A curly headed black hole that sucked the air out of the universe. Thirteen year old Donnie Eppes had never heard a better way to describe his eight year old brother, Charlie. But now, finally, he and his buddies were going to get away from the brat to celebrate Don's birthday with a camping trip overnight in the fresh mountain air.
He and his dad sat in the dining room, making a list of supplies they needed to bring when Mom got into the act. "Alan? Why don't you take Charlie along? I think he'd enjoy getting away from studying and tutors and out into the fresh air too."
"But Mom!" Don complained. "This is my birthday, not his! Can't I just have a weekend alone with my friends without that little brat hanging around?"
"Donnie!" Margaret scolded. "He's your brother!"
Don sighed. "I'm sorry, Mom." He glanced sadly from his mother to his father. "Charlie can come along. But, Dad, can you keep him out of our hair?"
Alan glared at his older son. "Well, thank you very much for giving me permission to bring your brother. I will not keep your brother out of your hair, young man. In fact, because of your lousy attitude, I'm putting you in charge of keeping an eye on him."
"Dad! That stinks! It's my birthday!"
"And you're thirteen. In the Jewish tradition, you're a man. As a man, you need to take more responsibility."
"Yes, sir," was all Don said. But he was thinking about all the responsibilities his parents had foisted on him since discovering that his little brother was a friggin' genius. For the first five years of Don's life and the first few years of Charlie's life, the family had been relatively normal. But then they discovered that Charlie could do math better than like ninety percent of the adults in the world, and Don's life had never been the same again. "May I be excused?" he murmured.
"Yes, you may," Margaret said. The gentle tone of her voice tugged at Don's heart, and he looked up, hoping maybe she had changed her mind. She continued, "When Charlie's done with his tutor, why don't you help him pick out clothes to bring for the campout?"
Don blinked back tears. He was thirteen. A man. Men don't cry. "Yes ma'am," he said as he rose and trudged up the stairs.
Don had been allowed to bring along five friends. Mike and Danny were his best friends, so they were a shoe-in. Tommy, Richie and Scooter were his next best friends, so he asked them next. They left Friday right after school to drive to the campgrounds. With the help of Tommy and Mike's fathers and a couple of borrowed tents, they made their way in a convoy up the winding mountain road. Don rode with his father, Charlie, and Mike and Danny. While Don and his friends sat in the back seat, chattering and horsing around, Charlie watched the amazing view. "Daddy? Is there gonna be snow?"
"No, Charlie. Not this time of year. We're not going to be high enough in the mountains."
"How high are we going to be?"
"I'm really not sure. Maybe a couple thousand feet."
"Almost half a mile. Wow. Hey, Donnie," Charlie twisted in his seat, trying to catch his brother's eye. "Did you hear that? We're gonna be half a mile high. But it's not gonna snow."
"Yeah," Don said without enthusiasm, "I heard."
Undeterred, Charlie said, "Are we gonna see bears and mountain lions?"
"I hope not," Alan chuckled. "You mother would kill me for bringing you guys up here."
"I think it would be cool to see a bear. Not close up or anything. Just to see one."
"Well, if you do see a bear, you stay away from it, okay, Charlie? They're not like the bears in the cartoons."
Charlie rolled his eyes. "I know, Daddy. You're being silly."
When they arrived, there was enough daylight left for them to set up camp. Once they were settled in, the other fathers drove back down the mountain toward home. Charlie watched the taillights creeping down toward the city lights. "Daddy? Is that home down there?"
"Why, kiddo? You getting homesick?"
"Nah. Only babies get homesick. I was just wondering. You think Mommy can see us?"
Don scoffed, "Think about it, Charlie. Do you see Mom?"
"No. But maybe I can see the lights of the house if I knew where to look."
Don snorted. "We're gonna get some firewood for a bonfire, Dad! See ya!"
"Wait!" Charlie ran after his brother. "I want to help too."
Don pretended he didn't hear the annoying little twit, and ran faster. Tommy looked up as Don arrived. "Does your little brother have to go everywhere you go?"
"Yeah," Don grumbled. "Dad was going to cancel the trip if I didn't agree to keep an eye on him."
"That sucks!" Mike said. "Do we gotta have that little brat with us all weekend?"
Don sighed. "Yeah. We gotta keep Charlie with us. It was that or an afternoon at Chucky Cheese's." He turned to see Charlie standing behind him, panting, a stunned expression on his face. "Hey, Charlie. I didn't see you there."
"Obviously," Charlie muttered.
"You're not going to tell Dad, are you?"
