by Alex Landrum
Tyler looked up at the hard, blue sky. A vulture swooped with its black wings stretched into a V. The twelve-year-old boy shuddered. He couldn’t believe what had happened. His stomach knotted with fear just as his foot turned on a piece of loose gravel that caused him to skid forward, bumping into his brother’s back. Jason’s blond head jerked.
“Hey, watch where you’re going!”
“Sorry, my foot slipped.”
Both boys had smudged faces and tangled hair. Tyler’s blue-and-black-plaid flannel shirt hung open. Underneath he wore a damp, white T-shirt. Bits of bark and dried grass clung to his red hair, clothing, and backpack.
Jason, the younger boy, scrambled ahead, climbing up a big boulder to stand on the edge.
His checkered shirttail hung loose over his jeans. Tyler climbed up to join him. Together they surveyed the Great Smoky Mountains.
A tree-covered mountainside fell sharply to a ravine below them. Other mountains rose around them in every direction, all covered with trees and bushes. The sun burned overhead.
Jason moaned, “We’re lost.” His eyes filled with tears. “Where are we?”
Trying to stay calm, Tyler pulled from his rear pocket a compass that he earned in Boy Scouts. As the older brother, he felt he must find a way to get himself and his nine-year-old brother home, but after walking for hours they seemed to be no closer to any place that he recognized. Tyler felt that recurring pang of disappointment now mixed with grief. His dad was not there again when they needed him.
Yesterday, at the beginning of the trip, Tyler felt excitement. His father, Martin, planned to spend an entire weekend in May with the boys on the mountain. His mother, Sarah, also excited about the camping trip, prepared special treats for their backpacks. Tyler watched her wrap oatmeal cookies and fudge brownies in aluminum foil for each pack.
As he watched Sarah, Tyler’s thoughts leaped back to the time in their backyard when he swung a baseball bat into Jason’s forehead. The bat knocked Jason to the ground and split open the skin above his right eyelid. Tyler did not know his brother was behind him until he felt the bat hit an unexpected lump. When Tyler turned around and saw his wounded brother sprawled flat, he yelled for his mother.
When she arrived, blood covered Jason’s face. Tyler stared at his brother, who lay still on the ground. He felt sick. Swinging that bat started as a practice session but turned into a nightmare. Sarah ran into the house, grabbed towels, and ran back to put pressure on the wound. She shouted to Tyler, “Call the hospital. Get your dad on the phone.”
After Tyler’s shaky finger punched the number, a female operator answered.
“Please page Dr. Martin Simpson.”
And then Tyler waited for what seemed like forever while the operator tried to page Dr. Simpson. Tyler watched the time pass on the phone. He feared that they would not get Jason to the hospital in time. Finally the operator returned to announce, “Dr. Simpson is in surgery. Can I take a message?”
Tyler left a number and a message to call home as soon as possible. He ran to help his mother and brother. “Mom, Dad’s still in surgery.”
Sarah did not reply. She scooped Jason, now moaning, into the back seat of their blue SUV. While Sarah drove the car seventy miles per hour over the narrow, twisting road from their country house to the emergency room, Tyler held the blood-soaked towel pressed to his brother’s face.
As the emergency room doctors cleaned and examined the wound, Tyler sat in the waiting room packed with people. The sound of people’s conversations and the smells of various body odors floated around him. But he might as well have been in an empty room. Over and over again he replayed the sickening feeling of hearing the wooden bat crunch against his brother’s head and then turning to see the red stream spread across Jason’s face. Would his brother lose his eye? Would his parents blame him if Jason lost his eye? Would Jason ever forgive him?
Then Sarah stood in front of him, telling him that Jason was okay, that his eye was okay. Martin arrived later, after the emergency room doctor had stitched and dressed the wound, after the nurses had cleaned up the blood, after his mother sat down beside Tyler to tremble and then to sob with relief.
Now, frightened again, the boys, alone on the mountain, had neither parent there to help. Yesterday, when Martin obtained the backcountry permits and the map, he asked the ranger for important landmarks to help guide the way. At the time, Tyler and Jason did not pay attention to the conversation. Instead, they spent the time looking at an exhibit of birds’ nests in the ranger station. Now Tyler wished that he had listened more carefully.
