“Hold up there, Steven. Sheesh, what’s your hurry?” Jonah slammed shut the tailgate on the bed of the truck.
“No hurry. Just, you know. Want to go play.” Steven fixed a teetering stack of empty honey crates.
“You going to extract that?” Jonah pointed at the fresh bee-boxes of honey.
“I have all week!” Steven frowned.
“You have school.” Jonah crossed his arms.
“Tomorrow morning before Sunday Market? I’m always up and done before you wake up anyway.” Steven looked at the forest, eager to get moving on his project.
“Okay. But watch out for bears.” Jonah grinned.
Steven gave him a look. He always seemed to have an unspoken rapport with the animals of the forest. Many times they would see wolves or bears sitting next to him way out in their little pasture while he was off in his own little world drawing something or reading one of the many library books he was constantly digesting. Their most memorable moment was when, at barely five, a lost Steven was found being towed back to their homestead clinging to the tail of a puma.
Steven started to trot off towards the house, when Jonah hollered at him.
“What?” Steven turned around, exasperated. Jonah pointed. Steven saw his stack of books sitting on the hood of the truck and sighed as he trudged over to retrieve them. “Thanks.” He rushed back to the house, hoping to avoid any more interruptions.
All he could think about was the final step he needed to get his computer networked and every little delay seemed like hours to him. In a rush to leave, Steven stuffed his sketch pad and a handful of pencils in his backpack. He rarely went anywhere without those essential tools, and his bedroom walls were plastered with drawings he had made of virtually anything that caught his eye out in the forest.
Looking around, he reached under his bed, grabbed his moccasins, and hung them from his belt. He preferred to roam the forest barefoot, but the footwear came in handy just in case he ran into a rough patch or very sharp rocks. But most of the terrain out there was covered by forest floor detritus, moss, ferns and various understory plants so he rarely used them. When climbing, he found that bare feet could not be beat.
Looking over his shoulder to make sure no one was peeking in, he secured his computer parts in a pocket of the backpack, then went to the kitchen for some snacks. While Steven’s favorite foods were the many types of wild mushrooms that grew on the forest floor and the trunks of trees, he liked to supplement his foraging with dried or honeyed figs from Jonah’s orchards.
As he scurried around getting stuff together, Sally handed him a canteen of water and gave him a quick hug. “Hey, you. Don’t stay out late tonight. We’re having trout for supper.” Steven smiled and wiggled out of her embrace. She tried hard to hold onto him but he still eluded her grasp as he got away and ran out the door.
“I’ll be back by supper,” he yelled over his shoulder as he sprinted down the trail. Sally shook her head as she watched him race away toward whatever adventure he had planned for himself that day. She marveled at how he was always doing something and wondered where the energy came from. Looking around the kitchen and the chores she had to accomplish, she sorely wished she had some of that abundant vitality.
Steven’s staff was leaning against the rustic fence post where he’d left it. He grabbed it without breaking stride as he dashed past. Before he knew it he was in the forest on the other side of their small pasture, ducking branches and jumping over roots as he went.
The forest was a familiar place to him, as familiar as his own bedroom. Every trail, bush, sapling, and tree seemed like old friends to him. His safe place. As he ducked through the underbrush he knew exactly where to go to avoid getting snagged or slowed. At times he’d swear the forest was getting out of his way or helping him along.
In spite of entering the dense wood, the world around him seemed to expand rather than contract. The trees, towering up into the sky, surrounded him by the hundreds in his direct line of sight and receded into the distance until they all blended together, giving the impression of an endless space around him. The forest sounds were abruptly apparent to him as well, markedly different from the sounds of the open farmland their homestead sat on.
It was almost magical to him. Steven could feel the life in the forest and hear the tiniest rustle of leaves on the ground or the claws on bark as squirrels climbed. He stopped briefly and closed his eyes to let the forest soak in. He could sense nearly every living thing in that part of the forest – a hawk picking at a mouse up in the trees, a bear foraging for berries some distance away, even a puma curled up in a den in a rocky bluff nearby. He also found the smell of the forest intoxicating, with the plants and humus enveloping him with an earthy, woody aroma like a comfortable blanket. For him, it was like entering a completely different world.