Charlie shook his head and bent to pick up some twigs. "Where do you want the wood, Donnie?" he asked softly.
Don pointed. "See that stone circle over there? That's where we're going to have the fire. Put it about ten feet away from the circle."
"Mkay," Charlie turned and wandered off, picking up twigs and branches.
"Make sure the wood is dead, Charlie!" Don called after him. "If it's green, it won't burn right."
Charlie nodded without turning around.
"Great," Don muttered when Charlie was out of hearing range. "Now he's pissed. We gotta make him think we're being nice to him, or he'll tell Dad, and I'll be in trouble."
Tommy watched Charlie walk away. "Maybe if we let him hang out with us, he'll back off a little."
"You don't know Charlie," Don said sadly. "The more you do with him, the more he wants to hang out."
"We just gotta live with it, then," Danny said, "I got a little brother, and I know what you're dealing with, Don. Maybe if we do good this time, your folks will let us do something by ourselves some time. That works with my parents."
"All right. We'll try it," Don said.
Charlie kept his back to the other boys and worked intently at finding wood until the tears stopped falling. This was a huge mistake. He wished his mom had let him stay home and go to the science fair at school instead of this. But she said getting out in the fresh air with other boys would be a good idea. She had no clue what his life was like. She just wanted him to be a normal kid like Donnie. HE just wanted to be a normal kid like Donnie. He sighed and continued to pick up wood.
When he had as much wood as he could carry, he turned and headed back. He knew his eyes were red and his nose was running, so as he came closer to the other boys, he started coughing.
He was shocked when Donnie came running up to him and took the wood from his hands. "You okay, Buddy?" Don asked. "You're not comin' down with a cold, are you?"
What was going on? Why was Donnie being nice to him? Well, he wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. "I'm okay. I think I just inhaled a bug."
Donnie laughed. "Come on. You think we have enough wood?"
Charlie's eyes widened as he saw the stacks of wood the other boys had gathered. "Wow! You guys got a lot."
Donnie ruffled Charlie's hair. "Yeah, but you got all the kindling we'll need to get this thing started. Why don't we go get some green branches so we can toast the marshmallows and hot dogs? I've got my Swiss Army knife."
"Okay! I saw some good branches over here," he ran off ahead of Don.
Don turned around and gave his friends a thumbs up as he rolled his eyes. The other boys laughed and went back to stacking wood.
The bonfire was fun. Charlie chattered away, telling Donnie and their dad about the best way to get a marshmallow the right shade of brown without catching it on fire. Finally, he started to run out of steam, and snuggled next to his father. When he woke up the next morning, he was in a sleeping bag in a tent with four empty rumpled sleeping bags. He could smell something yummy mixed with wood smoke, and crawled out of his sleeping bag. Daddy must have put him to bed, but at least he hadn't taken his clothes off and put his pajamas on like he was a baby. He found his shoes and socks on the floor next to his sleeping bag.
When he stumbled out of the tent, bleary eyed, he saw Donnie and his buddies huddled around the fire. "Hi," he croaked. "Why didn't you wake me up?"
"We figured you needed your beauty sleep," Tommy muttered.
Don punched Tommy in the arm. "Shut up," he growled. "You're gonna mess it up."
Tommy rolled his eyes and muttered, "Sorry, Squirt. One of the best parts of vacation is getting to sleep in. We thought you'd like it."
After breakfast, the boys decided to go for a hike. Alan pulled Don aside and said, "Keep an eye on your brother. He likes walking but he has trouble keeping up. And you know how easily he gets distracted."
Don rolled his eyes. "We'll keep an eye on him, Dad."
"Not 'we,' Donnie. YOU keep an eye on your brother."
"Yes, Dad," Don said, holding back the sigh that threatened to erupt. "I'll keep an eye on Charlie. But could you ask him not to be so …"
"Be so what?" Alan's tone turned threatening.
"Never mind. I just have to remember he's still a little kid."
"You've got it. Now, go, have fun!"
"Yeah," Don muttered as he trudged off to join his friends.
Charlie came running, pulling his backpack on. "Donnie! I've got my backpack. And I brought water and cookies and sandwiches."
"Jeez, Charlie. We're not going to be gone that long."
"You never know! Maybe we'll have some big adventure or something."
They approached the other boys, and Charlie realized that they were not thrilled to see him. He glanced at Donnie in time to see his big brother shrugging helplessly at his buddies. "Donnie?" he said softly.
Donnie blushed and stammered, "I ... uh... we wanted to borrow Dad's camera. He said no. Come on, Buddy. Let's go guys."
