Part One – The Runaway
Day after day, I search for Daniel. I come across other hikers, trail-runners, campers, but no sign of Daniel, and the deeper I go into the back country, the fewer people I encounter. I carry a survival knapsack provisioned with water, power bars, a flashlight, a sweatshirt, a rain poncho, and binoculars. I take my phone, though usually I can’t get a signal in the woods. I also take a notebook for philosophical and therapeutic thoughts. Oddly enough, sad as I am over the loss of Alice and Daniel, I feel a curious sort of awakening. I stop beside a creek and make a note in my journal, which may become part of the article I’m writing for the new psychological magazine Insights and Delusions.
I jot: “Can loss bring us alive? Is it possible that I can be what Alice wanted me to be only after Alice herself is gone? Is it possible that Daniel can be what he wants to be only by running away? Are the kids right, is life so crazy that there is nothing left but to run for the woods? But are they the ones who set off the bomb at the new development? Are they on an idyllic adventure or destined for a bad fall?”
I put my journal away and trot down a forest trail. If my search weren’t so filled with longing and regret, it would be a pleasant day, sunny, clear, a mild breeze in my hair.
I alternate between a fast hike and a jog, pack bouncing lightly on my back, pausing every so often to walk and settle my breath. I’ve run several marathons, and though I’m not fast, at this pace I can keep going for hours. As the trail grows faint, the underbrush scratches at my legs and the woods close in. Once in the trees, it’s hard to get oriented, hard to get a clear view of the sun or the mountains in the distance, and I have a lousy sense of direction anyway. Even in town, I’ll come out of a store and wander around a parking lot, searching for my car as if some vandal has moved it while I shopped.
On our old family hikes, Alice and Daniel loved bushwhacking through the woods, while our older son and I wanted to stick to the trails. After Alice left, but before she died, one day Daniel and I went walking in the woods. He led and I followed. We didn’t speak. I caught up. We were off-trail, and I was getting nervous.
“I’m ready to head home,” I said.
“Go on,” he said.
“Let’s go together,” I said.
He stood looking at me. “This has been really great, Dad, walking in the woods with you, neither of us talking.”
“I’ll talk. I thought you didn’t want to talk.”
“I’m talking now.”
“Okay, great, I’m listening.”
“You’re listening? What does that mean?”
“It means I’m listening. You said you wanted to talk, and so I said I’m listening.”
“Oh, fuck you, Dad, just fuck you. I’m not one of your patients.”
I always relied on Alice to help me with problems, but it’s too late for that now, and there’s no use calling the cops to find him. He’s eighteen, so he’s not officially a runaway, and I can’t report him as missing since I know roughly where he is. He’s joined a sort of back-to-nature protest group. The youths camp and tramp around in the forest and appear to be having a great time. At first the town regarded them indulgently. Hadn’t all of us parents been telling them for years to get off their cell phones and rediscover nature? So there you go, be careful what you ask for. The people in town are no longer favorably inclined toward them. There have been reports of backwoods cabins being broken into and hikers harassed, and some think a bomb that went off at the new resort under development might have been associated with the group, though fortunately no one was harmed and the bomb did little damage.
Miles and miles of woods run to the sides of the trails, and I venture farther into them than usual, walking through a lodgepole pine forest until I feel cold sweat on my neck. My fear of getting lost isn’t quite a phobia—I’ve checked that with colleagues—but it’s still a good-sized fear.
Maybe Daniel’s somewhere hidden in the trees, watching. I put on a confident face and strut boldly through the trees. I hope he doesn’t see me when I whirl around, searching for my own footprints, trying to find my way back to town, to home—though there’s no real home now, no sweet Alice to greet me with her broad smile, showing the slight gaps between her teeth. Only once more, Alice, if you could only smile at me once more with your great smile.
Evening light pierces through the trees. I have a sudden eerie sense that I’m not alone. Looking up at a piney ridge fifty yards above me, I’m startled to see a long-haired, bare-chested man with a marvelously rippled torso. He appears to be holding a wooden spear—a strange tableau, as if he’s been pushed out on a movie set to give a third-rate performance as a forest warrior. Isa-tai, I presume! I know he must be the wilderness guru my patient Brooke spoke of. She told me they’d nicknamed him Isa-tai, after the last of the Comanche visionaries, who dreamed of leading the tribe back to glory. He’d showed up at their camp one day to say hi, said he’d been chilling in the woods because he was bummed out from a lot of bad things he’d seen in the war. He started hanging out with the kids more and more often. Then he took over, started teaching them survival skills.
He’s either a real loon or something worse. “Hey, you!” I shout. I start cross-country after him. He takes off, running, and I give chase, a predator after a deer. An old movie pops into my mind, Drums along the Mohawk, in which three fast Indians with tomahawks chase a young Henry Fonda.
