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Lost in the Woods

Lost in the Woods

By Paul Zander

It wasn’t the first time Megan had yelled at her mother—not even this week.

“I can handle it! I know what I’m doing!”

Her mom didn’t hesitate.

“I don’t care what you think you can handle! You’re 14 years old. There’s nothing you can say that would convince me it’d be safe for you to go camping with a bunch of other 14-year-olds!”

“Mom, I went camping with Dad dozens of times before he left!”

“Well, he’s gone now, isn’t he?”

They both paused, shocked by the words. He had only been gone for a couple of months, so it was still a fresh wound for both of them. Megan was already almost as tall as her mother, who stared into her eyes. Megan knew she reminded her mother of him. Her eyes were brown, like his, and her dark blond hair would sometimes get even darker in the winter, almost matching his hair. They were so much alike. After a few seconds, her mom continued, softer now.

“I know that you’ve done it before, and I know that he taught you a lot, but that doesn’t make it safe. The answer is no.”

Even as Megan opened her mouth to respond, her mother turned to walk away. Megan growled in frustration. Her mind was racing—so many things she wanted to say and do. Suddenly, she snapped. She couldn’t hold in the anger anymore. She spun around and bolted out the door.

She sprinted across the tiny yard, pushing all of her anger into her legs. She could barely see—the sun was high in the sky, but it was still shining straight into her eyes. Her mind was blank now. All she knew was running, and sunlight.

She ran straight for the woods. There was a small clearing there that had become her safe place over the last couple of months. She could be alone there, and think. Ducking into the woods, she headed for it. She jumped from one root to the next, dodging between trees, until she was out of breath.

Finally slowing to a walk, she found that she was a lot more tired than she had realized a moment ago. Her throat hurt, and her legs ached a little, but it also felt good to release so much tension. She continued moving forward, searching for the clearing, while working through everything in her mind.

Why didn’t her mom trust her? She had been on more camping trips with her dad than she could count. It was their thing. And every time they went, he taught her something new—not that she was always interested, but she did listen. And then he left. Someone who wasn’t there may have thought he just didn’t care anymore, but Megan knew that wasn’t the case.

He had started drinking, and every time he did, he’d get upset with himself. He‘d be ashamed of what he had done to his family, and that would drive him to drink more. It was a nasty cycle. In the end, at least to someone who really knew him, he left because he did care.

Of course, Megan was still upset about it. Her hand automatically curled around the flint and steal necklace he had given her almost a decade ago. She had never used it—wasn’t even sure if it worked. But it always made her feel like he was there, whether he was or not.

Megan snapped out of the trance, realizing that she had done it again. She had a habit of distracting herself from whatever problem she was working on, lapsing into a state of self-pity, just wishing that she had her dad back.

She stopped to look around. She had been walking for a while, and wasn’t quite sure where she was. She usually just kind of wandered around until she found the clearing, but she didn’t remember ever going this far. She took a few more steps, then changed her mind, deciding that she must have passed it.

Turning back, she became lost, once again, in her own thoughts. She had been walking for a few minutes when she heard something rustle in the woods. She froze, not because of the noise itself—she almost didn’t even notice anymore—but because of the size of the animal making the noise. It was concealed behind a bush, but she could tell from the size that it was bigger than she was. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought she saw the entire bush shake, as if something was leaning into it.

A fragment of a memory shot through her mind: The news had been on a few nights ago, while she was doing homework. She had barely been paying attention then, but now, in her mind, she very clearly heard the newscaster’s words: “A local couple say they spotted a bear near their home yesterday.” As soon as she made the connection, she was running as fast as she could in the opposite direction.

She ran faster than she ever had before. Her legs began to feel weak, and she tasted blood, but she just pushed harder. She tripped over a root, smashing her shin against a log. She scrambled to her feet and took off again, afraid to look behind her. She ran and ran, until she stumbled, and then fell down, unable to continue. If it wanted to eat her, then it would. There was nothing she could do about it now.

Megan opened her eyes. There was no bear. She let out a breath. None of her muscles would do anything, so she let herself rest on the ground, waiting for her body to pull itself back together.

After a while, she found the strength to push herself up. As she did, she looked down and saw blood seeping out of her leg. She thought back to when she fell and remembered her leg smashing against the fallen tree. She wasn’t an expert, but she had taken a basic first aid class with her dad. She needed to get home and clean it.

She looked up and suddenly realized that she didn’t know where home was. She was definitely pretty deep in the woods, but she had been mostly running, without paying much attention to which direction she was going.