Once they were out of Alan's sight, Don and his buddies started walking faster. Charlie jogged enthusiastically behind them, occasionally calling to Don with some really interesting scientific fact. "Hey, Donnie, did you know that the air is thinner the higher you go? That's because of gravity."
Don called over his shoulder without turning around, "That's good, Charlie."
After a few minutes, Charlie realized he was getting left behind. He kept thinking about the thin air, and realized it was getting harder to breathe. Finally, he called, "Donnie! Dad said you gotta let me come with you."
Don stopped and turned. "Who's stopping you? It's not my fault you're too short to keep up with us."
Charlie was stunned. He recovered just as Don was starting to turn away. "You think Dad will see it that way?"
Don's expression made him wish he could take the words back. He strode toward Charlie and snarled, "You gonna run back crying to Daddy, brat?"
Charlie took a step backwards. "I ... no ... I just didn't want to get lost. You guys were walking too fast."
"If you didn't bring that stupid backpack, you'd be able to keep up." He turned to his friends and said loudly, "Hey, guys. We gotta slow down. My little brother can't keep up." Charlie winced at the emphasis Don put on the word "little."
Charlie was still at the back of the group, but this time he didn't have any trouble keeping up. He decided to keep quiet, though and let Don talk with his friends as they walked.
Mike had moved ahead of the group. "Hey guys!" he called. "Come and look at this!"
They ran to where Mike stood. "Wow," Donnie said, "that looks like a swimming hole!" He started pulling off his shoes. "Come on! Let's go swimming!"
"I can't," Charlie said softly. "I had that ear infection and the doctor said no swimming until it's all better."
"Good," Tommy said. "You can watch our stuff while we swim. At least you're good for something."
"Donnie," Charlie whined.
"Charlie, can't you take off your shoes and socks and put your feet in the water? You won't get your ear wet that way."
Charlie nodded. "I guess." He glanced at Tommy. "And I'll watch your stuff too."
Don sighed and put his shoes back on. "Come on. Let's keep going."
"Donnie! You guys can swim. I'll be okay."
"Nah. I don't feel like it any more. Come on." Don climbed back to the path.
Tommy jostled Charlie as he passed. "Great! You're ruining your brother's birthday. I hope you're happy."
Charlie hung back about ten feet behind the group as they walked. Don was sullen at first, but eventually he and his friends were laughing and talking. Charlie watched them. He walked slower and slower. When Donnie and his friends went around a curve he stopped, blinking back tears and waiting until he couldn't hear their voices any more. Then he turned and walked back toward the campsite.
His first thought was to tell his father what Donnie had done. Donnie was supposed to watch him, to let him hang around with the guys. But then Donnie would be right about him. He'd be nothing but a tattle tale. As he came up over the crest, he could see the city in the distance. Donnie didn't want him here. He didn't want to be here.
Sighing, Charlie left the path and headed toward home.
"Hey, Don," Scooter said, "Should we wait for Charlie to catch up?"
"I suppose," Don stopped and turned around. The path behind them was empty. "Charlie?" Don waited. No answer. "Charlie! Come on! Stop screwing around."
Still no answer.
"Oh, crap," Don started walking back the way he came. "If Charlie's hurt, I'm going to be in deep ..."
"Maybe he just went back to camp," Danny said.
"Oh, man. I don't know which would be worse," Don said. "If he goes back to camp and tells Dad I was mean to him ..." Don started to jog down the path. "Charlie! Charlie!"
His friends jogged after him, all calling Charlie's name. As they approached camp, Don shushed them. "Quiet! Dad's gonna hear us."
Tommy snorted. "He's gonna know something's up when we come back without the brat."
"Hey, shut up!" Don said, giving Tommy a shove. "He could be hurt."
"Yeah, and once again, he's taking the spotlight off his big brother. This is just like the day you hit that grand slam and your parents didn't even see it because they were talking to Charlie's teacher in the stands. It's not like they could get an instant replay."
"Aw, Tommy," Danny said, "they did take Don to buy a new glove to celebrate after the game."
"Yeah," Mike said, "that's a sweet glove, too."
But Don was ignoring the conversation buzzing around him. He was full of dread as he approached the tents. His father looked up from his book, smiling. "Hi, guys! How was the hike?"
"Dad?" Don said softly. "Is Charlie here?"
The smile faded from Alan's face. "No. He was supposed to be with you. What happened?"
"He was walking at the back of the group, and when I turned around, he was gone," Don gnawed his lower lip. "I figured he got tired and decided to come back here."