But there was little time today for him to stop and experience the forest in greater detail. Though he never became bored with it and his endless discoveries, Steven had a meeting to attend to and an important component of his computer project to acquire. With just the slightest hesitation, he headed quickly to the rendezvous point, hoping Brandon was successful in getting the file for him. He found a comfortable rhythm as he trotted through the forest and covered ground rapidly. No matter how far he ran, in the forest he never seemed to get tired.
As he ducked branches and ran along deadwood trunks and through the ferns, his thoughts wandered and his playful fantasy world surfaced in his imagination. He saw gnarled, dead branches as terrible monsters reached wretched claws out for him and he whacked at them with his staff as he dodged, weaved, and swerved through the underbrush. He turned it into a full running fantastical battle.
He jumped up onto a leaning tree and ran along the trunk and onto a branch, whacking at reaching tentacles as he danced his way between the spiny arms that threatened to grab him. Without breaking stride, he jumped off onto a downed trunk that became the back of a massive dragon. He balanced on it as it writhed wildly, trying to knock him off. While at a full sprint he ran along its back, crossing a small ravine over which the dragon lay. Angry trolls reached up from the ravine trying to grab his feet and pull him down. He soundly beat them back with his staff as he jumped from the dragon’s back onto the far bank and continued his jog through the enemy territory.
A tree thrust its branches out, and before they could trap him he grabbed one of them and swung up into the tangle of the canopy, crawling quickly from branch to branch up high. He jumped from the canopy and grabbed another branch of a neighboring tree and repeated scrambling from tree to tree as he picked up the pace. He found he could travel even faster this way than flat out running. It seemed like the branches actually helped and he imagined giants tossing him from one to the other as he rapidly made his way.
As the forest thinned a bit he jumped out of the canopy and grabbed a long thin branch that bent down low enough for him to drop to the ground. He felt most liberated as he gallivanted through the forest without a care in the world.
With the giants and monsters behind him, he suddenly came face to face with a large, black bear. Not the typical monster he faced, but a real one. For a moment both froze, staring at each other as Steven crouched. The bear cocked its head, curious at the sudden intrusion as it rooted around for berries. Steven giggled. “You scared me, silly. Can’t play now.” He got up and jogged off, with the bear looking at him as he quickly receded into the thicket.
The dark forest fantasy faded behind him as he continued on, and his attention returned to reality. As he ran, he stretched out his senses to feel the forest around him. It was like he could feel the Earth breathe. It was exhilarating. It did occur to him that it could just be an adrenaline high from the run, something he learned a couple of years ago in his biology texts, but it didn’t matter to him. It was still a magical feeling. Running through the forest never really tired him much anyway. It was as if he was energized by the abundant life around him.
A young elk stag suddenly burst from the bushes as Steven ran and trotted alongside him. He grinned and grabbed a handful of the thick fur on its neck and let it pull him along. He used to imagine these creatures too, until the real creatures replaced his imagination and now made regular appearances when he was out in the forest. The elk followed a subtle trail through the underbrush as it headed toward a watering hole. Steven saw several others behind it and up ahead too. What was for Steven a full out run was a modest trot for the elk. They both ran through the forest until the trail turned away from where he was headed and he let go to jump up into another tree.
These trees were taller and easier for him to travel through. He climbed up higher into the canopy and used the springiness of the branches to help him travel from tree to tree. At these heights, he could sometimes see the forest of the neighboring hills. In spite of climbing from tree to tree, he was still able to move faster than if he was on the forest floor running.
The meeting location was getting closer. As he got closer to the ground, this time he didn’t climb back up but kept traveling until he was at the lower limits of the canopy. While jumping out of the canopy onto another downed tree, he spied a rich growth of mushrooms growing up from the soil and detritus beside the trunk and passed several until he came upon some he recognized. They seemed to call to him, and he instinctively knew they were nontoxic. The poisonous ones looked dead to him, even though they were often very pretty. Field guides had confirmed the identities to him as he helped Jonah collect for the market. He grabbed several of the most succulent mushrooms, avoiding the older woodier ones, and stuffed them into his backpack for a snack later on.