But this time it’s me giving chase, leaping over fallen logs, thrashing through brush. A glimpse of bronze flesh amid the trees. Then he disappears. I go on, my heart beating fast, arriving on level land, a small plateau. I bend over, hands to knees, gasping for wind. A whirl of air. A hatchet buries itself in a Ponderosa pine a foot above my head. I spin around. Another flash of bronze skin in the trees. I run after him—a glimpse here, there. Then I lose sight of him in the trees. I step into a clearing, look around. A rustle in the brush, and the tall young man, in jean cut-offs, gloriously muscled—buffed to the core, as Brooke put it—leaps out. He jabs his wooden spear at me, more a warning than an attack.
The sight is so bizarre that I let out a startled laugh. “Whoa! Careful with that stick, Tarzan.”
His face is flushed, eyes flashing. “You should run someplace else.”
I stare at him. “I know who you are. Isa-tai. Or whatever the hell your name really is.”
A trace of pity, or contempt, crosses his lips. “I know who you are too. You should stop coming out here. Why don’t you leave Daniel alone?”
My chest tingles with the pain of loss and betrayal. Daniel has pointed me out to him, allied with Isa-tai against me. “Where is Daniel? What do you think you’re pulling with these kids out here? Leave them alone. Tell them to come home.”
“Stay away! I’m trying to save his life. I’m trying to save all their lives!”
“You’re out of your fucking mind!” It’s not a tough diagnosis to make.
“Now that’s not nice.” He flips the spear around and drives the dull end into my belly. As I double over, he sneaks a leg behind me and shoves my chest. I fall hard on my back, the wind knocked out of me. “I recommend you stay out of here,” he says in a friendly way. “I strongly recommend you say out of here.”
I grit through my teeth, “You asshole.”
“Now, now,” he says. “Not nice.” He bends down and grabs me by both ankles, and though I’m not a small man, he drags me through the grass. I wriggle like a snake. He pulls me to the lip of the hill and sinks to his knees, as if preparing to apologize or pray over me. But instead he gives me a powerful push with his big arms, the old heave-ho, and down the hill I go like a rolling log, yelling “Yow!” as my hands clutch for tree roots, rocks, weeds, anything to slow my descent.
I skid to a stop just before a ledge that would have dropped me another thirty feet into a pit of jagged boulders below. I lie there looking up at the rim of the hill. He glares down. “Stay the fuck out of here!” he cries. Then he whirls around and slips back into the trees.
By the time I climb up the hill, there’s no sign of him, and to be honest I’m glad about that.
I vow that I’ll be ready for Isa-tai next time, but for now the search goes dark. For days, I run across no sign of the kids or Isa-tai. Seeking a sense of normalcy, I stroll along on Main Street, past the used bookstore and the local shops, and I realize I’m having a hard time not bumping into people on the sidewalks. The usually quiet streets are now teeming with tourists. Our little town has been discovered. We’ve appeared in a national travel magazine, and now people are flocking here. I break into a light sweat. It’s as if my little oasis has been invaded. I suddenly have a greater understanding of the kids in the woods, wanting to get away from it all.
I duck into at a café on Main Street. When I purchase my coffee at the counter and say thank you to the barista, a young woman with green serpentine tattoos running up her forearms, she responds, “Of course.” I’ve noticed this lately—the old standard “you’re welcome” has been replaced with other expressions. In matters small and large, the old ways are passing.
For an hour I sit at the café, drinking coffee and writing my notes: “Alice left because she wanted more out of life. I can’t blame her for that. But to leave me for Clyde? For that idiot? I think she could have done better…”
I stare into my coffee cup as I recall the way we met, way back in our mid-twenties. I’d just returned from Mexico, where I’d been teaching English and drinking a lot, and where a terrible thing had happened from which I was trying to escape. At loose ends, I entered an alternative college to get a degree in counseling. Alice was enrolled in the same program. We were in class one day, staging a little practice session on how to run a therapy group, and we were each supposed to confess to the group something we had done that was troubling. I thought, well, maybe this was my chance to unload the thing that had been eating at me.
I cleared my throat, looked at the group, and said, “I guess we’ve all done something really terrible in our lives.”
They looked at me, and one guy adjusted his glasses and said in a mock judgmental tone, “Well, no, we haven’t all done something terrible.”
They laughed, but then they leaned forward and looked at me expectantly, and it occurred to me, hell, I could go to prison for this, so I swallowed and said, “I stole a car,” which wasn’t true at all. I’d never stolen a car. What I’d done was far worse.
After class a young woman with blonde hair, on the stocky side in an attractive way, carrying herself with the buoyant stride of a former gymnast, followed me outside and fell in beside me. “It was something else, wasn’t it?” Alice said.
