Billy stood in the scrubland, shivering from the cold. He carried a backpack loaded with his favorite things, Teddy the Wonderbear, a book: Oh the Places You'll Go by Dr. Seuss--Billy wished Tiger hadn't shredded the cover, but he still liked the story fine--a peanut butter and tomato sandwich with the crust cut off. Ahead, twin tire tracks marked the ground, leading into a dense tangle of low trees. Beyond, the setting sun packed the horizon with shades of orange.
Daddy had driven his Jeep into the woods two days earlier. He hadn't come back. Since Mom refused to talk about it, Billy had decided to find out for himself where the road led and why Daddy had gotten lost. It certainly did look like the sort of forest a person would get lost in. Billy found himself wishing he'd saved pieces of crust to drop. That hadn't worked too well for Hansel, but was better than nothing.
A crow cawed; others answered until raucous laughter poured like darkness over the ground between Billy and the trees. Billy's gaze went to a tree taller than the others, its branch loaded with birds. The backpack dragged at his shoulder. He set it down and knelt to pray.
"Thank you for the food we eat. Thank you for the world so sweet. Thank you for the birds that sing. Thank you God for everything. Amen." He crossed himself quickly and started to stand, but thought better. "Please let me find Daddy," he whispered. Tears stung his eyes. "And don't let those birds get me."
Billy started walking. It seemed to take forever to cross the sandy soil. A crow launched and fell toward him. "Caw! Caw!" were the sounds in Billy's ear, "Go away!" the words he heard.
"I'm going to find my Dad!" Billy shouted. The bird flapped past his head and flew back to the tree. A shiver shook Billy, so strong it nearly dislodged the backpack. He clung tightly to the strap.
He couldn't see more than a few steps into the dark woods. He thought of the Mickey Mouse nightlight plugged by his bed. There was another in the hall in case he had to go to the bathroom. Daddy had told him he was big enough to do that on his own.
He didn't feel big enough now. He wanted to run back to the house and jump into Mom's fleshy arms. He wanted to hear her voice murmur in his ear. He couldn't do that. He had to rescue his dad. Daddy would never leave them alone. Something had happened.
He sniffed. The forest smelled of vegetation, a hint of pine sap. No trace of Daddy's Old Spice, or the Jeep's acrid exhaust. Biting his lip, Billy stepped into darkness. Cold air settled over him, dense like a blanket, only cold. He stepped again. The forest was too dark to see beyond the narrow path. As long as he stayed between the tire ruts he should be all right, but what if crows were not the only thing inhabiting the woods?
Fingers trembling, he unzipped the backpack and took out his sandwich. It was a sloppy mess, the bread soggy. He tore at one uneven edge. No. Scattering bread wouldn't work; the crows would eat it.
What about tomato? Some of the chill left him. He tore apart a tomato slice and dropped a piece at his feet. His fingers slimed with peanut butter. He licked them clean, relishing the sweet smell of Mom's pantry. The feeling that went through him was like opening his eyes to the nightlight after a bad dream. Emboldened, he took another step, dropped another tomato bit.
Sometime later, he held the final sliver of tomato in his palm. "Well, I can't give up now," he said. Hearing his own voice scared him a little. He fought down his fear. "I'm going to find my dad no matter what."
"Who?" an owl hooted. Eyes glistened.
"My dad," Billy said, puffing his chest. He dropped the tomato and continued.
It seemed like hours that he walked and, still, the woods went on. The sky dimmed, then darkened. He could barely see his feet now. At least the moon was almost full. It watched over him through the canopy of twisting branches.
The cold seeped into him, beginning at his toes and fingers. He stomped and flexed, but it did little good. Soon, the chill had seeped into his mind too, and even his heart shivered with every beat. In a way, it was good, though, because when something rustled beside the path, he was able to ignore it and keep walking. The only warmth inside him now came from the flame of his purpose. He would find Daddy, no matter what.
He barely noticed the sky brighten. All of a sudden when he looked up, the moon was gone and blue sky filled the voids between branches. He had walked all night. He should eat breakfast. He opened the backpack and found the sandwich gone. Apparently he'd eaten it as he walked.
Weird. It felt sort of like he had lost something overnight. Something important. But maybe he had gained something too. He was no longer afraid of the woods, no longer afraid of the dark. A grin overtook him. Dad would say that was part of becoming a big boy. He could hardly wait to hear it from Dad's lips. His pace increased.
It was midmorning when he reached the forest's end. Adrenalin surged into his blood. The numbing cold released his body. He ripped the backpack from his shoulder and whipped it into the underbrush. He no longer needed it, was glad to be free of its clinging weight. He had done it! He stepped into sunshine, the warmth of it soaking into his skin.
The road continued as far as he could see. No jeep, no Dad, no sign of habitation. Another woods smudged the distance, another woods just like the one he had crossed.
It was too much. Fatigue flooded over him, knocking him to his knees.
"Daddy!" he screamed. "Daddy, where are you?" Tears boiled onto his cheeks. Snot ran from his nose. Sobbing, he brought his palms to his face and leaned into them.
Fingers gripped his shoulder. He shrieked.
The hand pulled him around until he looked up into Mom's sad brown eyes. In her other hand she held his backpack. It carried a few dead leaves, but was otherwise intact.
Billy took it. It felt heavier than he remembered.
"Daddy's gone," he said.
"I know, sweetie, I know." She drew him to his feet, pulled him to her waist. In the distance, a crow screamed, then another.
Without a word, Mom led him back along the tire track path, Billy clinging to her skirt. She smelled of apples and cinnamon, of buns rising behind the oven door glass. But there was something more complicated too, some hidden scent Billy could not grasp.
BIO: Stephen V. Ramey lives and writes in an 1870's Victorian house in New Castle, Pennsylvania, once the tin-plating capitol of the world. His fiction has appeared in various places, and he co-edits the annual Triangulation anthology. Look him up at www.tinyurl.com/TheNewCastle