She didn’t know where she was.

She was lost.

Megan panicked. She had never done anything like this—didn’t know what to do. Her dad would know what to do. Her hand was touching the necklace again. She needed him to be here. He’d stand up, help her to her feet, and start walking. She’d follow close behind, without any doubt that he knew where he was going.

But she didn’t have him, and she was lost.

“Okay” she muttered to herself. “What would Dad do?”

“Well the first thing,” his voice sprang up in her head, surprising her a little, “is you need to take care of that injury.” She almost smiled. It wasn’t the voice of the man who had gone, the man she didn’t even recognize. It was the voice of the man who had taken her on so many camping trips—the man who always had something helpful to say, even if nobody asked. The voice she heard was happy and bright, and exactly what she needed.

She looked down at her leg again. It was still bleeding and she was starting to feel woozy. She glanced around for water, but wasn’t surprised when she didn’t find any. She had never seen any source of water in the woods. Even if she found something, there’d be no way of knowing if it was clean. But most of the dirt had been washed away by the blood, and she knew that, even if it was going to get infected, she had at least a day or two, and if she was out here for longer than that, she’d have much bigger problems than an infection anyway. Blood loss, on the other hand, could become a problem very quickly.

She pulled off her dark green jacket. A t-shirt and shorts would be enough on a day like this one, especially after all of the running she had just done. After using the sleeve to wipe some of the blood and dirt from the gash, she balled up the jacket and pushed it onto the wound for several minutes.

Once the bleeding slowed, she stood up and tied the jacket around her leg. It wouldn’t do much if it started bleeding again, but at least it would protect the wound a little, plus she wouldn’t have to carry the jacket around.

So that was one problem solved. Now what? As she looked around, she was reminded how lost she was. She desperately wanted to go home, but any direction she chose was bound to be the wrong one. She didn’t really know what was on the far edges of the forest, but she did know that it went on for a while. She also knew that, even if she made it to the other side, she’d still be just as lost, only in a field or neighborhood instead of the woods.

She sighed and sat back down. There was nowhere to go. The best thing for her to do would be to stay right here.

She thought back to when she was six, maybe seven, and her parents taught her what to do if she ever got lost.

“Just stay where you are so that we can find you.”

While that was a great plan for the grocery store, it didn’t quite work now. It was going to be a lot more difficult for them to find her out here. Still, she had no other choice, and it was better than getting even more lost.

With nothing to do but wait, she started thinking about her mother, and how long it would take her to realize she was missing. She spent a lot of time in the woods, and she had always come back. She had never stayed out after dark, but would her mother even realize she was in trouble before then?

Megan had spent several hours thinking. She thought about how she was going to get home. Was anyone coming for her? If they were, would they be able to find her? She also thought about her father. For a second, she wondered if she’d ever see him again, but then she pushed that out of her mind. It was way too early to be thinking like that.

She even leaned back against a tree and closed her eyes for a few minutes. She knew she wouldn’t sleep, but she was also exhausted from everything that had happened. The short rest actually made her feel much better.

When she opened her eyes, she found that she had been resting for longer than she thought. Maybe she had fallen asleep after all. The sun had shifted much closer to the horizon, causing the colors in the sky to… Wait a second.

The sun!

On a camping trip, Megan had been trying to orient a map, but she had forgotten her compass and couldn’t find any landmarks. Instead of getting upset, her father had smiled and told her that she could use his compass. She held out her hand, and he pointed to the sky. When she was confused, he explained that, since the sun always rises and sets in the same places, it can also be used to roughly estimate direction. At the time she thought he knew everything, and she wished he was with her right now. She needed him to be here.

She remembered eating breakfast on the back porch so many times, watching the sunrise before leaving on trips with her dad. She also remembered being blinded by the sun as she ran from the house—even though it seemed like weeks ago.

That meant that she could head straight for the sunset and be pretty confident that she was heading in the right direction. At least she would come out on the right side of the woods. She could find her way home from there. But there was another problem.

The sun had given her the solution, but it had also made it impossible, at least for now. The sun was setting. It would start to get dark in just a few minutes. Even if she started now, unless she was much closer to the house than she thought, there’d be no way to make it before night. Once it got dark, she’d have to stop anyway, for fear of getting turned around again.

She’d have to spend the night in the woods.

And instead of wandering halfway home, she decided it would make more sense to set up some semblance of a camp site.

Again, she wished for her father, not the one that left, but the one that she had years ago—the one that seemed to know everything about nature and how to survive in it.