One thing led to another, a cup of coffee, and then we went to my place, an upstairs apartment in an old house. We placed two chairs in the living room so that we were sitting close, facing each other, our knees almost touching. It was an exercise from one of our therapy classes. To discover true intimacy, we were supposed to stare silently at each other for twenty minutes. But I was fidgeting around.
“Be in the moment,” Alice said.
“Ah, the moment,” I said. “I love being in the moment.”
“Quiet,” she said.
We stared into each other’s eyes, as if to see, really see, for the first time, but I couldn’t settle down, kept making jokes. “Never realized you had a bump in your nose before. And one of your ears sticks out.”
She smiled, shushed me by degrees, as you would a child, and finally we were silent and staring, minute after minute until I was trembling. I’d never looked so closely at another person, never seen anyone so beautiful and radiant in my life. But what did she see? Did she see a monster?
“What was it that happened?” she asked, breaking the silence in a soft voice. Even then, she was well on her way to becoming an excellent therapist, the kind one can’t help confessing to. I started talking about the horrible thing that had happened in Mexico.
I’d been teaching English there in a small town but decided it was time to head back home. I missed my parents. I missed my brother and sister. I gave away most of my things, packed a duffel bag, and headed to the Pacific coast for a final trip, a last blow-out and farewell to Mexico. I found a forgotten coastal town and checked into a two-story white hotel, the only hotel in town. I paid in cash. I didn’t even need to sign a register with my name.
I met an American couple at the hotel. The young woman was about my own age, early twenties, the man a decade older. She was pretty, with longish blonde hair, and wore tie-dyed shirts, patched cut-offs. The man was a tall, rangy sort with a weathered face. She said he had fought in Vietnam.
There was a café bar on the beach, and I joined them in drinking. It went on for a couple of days, and though we were all drinking a lot, the girl and I seemed almost sober compared to the man, who was always passing out. We’d have to drag him back to their room. One afternoon, while he was passed out, she came to my room. There was no sort of seduction. We simply tugged at each other’s clothes and went at it fast and hard, like the drunken people we were.
For the next couple of days, she came and went and we had the same quick sex. One afternoon there was a pounding on my door. When I opened it she was there, her cheek bruised. “Bill’s got a gun,” she said. “He’s got a gun!”
She came into the room, and I heard his step just behind her, and he burst into the room. He wobbled drunkenly and aimed the gun at my face. “Did you fuck Jenny?” he demanded.
I looked at Jenny. She looked at me. With a gun aimed at my face, I said what seemed appropriate. “Of course not.”
His gun swung toward Jenny. “He fucked you, didn’t he?”
“Yes! Yes, he fucked me. Several times.”
“You are so dead, bitch.”
His gun hand tightened. I had been a high-school football player. By instinct, I charged forward as if going at a tackling dummy and drove him back, the gun flying out of his hand. He was surprisingly light in my arms, as if he were full of wind. We went down together, me on top, and his head struck the mantling of brick surrounding the fireplace. He grunted. I looked down into dimming eyes, and then a great gush of blood spilled out around his head. His fingers held onto my arms as you might hold the arms of a lover, and then all the strength went out of his hands and they fell limply to his sides.
I stared down, still on top. “Get help!” I screamed at Jenny. “Get help!”
I ran into the bathroom, grabbed towels, wrapped them around his head, tried to staunch the blood. Bill lay there, horribly silent and still, mouth open, eyes blank and flat as if they were glass. Jenny stood over me, looking down, and I realized she wasn’t going to get help. It was too late. Bill was dead.
I stood up, shaking. “We’d better get the police.”
“Are you crazy? This is Mexico. They’ll throw our asses in jail for murder. We have to leave him.”
The rain was pouring now. A monsoon. The sound of it made it hard to think, and I’d had a lot of alcohol. I sat on the edge of the bed, looking at Bill. I pulled the bedspread off and spread it over him. Then I sat back on the bed, staring numbly into space.
She waved her hand in front of my eyes. “Don’t lose it. You had to do it. You saved my life.” She was all business now, abruptly sober. “I’m going to leave first, in our van. You wait here for a while. Then lock the door and go down the back stairs. No one will find him until morning. Get on the bus. When you’re back across the border, call me in Austin. Look me up. Jenny Smith. The main thing is for us to get back across the border. Do you understand?” She kissed me. “Call me then. We’ll be together. You and me. You saved my life. He would have killed me.”
I fell into a profound stupor, but somehow I kept moving through it, got on the bus, awoke at the border. There was no Jenny Smith listed in Austin—not that I tried very hard to reach her. For years afterward, every police car that drove by my house filled me with dread.
Sitting on the chair staring at Alice, who looked shaken by my confession, I felt as if she were seeing all this in her mind. But her soft eyes pulled me back from that horrible time, told me she saw me as someone innocent, the way I was a long time ago, before the world sank its hooks into me.
