felt like a jerk.
“Hey, listen, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—I just—I’m sorry.”
She didn’t look up. “You say that, but . . . I think you’d like it better if the baby died and you didn’t have to worry about him anymore.”
“What? No, I—”
She met my gaze, and her blue eyes drilled into me. “Don’t lie.”
I woke with a start.
Part 2 of “Finding Samuel” will post tomorrow.