"I haven't seen him," Alan said, standing. "Let's look in his tent. Maybe he's sleeping."
Don ran to the tent and pulled the flap back. "It's empty," he said. His eyes brimming with tears, he looked up at his father. "He's gotta be okay, doesn't he?"
Alan pursed his lips. "I hope so, Son. Oh, God, I hope so. You guys stay here. Don't leave the campsite. I'm going to the ranger's station." He put his hand on Donnie's shoulder. "Don't worry. We'll find him."
"Daddy?" Don choked as tears rolled down his cheeks. "I blew it. I should have been watching him better."
Alan took Don by both shoulders and looked into his eyes. "Don't blame yourself, Donnie. He probably just got distracted. You know how he is. Now, I've got to go. I'll be back in a few minutes with a ranger."
Charlie had decided to stay away from the road. It would have been the easiest way to go, but it also would have been the most obvious. He found a trail that led in the general direction of the city. He shifted his backpack, trying to get more comfortable, and was glad that he brought food and water. He had a feeling that it was going to be a long walk. But it would be worth it. Donnie and his friends could go swimming and have fun doing what they wanted to do.
He tried to calculate the distance from here to home. They had driven about an hour. He guessed maybe they were forty miles from home. How fast was he walking? He wished he'd timed himself walking a mile so he'd be able to figure out how long it would take to get home. Wait. It was a half a mile to school, and he and Donnie took fifteen minutes to walk that every day. So, that would be thirty minutes for a mile. An hour for two miles. Wow. Twenty hours to get home from here?
Charlie hesitated. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. But then he remembered the look on Donnie's face. The rolling of the eyes. The frowns. The grunted monosyllabic answers. Donnie and his friends laughing at him. Maybe if he walked a little faster going downhill he could make it in less time.
"Don!" Danny called. "Your dad said to stay here."
Don looked back at his friends. "I just want to see if I can see Charlie coming. I'll stay close." He took a deep breath and yelled, "Charlie!"
He had yelled himself hoarse by the time his dad returned with a park ranger. Don ran back and waited for the interrogation he knew was coming. He'd watched enough cop shows to know that he was in deep trouble if anything had happened to his brother.
"Boys," Alan said, "This is Ranger Harding. He's going to help us find Charlie."
"Hello, boys," Ranger Harding said. "Why don't you take me to where you last saw Charlie? Mr. Eppes, could you stay here in case Charlie comes back?" He handed Alan a walkie talkie. "Just push that button and tell me if you see him, okay? Most kids just take a wrong turn and end up back with their families in less than an hour."
As they led the ranger to the trail, Don said, "I'm Don, Charlie's brother. This is all my fault. I was supposed to keep an eye on him."
"Listen, Don, I'm a big brother too. I know what you're going through. Little brothers are a pain in the ... well you know what I mean. So what went on between the two of you today? Did you fight about anything?"
Don sighed. "We didn't really fight. He was tagging along, being annoying. I was trying not to let him know I was ticked off, 'cause I knew he'd go running to Dad. But he's no dummy. I think he noticed I was pissed."
"How does Charlie normally react when he knows you're upset at him?"
Don shrugged. "Sometimes he just pushes more, gets even more annoying. Other times, he backs off. Sometimes he pouts and other times he just goes and finds something else to do."
"What do you think he was doing today?"
"Well, when we couldn't go swimming because of him, he seemed to know he'd gone too far. You know? He backed off and it was like he wanted a do over."
"He knew he'd blown it."
"Yeah. And he felt really bad about it. But I wasn't about to let him off easy, you know? I wanted him to suffer... Oh, God! Not like that! I didn't really..."
"I know. You wanted him to understand the consequences of his actions."
"Yeah. I don't want him to be hurt or anything. He's just a little kid. He's my brother," Don choked back tears.
"How soon after the swimming thing did you notice he was gone?"
Don sniffed and wiped his eyes. "I don't know. About ten minutes, maybe. We were walking and talking. He was hanging behind us. I caught sight of him a couple of times, but he looked away every time we made eye contact."
The ranger smiled. "So you were keeping an eye on him, in spite of how angry you were."
"Yeah. Of course. He's my brother. It's my job to watch him." Don glanced up at the ranger. He noticed the man's eyes never stopped moving. He was looking at the trail edge on both sides, and glancing at the slopes on both sides. "You looking for signs that he might have gone off the trail?"
