John slowly climbed the ladder up to the 'tree house.' It was more like a cabin on stilts; all the trees had been cleared away from it. These were supposed to be a privilege for campers that stayed for five weeks instead of the usual one-week, but to John, they were just one more place that proved he did not belong. He had wanted to go to the horse camp, but the horses were sick. He wanted to go to the computer camp, but there was no more room. He would rather have sat in his dad's office staring at the wall than be here where he was everybody's punching bag.
He stepped onto the balcony of the girls' cabin and heard the group laughing inside. He opened the door and asked if he could join in. Nobody could think of a good reason not to, so he sat down on an unoccupied lower bunk.
They were playing Truth or Dare. Most of the kids chose dare and they were getting progressively worse. From one guy hanging from the rafters for 60 seconds to a girl flashing the room. John was getting nervous of what they might ask him to do and started to regret coming up.
Finally, someone picked John. He wanted to join in the fun, so he chose dare. The darer told him he had to run around the balcony with his pants around his ankles. John sat a moment trying to pull his courage together and the other kids took the time to drill him with insults and ribbings. The darer even jumped down to show him how to do it. As he ran around the balcony with his shorts at his feet, John got up and walked out to the ladder. He ignored the laughter and insults as he climbed down the ladder and walked across the clearing to the boys' cabin.
He climbed up the ladder and went inside to his bunk. He lay there for a while before the counselor came out and noticed him.
"I didn't know you were still here," he said. "I thought everyone had gone over to the girls' cabin."
"I came back," John sighed.
"Did something happen?"
"Are you sick?"
"Okay," the counselor said as he went back to his room and shut the door.
John lay on his bunk and thought about how much he didn't want to be there and how little anyone there cared that he was. He thought about how everything he would enjoy doing was ruined by the other kids picking on him. He thought about being home. He thought about just dissolving into his bunk and not having to deal with anyone. ·
Eventually, he came to the decision to disappear. So, he packed all his things together and walked out the door. As he climbed down, he tried to think about what he was going to do, but he had no clue what was around the camp. He headed away from the middle of camp, hoping that the path would not circle around. He wanted to get as far away from people that would recognize him as he could. He did not want to stay in the camp for another two weeks.
He wandered down the path, looking at the trees and bushes along it. He could not see much because it was dark and the foliage was thick. He could not see the stars because the branches high above reached across the path to touch their neighbors on the other side.
He came to a fork with a sign. He paused to figure out which path might take him out. He chose the middle path because it would probably take him farther away than the other two and be least likely to turn back. The right path was to the mud pit. That probably would have been fun if he had not been deemed a pig for a pig pile. The left path was to the storage barn. He would probably have run into somebody there that would have taken him back.
He wandered down the middle path, not hurrying because he knew that nobody would be coming after him right away. He had all night to go. He took a side path with a sign for the giant tree. A moment alone with the tree would be nice, rather than being thrown off the roots before he could get to it. It was a huge tree, about as wide as a small car. Not quite a redwood, but big enough to be giant. The roots had formed a ledge around it as water had washed away the soft dirt over the years. He climbed up the roots and stood a moment, looking up at the branches high above and wondering how lonely the tree must have been in its youth.
With a sigh he turned back to the path and continued on his way. The path curved and he worried that he was not going to get out. Then he noticed a small, unmarked path that led away from the camp. It was not well worn and he had to look out for rocks and roots. The ceiling was also thicker here, so it was darker than the main path where some moonlight filtered through.
Soon, the woods began to thin and he could see the foot of a mountain ahead. He did not want to do much climbing in the middle of the night, so he followed the base of it. He tried to look through the trees to see where the moon was, but only caught glimpses. There was a road weaving through the trees and hills and occasionally he saw cars winding along its path. Night birds sounded his passing and insects chirped in the heat. There were also larger animals in the woods.
The boy froze and stared at the large wolf in front of him. The animal was not growling and had not attacked, so John was not afraid. He became curious about why the wolf had not attacked. He kneeled down and dug through his bag, keeping his eyes on the wolf. All he could find were some cookies he had saved from dinner. He tossed a cookie gently in front of the wolf. The wolf stepped forward and sniffed at the cookie then cautiously took it. He stepped back to eat it, keeping his eyes on the boy. When he finished, the wolf walked slowly towards the boy and sniffed at him. The boy held out another cookie and the wolf carefully took it. John reached out slowly to pet the wolf and the animal did not flinch. Not wanting to press his luck, John got up slowly and started to walk away. The wolf followed quietly behind.
They continued through the trees and John wondered why a wild wolf would be so tame. He had no tags and there were not many houses around, so it seemed unlikely that he belonged to anybody, but this wolf was gentle. He wondered how far the wolf would follow him and if he would be in danger when the wolf got really hungry. He nibbled on a cookie and wondered what he would do when he got really hungry.
Suddenly, a larger wolf stepped out of the shadows, growling and John froze again. This time he was scared. This animal was definitely not tame. Then the friendly wolf stepped forward and let out a short howl and bark, then seemed to smile. The other wolf growled louder and lunged. John's wolf leapt out to block the attack and the two began to fight. John noticed other wolves standing around them, but none came forward to attack. He dared not run away, but tried to stay out of the way of the battle.