She reached out and held my hand as tears of regret and relief formed in my eyes. “You’re a good person,” she said. “It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t mean it to happen. You’re not a monster.”
Alice was the only person I ever told. She was a true believer in curing psychic illness, and from them on we were hardly ever apart. She coaxed me along through school, and after our graduation she built up a large clientele, expanded her skill set. I did the same, but as the years went by, listening to other people’s problems ate at my soul. If I had a patient whose shoulders slumped, I’d walk around slumped over. After seeing a stutterer, I’d start stuttering. If someone’s hands shook, mine shook too.
To protect myself, I disengaged. I saw fewer and fewer patients. I moved out of the office space downtown that Alice and I had shared and set up a home office. I arranged the room so that my chair was positioned by the window. As my patients droned on with their miseries, I thought of leaping out the window. Other times I imagined my patients’ cares floating up from the couch, traveling out the window, and dispersing themselves over the neighborhood, while I stared at the top of an ash tree, lost in a profound stupor. I had suffered from these stupors even as a child, when I would sit motionless and stare dead-eyed until my mother waved her hand in front of my face. When I was older, after another therapist told me I was using the stupors as an avoidance strategy, I stopped counseling.
I look up to see Rolf Winters and two men sitting at a table on the other side of the café. Rolf, wearing fatigues, looks like the hunter that he is. He was once a patient of mine, sent by his wife to my office for anger issues. Rolf grew up in the town, and even though I’ve lived here for over twenty years, he regards me as an interloper and a city boy. He works as a wilderness guide, with a side business as a taxidermist. Taxidermy is slow these days, and he’s bitter about it; he sees the waning demand for mounted elk heads as a sign of a vanishing old order. For someone who spends so much time in the woods, it’s surprising that he views the forest as an adversary rather than a sanctuary. In the frontier days, he’d have been one of those buffalo hunters who short-sightedly wiped out whole herds.
From the start it was obvious that he didn’t like me and had no interest in counseling. I worried that he carried a weapon in the deep pockets of his fatigues, so it was a relief when he quit therapy. On his last visit, after listening to him grouse for ten minutes, I finally mumbled, louder than I’d consciously intended, loud enough for him to hear, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, blow it out your ass.” That was it for Rolf and me.
He mutters to his buddies now, and they narrow their eyes. One square-jawed guy wears a tie, loose around his throat, and a red baseball cap with the logo of Pine Ridge Resort, the new development in progress. There’s a pencil stuck between his ear and his skull—a businessman or engineer ready for hasty computations. The other guy’s wearing a similar cap but not the tie. They’re both around forty, with meat over their muscle, beef-and-beer Midwesterners who’ll turn fat in ten years.
I try to ignore them, focus on my journal. “Fear is the nemesis. Be bold. Conquer fear by going naked into lion country. Bust out of your cage!” Reading over what I’ve written, I fear I may be losing my marbles.
Rolf walks toward me, grips the edge of my table, and bends ominously over me. “Your kid still out there?”
Jim Holiday’s complacent existence is upended when his wife leaves him and his teenage son Daniel runs off to the woods outside their small Western town to join a back-to-nature protest group. What begins as an idyllic adventure turns ominous when the teens are recruited by a gang of radicals intent on committing acts of destruction, including, ultimately, an act so violent that it will endanger the entire town. Meanwhile, shadowy government agents are trying to monitor and infiltrate the group, though Jim suspects that one of the agents may have gone rogue and joined the radicals.
It’s up to Jim to rescue his son from both the radicals and the law, just as it’s up to him to save the community he’s become estranged from. He battles his own fear of getting lost in the wilderness and is besieged by bad memories from his past. He’s a therapist who has become disillusioned with his own practice, a family man who has lost the ability to communicate with his own children. But his search for Daniel reunites him with his older son, and eventually he joins forces with a new love interest, whose son has also run off to the woods. This woman’s ex-husband, a former Marine who doesn’t take kindly to Jim’s interest in his ex-wife, also becomes an uneasy ally.
The Wild Child is a story about redemption and about people’s attempts to live authentic lives. The teens want to give up their computer games and smart phones and get back to nature, but there are shades of Lord of the Flies in their escape. The novel also explores the concepts of outsiders and loneliness. The kids in the woods are seen as outsiders, and Jim views himself as an outsider in his community. But he must reconnect with it when the once peaceful small town comes under siege.
Robert Garner McBrearty lives in Louisville, Colorado. He has received a Pushcart Prize and been featured in The Missouri Review, Narrative, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, The North American Review, and many other literary journals. He has also published a novella and three collections of short stories, one of which received the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award. He has been awarded fellowships at the MacDowell Colony and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, among other places.
Embark, Issue 8, April 2019