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North by North Tree-st

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North by North Tree-st

 

Chapter 1

 

The sun rose brightly, lighting up Ocean Avenue. The light shone in through the windows, and made brass house numbers sparkle. Birds sang, flying through the sky without a care in the world. Early morning walkers greeted one another with a smile. It was a perfect summer morning.

The peace was not felt all throughout the avenue, however, as an argument broke out in the Belcher household. Well, their version of an argument, which was more akin to a heated conversation.

 

   “Aw, come on, Bobby; it'll be fun!” Linda pleaded over the breakfast table, causing the three children to groan simultaneously. “You'll enjoy it!”

   “No, Lin,” Bob sighed, putting down his coffee. “We can't afford to close -”

   “Yes, we can,” Louise piped up.

   “- And it sounds terrible,” he finished, and Linda gasped.

   “It does not!” She sounded scandalised. She was holding the flyer for the 1st Annual Bog Harbour Community Barbecue in her hand, waving it with a sort of reverence. Bob shook his head slightly and returned to his newspaper.

   “Father, a day in the sunshine, eating food, does not sound terrible!” said Gene, and Louise and Tina nodded in agreement.

   “Yeah, we'd be away from here!” cried Louise, brandishing her fork, sending scrambled egg everywhere.

   “But, a community barbecue? Really, Lin? It sounds absolutely awful.”

   “Why, Dad?” asked Tina.

   “Because, Tina,” Bob sighed, “it's stupid.”

   “Wow, great argument,” Louise grinned.

   “Well, why would anyone hold a community barbecue in the woods? That's, like, the worst place to have a barbecue. Why not right here? Plus, I hate it.”

   “Oh, Bobby, don't be such a grump. It's a barbecue, not a barbe-can't. We're going.” Linda stood, still holding the flyer, and walked over to the counter. She grabbed the coffee pot, along with the orange juice, and brought them both back to the table.

   “I don't want to.”

   “Come on, Bobby, it's just one day; only one day.” Linda managed to jokingly pout at him while she refilled their coffee mugs, ignoring Louise's attempts to sneak some.

   “But it's a Saturday, Lin; that's a big day for us. And it's this Saturday; it doesn't give anyone a lot of notice," Bob grunted from behind his paper.

   “Four days notice is plenty, my love, so we're going.”

   “Hm, no, we're not,” said Bob, and his family groaned. Bob grunted, slightly annoyed. He didn't know why they wanted to go to this stupid barbecue so badly; going would mean they would have to miss work. Besides, Saturdays were their best days, more or less; they still had a lunch lull, rather than a lunch rush, but they usually had a good five or six customers.

   “Oh, come on!” Louise slammed her fists down on the table.

   “No, Louise, we are not going into a forest for a barbecue; that's a nightmare waiting to happen.”

   “I think it'll be fun,” said Tina.

   “No, it won't,” Bob retorted. “Fire and trees don't mix; they're not supposed to. It's going to be everyone bored waiting around for the food; eating badly cooked food, and making small talk with strangers.” He looked over the edge of his paper, as the kids clamoured to be the first to have a refill of the juice; Louise kept sliding her sibling's glasses out of the way at the last second, causing Linda to keep spilling it everywhere. He gave a small sigh, not wanting to attempt to discipline her this early in the morning.

   “It's not gonna be like that!” Linda cried. “Everyone gets to bring their own dish – you could make burgers, or we could bring dessert – there'll be games for the kids, and alcohol for the adults.”

   “Hm, still no, Lin.”

   “We are going, Bob; I'm not taking no for an answer.” Linda laid down the flyer, and fixed Bob with what he referred to as her 'crazy eyes'. He sighed.

   “Okay, fine, you guys can go; I'll stay here.”

   “We're all going!” Linda growled, and Gene leapt onto his chair, howling loudly.

   “Gene. Why do you want to go so badly?”

   “Because...” Linda whined, the crazy in her eyes dimming slightly. Only slightly. Once Gene's howling had stopped, she continued. “We never get to be involved in the community! It's a chance for us to meet new people, relax, and just have fun!”

   “We're involved in the community, Lin; we're a restaurant,” he said, and Louise laughed loudly.

   “Serving Teddy a burger every day doesn't count as being involved in the community!” she cried, shaking her head.

   “Where is it being held?” Tina leaned toward the flyer, and Linda grabbed it.

   “It's at Darn Rootin' National Park,” she read aloud. “Huh, not even Meshugaas State Park.”

   “Ugh, isn't that park even further away?” Bob groaned, wanting to bury his head in his hand. “That's another reason to not go; it's, like, two hours away.”

   “Yeah! I've seen pictures; it's so pretty, and there's trails, and a park, and a huge forest, and everything! We'll all have a great time! So,” she fixed her husband with another steely glare, and he groaned again. It already sounded terrible to him. “We are all going; end of story. I'm not takin' no for an answer.”

   “Alright, fine,” Bob sighed, having no other option. “I guess we just won't make any money that day. A Saturday. Our busiest day. We'll just be broke-er; that's fine.”

   “Alright!” Linda whooped, and the kids cheered.

 


 

   “How long until we get there? We're already in the woods,” asked Tina, as they drove down the gravel road, watching as the trees got thicker and thicker.

   “Not long now,” Linda told her, “there's like this grassy area where it's being held; there should be some signs coming soon.”

   “It better be soon; I don't know how much longer I can wait until I sneak into the trunk and eat the guacamole,” said Gene.

   “It won't be long,” Bob reiterated. “And, Gene, don't eat the guacamole; it's for the stupid barbecue.”

   “But it's calling me! It's scared and all alone back there, and needs to be comforted!”

   “Don't touch it, Gene; it's for all of our new friends,” said Linda. “And it is not a stupid barbecue, Bob!”

   “Okay. I mean, it is, but okay.”

   “Shut up!” Louise barked. “We're here, and that means we can finally get out of the car!” She clambered over Tina and flung the door open, jumping out. It appeared to be an attempt at a parking lot; it was basically a large, square patch of concrete, with faded white lines painted on the ground.

   “Not so fast, Miss Missy!” Linda called out the window. “We all got stuff to carry!”

   “Oh, come on! This is a community barbecue; you can't make us do slave labour!” Louise folded her arms as her siblings climbed out, all of them gratefully stretching after the long drive.

   “Here you go,” Linda only pushed a large bowl of potato chips into Louise's arms, and she struggled briefly, before glaring at her mother.

   “You're a sick woman, Linda Belcher.”

   “Just hold on tight to 'em, sweetie,” Linda replied cheerfully, handing an equally large platter of corn on the cobs to Tina, who took it with no complaints. "Ooh, it looks like we got here in good time!"

