I was still sitting at the base of the tree, arms around my shins and head on my knees. I had no idea how long I’d been there, conscious of nothing except the self-loathing and terror that overwhelmed everything. The self-loathing came from the knowledge that I was still weak and able to be brought to tears by my circumstances. I had promised myself that I would be strong, but my present condition proved that I was still a pitiful wretch. The terror that filled me was because I was alone, lost in the forest, without food or water, and, quite possibly, hunted by people just waiting to hurt me for being the monster that I was and for frightening that little girl with nothing but my face. I was very familiar with this type of terror—I had felt it often when my father was in one of his rages—and I tried to block out everything around me and escape into my mind. I sat there, trying to think of anything but the fear, but it was all-consuming, and images of men dragging me off to some unknown location, kicking and hitting me, filled my brain in vivid, horrific detail. I saw cages and shackles, whips and fists, boots and belts as clearly as if they were right in front of me. The longer I sat, the more I imagined, and the more I imagined, the more terrified I became until at last, I began to rock back and forth, not realizing that I had also begun whimpering. I heard nothing of the forest sounds around me, saw nothing of the tree trunks and bushes that were everywhere, and felt nothing of the wind that was rapidly cooling and growing stronger.
Suddenly, my head snapped up, and my rocking stopped abruptly. I didn’t know at first what had happened, and I slowly and silently got to my feet and braced my back against the tree trunk, eyes wide and searching, ears pricked and listening, as a rabbit's were when there was a weasel or a hawk nearby. I barely dared to breathe as I strained my senses for the source of my sudden alertness. I heard it first, hearing being my most highly developed sense—a cracking and snapping of twigs, accompanied by heavy footsteps on the forest floor. I felt panic bubble up inside of me, but I forced myself to listen, to determine from where the sound was coming. It was off to my right but coming straight toward me. I looked around frantically for a place to hide, but I saw nothing. I decided that my best chance was to stay ahead of the people coming for me, and I cautiously began moving to my left, trying to make no sound as I listened carefully for any change in the sound of my pursuers.
Then I heard Doctor Clark's voice, closer than I thought it would be, “Erik! Please come out! You're not in any trouble! Erik!”
I stopped behind a tree, indecisive, and warring thoughts clashed in my brain. On the one hand, I was still terrified of being caught and punished for what I had done, but on the other, I trusted the doctor, and I didn’t think he would lie to me or hurt me. I struggled within myself briefly, and I came to the decision to go to him. I stepped out from behind the tree and started to walk toward his voice, but then I heard another man's voice, one I did not recognize, and I froze in alarm.
“Henry,” this new voice said, “we've got to turn back. The storm is going to be here soon, and we can’t be out here in the woods when it comes.”
Instantly, there were echoes of the man's sentiment, and, from the sound of it, there were more than half a dozen other men with the doctor. The terror returned with a vengeance, and although I still trusted the doctor, it was not enough to overcome my fear of the other men. I could tell they were not moving toward me anymore, so I ducked behind another tree, but I still listened carefully.
“No, Warren, I will not abandon him! I am all he has, and I will not leave until he's found!” Doctor Clark's tone was angry, but the men stood their ground.
“Then you can stay out here and look for him,” the first voice replied, “but we're going back. If he's as smart as you say, he'll find cover. We'll search again after the storm, I promise.”
I looked up at the sky, seeing very little of it through the dense foliage, and I suddenly realized how dark it had gotten. For the first time, I was aware of the wind as it whipped past me, the promise of a heavy rain in its chill breath. Even as I stood there, rooted to the spot in my fear, I felt the first drops begin to fall.
“Here it is, Henry, let's go!” the man said urgently. “There's no sense in both of you getting lost out here!”
I heard the sound of the men rapidly retreating the way they came, and then there was the sound of the doctor calling out desperately, “Erik! Please! Where are you?”
“Henry! Come on!” The man's voice was farther away, and it was fading.
A strangled cry filtered through the trees, and then I heard the doctor's footsteps recede as he followed the men back. He was almost out of earshot when an idea popped into my brain. I could at least follow them to the edge of the forest, and then I would no longer be lost. I could decide what to do after that. I quickly, but still silently, ran behind the doctor. I had honed the skill of being unobserved early on in my life, for often, if my father didn’t notice me in his drunken state, he left me alone. It was when he laid eyes on me or heard me that his rage bubbled over and the beatings began. Because of this, I had learned to be invisible and silent. This ability helped me as I stuck to the trail of the men before me. It didn’t hurt that the wind had picked up to the point that all sound was muted. At one point, I was afraid that I had lost the trail, but then I saw a flash of movement in front of me. The rain was falling faster, and I risked picking up my speed until I could see the person in front of me clearly. I kept hidden behind trees even as I ran, but I could see that it was the doctor. He was moving hurriedly, but he still glanced around him, trying to see into the trees through the rain. I almost caught up to him, but then I saw the forms of the other men not far in front of him. That caused me to back off just enough that no one would see me as they unwittingly led me out of the woods.
When we reached the edge, I stopped behind a large maple tree and peered out at the scene before me. The rain was falling in sheets, and everyone was soaked to the skin. We were back in the Johnson's yard, and the men quickly parted ways, but not before patting Doctor Clark on the back and giving him looks of understanding and compassion. I couldn’t hear their words over the storm, but I saw him hang his head as he stood in the middle of the yard. He stayed there until the last of the men departed, and I was just about to step out and announce myself when the door of the house opened. Through the rain I could see Mrs. Johnson and her little girl framed in the doorway, and although I couldn’t make out what she said, she must have invited the doctor to come in out of the rain, for he raised his head slowly and began walking in that direction. He stopped on the front step of the porch and looked back toward my hiding spot before following her inside.I waited for a moment until I was sure that no one else was around, and then I quickly and quietly made my way to the car. I slipped into the back seat and closed the door. I had learned from the doctor that wet clothes would only keep me cold, so I stripped to the skin, found the blanket he kept in the car for emergencies, and wrapped it around myself before lying down on the seat. I was shivering slightly, and the storm created a cacophony of rain and wind around the car, but exhaustion quickly overtook me, and I crashed down into a black, dream-filled sleep.