“I need you Dad.” She actually said it out loud this time, and it brought a tear to her eye, for the first time today. “You’d know what to do.”

She tried to think back about what he had said was necessary to survive. Three things, she thought. Food, water, and…

Shelter. That was the important one now. She was thirsty from all of the running, and she was starting to get a little hungry, but as long as she made it back tomorrow, she’d be fine, if a little uncomfortable.

But shelter meant protection from the elements, and she needed that very badly.

She was already starting to get cold. She would be fine for a little while, but she knew it was going to get much colder. Plus, she was still wet from sweat, and she didn’t have any clothes, other than what little she was wearing plus a jacket that was covered with blood and already serving another purpose.

A fire would definitely keep her warm. It would also provide some light, and if she was lucky, keep away any large animals that might have taken offense to her presence.

She had almost everything that she needed. There was plenty of dead wood, and material for tender was all around her. She could build a fire in minutes, but she had no way to light it.

A lighter or a book of matches would be perfect, but she obviously didn’t bring those with her. She thought of rubbing a stick against a rock or another stick, but she had never done that and knew that it was much more complicated than it seemed in movies. She had once started a fire with a magnifying glass, with Dad’s help of course, and she could do it again, but she didn’t have a magnifying glass.

Megan got more frustrated as the situation became more hopeless. He would have the answer. Where was Dad? Why wasn’t he here? She needed him. Habit took over and her hand touched the necklace.

The necklace!

The necklace was a flint and steel kit. He had given it to her, at least partially, because it was her favorite fire-starting method. She took the necklace and bent down close to the ground. Nervous, she wrapped her fingers through the steel, took a breath, and struck it against the flint. Nothing. She tried again. And again. Her face dropped, but she continued trying. Suddenly, a spray of sparks shot off of the flint. It worked! Now she just needed to build her fire. She didn’t have anything to catch the sparks with, but she was pretty sure she’d be able to direct them straight into the tender on the ground. It would take a little more effort, but it would work.

She gathered the materials she needed and got the fire started. It took her longer than normal, as she expected, but she made it work. Once the fire was burning strong, she stepped back and let herself be proud for a minute. She had done this. By herself. She still missed him, of course, still needed him, but this was the first fire she had ever built without even having him close by.

So that took care of the cold, but she needed another kind of shelter—a physical structure that would keep her covered. This was much easier than the fire. She found a large, bushy branch and leaned it against the tree closest to her fire. Then she covered it with leaves and anything else she could find on the ground.

She used to make little structures like this when she was young, before they even started camping. Dad would take her into the woods—these woods, in fact—to play, and she’d drag sticks around and prop them against things and hide under them. Of course, she never thought she’d actually need to build one for safety.

She finished her structure and crawled under it, as a test. She looked through the holes, doubting that it would catch all of the rain, if necessary, but it would help, and it would do a pretty good job of protecting her from scared animals, if the fire didn’t do the job.

It was dark now, and Megan knew it was time for sleep, but she wasn’t tired. It was really starting to sink in that she was completely alone—that there was a real danger of something terrible happening to her. So she sat by the fire for a while, thinking. Thinking about how much better she was at surviving in the wild than she would have expected. Thinking about how Dad had been the one who had taught her all of it, how he was probably the reason she was still okay. Thinking about how he was also the reason she was out here in the first place. If he hadn’t left…

She pushed the thought from her mind, annoyed by how often it came up. It was time to lay down, and she did, but she still wasn’t anywhere close to sleep. Her mind was racing. Eventually she started to relax and her breathing slowed.

Her eyes shot open and her breathing became silent. At first she wasn’t sure why, but then she heard it—the same noise from before. Well, it was hard to tell, but she definitely heard something. Why would it be here? There was no food. The fire had gone out, but there was no reason for a bear to be interested in that. She was frozen in her shelter, knowing that to leave, or even to move, would be the wrong choice. She listened, silent, for what felt like hours. Finally, she let herself breathe, assuming that it must have gone, if it was even there in the first place.

She tried to let herself go back to sleep, but there was no chance of that now. Was there even a bear? She reminded herself that she had never seen it. In fact, she had just assumed the worst, based on a noise and a news report. She felt her cheeks get warm, even though there was no one to see them. She was smarter than that. Besides, even if there was a bear, maybe she could handle it. She had already surprised herself several times by what she could do on her own.