   “Don't you think you've gone a little overboard, Lin?” Bob asked, pulling the bowl of home-made guacamole out, and passing it to Gene. “It's not like you're hosting.” He didn't see why they had to bring all this food, food that she'd made (and made him help her). Linda had dragged him out of bed early that morning, insisting that everything be ready with plenty of time to spare. And the beer; she'd made him go out and buy several cases of beer! To top it off, he likely wouldn't get to drink any, so that was more money down the drain.

   “There's gonna be lots of people here, Bobby, and we don't wanna run out of food,” she said, as she grabbed a huge bowl of potato salad, Bob grabbed the beers, and they all started to walk. After quickly glancing up at her parents, Louise wrangled one arm up and popped a chip into her mouth.

 

Soon enough, they reached a lovely, grassy clearing, surrounded by trees. On one side were three large grills, several coolers, and a long table loaded down with plates, cups, napkins, and cutlery. Another equally long table was reserved for the guests' offerings, and already had several platters of nachos, peanuts, cakes, cookies, rice, salad, ribs, chicken, amongst many others.

On the opposite side, was a large playground. Encased in a low, wooden log fence were swings, slides, an enormous sandpit, and several rope obstacle courses. All of the equipment was made of wood, and blended in perfectly with the environment.

Throughout the green were half a dozen picnic tables, some of which were in the shade of the tall oak trees, while others soaked up the sunshine. There were already a fair few adults mingling about, chatting to their friends, some of them clutching drinks, while others sat and observed.

In between two of the biggest oak trees, was a white banner, which had the words “Welcome! 1st Annual Community Barbecue” painted neatly on it. Flanking the tree were two tall speakers.

   “Hey!”

As the Belchers' placed their food on the table, they were greeted enthusiastically by a couple who were much younger than them. They were both dressed neatly, with well-fitting clothes, and were beaming. They reminded Bob a bit of Connor and Farrah, the couple whose wedding they had catered. “It's great to see you!” the man grinned, as though they were old friends. He was quite tall, with work-roughened hands and a chin dimple, and had his light hair gelled up in a sort of quiff. “I'm Mason, and this is my fiancee, Harper.” Harper, bright-eyed and youthful, stepped forward, her ponytail swinging.

   “Hi!” she chirped, with a gap-toothed grin that made her look even more youthful. “It's so great you guys could come! I've been looking forward to this ever since we planned it!”

   “Oh, we wouldn't have missed it!” Linda grinned, already taken with the couple. “You planned all this? I love it so much already!”

   “Aw, you're too kind!” Harper ducked her head modestly.

   “No, no, this is gonna be great. I'm Linda, this is my husband, Bob, and these are our kids; Tina, Louise, and Gene,” Linda pointed them out.

   “Hey, kids,” Mason grinned, but they were already running over to the playground.

   “I'm sorry about that,” Linda said.

   “Don't worry about it; they don't wanna talk to the boring grown-ups,” said Mason. “Anyway, looks like you brought a lot of great stuff here.”

   “Yeah,” Harper agreed. “That potato salad looks delicious.”

   “Thanks,” said Bob. “We made it, from scratch.”

   “Did you?” Mason looked impressed, and Bob couldn't help but feel just a tiny bit smug about that.

   “Yeah; I own a restaurant.”

   “You do?” Now Harper looked impressed, and Bob felt even more smug. “What do you make?”

   “Uh, burgers.”

   “Wow!” They turned to one another, and Bob didn't think he'd ever seen such a gung-ho couple. “It's like fate brought you to our barbecue. Did you wanna help with the burgers?”

   “Uh, yeah, I might.” Truthfully, Bob was desperate to get behind the grill and show them how it was done, but he wanted to have a few drinks. Maybe more than a few. “I'll probably do a couple when you start, just to help you get started.”

   “Great!”

 

   “Free! We're free!” Louise cried, leaping over the fence, and diving onto the circle swing.

   “Mm. Hello sand, meet Gene,” Gene stood on the fence, before turning around, and falling back into the sand. “Oh, this is good!” he cried. “Look, I'm making a sand angel!”

   “I've never seen a playground made out of trees before,” Tina climbed carefully over the knee-high fence, somehow still managing to stumble.

   “This is great!” Louise lay back and stared up at the sky as she swung.

   “This could be a pretty fun day,” said Tina, as she looked around.

   “I may stay here forever,” Gene declared, sand covering all but his head. “Look at me, I'm Sandra Gene!” he sang, closing his eyes in bliss.

   “That means more food for us,” Louise quipped, grabbing the ropes, and balancing on the edge of the swing, jumping off when it had slowed. “We'll get first dibs!”

   “I resent that,” Gene, too content to move, only opened his eyes.

 

More and more families began to gather, and Mason and Harper greeted them all just as enthusiastically as they had to Bob and Linda. The Belcher parents were stood off to the side of the buffet table, both of them with a drink in their hand. The speakers were blaring out loud pop music, and Linda was bouncing enthusiastically.

   “Hi!” Linda greeted Teddy as though she hadn't seen him in ten years.

   “Hi, Linda! Hey, Bobby!” Teddy had brought a twelve-pack of beer, which he placed on the table. “This is gonna be great! I love things like this.”

   “It's gonna be terrible,” Bob moaned, taking another gulp of his beer.

   “Oh, it is not!” Linda snapped, looking around at the already packed area. She appeared to have taken it upon herself to be co-host of this whole thing. It was just the natural hostess inside of her. “We're gonna have fun. Hi!” she approached Regular-sized Rudy's dad, and smiled politely at Tammy's parents. Jocelyn's mum wasn't too bad, but anyone who was friends with Tammy's mother and father wasn't someone she cared to be best pals with. “Oh, Rudy? Louise, Gene, and Tina are in the playground over there,” she bent down and pointed. “They'll be glad to see you.”

   “Okay, thanks,” Rudy smiled at her, and went over to the little park.

   “Vanessa, Bill,” she smiled politely at Tammy's parents, who smiled stiffly back. Bill was holding a small plate of grilled lobster tails, while Vanessa carried nothing except for her phone.

   “Oh, my God, this should be fun, right?” asked Tara, Jocelyn's mother, still looking and sounding the spitting image of her daughter. She hadn't brought anything with them, reasoning that there was going to be plenty of food there already.

Jocelyn and Tammy, already bored, were tapping away on their phones, texting each other, even though they were standing side by side.

   “Girls?” said Linda, but neither teen looked up, “your friends are over there, if you wanna see them.”

   “No, thanks,” was all Tammy said, not even looking up from her phone and pursing her lips, and Linda raised an eyebrow.

