“Erik, stop! Come back, please!”
Henry Clark cried out to the boy who had bolted into the woods. Erik paid him no mind and was quickly lost to view amid the large trunks of the maple and oak forest and the bushes that grew between the trees. Henry hesitated in indecision, for seven-year-old Sandy Johnson was still screeching at the top of her lungs, completely ignoring her mother's comforting words and gestures. He looked at Hillary Johnson, who was holding her daughter to her chest in an attempt to quiet the hysteria. She looked back at him with understanding and nodded her head.
“She'll be just fine, Henry. Go after him,” she said kindly.
He nodded his thanks and entered the forest in the direction he had seen Erik flee.
“Erik!” he called, moving as quickly as possible. “Erik, it's Doctor Clark! Where are you?”
He paused, listening for any response, but the only sounds were the wind in the trees and the occasional bird or squirrel talking to others of its kind. He sighed and continued forward for a short while before stopping, afraid that he might get lost if he kept going with no plan. He had hoped that Erik had simply run until he was out of sight and was hiding behind a tree or bush, but, the longer Henry called, the more convinced he became that Erik was not only out of sight, but also out of hearing. A sharp fear filled the doctor as he thought about the boy being alone in the forest as night fell. There were only about two hours until that happened. It was July in Tennessee, so there was practically no chance of Erik succumbing to cold temperatures, but earlier in the day, dark, gray clouds had started forming on the horizon, and Henry was afraid that it was going to start to rain before he could find Erik. If that happened while Erik was still in the forest, there was a possibility that he would become sick since he was still recovering from his recent injury.
Returning to the Johnsons' house, Henry was pleased to see that little Sandy had calmed down, although she was still sticking close to her mother. He smiled and crouched down in front of her.
“Are you all right, sweetheart?” he asked softly.
She nodded her head, but her eyes dropped to the ground, as if in shame. “Yes. sir,” she whispered.
Henry reached one hand out and gently took her chin and drew her eyes to his. “What's the matter?” he asked.
Her eyes glanced up at her mother, and Henry's eyes followed her gaze. He saw a stern look on Hillary's face, and he knew that Sandy had had a talking to. The little girl looked back at the doctor, and he could see tears forming.
“I didn’t mean to make him run away, honest!” she said. “I was just scared, that's all. I thought he was a monster, but Mama told me that he was just a boy who got hurt, and that I shouldn’ta screamed. I'm ‘pposed to ‘pologize to him. Do you think he'll let me?” The little girl's eyes were so sincere and repentant that Henry felt a little sorry for her.
He stroked her blonde hair and smiled. “I'm sure he will,” he said, “but we have to find him first.”
Sandy's eyes widened, and she gasped, an echo of the sound that came from her mother. “Is he lost in the woods?”
“I don’t know if he's lost, but I do know that he's not coming out just now.” He chuckled, trying to soothe the fear he saw on the girl's face. “I think you scared him more than he scared you.” He was happy to see the small smile on Sandy's face at that comment, but he knew that Erik had not run from the little girl; he had run from the adults. Henry was positive that Erik thought he had done something wrong, and he wanted to find him before he gave in to listening to the voices he knew were taunting the boy, telling him that his father had been right—he was a monster and the little girl's screams proved it.
“Oh, Doctor Clark,” Hillary said breathlessly, “we must find him.” She looked up at the sky, and Henry saw that dark clouds were indeed filling the sky, signaling the storm that was inevitably coming. “He can’t stay out there when the rain comes!”
“I know,” Henry replied, concern making his voice rough, “but I don’t know how to find him. If he's as frightened as I think he is, I'm worried that he will hide from anyone who tries to find him—even me.” He wrinkled his brow and frowned as he thought desperately for a solution to this problem.
“Well, I could send Sandy to get the neighbors together, and we could search for him. If enough people look, he might not be able to hide from them all.”
Henry paused, uneasy with the thought of a large number of people combing the woods for Erik. He was worried that it would traumatize the boy even more, but with the encroaching storm, it would have to be risked. He nodded reluctantly and said, “You're right. Let's do it.”
Hillary Johnson was only twenty-four years old, but she had a good head on her shoulders. She bent down and told Sandy to run and find as many neighbors as she could and to tell them that there was a boy lost in the woods. The little girl went quickly to the houses on the street, and within fifteen minutes, there were eight men and four teenage boys surrounding Henry.
“Now,” he began, looking around with gratitude at his friends and neighbors, “you must understand that Erik trusts no one except me, and I doubt he'll even trust me completely right now. He's had a horrific life, and he is scared right now. I'd like to comb the woods in a line, but please, let me be the only one to call out for him. If he hears any other voice, especially a male one, I'm afraid he'll run deeper into the woods and be lost for good. Are we agreed?”A chorus of agreement rippled through the group, and they quickly formed into a line with about five feet between people. Henry led them into the forest in the direction he had seen Erik run, and he began to call for the boy. “Erik? It's Doctor Clark! It's all right to come out; you're not in any trouble! Please come out!” They continued forward, everyone searching the bushes as they pushed through, looking behind trees and even up into the branches. The farther into the forest they got, the more concern Henry felt, but he told himself that he wouldn’t give up until Erik was found.