“Shut up,” I said, casting a dark eye up into the tree. The crow looked down at me and cackled. Was it laughing? I ignored it and wiped the blood off of my forehead. A stray twig had caught me unaware. It stung when I put water on it.
I looked back down my tracks. Had I left enough signs so I could get back to the path? Would they be able to find me when they arrived if I was unable to get back to camp?
Bill and Guy had headed out to get help. It was at least a two-day’s walk to civilization and they’d only been gone a few hours. I didn’t want to be in the same predicament as Sean.
When we got up in the morning, Sean was gone. We could follow his trail for about 50 yards into the forest, all curving and winding, but we couldn’t find the boy. The tracks were very soon obscured.
I took the blame, of course. He’s my son, after all. He had been on these backpack trips in the past without much of an issue, but he had always shared my tent. I figured that at 17 he needed his privacy, severe autism or not.
I thought I had seen some cuff marks a way back, but none since then. He was most likely headed in this direction, if those tracks were right. I had an urge to call out again, but I knew he wouldn’t answer even if he heard me. He couldn’t answer.
I started back on the way I had chosen almost at random. The crow made a racket, up in his tree. I stopped and watched. He flew off to another tree in a slightly different direction, stopped and looked at me with a cocked head. I looked into its beady little eyes. With a shrug, I walked in the crow’s direction. It offered as much of a chance as the direction I was going. It flew off in the direction I was headed.
Guy was about Sean’s age. I so much wanted them to get along. Sure, Guy was considered “normal”. He excelled in school and in sports. He was working on becoming an Eagle Scout. He was what people would call “a good kid”. But he just couldn’t find a way to make a connection with Sean.
I had talked to Bill a little about when the kids should have been asleep. No, I wasn’t accusing or anything. I got over that when Sean was four. But I did discover that Guy was at that stage some kids go through that appearances were everything. I knew that made sense if he was in school, but back in the woods? Who was he trying to look good for? Who was there to impress?
No, we didn’t go too deep into it. But I think both kids heard.
In the morning, Sean was gone. My guess is that he left the minute Bill and I turned in. I did think I heard some rustling and all after I turned off my light, but ignored it.
Guy was quite first thing in the morning and started to cry when we discovered that Sean was missing. He blamed himself for not being nicer. I know Guy’s a good kid and all, but I wished he would have thought of it a day earlier. Anyway, he helped as best he could, but when it was obvious we wouldn’t find Sean right away, he followed his dad out to get help.
About 10 minutes after following the crow’s direction, I saw a sure sign. There was a small pool of water with some mud around it. On one side I could make out the print of a hiking boot. I continued on, keeping an eye on the ground.
Last night Bill had asked me why I brought Sean. I spent more time working with him to keep him going, to help and such, that I couldn’t enjoy the nature. But he was wrong. I did enjoy it. And more to the point, so did Sean. Bill doesn’t know him as well. He couldn’t see the difference that being out here made. Sean spoke maybe two words a month, so he couldn’t express it the way Guy did, but he loved being out in the forest.
I walked for a while longer, but didn’t see any more signs of Sean passing by. I walked back towards the little pool. The crow was back above me, chattering and cackling away. I finally stopped and looked up at him.
“So, where is he?” I asked. Obviously it was a rhetorical question. Outside of fairy tales, animals don’t answer people.
The crow looked at me with its shiny eyes. It flew off to the side at a slightly different angle than what I’d taken before. As it had before, it stopped and looked at me. As I had last time, I shrugged and followed. What harm would it do? The last time I had followed it, I did find a boot print, so why not?
As I went, I began to grow uneasy. We were headed towards the river. The ground was steep and treacherous. There were high cliffs around it near the river The water was deep and fast. I could imagine Sean being fascinated and stepping into the water. I doubled my pace.
I hadn’t gone far when the crow started let out a “caw”. He was a little to the side. Without hesitation, I walked towards him. He started to fly tree to tree with me just underneath. I watched the bird more than I watched for signs of Sean’s passing. I know it was little stupid. I also stopped turning down branches and marking my path. I didn’t even think of finding my way beck.
Bill was a little angry and very worried when he turned Guy back towards the road. He swore that he wasn’t mad, but I could tell. We have all heard stories of autistic kids disappearing in the woods. Sometimes they showed up not far from the camp site. Other times it took days of searching. And then there were the times when it came to a bad end. Bill, of course never said anything about it, but it had only been a few weeks since a kid’s body was found on a mountain in Idaho after they had searched for days.
I had heard the sound of the rushing water for a while. It was growing stronger. I could see light through the trees in places that I guessed had to be cliffs. The crow was flying faster and I was having a harder time keeping up with it while staying safe. The landscape was much steeper and a misstep would do more than slow me down. I wouldn’t be much help if I broke my leg. Or neck.
I was beginning to wonder if Bill was right, if I should have just skipped this year’s backpacking trip. I was also wondering if I had been a complete fool to follow the bird.
But then a saw it. A flash of red. Sean had been wearing his red jacket, hadn’t he?
I hurried towards it. The color wasn’t moving. If it were Sean, was he OK? As I drew closer I could make out the form of a boy lying on the ground. I still couldn’t tell what condition he was in.
As I stepped out into the clearing next to the river, I heard a loud cawing. The crow was on a rock above Sean. Sean sat up and turned towards the bird. The bird stopped making the racket and looked at the boy. They stared at each other for a moment before the crow flew away. Sean turned towards me and gave me one of his very rare smiles.
Since that backpacking trip, Guy has warmed up to Sean and I can truthfully say that they are friends. But when Sean is alone outside, I always see birds nearby. I strongly believe that his best friends aren’t human at all. And of all of those feathered friends of his, the crow is the best frend of all.
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