"Yes I am. The brush is pretty thick here, and kind of dry, so he might have disturbed the branches. Your dad says he's pretty easily distracted by things. He could have wandered off after a bird or a butterfly or..."
"Or a bear," Don's eyes widened. "He was asking Dad about bears."
"The bears around here tend to stay away from people. And they usually sleep during the day. I doubt he'd see a bear."
Charlie regretted his decision to try running down the hill. The ground was covered with leaves, twigs, and loose pebbles, making his path slippery. The faster he went, the more unsure his footing became. He let out a little yelp as his feet slipped out from under him and he landed on his butt. He grabbed a little tree to try to stop from sliding all the way to Pasadena. The tree bent, but it held. As Charlie lay, panting he studied his surroundings and wondered how many more miles he had left before he was home.
He checked his wrist watch. He had only been gone half an hour. Another nineteen and a half hours to go. The watch face was scratched from his tumble, and suddenly he felt tears welling up again. Donnie had given him this calculator watch for his birthday. Of course, he hadn't mentioned to Donnie that he didn't need a calculator. Donnie knew he loved math, and he had picked this out just for him. He wiped his face and stood. The least he could do for Donnie was let him have the birthday he really wanted.
Charlie brushed himself off and went back to trudging down the hill. A rustling noise shook him out of his thoughts, and he stopped, looking around. "Donnie? Dad?" He was really beginning to hope that it was them, coming to look for him. But the noise stopped, and there were no answering calls. Probably just a squirrel. With a sigh, he went back to walking, counting his steps, calculating in his head how many steps it would take him to walk a mile.
Alan wanted to be doing something, not just waiting around for the ranger and boys to return. It was nearly lunch time. Charlie would be starving when he got back. Alan started taking out the paper plates and plastic knives, forks and spoons. He should have called Margaret. But he didn't want her worrying when there was nothing she could do. But he needed to hear her voice, reassuring him that it wasn't his fault. Donnie. Oh, God, Donnie was blaming himself. Had they – had HE – put too much responsibility on a thirteen year old kid?
"There's the swimming hole," Don pointed down the slope to the peaceful little pond.
"Stay up here, boys," Ranger Harding said as he half walked, half slid down the slope.
"He doesn't want us to see Charlie if he drowned," Danny said softly.
Don whirled to face him, fist clenched. "Don't say that! Charlie's fine! He's just sitting somewhere eating his sandwiches. He's probably already back with Dad."
"Your dad would have used the walkie talkie to let us know," Scooter said.
Don nodded and murmured, "You're right. He's gotta be okay, though." He watched the ranger walking around the pond, moving bushes, calling Charlie's name.
Ranger Harding came back up the hill, smiling. "No sign that he came back here. Show me where you turned around and headed back." He patted Don on the back. "We'll find him."
An hour and a half into his journey, Charlie decided to stop and have some lunch. He found a downed tree at just the right height to sit on. His feet were starting to hurt, and as he walked, he had noticed a few aches and bruises from his tumble down the hill. He had made seven sandwiches – one for him and one for each of the other boys. And he had grabbed one of the quart milk jugs full of ice water that his dad had packed in the cooler. For a twenty hour trip, he should eat one sandwich every two hours and fifty one and a half minutes. But he was hungry now, and he needed time to rest.
According to his watch, it was a little after noon. He wasn't sure how much further he had before he was out of the park and onto a road, but he hoped he was out of the woods before it got dark.
After he ate, he decided to follow a branch in the path that led toward the park road. Maybe he could get a look at how much further he had to go once he was in the relative clearing of the road.
Surrounded by the tall trees that blocked his view of just about everything, he had no idea which way his path had meandered. He was still going downhill, which was a good sign. But he didn't remember the road being quite this far away. Maybe once he reached the park road, he'd just wait for a car and ask for a ride. He knew he wasn't supposed to take rides from strangers, but this was a special case.
He heard a noise overhead. It sounded like "fwoop fwoop." A helicopter! He couldn't see the helicopter through the treetops, but he could hear it getting closer. He wondered if it was some big movie star coming to the park. Or maybe a rescue team for a lost hiker. Or maybe they were looking for him. He glanced at his watch. He had been gone over two hours now. His dad must be really worried. But was he worried enough to get the park rangers to bring a helicopter to look for him? Imagining the scolding, grounding, and maybe even spanking he would receive, he decided to stay in the woods. If he couldn't see the helicopter, it wouldn't see him. He found a path that led downhill but away from the road.
The important thing now, he reasoned, was to get home. If they found him in the park, they would think he just got lost. But if he made it home, maybe they would realize he wasn't just a helpless baby who had to be watched all the time.