At the beginning of the trip, the two boys, with their dad, started to hike up a winding path that climbed through the oaks and maples. Martin talked constantly, asking them about school and friends. Occasionally they stopped to examine a piece of flint or to look through their binoculars at granite rock formations. But soon Martin began to look for songbirds and woodpeckers. He would stop, put up his binoculars, and stare intently.
“Hey, Dad, what do you see?”
“There’s an eastern bluebird. See that sparkle of blue over at the edge of the meadow near the line of sweetgum trees?”
Both boys put their binoculars to their eyes to catch a view of this small bird. Having their dad with them to identify the birds was a special treat that they enjoyed.
“Boys, see that blue bird that just flew out of the bush on my right?”
Tyler squinted and caught a quick glimpse of a small bird covered with rich, deep-blue feathers that flitted from bush to bush in front of them as they walked.
“That’s a male indigo bunting. In my next life I’d like to be as free and beautiful as that bunting.”
Tyler glanced at Jason with widened eyes. What did Dad mean by next life? Tyler loved for his dad to point out the different birds. His dad knew all about birds—their songs, their nest locations, and their habits—but this last comment about a next life seemed strange. Further up the trail, Martin craned back his head and pointed toward a large bird sweeping across the sky.
“Look, boys. There’s a red-tailed hawk.”
They both looked up to see the sun glinting off the tail feathers of a large bird as it soared across the sky.
“He’s looking for a rabbit to take back to the nest.”
Jason said, “I wonder where the nest is.”
Martin replied, “Stay on the lookout. We may see it soon, up high in an oak tree.”
There was a faint rustle in the brush up ahead of them, and then two white-tailed deer leaped across the trail. When they reached a waterfall, they stopped for lunch. After lunch they crossed the creek below the waterfall while balancing their boots carefully on slick stones with white water rushing around them. Then they began a steeper climb. Soon they came to a fork in the trail. Martin, after consulting a map, told them to take the right fork. After a while the trail disappeared as they reached an area of bare boulders surrounded by evergreens. Their goal was a meadow where they could camp for the night. The two boys walked steadily up the mountain with Martin close behind them.
Tyler noticed that Martin had stopped talking. Now he was whistling one of Mozart’s concertos. Martin could whistle many different tunes, but as Tyler listened carefully, he knew the tune was probably by Mozart, his dad’s favorite composer.
The whistling began to slow with shorter, shriller notes. Then the notes stopped.
Tyler turned to see Martin standing on the mountainside below him. Rivulets of sweat covered his red face. His breath came in short gasps. Tyler noticed one large drop of sweat on his chin dangled precariously before landing on Martin’s already soaked shirt.
Martin tried to lift his left foot but dropped it heavily back down to the ground. His right hand rose to clutch his throat as he sank to his knees. With terror, Tyler watched his dad sink down. Tyler felt his heart begin to thump so hard that he thought it might explode. What was happening to Dad?
He yelled to Jason, who had dashed ahead, “Jason! Stop! Dad needs help!”
As he watched, his father collapsed and fell into a bush. Tyler leaped down the mountain toward Martin, whose gasps slowed.
Jason and Tyler both yelled, “Dad! Dad!”
Martin’s mouth tried to form a word but no sound came out. His eyes appeared dim and far away. His skin looked bluish-gray. The gasps stopped.
“Tyler, he’s not breathing. What do we do?”
Tyler rummaged in his dad’s pocket, looking for his dad’s cell phone. When he found it, he touched the screen but nothing happened. The battery had died.
“Let’s try to pump on his chest.”
The boys pulled Martin onto the trail and laid him flat on his back. Trying to remember his lessons from Boy Scout first aid, Jason gave big breaths into his dad’s mouth while Tyler pumped on his chest. Both boys worked steadily with tears streaming down their faces. Finally, when Tyler could no longer feel a heartbeat and could not get a response from his dad after repeatedly shaking him and calling his name, and when they were too tired and out of breath to continue, they stopped.
“He’s dead,” Tyler said. His heavy arms dropped to his side.
“Dad,” Jason cried as he gave Martin’s body one more shake. “Why won’t you wake up? We need you! Don’t leave us now!”