   “Well, we hope you enjoy yourselves,” said Mason and Harper, taking the platters and placing them on the table. “Please, help yourselves to drinks, and have fun!”

At the prospect of alcohol, the Larsens, along with Tara, grabbed a cup, and moved toward the picnic tables. Tammy and Jocelyn slunk off to another table, the both of them looking bored.

   “Oh, my God,” Bob muttered under his breath, turning to Linda. “Why did you make me come here? It's gonna be terrible.”

   “Oh, look at me, I'm Bob, I hate having fun and not being able to cook my hoity-toity foods, nyah nyah, nyah! Ah, zoom!”

   “Oh, my God,” Bob closed his eyes, and turned to see Jimmy Pesto, along with Jimmy Jr., Andy, Ollie, and Trev. All of them were carrying stacks upon stacks of his terrible pizza. “What are you doing here, Jimmy?”

   “Uh, it says community barbecue, Bob. Surprised you're here, actually; when was the last time you took part in the community?”

   “When we did the Bog to Beach parade!” Linda jumped in.

   “Yeah, and we beat you!” Bob's eyes glinted.

   “Yeah, coming in last place is a real achievement, Bob!” Jimmy smirked. “But I guess that's usual for you, huh?”

   “Right, that's it!” Bob made toward Jimmy, but Linda grabbed him at the same time that Harper and Mason came over.

   “Hi!” Mason wrung Jimmy's free hand, and the faux Italian looked taken aback. “Nice to meet you; I'm Mason. Me and my fiancee Harper organised this little shindig.”

   “Uh, hi,” Jimmy looked just as confused at the younger man's exuberance as Bob had. “We brought pizza.”

   “Yes, I can see,” smiled Harper. “Unusual choice for a barbecue, but, hey, being unique isn't bad, right?”

   “Right,” Jimmy smirked at Bob once again, who growled, and was led away by Linda.

   “Don't let stupid Pesto ruin the day, Bob,” she told him, as they stood near the picnic tables.

   “Stupid Pesto; you got that right. The day was already ruined, Lin, by coming here. It's stupid.”

   “Bobby, stop being so grouchy,” she said sternly. “It's a beautiful, sunny day, we get to eat food that we didn't have to cook, and we get to make new friends. Apart from Pesto, what have you got to hate about this day?”

   “Lin, we had to close the restaurant for this,” he sighed.

   “Is that it? Bobby, we're makin' family memories!” She tugged on his arm. “The kids won't remember working there day after day, but they'll remember this. They'll remember the fun day out they had with their mommy and daddy. Isn't that what counts?”

   “You're right,” Bob realised. “I mean, I hate it here, but they'll love it, and they're gonna have fun.”

   “That's the spirit!” Linda grinned. “Now, you just gotta learn to have fun, all right? Let's get some drinks down you; I saw some Schnapps over there.” Now that Jimmy had moved away, Linda dragged Bob back over to the buffet and grabbed a bottle and two cups. Her grin grew wider as she filled the cups up. “Here you go; down it,” she handed one cup to Bob, downing her own drink. When he'd finished, she refilled them both.

   “Oh, that's good,” said Bob, as an ubeat pop song began to play.

   “Ooh! Let's dance!”

   “No, Lin.” But Linda then refilled his cup once more.

   “How many drinks do you need before you'll dance with me?”

   “Not enough in the world, Lin,” said Bob firmly, steadily ignoring Jimmy who was pulling faces at him.

 

Jimmy Jr., accompanied by Zeke at this point in time, went over to the playground

   “Hey, guys,” he lisped, standing up on the little wooden fence. Andy and Ollie squealed with excitement, and ran toward the slide, which was accessible only by either a rope ladder, or a knotted rope.

   “Hey, Jimmy Jr.,” Tina smiled, coming over to stand next to him. “Zeke.”

Jimmy Jr. didn't answer her, and merely struck a pose, before attempting to moonwalk along the fence.

   “Jay-Ju's in a right dancin' mood today,” Zeke grinned, as he climbed up on the fence. “My boy's like Gene Kelly!” Tina groaned as Zeke observed the playground. “'Sup, y'all? Hey, this is a mighty fine lookin' park,” he smiled at the twins, who were attempting the climb the length of rope at the same time. “Now, come here, Jay-Ju; I'm gon' getcha!” He leapt onto Jimmy Jr., and the two of them toppled off the fence. There was a lot of head butting.

Tina groaned again. Couldn't she, just for once, spend some time with Jimmy Jr. without Zeke hanging around, and stealing her sometimes-boyfriend's attention? That was literally all she wanted. (Well, that and a horse.)

Gene was still buried in the sand, and Louise was showing Rudy a bug she'd found, trying to persuade him to hold it.

   “Stop it, Zeke!” Jimmy Jr. cried as he was once again body slammed into the ground. “Ah!”

   “You got it, Jay-Ju,” Zeke stood, and helped his friend to his feet. “Hey, how long until we eat? I'm starvin'.”

   “They said it would be around an hour,” said Rudy. “Said something about waiting for everyone to arrive and get settled.”

   “So, we have to wait here for a whole hour?” Louise looked disgusted. “That's boring; I'm gonna go explore.”

   “Explore what?” Tina asked, as Louise went over to the fence.

   “The forest, T,” there was a slight hint of exasperation in her voice. “It'll be more interesting than waiting around here.”

   “I'm not so sure you should go,” said Tina, watching Louise climb back over the fence.

   “I'm not going far.”

   “Yeah, but, it's a forest.”

   “You're a Thundergirl, aren't you, Tina? This should be a walk in the park for you. Well, anyone who wants to can come,” Louise shrugged and turned. Tina and Gene waited all of one second before following her.

   “Wait for me!” Rudy pumped his inhaler, before carefully climbing the fence. “I wanna explore, too!”

   “Us, too!” cried the twins, tearing after the Belchers.

   “What you say? Ya up for it, Jay-Ju?” Zeke bounced on the balls of his feet, his gaze flicking between his friend and the retreating kids. “Could be fun.”

   “Sure – I mean, yeah, let's go!”

 

The kids made their way across the green, the occupied and some slightly intoxicated adults barely sparing them a passing glance. Linda, however, saw them.

   “Kids,” she called, her drink sloshing. “Don't go too far, and be back soon, okay?”

   “We will!” Tina called over her shoulder. “Come back soon, I mean, not we will.. go far...” Her mother was drinking again, and so Tina followed the rest of the group.

The kids walked past the buffet table and stepped off the grass and onto the leaves and mud.