The two wolves clawed and bit in a ferocious fight that seemed to only get worse. Then John's wolf clamped his teeth around the larger wolf's jawbone. He would not let go no matter how much the other wolf clawed and twisted. Blood began to flow around the wolves' teeth and then there was a loud snap as the jawbone broke. The large wolf yowled in pain and skittered away when the smaller wolf released him. A few of the encircling wolves followed their fallen leader, but many stayed. It seemed they had a new alpha.
The victor spat and coughed, trying to get rid of the taste of the blood. He wiped his muzzle in the dirt and tried to shake it clean. There was something odd about this animal, but John did not care; he had a new friend. The wolf walked over and looked at him then turned to walk away. John wondered if yet another friend was abandoning him, but then the wolf stopped to look back. He waited until the boy got up and followed. He led John to a small stream running down the mountain and began to drink and wash. John knelt down beside him and did the same. When he looked up, the boy noticed that other wolves had joined them.
The wolf pack sat quietly and John watched them until he was too tired to keep his eyes open. His new friend licked his face and nudged him to lie down. So, the boy curled up nervously beside the stream, surrounded by wolves.
John awoke to a tongue on his face and quickly realized that it had not been a dream. He opened his eyes and saw his friend smiling down at him, so he reached up and scritched behind the wolf's ears. When he sat up, he noticed wolves all around in the morning mist. The sun was not yet high enough to see over the mountain, but was beginning to light the sky.
The boy now wondered what he was going to do. He was alone in a forest he did not know with a pack of wolves. He decided he should at least pick names for his new friends and get to know them. So, the morning was occupied with greetings from each of the wolves. John tied a handkerchief around the neck of the wolf that had saved him and named him Beowulf. He thought it fitting and dubbed the beaten alpha Grendel. He named a female that had slept behind him Maria and a scruffy little pup that had slept at his feet Benji. He named each of the wolves that had stayed and tried to remember their faces. Ivan was huge, but slow; Elizabeth seemed regal as she walked; Tom and Huck were always together and looked like mirror images; Gawain had slept by a big, moss covered tree; Link and Zelda were playful pups; and Chrom had many different shades of gray in his coat. John was proud of the names he chose and happy to have new friends.
As the sun peeked over the mountain and through the canopy of trees, John began to get hungry. He had run out of cookies making friends and wondered what he was going to eat. He figured there had to be a store somewhere along the road, so he decided to follow it. He followed the stream down to the road and then walked along the road, safely in the trees. He did not want his new friends to get hurt, though they probably already knew not to stand in the road.
After a while, John saw a turn-off that lead down to a gas station. He carefully crossed the road and walked to the back of the store. He told Beowulf to wait for him and walked around and into the little shop. The wolf sat down and watched his friend go around the corner as his pack lounged around him to wait.
John pushed open the door and went in. The shopkeeper looked up, but did not pay too much attention to the boy. It was cooler inside and John wished he could let his friends come in, too, but was afraid the shopkeeper would panic at the sight of a wolf pack and try to hurt them. He wandered the isles and found that they had dog food. He thought that his friends would probably be hungry, too, so he picked up a few cans.
Just then, the shopkeeper shouted, "Hey!"
John looked up, startled.
"S'at yer dog?" the big man asked, pointing outside.
John walked nervously to the front, clutching the cans of dog food and saw Beowulf looking in. "Yes, sir," he replied.
"Yeh need ta get 'im on a leash. We 'ave laws 'round 'ere."
"Yes, sir." John put the cans on the counter and started digging in his bag.
"Is that all?"
"Nutin' fer yerself?"
"Um," John hesitated. He forgot to get himself something, the reason he had come in the first place. "Well," he looked down at the money he had.
"'Ere, go get yeh som'n," the shopkeeper started putting the dog food in a bag and while John picked out a package of jerky for himself, he snuck in a homemade cookie from a basket beside the register. He rung up the jerky and one can of dog food. "Two dollars."
"That's all?" John asked.
"Shall I ring it up ag'in?"
"No, I've got it." John gave the shopkeeper two dollars and took the bag carefully.
"Its 'ot out there, yeh shu'd take yer dog out back fer some water from tha spik'it."
"Yes, sir." John pushed open the door and walked over to Beowulf. "You were supposed to wait in the back. It's a good thing he didn't feel like shooting you."
Beowulf followed the boy around to the back of the store where the rest of the pack was waiting. John found the spigot near the back door and noticed a bowl, a paper cup and a can opener sitting near it. He smiled and opened a couple cans of dog food and dumping them in the bowl for his friends. Then he sat against the wall and chewed on a piece of jerky in the shallow shade. Beowulf ate first, eating only a little before stepping back and inviting the others to eat.
When the bowl was empty, John rinsed it out and filled it with water. He filled the cup and sat back down to watch the pack take turns drinking. He noticed that Benji had given up on the bowl and was licking the drips out of the faucet. Soon, Link and Zelda joined him there, too. Beowulf sat watching the pack and looking up occasionally to smile at the boy.
John took the other two cans of dog food out of the bag and put them in his bag. Then he noticed something else in the bag, a big oatmeal cookie. He wondered how it got there and if the shopkeeper might think he stole it. He decided that if the shopkeeper was going to make a fuss, he had already had plenty of time to, so he put the cookie in his bag, trying to find a spot where it would not get crumbled.
When the pack had had their fill, Beowulf walked over to the boy and John scritched his head. Then he got up and they went back to the main road to continue walking.
. . .