A clamorous noise caught his attention. It was not part of the normal forest sounds, and it was distant but approaching rapidly. Over the years, Steven had infrequently come across a hunter riding through the forest on an ATV or setting up a blind and cutting firewood for camp, but this sound was more familiar. He started running again, recognizing the sound of Brandon’s dirt bike.
Abruptly, he emerged from the dense thicket onto one of several fire and logging roads that crisscrossed the forest. It was mostly overgrown but was a favorite road for Brandon to drive along because of the copious ruts and dips he liked to jump and bounce through. Brandon would loan Steven a spare dirt bike and they’d often race up and down the fire road, jumping the dips and occasional pile of dirt.
Steven found the stump that they always met at and jumped up on it and sat down. Someone had cut down a few trees in this area a few years ago and the clearing was just now starting to fill in with young saplings. He reached into his backpack and pulled out a mushroom and started snacking on it as he waited for Brandon to get there.
Brandon exploded around a curve in the road and weaved back and forth across the road playing in the ruts as he approached Steven. He jumped off a deep rut, landed hard and sprayed dirt as he twisted the throttle and caught more air rebounding off another rut, landing unceremoniously by the stump close enough that Steven pulled up his legs. He excitedly whooped at him, then yelled over the sound of the engine, “You almost missed that rut!”
Brandon looked back. “No I didn’t. Landed square on.” He killed the engine and removed his helmet.
Steven snickered, “Not. Your baby sister coulda done better.”
Brandon got off the bike and leaned it against the stump. He thought for a moment. “You’re probably right. She’s a week off her training wheels.”
Steven laughed and jumped off the stump to inspect the motorcycle. “It sounded different. What did you do to it?”
“Sounded different?” Brandon knelt beside his bike. “I got a new carb, but it shouldn’t sound all that different.” He pulled a branch out from the frame and checked the throttle cable that had come loose from its clip.
“Mm-hmm, maybe you gained weight. Been pigging out down at the mansion again?”
“Yeah. On salads and lentils. Mom’s on a vegan kick again.” Brandon made a face.
Steven walked around the bike. “Let me give it a go.”
Brandon tossed him the helmet. If anyone was able to nail down performance issues, it was Steven. For a relatively new motorcycle rider, he seemed to have a knack for fine tuning them. Steven snapped on the helmet and looked down the road as he started the bike. There was an old overgrown pile of dirt beside the fire road that he liked to jump and he was eager for some airtime.
“Be back in a second.” Steven twisted the throttle and felt the motorcycle surge forward. He kicked through the gears as he gained speed, hitting the ruts to get some air and feel out the suspension. It had been a few months since he’d last ridden this particular bike, but it seemed familiar enough. He could feel a slight difference in the handling and response, however. Pushing the bike harder made it easier to discern.
His jump was coming up quickly and he braced himself as the motorcycle hit the pile at high speed. The bike came up under him, pushing hard against his legs as he powered up the pile and launched off it. Letting off the gas, he coasted through the air for what seemed like eternity, using the gas and brakes to keep from tipping up or forward too much, then made a near two-point landing.
Braking hard, he slowed down then kicked into a low gear and hit the gas hard enough to break out the rear wheel as he spun the bike around to face the opposite direction. Another twist of the throttle sent him zooming back toward Brandon, hopping over the ruts as he went. He stopped just inches from his friend, grinning wildly.
“What do you think?” Brandon asked.
“Timing’s a little advanced and the chain is too tight.” Steven dismounted the bike and propped it against the stump. “But your suspension upgrades rock. I just eased over that jump this time.”
“What? I used a computer to make the timing perfect!” Brandon exclaimed.
“Do computers drive the bike?” Steven asked smugly.
Brandon frowned, looking at the bike. “Almost nowadays.”
“Just a little. That’s all it needs,” Steven insisted. “Did you repack your baffles?”
Brandon shook his head. “Naw. Was going to do that later.” He took the helmet and fiddled with the clasp. “Too bad you couldn’t come over. Your bike is gathering a lot of dust. We could have gone racing out here.”