   “Wow, this is so cool!” Louise's eyes widened as she looked around at the thick, dense trees and bushes, and they began to walk forward.

The overhanging branches made the place seem darker, and the dark green undergrowth rustled with a gentle breeze. It had a little bit of a creepy feel to it. Here and there were dozens of moss-covered rocks that blended so well with the bushes that they were practically invisible, and there were broken branches strewn about. The faint sound of trickling water could be heard over the birds singing. “This is awesome!” Louise picked up a branch and snapped it in half, before tossing them both in opposite directions. She breathed in the smell of damp moss, of leaves, flowers, pine needles. This place smelled far more “woodsier” than Meshugaas State Park, and best of all, they didn't have to do any stupid camping! Even better, there were no boring grown-ups, so they could do whatever they liked! They might even find a dead body, or even a secret, underground bunker with lost military weapons. That would be cool. No one ever went into the woods; they were far too boring, so it was the perfect place to hide all the top secret stuff. “Hey, Rudy, bet you can't climb this tree!” She ran over to a huge, old oak, its gnarled roots lifting out of the ground.

   “I wouldn't even wanna try,” he admitted, watching as she placed her foot in a groove, and pulled herself up a little bit. The tree was at least three times as wide as any other tree around them; there was no way he would be able to climb that.

   “Wow, you can't even see the barbecue!” she called.

   “And the music's pretty faint, as well,” Tina observed, trying to remember which way they had came, so they would know which direction to head back in.

 

They continued to walk through the forest, sometimes knee-deep in the underbrush

   “This is pretty cool,” admitted Jimmy Jr., looking at the rays of light that shone through the thick tree trunks.

   “Yeah,” Tina sidled closer to him. “It's kinda.. romantic, don't you think?”

   “Huh?” he turned around and spotted her. “Oh, sorry, Tina, I was talking to Zeke.”

   “But, Jimmy Jr., don't you think it's romantic?” She tried to put her hand in his.

   “I suppose,” he frowned, heading forward, leaving Zeke and Tina alone.

   “I think it's a nice lookin' place, T-Bird,” he said, but Tina was looking longingly at Jimmy Jr.

   “Yeah,” she sighed. Maybe if she could get him alone? Somewhere quiet, and secluded, the two of them sitting pretty under a beautiful weeping willow. Jimmy Jr. would reach for her hand, and then her lips, and she would reach for his butt...

Tina shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts, and continued walking through the forest.

 

Louise had an armful of stones, and was throwing them at every tree she passed, while Andy and Ollie were crawling, their noses inches from the ground, looking for bugs.

   “Hey, guys, check this out!” came Gene's voice from somewhere in front of them, and the group ran towards it, leaping over logs, shoving branches out of the way, before they found him.

   “Whoa,” said Rudy, needing another pump, as the kids stared. Gene was standing on the edge of a very deep ravine, with a hiking trail at the bottom.

The kids got closer, peering over the edge, gazing at the rocky walls, the hard, stony path.

   “I've never seen one of these with no water at the bottom,” Rudy said.

   “Look, there's a hill over here,” said Tina, walking way, way over to the left. “It looks like we could just climb down; the forest is down there, too.”

   “Why climb when we could walk over this log?!” Gene yelled, running over to the far right, where a very long and wide tree trunk lay in front of them, extending over the edge of the ravine to the other side. “It's as if God intended for us to do this.”

   “Uh, I'm not so sure,” said Tina. “Maybe we should start heading back.”

   “Don't be such a square,” Louise placed a foot on the log, and pushed down. It didn't move. “See? Solid as a rock.”

   “You mean, solid as a log,” said Gene.

   “After you,” Louise grinned and held out her arm to Tina, who groaned.

   “Sheesh, come on, Tina, it's just a log.” Jimmy Jr. threw her a withering glance and stepped onto the trunk. Holding his arms out, he shuffled along it. “Are you guys coming or not?” he called.

Before she could change her mind, Tina stepped onto the log, not daring to look down, and Gene followed her.

   “Go on,” Zeke ushered the twins, Louise, and Rudy, before he brought up the rear. Best to have the kids in the middle; then they were surrounded by adults. Well, older kids, but they were technically the adults of the group.

   “This is kinda cool,” said Rudy, chancing a quick glance down. “But I didn't realise how high up we were. Or how long this log is.” They were all more than halfway across, with several feet of empty tree trunk on either side of them. It was wide enough that they weren't worried about slipping and falling off, but at their age, most of them didn't register that risk.

   “It is nice,” Tina shuffled closer to Jimmy Jr., who then moved forwards, as well.

   “I just can't believe we're actually crossing a log, like in the movies,” said Gene.

   “Yeah, when they made the movie of my life, I'll tell them to keep this part in,” called Louise.

   “Yeah, it makes me wanna dance, just like in the movies,” said Jimmy Jr. “If this were a movie, this would be the perfect part for a dance. The main character's feeling lonely, and he comes across this log, and dances his feelings.”

   “That sounds like a great movie, Jay-Ju – whoa! What you doin'?” Zeke flung out his arms as Jimmy Jr. struck a pose, and the log shifted. They all immediately grabbed on to one another, but Jimmy Jr. was lost in his fantasy, and again moved out of Tina's grip.

   “Keep walking!” Louise snapped. “Junior, keep walking!”

Jimmy Jr. appeared to not hear her, and leapt into the air, striking another pose, and the log shifted again.

Trying not to panic, the kids began to shuffle as quickly as they could, keeping hold of each other, doing their best to remain calm. They had almost made it to the other side, when the log slipped off the ground completely, and the eight of them fell down into the ravine.

There came many voices as they fell through the air. “AAAAHHHH -!”

 


 

   “WHOO!” Bob cheered over the music, raising his fourth or fifth glass of Schnapps. He wrapped his arms around Linda, the both of them dancing, a mixture of blissful and giddy. He was glad they came. He was more than likely spilling the drink down her back, but she didn't seem to mind, therefore neither did he. “This is great!” he whisper-shouted. “I'm glad we came.”

It did feel good to be there. It was.. fun. The more time he spent there, the more he enjoyed it. He was out in the wilderness, technically, and there was alcohol, free food, and his family was there.

Okay, he wished he was cooking; he'd show them how to cook burgers properly, and everyone would taste his food, and they'd love it, and they'd applaud, and -

   “Aw, me too, Bobby,” Linda's voice broke him from his thought as she pressed her forehead to his, smiling. “So, now we know; five glasses of Schnapps, and you become fun. I'll keep that in mind.” Bob, too tipsy to argue, continued to dance. He caught sight of Pesto, sitting with Trev, and glaring at him. Bob stuck his tongue out. Childish? Perhaps, but it felt good, and Bob did it again.