Alan had fussed and fidgeted, cleaned the campsite several times over. He finally gave up, and walked toward the trail the boys had taken. He checked the walkie talkie for the hundredth time. It was still on.
Finally, he saw Ranger Harding and the boys walking down the trail toward him. He looked in vain for a smaller, curly headed boy. Ranger Harding looked up and waved. When he was close enough, he said, "No sign of him. I'm going to call the sheriffs and start a search."
"He can't have gone far..." Alan started to protest.
"You'd be surprised how far kids can stray when they don't know where they're going. Don't worry. We do this all the time. We'll have a helicopter do an air search in case he came to a clearing. The sheriff patrols will be checking the park roads and the highways, in case he got that far. And we'll have the rangers search the area on foot."
"I'd like to come with you," Alan said.
"Me too," Don added.
"You need to stay here in case he finds his way back here."
"I can't just sit around here and do nothing," Alan protested.
"It's the best thing for you to do. But first, tell me a little about Charlie. Is he in good health? Is he generally active? How likely is he to hitchhike?"
"He's very healthy. He's a smart kid, so he tends to study instead of playing sports. But he does love to go for long walks. And he would never take a ride from a stranger."
"Not even if he was hungry, tired and scared?" Harding asked gently.
Alan sighed. "Charlie does tend to be too trusting. I could see him believing the best of some stranger who stopped and offered him a ride under those circumstances."
"That's okay. Most kids would do the same."
"He brought food," Don said softly. "He had his backpack, and he told me he had sandwiches and water for our... for our adventure."
"That's good!" Harding said. "Let me make those calls and get this search started. We should have him back in time for supper. Meanwhile, why don't you folks have some lunch? No sense in going hungry while you wait. I'll call you if we find anything at all." He started to leave, then stopped. "Do you have a recent photo of Charlie?"
Alan pulled out his wallet and handed the ranger a photo.
"Thanks. I'll bring this back."
Moving like a zombie, Alan got out packages of cold cuts and cheese while Don and his friends set the table and picked out cans of soda. He couldn't stop looking at the trails that came out of the woods, hoping against hope to see his baby boy. "Dad," Donnie said softly, "they'll find him."
Alan forced himself to smile. He should be comforting Donnie, not the other way around. "You're right. They do this all the time."
Danny handed Alan a can of Coke. "My little brother was lost once when we were on a picnic. They found him about six hours later, sound asleep."
Alan chuckled. "I hope they don't take that long to find Charlie. We're supposed to be leaving for home right after supper."
Don's eyes widened. "Did you call Mom?"
"No. I didn't want her to worry. But if they don't find him by the time we're supposed to leave, I'm going to have to. That's one phone call I really dread making."
"She'll freak out," Don said.
"Yeah, she will. Hopefully I won't have to make that call."
Charlie had read about portable phones in some scientific magazines. They were big, but getting smaller every day. He kind of wished the technology had gone a little faster. He could use a phone right now. He was still hearing rustling noises in the deep woods around him. And he was sure he heard a growling kind of grunt. He didn't hear the helicopter any more, and he was beginning to doubt whether anybody was looking for him yet. What if Donnie and his buddies were still out in the woods, and what if they hadn't even noticed yet that he was gone?
If he had one of those portable phones, he could call for help. Or at least for a taxi cab. He was sure his mother would pay the fare for him when he showed up at the front door. He wondered what a taxi would cost from here. He and his mom had taken a taxi to an office where they had given him some aptitude tests. She paid something like ten dollars for it. And that wasn't anywhere near as long a trip as this would be.
But if he did have a portable phone, and he did call a taxi, and if the taxi driver would take him home knowing he didn't have any money, how would he tell the taxi driver where he was? He didn't even know where he was right now. Just somewhere in the woods, where it was getting darker and where he was hearing bears growling.
He stopped. There was another noise. Not an animal this time, but an engine, like a truck. Then he heard a horn. It was ahead of him, where the main road would be, and not to his right, where the park road would be. He had paid attention to the street names and numbers on their trip up to the park. He knew they had gone form their street to Rosemont, to Seco to Mountain to the 210. Then they had taken the 210 to the Angeles Crest Highway. The road to the park was right off the highway, so he hoped what he heard ahead was the Angeles Crest Highway. Once he found the road and was in the open, he could figure out which direction to walk.
Alan glanced at his watch. Charlie had been gone for nearly nine hours, and Alan was starting to get desperate. He left Don and the boys at the camp, and drove to the ranger's station to use the pay phone.