Megan was up as soon as the first light filtered through the leaves. She had never gone back to sleep, and she was a little groggy, but it wasn’t the time for sleeping in. It was time to go home. She crawled out of the shelter and looked around. The fire was still smoldering a little, but there wasn’t anything she could do about that, and there wasn’t any reason to take down the tree branch she had slept under. She checked to make sure that the jacket was still around her leg and the necklace back around her neck. Finding both, she headed out, directly away from the sun.

She expected her Dad to show up in her thoughts immediately—how much she missed him, how much she needed him—so she was surprised when she found herself thinking, instead, about what she had done over the last day. Sure, she had made mistakes, like fleeing from what had probably been a couple of squirrels, or possibly a dear, but she had also just spent a night in the woods, without any equipment or planning. She had been completely lost, and had figured out how to survive and get home, completely on her own. She understood how amazing that was, especially for a 14 year old. Maybe she was stronger than she thought.

The longer she walked, the more her smile grew. When she glanced to the side, it split into a full grin. No more than 100 feet from where she was walking was the clearing that she originally intended to find. She felt like she was home already. Not only did it mean that she was going in the right direction, it meant she was very close. She did a little skip, turned back to see where she was going, and froze, the smile gone from her face.

It was right there. How had she gotten so close? It wasn’t a couple of squirrels, and it wasn’t her imagination. No further than the clearing had been, the full-grown bear was staring back at her.

Her first thought was to run, but her body was frozen. Then her brain took over. As she regained control of her limbs, she forced herself to stay where she was. As the bear watched, deciding what to do, she stood up as tall as she could, widened her stance, and stretched her arms out. She was pretty sure that was what you were supposed to do—make yourself look as big as possible. The bear watched, then slowly stood up on its own back legs, leaned its head back and yelled.

This was it. She couldn’t do this, not by herself. She needed him to be here, to help her.


The thought felt like it came from someone else, like someone had slapped her in the face and told her she was wrong. She didn’t need him. She wanted him to be there so badly, but she didn’t need him. She could do it on her own.

She suddenly remembered what he had told her about bear attacks, years ago. She took a deep breath and yelled as loudly as she could—no words, just as much noise as she could make. She clapped her hands together, and when she ran out of air, she took another breath and yelled again.

The bear lowered itself back onto all four paws, as if caught by surprise that such a small creature could make so much noise. It looked away, looked back at her one more time, groaned, and then wobbled away.

Megan was still frozen, and had to remind herself to breathe. She waited for her heart to stop hammering against her chest, and for feeling to come back into her limbs. When it did, she tried a step. When she didn’t fall over, she began to walk.

It turned out that the clearing was even closer than she thought. It only took her a few minutes to reach the edge of the woods, and a few seconds to make it to the house.

She pushed the door open and her eyes met her mother’s. Megan watched her face become a wash of surprise, mixed with relief and worry. Megan glanced down and realized that she looked ragged compared to when she left. In addition to the bloody jacket tied around her leg, there was dirt and soot all over her. Her hair was a mess, and her clothes were torn in a couple of places.

Megan looked back at her mom. “I’m fine.” She didn’t look like she believed her, so Megan took three steps and wrapped her in a hug. Megan felt the tears on her shoulder. “I’ve got a story for you.” She said.

Her mother held her at arm’s length and stared into her eyes with a look that said she had to know but couldn’t bear to hear it, not right now. Her eyes shifted to look at something over Megan’s shoulder, and Megan turned around to see him standing in the doorway, frozen, mouth open, as if he had something to say but didn’t know how to say it.

“Dad!” she ran to him and jumped into his arms. “You came home!”

“Of course I did.” He replied, as if it was the first time it had occurred to him that there were other options. “Your mother called me last night when you didn’t come home. I’ve been everywhere looking for you. I wouldn’t have stopped until I found you. You know that, right?”

“I know Dad.” And she did know. Stepping back to look into his eyes, she understood, now even more than before, that he loved her, and he’d do anything for her.

And she knew that he’d leave again. He’d stick around for a while, and then he’d start drinking again, and one day he’d be gone. She’d have to live with that for the rest of her life. But she also knew that he’d be back. Every single time, no matter what, he’d come back, for her. He loved her way too much not to. And that’s what was really important.

Author’s note:

Looking for more? Don’t worry, it’s coming! Meanwhile, if you’d like to get in touch with me with questions, feedback, or just to say hi, you can e-mail me at [email protected], or you can follow my new Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/Author.Paul.Zander/

Of course, all reviews are appreciated! Thanks a bunch for your support!

© Paul Zander 2016

Lost in the Woods

  • Author: Paul Zander
  • Published: 2016-02-25 03:20:06
  • Words: 4323
Lost in the Woods Lost in the Woods