   “Got a problem, buddy?” Bob blinked; how did Pesto get so close, so quickly?

   “Don't have a problem,” he shrugged. “Just dancin'; do you have a problem with that?”

   “Just dancin', nyah, nyah, nyah!” Jimmy mocked. “Why don't ya grow up, Bob!”

   “Why don't you grow up, Jimmy?” Bob pointed over Linda's shoulder, his finger inches from Pesto's nose.

   “Enough, you two,” Linda, though a little tipsy, was still coherent enough to put a stop to their little spat. “Come on, Bobby, let's dance over here.”

   “You're right. I'm going to have fun,” Bob stuck his tongue out at Jimmy once more, before he and Linda danced away.

   “Can you believe that jerk?” Jimmy turned to Trev. “'I'm gonna have fun now, Jimmy!

   “Haha, good one!” Trev faithfully slapped him a high five, and Jimmy shot Bob another glare. The nerve of that moustachioed man having fun, drinking, dancing, with his stupid moustache. Jimmy was capable of having fun; of course he was, he just didn't feel like it, that was all.

 


 

   "OOF!”

After bumping, sliding, and rolling down an extremely inconveniently placed hill (which just had to be littered with rocks), the kids came to an abrupt, sore stop on the muddy ground.

Tina, groaning as she got to her hands and knees, looked around. This part of the forest was even denser, if that was possible, and the many thick trees made it look darker. Logs and sticks littered the ground, and waist-high bushes contributed to the closed-in feeling.

   “Is everyone all right?” she asked, standing up, and wiping mud from her face. She rubbed her left shoulder, and tried to get her breath back; the landing had knocked the wind out of her, as it had all of them.

   “I'm definitely gonna be bruised all over tomorrow,” Gene rolled over onto his back.

   “We're fine,” said Louise, one handedly brushing mud off her dress, ignoring the searing pain in her right shoulder.

   “Are we sure? Is everyone okay?” Tina's Thundergirl training was kicking in; good job she knew that manual off by heart.

   “I'm okay. Boy, am I glad I was holding on to this,” Rudy raised the inhaler he was still gripping on to. He quickly checked himself over, wincing when he touched his busted lip. His palms and elbows were a little beat up, but nothing that would hinder him. He hoped.

   “My arm!” Gene sat up to reveal a nasty graze spanning the length of his left forearm, and he hissed in pain. “It hurts! And I hit my elbow; my funny bone! I can no longer laugh; just call me the Terminator!”

   “I hit my head!” said Ollie, pointing to a faint bruise on his temple.

   “Wait, wait,” Andy lay back down, and a loud clunk was heard as he whacked his head onto the ground. “I hit my head, too!” he declared.

   “Oh, I think my knees are broken,” groaned Jimmy Jr.

   “Okay; let me look at you all,” Tina went over to Gene, and bent down next to him. The wound was rather red, but superficial. “You'll be fine,” she assured him, gently brushing the dirt away. “Just try to keep it clean.”

   “No problem; they don't call me Clean Gene for nothing!”

   “But how does your elbow feel?”

   “Like it's being squeezed. My wrist hurts too,” Gene revealed, holding up his arm so Tina could inspect it. He'd tried breaking his fall, but it seemed his wrist had other ideas.

Admittedly, Tina wasn't too good with identifying strains, sprains or breaks, so she didn't know how badly Gene was hurt. He was able to stretch and bend his arm, albeit with minor pain, so she assumed it wasn't too bad.

Jimmy Jr's jeans now had holes in the knees, and they were scraped and bleeding, and the twins did not appear to have a concussion, even though Tina wasn't too sure what the signs were. Andy and Ollie were alert, talking, and in sync, so they were probably fine.

It appeared that only Zeke, the twins, and Louise were uninjured, excluding minor bruising here and there. (Although, Louise refused point-blank to let Tina near her, and claimed to be fine. What else could Tina do but take her sister's word for it?)

   “Well, if no one's hurt badly, then we all need to decide what to do,” said Tina.

   “What do you mean?” Louise stopped scraping the mud from her hands and looked up.

   “Well, we don't know where we are, so what are we gonna do? I can't even hear the music playing any more,” she realised.

   “I'm sure we ain't that far away,” Zeke reassured her. “When the grown-ups realise we ain't there, they'll come lookin'.”

   “Yeah, but there's tonnes of places we could have gone!” said Jimmy Jr. “They might not find us for hours!”

   “How will we find our way back?” asked Andy.

   “Simple; we find the log, and climb back up,” said Louise, in a tone that suggested it was the most obvious choice.

   “But where is the log?” Tina looked around, only seeing trees, trees, and more trees. There wasn't even a trail.

   “Wait!” Zeke cried, and they all looked over at him. “Jay-Ju, you can call for help; ya got a cell phone!”

   “You're right!” Jimmy Jr., exuberant at this nightmare being over, reached into his pocket, grinning widely, but his face soon fell. He quickly searched his other pockets. “It's not here!” he cried.

   “Well, let's look for it,” said Tina, and the group spread out and began searching. Andy and Ollie dropped to their knees, and began feeling their way through the mud. They looked in and under bushes, they parted the grass, they sifted through the leaves, without any luck.

Even though they searched the area thoroughly, they could not find the phone.

 


 

   “Alright, soup's on!” Mason called, clapping his hands, both he and Harper behind the grill.

   “Food? Oh, good, I'm starving,” Linda let go of Bob, and they moved closer to the grill. “Kids!” Linda faced the deep woods. “Kids, food's ready, come on!” There was no thundering footfalls, no excited shrieking. Nothing. “Kids!” Linda repeated, marching over to the edge of the green, where the grassy ground turned to leaves. She couldn't see nor hear them. “Kids, dinner time!” she called again. She sensed Bob coming up beside her, as well as a few other adults. “Where are they?” she wondered aloud, stepping forward again. “Bobby, I'm getting worried.”

   “I'm sure they're fine, Lin,” he said, though his expression revealed that he was just as worried as her. It wasn't like Gene to skip a meal; he had a kind of sixth sense when it came the time for food to be served.

   “Hey, what's going on?” said Harper, moving out from behind the grill.

   “We keep calling the kids, but they're not coming,” said Linda.

   “I'm sure they're just playing,” she said kindly. “Children!” she called, her voice echoing. “Food time!”

   “They would hear us, right, Bobby?”

   “Yeah, unless they went really far in.”

   “You think they have?” asked Harper, as Rudy's dad stepped further into the forest.

   “Hey, what's the matter, Bob? Your kids too embarrassed to be seen with you?” Bob closed his eyes as Jimmy's voice echoed through the green. But before he could say anything, Linda turned around.