Tyler took a deep, tremulous breath. “We have to get back to tell Mom and get help, but first we have to cover him up so the animals won’t bother him.”
The sun had started to drop below the horizon. The evening light would soon disappear.
The boys began to gather loose stems of bushes and fallen tree limbs for cover and then found large rocks to hold the branches in place. Tyler hoped the rocks would mark the site.
The brothers, numb with grief and fatigue, decided to sit by the covered body through the night. The hoots of owls and the rustling brush from nighttime animal activity kept their jangled minds on perpetual alert. At one point they heard the prolonged yipping of coyotes not far away.
When the eastern horizon began to lighten, they added a few more branches to the top of the pile. Then they hoisted their packs to start the walk down the mountain. They could see a clear trail as they trudged back past gray boulders marked by the yellow and rust stains of lichen. Dark firs gave occasional shade. But after an hour of walking, they came to a denser forest of oaks and maples where they could not find the trail that they had followed yesterday. And it was then that Tyler remembered the map that now lay in their father’s pack under the cover of the pile.
None of the trees or rocks looked familiar. Tyler searched the area, looking for some reminder of where they had been before. But nothing appeared to give him a clue.
He could not see any breaks in the line of trees that indicated a trail, so he, with Jason following, decided to plunge into the brush.
On they walked, stumbling through bushes and over fallen trees. Thorns from honey locust trees and blackberry bushes tore at their clothing, their faces, and their hands. Their stomachs gnawed with hunger. That morning they had finished the last of the cookies and brownies in their packs. Their water bottles were empty. They could not find the waterfall and creek that they crossed yesterday. Tyler felt like they were going in circles. Every tree looked the same.
He longed to have his father with them. He kept straining to hear his whistle. Although he remembered covering Martin’s cold body, he still hoped that his father would appear, warm and alive, any minute now to point out a scarlet tanager or to pick up quartz off the ground. This is all just a bad dream, he thought. Dad will be here soon. He won’t abandon us on this mountain.
Suddenly Tyler saw below him a branch of an elderberry bush bend down to tuck its tip into the base of the bush. Then, below it, another branch from another bush bent in the same way. Then another and another. A trail appeared in the line of bent bushes. An indigo bunting swooped above the line. Tyler shouted, “Jason, look at those bushes. See how that bird is flying over them.”
“What’s the big deal? I don’t see anything.”
“Look how they’re bending and staying down. Something strange is happening. I think that bird is trying to show us the way.”
There was no wind and they could not hear the rustle of an animal moving ahead of them. What was bending those branches? Tyler yelled, “Come on, Jason. Let’s follow this line down. We’ve got to hurry before it disappears.”
So down they went, running and stumbling through the line in the bushes below the swooping bird, which suddenly stopped at the side of a dirt road. The bird flew off into the brush. When they reached the road, they turned on it to walk down the mountain. Walking was much easier now. Tyler felt a weight lift off him. Soon they would find help. He thought that he could barely hear music far away. Then he saw the brown roof of a ranger station. There was a green National Park Service car alongside the building.
They started to run.
The main entrance was open. Through the screen they could see a man dressed in a tan uniform. A hinge on the screen door creaked as Tyler pulled the door back to enter. They walked into the building. As a ranger surveyed their torn clothing and dirty faces, Tyler told him their names and then what happened to their dad. The ranger radioed for a helicopter to search for Martin’s body and then called their mother.
Tyler could hear Sarah crying on the phone. He tried to reassure her, “Mom, we’re fine. I’m sure Dad helped us find the way back.”
Outside the door of the station, a medley of whistled notes filled the air and then faded away.
by Tendai Mwanaka
Alice Landrum has been published in Medicine and Meaning, Potato Soup Journal, Round Table Literary Journal, and Well Versed. A retired anesthesiologist, Alice received her MD at University of Arkansas College of Medicine and her MFA in writing at Lindenwood University. She has attended numerous writing workshops.
Tendai Rinos Mwanaka is a Zimbabwean publisher, editor, mentor, thinker, literary artist, visual artist and musical artist with 23 individual books and 25 edited books, 1 music album and several songs, and tens of paintings and artworks curated, published, produced, exhibited and published in at least 35 countries worldwide.