"Hello?" Margaret answered.
Alan took a deep breath. He had been going over it in his head, trying to figure out what to tell her. "Hi, Honey."
"Alan? What's wrong? Has something happened? Is everyone okay?"
"Charlie's lost. He was hiking with Donnie and the boys, and wandered off."
"How long has he been gone?"
"About nine hours."
"Nine hours? Why didn't you call me sooner?"
"The ranger was sure they'd find him by now. I didn't want you worrying."
"So instead you just decided to not tell me that my son has been lost in the mountains for nine hours? I'm coming up there."
"You don't need to..."
"It's obvious you don't think I need to do anything. You just take him out into the wilderness, leave him with a bunch of thirteen year olds, and let him get lost. But I can just sit home, totally oblivious to what's happening."
Alan started to reply, but Margaret had slammed the phone down. He dug for more change, preparing to call her again, but decided she was probably already in her car. With a long, deep sigh, he went back to the car and drove back to the campsite.
He had just reached the campsite when the walkie talkie beeped and crackled. "Mr. Eppes?"
"Ranger Harding! Did you find him?"
"Not yet. We think we know where he's heading. We found evidence that Charlie slipped and fell along a steep stretch of trail that headed down to the highway. It wasn't much: just a scrap of the tee shirt he's wearing. A little further down the trail, we found a plastic sandwich bag. But that trail doesn't connect with the stretch of trail where the boys saw him last," he added. "It looks like he may have headed back to your camp and then gotten distracted or turned around somehow. The sheriffs are patrolling the highway, so they'll find him if that's where he's heading."
"Thank you," Alan said, "That's the best news I've heard all day."
"I figured you needed some good news. I'll call you when we have him."
Alan turned to the boys, who had clustered around him, listening to every word the ranger said. "I guess I should have waited to call home."
"Was Mom upset?" Don asked.
Alan smiled ruefully. "You could say that. She told me she was coming up here and hung up on me."
"Ouch," Don said. "It sounds like we're both in trouble."
"Actually, I think you're off the hook, Donnie. She's really angry at me for making you keep an eye on him." He wrapped an arm around his son's shoulders and hugged him. "But to be honest, once we get Charlie back, we'll all be so happy to see him, we won't worry about whose fault it is."
"I hope so," Don said in a small voice. "I'll never pick on him again. Ever."
Alan chuckled. "Now, Son, don't make promises you can't keep."
"Yeah," Danny said. "When my brother disappeared, I made all kind of promises. I think I broke them the next day."
Margaret Eppes was not one to speed. Well, not often anyway. But she floored it when she hit the 210. Luckily, the police seemed to have better things to do than to chase one frantic mother. By the time she was on the highway, her anger at Alan had given way to fear for her younger son's safety. The thought of her baby alone in the woods with bears and mountain lions brought tears to her eyes. He would be so scared by now. Nine hours! Had he ever been alone for nine hours in his whole life? Certainly not in the mountains. He would be hungry by now. What had made him wander off? Had he gotten into an argument with Donnie?
Oh, God, poor Donnie. He always protected his little brother. He wasn't always thrilled about it, but he always took care of him. If he had fought with Charlie, he must be feeling like this was all his fault now.
How dare Alan keep her in the dark about this. She needed to be there for her boys. Not just for Charlie, but for Donnie too. Alan was probably so caught up in the search for Charlie that he forgot all about how much Donnie would be hurting. She should have gone with them to begin with. But no, she wanted a peaceful weekend to herself. If she had been there, she could have kept the boys from fighting. She could have kept Charlie from running away.
Tears were running down her cheeks, blurring her vision. She blinked and wiped at her eyes angrily. The last thing she needed to do now was run off the road. She rummaged in her purse for a tissue. Her hand touched the keyring Donnie had made her for Mother's Day. Some mother she'd turned out to be. "Donnie, Charlie, Mommy's coming," she sobbed.
Darkness was falling, but the woods were beginning to thin out. Charlie could see the lights of the cars and trucks whizzing by. With a grin, he jogged to the clearing alongside the highway. A quick glance at the sky told him he had to turn right. Well, that, and the sign with the arrow pointing towards Pasadena. A car came up behind him and slowed down. He turned to see a lady rolling her passenger's window down. "Hi, Son. Would you like a ride?"
"Nope. I'm fine. I'm almost home now," he said, smiling. "But thank you!"
"Are you sure?"