   “We can't find our kids!” she snapped, “and your kids went with them, didn't ya know?” The smile dropped from Jimmy's face.

   “They did?” He stood, and walked over to the Belchers'. “Where are they?”

   “We don't know,” said Bob.

   “Let's all try calling at the same time,” Mason suggested. “Maybe they just can't hear us. On the count of three, we'll yell 'kids' as loud as we can, okay? Ready? One, two, three...”

In unison, the adults cupped their mouths with their hands, and screamed “KIDS!”

Several indignant birds screeched and flew away in protest, but that was their only response.

   “Oh, my God, they're lost!” Linda cried, clutching her face.

 

Chapter Text

North by North Tree-st

 

Chapter 2

 

   “We're lost!” Andy and Ollie hugged tightly, looking around in fear.

   “We're not lost,” Louise rolled her eyes, waving her hand casually.

   “Actually, I think we are lost,” said Tina.

   “We're not lost,” Louise repeated.

   “If we're not lost, then where are we?” asked Gene.

   “We're still in the woods; we just need to start walking, and we'll find our way out.”

   “Uh, I don't think we should do that,” said Tina.

   “T, all we gotta do is climb that hill, and the log's right there.” Louise pointed behind Tina.

   “I climbed the hill, and couldn't find the log,” said Tina worriedly.

   “Well, you must have climbed the wrong hill, then, but we should go there, anyway.”

   “Maybe not, Louise. According to my Thundergirl handbook, the first rule of survival is to stay put and wait for help.”

   “Ugh, you and that stupid handbook!” Louise growled. “This is real life, Tina! You can't just sit and wait around! No, we need to keep walking.”

   “Tina's right,” said Zeke. “We should stay here.”

   “This doesn't concern you,” Louise barely acknowledged him, her irritated gaze fixed on her sister. “No one knows we're here, and we've got no way of calling for help, so the best thing to do is walk.”

   “It concerns all of us, and we should all make a decision together,” he said.

   “Well, my decision is that we should get our asses moving! I'm going; anyone who wants to follow is welcome.” Louise turned and strode into the woods.

   “Louise!” Tina called after her sister's retreating form. “Louise, come back!” But Louise ignored her and kept walking.

Tina began to groan, not knowing what to do. Soon, Louise had disappeared from sight, and Tina began to run after her, intending to bring her back. Footfalls told her that the others were following, too. “Louise!” Tina panted, as she caught up to her. “You can't just go walking off into the woods; you'll get lost.”

   “We're already lost!” moaned Jimmy Jr., from the back. “And Louise is making us loster!”

   “Hey, you wanna know what it's like to be a puppet?” Still walking, Louise didn't break her stride to point at another thick tree trunk. Jimmy Jr. didn't answer her. “No? Then keep your mouth shut. I know exactly where we are,” she said, after a while. “The log is this way, so if we keep walking, we'll find it.”

They walked deeper and deeper into the forest, unaware that they were actually walking away from the ravine into which they had fallen.

 


 

   “Kids?!” Linda called, as she and the other adults walked through the forest. “Babies, where are you?”

   “Gene, Tina, Louise?” Bob pushed back the prickly branches of a bush, “if you're playing, just come out! We won't be mad, I promise.”

Forgetting the food, the adults all searched, looking under logs, searching the ground for anything the children might have dropped, and shouting as loud as they could. Only Tammy and Jocelyn remained at the bench, not caring enough about the kids to get their clothes dirty.

   “Bobby, where could they have gone?” asked Linda, as she gripped his hand tightly.

   “They can't have gone far,” he reassured her. “This isn't an endless forest; we'll find them.”

   “What are we gonna do; it'll be dark soon.”

   “Lin it's only, like, 11:30. We'll find them before it gets dark.”

   “Oh, but Bobby -”

   “We'll find them,” he said firmly. “Come on, let's carry on looking.”

 

The adults were all spread out, still searching. There were several trails, and thickets, and several fallen logs. No one had yet to find anything; not even a sweet wrapper, or a footprint. It was like they had vanished into thin air.

Linda was steadily growing more frantic, as she lifted boulders, crawled through bushes, and scoured the muddy ground, looking for tracks. She was certain that something had happened; call it mother's intuition, but she knew that they needed to find the kids right away.

Sylvester, Rudy's dad was also on the brink of panic. His son, his only child, was severely asthmatic, what if he had an attack? What if he'd lost his inhaler? The other kids wouldn't know what to do. He knew Rudy always carried around a spare inhaler, as did he, but Sylvester didn't want to be too careful. Plus, Rudy was allergic to pine nuts, along with a mild allergy to mould that would bring him out in a rash. It was vital that he be found as soon as possible.

 

Zeke's father, Travis, was also searching, while Cheryl remained in the seating area with the baby. He was getting worried now, too, but he was more annoyed than anything else. Damn it, when was Zeke going to start learning some responsibility? Everyone knows that the big kids keep an eye on the little kids, and that meant not letting the little kids go gallivanting off into the forest.

 

   “Gene?! Tina, Louise?! Where are you?” Linda called, holding her breath as she waited for the reply that didn't come. “My babies, answer me!”

   “Can't you call their cell?” asked Mason, standing up straight, and looking at Bob.

   “Oh, uh, our kids don't have cell phones,” he admitted, feeling guilty. Bob didn't bring his phone, because... well, they weren't expecting an emergency. It was supposed to be a stupid, simple barbecue; no reason to bring a phone whatsoever, because there was no-one that he needed to call or text. Bob silently growled in frustration; it was clear he'd learnt nothing from being tied up under the pier – why didn't he give his kids the emergency phone, again? Oh, right, they would never be in a situation where they needed it(!) Well, this was the last straw; from now on, he would take his phone everywhere, and Tina would keep the emergency phone on her at all times.

   “Oh!” It was the first time Bob had seen him look anything less than exceedingly happy. “Okay, then; I guess we'll just have to keep calling them.”

   “Yeah; I mean, we can be pretty loud, they should hear us soon,” said Bob, the both of them continuing to look. He wasn't that worried; he was sure the kids were hiding. At worst, they had wandered just a little too far, and were waiting for the adults to come get them.

   “Hey, Jimmy, doesn't Junior have a cell phone?” asked Trev, and Jimmy stopped walking.

   “Oh, yeah, he does.”

   “Well, what are you waiting for? Call him!” Linda ordered.

   “Alright, alright, sheesh! Keep your pants on,” Jimmy muttered as he pulled his phone from his pocket, and dialled his son. He held the phone to his ear, and tapped his foot, waiting for son to answer. “Pick up,” he said impatiently, as the other parents hung about nearby. “Weird; he didn't answer.” Jimmy looked down at the phone in confusion.

