Autumn: The Boy
Part IV of a Series
by Andrew Brand
Ten years ago, Virgil Odoco accidentally killed his parents and only brother in a car crash. Every day since, he clung to guilt as if it were a life preserver, precluding his ability to participate in any sort of relationship. So, nine months ago, Virgil entered the harsh Northern woods of Minnesota, becoming a survivalist and eschewing all human contact.
There were no friends in the wilderness. Well, except perhaps for the mother black bear and her two cubs. During the summer, Virgil had rescued one of the cubs from a wolf pack. Improbably, the mother bear thanked him by catching a trout and dropping it at Virgil’s feet. Half a dozen times since, he had crossed paths with this bear family. The mother would gently shake her head while the two cubs would quietly yowl at him. In 10 years, this was the closest Virgil had come to friendship with anyone.
Thus, when Virgil first heard the boy, he almost walked in the opposite direction. He had been hiking through the woods late at night when, barely audible over the autumn forest’s nocturnal noises, came a puppy-like whimper.
“Where am I?”
Thinking of his younger brother, Victor, who died at the age of 10, Virgil begrudgingly decided to hike toward the whimpering cries. He could not handle being complicit in yet another boy’s death.
“Some mistakes you never stop paying for,” Virgil mumbled to himself. Draped on his back, over worn and bedraggled clothes, was the pelt of a wolf. In his right hand, he carried a five-pointed deer antler.
Moonlight poured through the thinning canopy. Virgil stepped from behind a large oak tree and found a disheveled boy huddled between two smaller oaks. The boy wore a blue windbreaker, thin pajamas, and a pair of untied winter boots.
“Are you hurt?” Virgil asked.
“Mr. Berkeley?” the boy said.
“Who’s Berkeley?” Virgil asked.
“My Scout Master.” The boy glanced at Virgil’s wolf pelt and deer antler then whispered, “Are you the ghost?” Mist floated from his mouth into the chilled night.
“Ghosts are the least of your worries, kid. Hypothermia, starvation, or the wolves will get you before any ghosts. So tell me, are you hurt?”
“No, just scared…and lost,” The boy went on to tell Virgil his name was Ethan Parnell. He was a Boy Scout on a troop camping trip. After Mr. Berkeley told a campfire ghost story of a Chippewa Chief who haunted these woods, Ethan decided to sneak out with his phone, in hopes of capturing photos of the ghost.
“I used my phone as a flashlight. The battery died. I got lost.” Ethan paused and looked at Virgil in the spotty moonlight. His eyes flickered from Virgil’s wiry black beard to the wolf pelt. “Why are you wearing a wolf skin?”
“The wolf attacked me.” Virgil held up the deer antler. “I killed it with this.”
Ethan continued without pause. “I didn’t want to yell for help. No one knows I left. If they found out, I’d be in it deep, and the boys would all make fun. I wish they liked me more. They always tease me. Probably because I make such stupid mistakes.”
“I know about mistakes,” Virgil said. “Sometimes, you can fix them. Sometimes you can’t.” Then he spoke a truth he did not know he understood. “What it comes down to is deciding which mistakes you own, and which mistakes own you.”
Ethan began to say something, but Virgil put his hand up. “Shhh... Something’s out there.” Virgil stood up and looked around. He handed the antler to the boy. “Use this, if you need to.”
A far-off voice called out, “Ethan Parnell!! Where are you?!”
Ethan stepped toward the man’s voice. “Mr. Berkeley, I’m over-”
But before Ethan could finish his sentence, two wolves exploded from the darkness. One toppled Virgil over. The other stood before Ethan, ready to pounce.
To keep the wolf from ripping into his throat, Virgil jammed his forearm into the back of its jaw. The wolf threw its head back and forth twisting Virgil’s arm like a noodle. Virgil heard then felt his forearm dislocate from the elbow. Pain rose from his arm like fire.
Ethan screamed and jabbed the antler toward the second wolf. However, before the wolf could pounce, a giant black form rumbled from the trees, roaring.
The wolf near the boy turned and ran. The wolf on top of Virgil released his arm as the black form plowed into its body. The wolf yelped and followed its comrade back into the forest. Relief filled Virgil when he recognized this form coming to his rescue as the mother bear.
With his uninjured arm, Virgil pushed himself up. Suddenly, three flashes briefly brightened the forest, instantly followed by three resounding discharges of a gun. A searing pain flew through Virgil’s gut. The bear dropped to the ground. Virgil did the same. He and the bear had just been shot. He looked to the mother bear lying on the ground, her head illuminated by a beam of moonlight. Blood black as night spilled from two gaping holes in her head.
Virgil felt the world spinning away into a void of sorrow. Yet another loved one killed.
As the bear lay dying, Virgil saw a faint wisp of white rise from her body. Then a second and third. Above the bear, three misty white clouds transformed into the shapes of his parents and brother. They smiled at Virgil. He wanted to reach for them, but an invisible aching weight pinned him to the ground. Then the ghosts of his family swirled together, forming a larger cloud— a cloud in the shape of a stoic Native American, wearing ornately decorated robes and an elaborate feathered headdress. Virgil understood this to be the Chippewa Chief whom the boy had mentioned. The Chief spoke directly into Virgil’s mind.
“The Great Spirit is sly. Sometimes it is the boy. Sometimes it is the man. Sometimes it is the bear. This is not your time to be with the Great Spirit. Two more you must save.” Then, like smoke in the wind, the Chippewa Chief dissipated.
Virgil looked back to the dying bear as the world disappeared.
He woke in a hospital bed. A shoulder-length splint immobilized his throbbing right arm. Virgil thought of the bear... No, not of the bear— she had died. He was thinking of her two cubs. Alone in their den; no protection or food. He did not know how much time had passed, but he knew he must get back to the forest. He needed to save those two cubs.
Read part V - "Second Winter: Bear Rescue" here
If you missed part I - "Winter: The Deer" go here
If you missed part II - "Spring: The Wolf" go here
If you missed part III - "Summer: The Bear" go here
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