“I know. Maybe later on. Sally would have a fit if she knew I was tearing through the forest trails on these things. I think she hates them worse than computers,” Steven pouted. “Besides, I keep beating you. Where’s the challenge?” He smirked at Brandon.
“I let you win, bub.” Brandon pushed Steven, who jumped away laughing.
“You only think so. Two jars of honey if you beat me next time we race,” Steven challenged. He was going to bring the jars then anyway. Brandon’s parents loved his honey.
Brandon nodded, smirking. “Easy win.”
“Did you get the file?” Steven couldn’t wait any longer. The motorcycle was a fun distraction, but he was eager to get busy on his computer projects.
“What file?” Brandon looked innocent. Steven gave him a look.
Grinning, he tossed a flash drive to Steven.
“Yes!” Steven danced around. “Yes, yes, yes!”
Brandon laughed at him. “Happy?”
“Oh yeah!” Steven held his hands up. “Thank you so much.”
“No prob.” The teenager sat back on his bike again and donned his helmet. “Now, are you ready to lose again?”
“Again? I beat you last time!” Steven put the flash drive in his backpack, zipped it up, and put it on.
“Only because I slipped.” He fumbled with the helmet clasp.
“Excuses, excuses. See you at the creek.” Steven sprinted back into the forest toward their favorite creek, disappearing into the underbrush. The creek wasn’t far off, but while Brandon had to ride around on the trail, Steven preferred to take the shortcut through the brambles. Even the densest of thickets seemed to give way to him as he passed by.
“Hey, that’s cheating!” Brandon started his bike and swung it around on the dirt road, spraying dirt, and zoomed off over the ruts, slipping through the turns as he tried to get to the creek before Steven did. As he rounded the last curve and gunned it for the final stretch, he saw Steven swinging from a low branch by the creek.
“You cheated,” he yelled over the sound of his motorcycle as he pulled up.
“You snooze, you lose.” Steven grinned.
“Jump it,” Brandon goaded him. Steven had tried a few times over the years to jump the shallow creek and managed to fall in every time. It wasn’t wide – more of a ditch than a creek, but it was just on the limit of Steven’s ability to jump. Brandon could probably jump it, but he was nearly four years older, too.
“I don’t know. I didn’t make it last time.”
Brandon made a chicken noise, then jumped his bike off the eroded bank of the creek, forged across the shallow brook, and scooted up the other side. Steven tossed his backpack and staff to Brandon then eyeballed the creek. The other side was tantalizingly close and this had been a personal challenge for him for a while now.
“While I’m still a teenager!” Brandon teased.
“Hold on!” Steven backed a few yards away from the bank, then focused hard on the other side. A phrase came to mind from a movie he had watched at Brandon’s house, something about there being no spoon. He launched himself, running as fast as he could. His last step was right on the edge of the bank, and he pushed off screaming loudly. For a bare second he was flying, weightless in the air. All too soon, though, the ground came back. He reached out with his feet, sensing that he just might make it. He was actually a few inches short, his feet hitting just below the ledge of the bank. He flailed his arms wildly and Brandon reached out and caught one, pulling him up onto the bank.
“Ah, man. So close,” Steven said as he looked down into the creek.
“You almost made it. I bet you will next time.” Brandon looked impressed. The years of watching him fall into the muddy creek were almost gone now.
Steven caught his breath for a moment, wondering if he could try it again, then remembered the flash drive. “Oh, I need to get going.”
“Yeah, I figured you had a project. Hope the file works for you.” Brandon knew about Steven’s hunt for his parents and how hard it was with his adoptive parents being so strict about computers.
“Thanks!” Steven put his backpack back on and picked up his stick. “Maybe next time I won’t fall asleep waiting for you to get to the creek.”
Brandon made a face, then waved as Steven rushed off into the forest again. He could never run through the woods like that. It was hard enough taking his bike through the wildlife trails, especially where it got dense. His friend seemed impervious to the undergrowth and slipped through it with ease. Gunning his motorcycle, he raced down the bank, back onto the fire road, and off to his own adventures.