"Yep. Thanks!" He waved as she pulled away. He knew he wasn't really almost home. He had a long walk ahead of him. But he didn't want the nice lady worrying about him. His next task as he was walking was to come up with a story to tell Mommy when he showed up at the door. He didn't want to get Donnie in trouble. It was his birthday, and he didn't deserve to get in trouble on his birthday. Everybody always said he got distracted easily. He would tell them he found something interesting and ended up getting lost.
Another car pulled up behind him. He turned, expecting another good Samaritan and saw a sheriff's car with its lights flashing. A sheriff, who had to be at least seven feet tall, got out of the car. "Charlie?" he said.
Charlie nodded and put his hands up. "Yes."
"Yes Sir," Charlie took a step back. "Am I in trouble?"
The sheriff smiled. "No, Buddy. You're not in trouble. Your daddy and brother are very worried about you, though."
Charlie lowered his hands. "Donnie's worried about me?"
"Yes, he is. Why don't you get in my car and I'll take you to them?"
"Policemen don't count as strangers, do they?" Charlie asked.
"Nope. We're here to protect you from strangers." The sheriff opened the passenger's side door. "My name's Bobby."
"Nice to meet you, Bobby," Charlie said as he climbed into the car.
Bobby picked up the mike of his car radio. "This is Unit 612. I've found the subject. He's with me, and we're heading back to his family."
"Unit 612, roger that," a voice said. "I'll notify his dad right now."
"Mr. Eppes? We've got him. He's fine."
"Oh, thank God," Alan sat down heavily. "You sure he's okay?"
"You'll see for yourself in about ten minutes. One of the sheriff deputies is bringing him to your location."
"Where was he?"
"Walking along the Angeles Crest Highway, believe it or not. I'm guessing he's one tired little boy."
Charlie was tired. But he was more excited to see his family again. He wiggled in the seat, trying to see over the dashboard. "Are we almost there?"
Bobby laughed. "Almost. See those lights up there? That's your campsite."
"We didn't have all those lights."
"Those are ranger's jeeps and sheriff cars like this one."
"Wow. All those people are there for me?"
"Yes, they are. They were all worried because you got lost."
"I wasn't ..." Charlie caught himself before he told the truth. "I guess I really was lost, huh. At first, I didn't really think I was lost. Good thing you found me. Thank you."
"You're welcome, Charlie. Okay, here we are," the sheriff said, turning off the engine and unlocking Charlie's door.
Charlie picked up his backpack and opened the door. As he stood, he heard voices calling his name. As he turned toward the voices, something slammed into him, nearly knocking him off his feet. "Charlie!" Donnie hollered as he wrapped his arms around his little brother. "Charlie! I'm so sorry! Are you okay, Buddy? Charlie?"
"I'm okay!" Charlie hugged Donnie. "Don't be sorry, Donnie. I'm fine."
Two more sets of arms engulfed the brothers. Two familiar voices were saying Charlie's voice over and over. Finally he managed to wriggle free and said, "Dad! Mom? Mom? What are you doing here?"
"I came as soon as I heard you were lost, Sweetie." She dropped to her knees beside him and pulled him into her arms.
He patted her head. "Don't cry, Mom. I'm fine. Really."
Margaret glared at Don and Alan, "No thanks to your father and brother."
Charlie watched Donnie's face fall. "It wasn't their fault," Charlie protested. "I just got distracted when we were walking. Then when I knew Donnie and the other guys were gone, I got all turned around. I didn't mean to make everybody worry about me. I'm sorry."
"Don't you dare apologize," Margaret snapped, "you are the only person in this family who does NOT need to apologize for anything."
Charlie knew she was wrong. But if he told the truth now, she'd just think he was lying to keep everyone else out of trouble. So he sat quietly, and watched Don walk back over to sit with his friends.
Once Charlie had convinced his mother he wasn't hurt, hungry or traumatized, he said, "But I do need to go to the bathroom."
On the way back from the latrine, Charlie approached his brother. "Donnie... It wasn't your fault. Mommy and Daddy won't believe me, but it wasn't your fault."
"It doesn't matter, Buddy," Donnie said softly. "I was supposed to watch you, and I didn't." Donnie ruffled Charlie's hair.
"But it does matter," Charlie murmured. "I screwed up your birthday."
Donnie stood. "I'm gonna go pack my stuff."
"Maybe you guys can stay an extra night. I'll go home with Mom."
"Nah. Mike and Tommy's dads will be here any minute."
"I want to fix it," Charlie said, blinking back tears.
"Sometimes you can't fix it, Buddy," Donnie said softly as he walked away.