   “Call it again. Is it on silent?” asked Linda, stepping closer. Jimmy didn't answer, and instead dialled again.

   “Nope. No answer; it keeps ringing out.”

   “He must have dropped it, then,” Linda decided. “Maybe we can find it; then we can maybe figure out which way they went.”

   “Is it on silent?” asked Sylvester. “May he just can't hear it.”

   “No, it's not on silent,” said Jimmy, “because he has the most annoying ass ringtone, and it goes off at least five hundred times a day.”

   “Alright, well, keep calling; if we spread out, we might be able to hear it,” said Bob, gesturing for Jimmy to hold up his phone again.

   “Alright, Mr. Bossy. Bossy Bob,” Jimmy muttered, and Bob turned back around to face him.

   “Don't you care that your kids are possibly lost in this forest with no food, no water, and no warm clothes?” he asked incredulously

   “Well, of course I care!” he snapped. “I just think we're going a little overboard; it's been, what, half an hour? They're fine!” Bob only shook his head and resumed searching for his children.

 

   “Hey, guy! Come on over here!” Harper's voice echoed through the trees, and the adults made their way through the gorse and thickets to see Harper standing at the edge of a ravine. “Do you think they might have gone down here?” she asked, kneeling down.

   “I don't think so,” said Teddy. “How would they have gotten down?”

   “Well, look, they could have climbed down this hill over here,” said Mason, walking along the left of the ravine, peering down. “Then they could have carried on down that trail.”

   “I really don't think they've gone that far,” said Jimmy truthfully. “But they are probably somewhere along here, so let's keep lookin'.”

   “Oh, my poor babies; they're lost!” cried Linda. “Oh, no! No, why?!” she wailed, covering her face.

   “Lin? Lin, look at me,” Bob gently pulled her hands away. “Listen to me; we're going to find them. They're fine. The kids are tough. Trust me.” Linda looked at her husband, honesty written all over his face.

   “You're right,” she said, standing up straighter. “They're probably sitting around, bored and wondering where we are.”

 


 

   “Damn it!” The group heard a thud, and they turned to see Louise on her front, getting to her feet.

   “Are you okay?” Tina stepped forward, but Louise waved her off.

   “Fine; just tripped.” Louise stood, and Tina saw that she was favouring her left arm and her left foot slightly. Her right arm hung by her side, and Tina mentally added it to the list of group injuries, observing her sister.

   “If you're hurt, then we should stay here for a while,” Tina suggested.

   “What? When we're so close? Not a chance,” Louise continued to walk, inwardly cringeing at the new pain in her right knee. That was just great; now her entire right side was useless.

   “Louise, you.. might have twisted your ankle, or something; we should all rest.”

   “Twist my ankle? I'm not you. We'll find the log soon, waiting around just means wasting time.” Holding her head high, Louise continued to walk along with the rest of them. The twins had their arms around each other's shoulders, and Rudy slowed to use his inhaler. Gene and Zeke were trudging along at the back; this was far more walking than Gene had planned for the entire month. The sweltering, humid heat did little to help matters; already, they were bathed in sweat, wiping their foreheads every so often, and trying to dry their slippery palms on their damp clothes.

   “Ugh, we've been walking for hours!” Jimmy Jr. whined, stamping his feet as he walked.

   “We haven't been walking that long,” Louise shot back.

   “The sun is setting!” he snapped.

   “No, it's not; it just looks dark because of all these stupid trees!”

   “No, Louise, the sun is setting,” said Tina, and everyone turned to stare at her. She could see the rising panic in their faces. “No, what I mean is.. it's not setting now, but it will be soon. I mean, in two, maybe three hours.” Had they really been walking that long? It didn't seem possible.

   “What are we supposed to do?” asked Rudy.

   “Well, uh, we should -” Tina began, but her voice was drowned out by the panicky chattering that arose.

Andy and Ollie began to scream, and ran around in circles; Gene soon joined them. Rudy sank down to the floor, clutching his inhaler, looking around worriedly. Louise and Jimmy Jr's heated words soon turned into a full-blown screaming match, the teen towering over her, and Louise standing on tiptoe.

Only Zeke was quiet, staring at the hysterical group. He moved next to Tina, who looked like a frazzled parent who had lost all control. He was sure to keep one eye on Louise and Jimmy Jr.; ordinarily, he would be irritated that his best bud was trying to intimidate a kid, but in this case, he wasn't sure who he was more worried about, Jay-Ju, or Louise.

   “We're gonna die out here, and they're gonna find our skeletons, and they'll know which one is mine, because it'll be the best-looking one!” Gene yelled, still running around with his good arm above his head.

   “I don't wanna die without Andy!”

   “I don't wanna die without Ollie!”

   “Uh, guys? Guys?” Tina tried to raise her voice, but she could not be heard over the din. “Guys, we really need to calm down. Just, everyone take a deep breath...” she breathed in deeply, and motioned for the rest of them to do the same, but no one was even looking at her.

   “Hey, now, y'all listen up!” said Zeke, loud enough to be heard over the ruckus. To both his and Tina's surprise, everyone instantly quietened down, and turned to face them. He merely turned to Tina and gestured for her to continue.

   “Uh, thank you, Zeke. What I was gonna say is, we should start looking for food.”

   “Food?” Jimmy Jr. raised his brows.

   “Yeah; we've been out here all day, and we need to eat. Look for berries,” she said, her training kicking in once again. “Raspberries grow here, so if you find some, pick as much as you can. There may be blackberries and blueberries here, too.”

   “Wait, the good blueberries, or the other ones?” asked Louise, earning looks of confusion from those around her, bar her siblings.

   “The good ones; not the ones Beverly and Cooper had,” Tina also ignored the quizzical looks they were getting. “Uh, there may be also some plants we can eat, but I can't remember the names. Whatever you find, don't eat it; bring it to me so I can make sure it's not poisonous. We need to do it now as we need the light.”

   “Hey, I draw the line at eating plants,” Louise placed a hand on her hip.

   “Alright, well, then we'll just focus on findin' berries,” said Zeke.

   “I don't wanna look for berries; I'm too hungry, and I'm cold,” Jimmy Jr. whined, rubbing his arms.

   “You can either forage, or you can sit there and watch us eat, your choice,” Louise shrugged.

   “You're bluffing. You won't let someone starve.”

   “Oh, I wouldn't I?” Louise looked him in the eye as she drew herself up to her full 3-foot-four height. Jimmy Jr. faltered.

   “Okay, maybe you would, but no one else would let someone go hungry. Right, guys?” He turned to look at the rest of them.

   “Let's just focus on findin' those berries,” said Zeke, and the group dispersed.

   “Don't go too far! Stay together!” Tina called. She turned to Zeke. “We should look, too.”

   “No problem, T-Bird,” he stepped aside, and they began to walk. It seemed, for once, that luck was on their side, as they soon came upon a blackberry bush. “Tell ya somethin',” he said after a while, his pockets stuffed with berries, “it's a good thing we got Louise; she'll scare away any wild animals,” he chuckled, and Tina smiled “'Course, glad we got you, as well, Tina. Good thing ya joined the Thundergirls.”

   “Thanks,” she smiled once again, holding the berries in her skirt. “So, how long do you think it'll be before they find us?” She couldn't believe she was actually talking to Zeke. Zeke. It was weird seeing him without Jimmy Jr. attached to his side.

   “I don't reckon it'll be too long,” he said. “We've been walkin' all day; they've definitely realised we're gone, it's just a matter of time.”

   “I hope it'll be soon.”

   “I'm sure it will be, T-Bird. Once we sit down and rest, it'll be easier...” he trailed off.

   “I know,” Tina sighed, stopping to rest, rubbing her shoulder. “I know we should have waited. We'd probably be found by now.”

   “Oh, ya – ya think so?” he asked politely.

   “It would have been better if we had stayed put; we all know that, but...” she sighed, “you can't make Louise do anything she doesn't want to.”

   “I'm sure she was just tryna help,” Zeke said kindly, putting another handful of berries in his pocket.

   “She's just freaking out; we all are.” Tina was still rubbing her shoulder, and Zeke frowned lightly.

   “Is that still hurtin'? Come here, lemme take a look at it.”

   “Oh, um, okay,” Tina looked slightly confused as Zeke approached her, and she gathered her skirt in one hand, keeping the berries in the little pouch. Zeke gently lifted her sleeve and examined her shoulder.

   “Well, there's a big ole bruise there, but I can't see what could be causin' ya pain.”

   “Yeah, my shoulder bumped into a rock when we fell,” Tina admitted, staring straight ahead.

   “Can ya raise your arm?” he asked, and she did so, mentioning that there was little pain. “I think it's just sore; it'll get better soon.” He smiled, and she smiled back. “So, what should we do next? You're the one with the wilderness training.”

   “Well,” Tina sighed again. “There's a chance they won't find us before the sun sets. So, we should build a fire. Because we don't wanna be sitting there in the dark, and we shouldn't keep walking once it gets dark. A fire will make it easier for them to see us.”

   “You got it, T-Bird.”

 


 

Back in the clearing, amongst the picnic tables, the adults stood in a semi-circle.

   “Right, the park rangers are on the way,” said Mason, “so we have to wait until they arrive, and then we can continue the search.”

   “But it'll be dark soon!” Linda cried, Bob holding her hand tightly.

   “It won't be dark for at least two hours,” said Sylvester comfortingly, even though he was panicking on the inside.

   “What'll we do when it gets dark? Huh?”

   “I'm sure they'll have torches,” but Linda was barely listening. She was out of her mind with worry, and she had every right to be; the temperature was dropping, the kids had no food, water, or blankets, and she didn't know whether they were injured or not.

She and Bob were sat on one of the tables, holding hands, and with Sylvester sat opposite them. Jimmy Pesto, his head buried in his phone, was on the next table, along with Trev, and Travis was pacing. Tammy, Jocelyn, and their respective parents had long gone, without so much as a goodbye. Cheryl had gone, too, but only because the baby needed to get some sleep, and had promised to return if she could.

Harper and Mason looked equally as worried, standing near the car park, waiting for the rangers to arrive. It wouldn't be long, they all knew that. A bunch of missing kids in the forest was a very serious situation.

Sylvester stood up and walked away from the group, intending to call his wife. He wasn't looking forward to the conversation, but he couldn't just not tell her; she would be expecting him to drop Rudy off at her house on Sunday evening for a quick visit. Poor Sharon was already overprotective when it came to her son, and Sylvester knew that if she wasn't currently laid up with a bad foot (hence why Rudy was staying with him), she would come to them as quick as lightning.

 

Linda stood up, and went over to the buffet table, and began shoving the snacks into her purse. Chips, cookies, nachos, buns, cupcakes, anything she could squeeze into the surprisingly spacious bag.

   “Lin? What are you doing?” asked Bob, as she picked up several bottles of water.

   “When we find the kids, they're gonna be hungry,” she said, and Bob nodded, not really wanting to think about it.

 

Soon, the park rangers arrived. Two tall, sturdy men, one with short black hair and a prominent chin, and the other reddish-brown hair that reached the nape of his neck, and a deep line in his forehead that almost looked like a scar.

   “Hi,” began the black-haired man, “I'm Ranger Kevin Benson.”

   “I'm Ranger Danny Curtis. I understand there's some kids missing in the woods?”

   “Yes, there's a bunch of kids out there; some of them are mine, and they've been there for hours!” Linda cried, having ran over to them.

   “Whoa, okay, ma'am, let's take it slowly, okay? First off, how many kids are missing, and their ages?” Ranger Kevin helped the woman to sit down.

   “There's our kids; Tina, she's thirteen, Gene is eleven, and Louise is nine,” said Linda.

   “My son, Jimmy Jr.; he's thirteen, and my twin boys, Andy and Ollie; they're nine,” said Jimmy Pesto, as Ranger Danny wrote it all down.

   “Alright, who else?”

   “My son, Rudy; he's nine, and has really bad asthma, and a lot of allergies.”

   “And my boy, Zeke. Thirteen.”

   “Okay, so eight kids, ranging in age from nine to thirteen,” muttered Danny. “Where were they last seen?” In response to this, the parents looked at one another guiltily.

   “Uh, the playground?” Sylvester guessed. “Look,” he wasn't comfortable with the way the Rangers were looking at them, “it was supposed to be a community barbecue; we were talking, dancing, we had a few drinks. We were just basically enjoying each other's company, that's all. We.. didn't notice the kids leaving.”

   “Oh, is this some kind of, you know...” Ranger Danny lowered his voice, “sex thing? It's okay; we're not judging you.” 

   “What? No!” Linda stepped forward. “I saw them leave the playground and go into the forest; I told them not to go too far.”

   “And they didn't bring anything with them? Nothing's missing from here?”

   “No,” Bob confirmed. “Look, can't we do this later? We need to go and find them before it gets dark.”

   “Sir, we just have to make sure we have all the information we need,” said Kevin.

   “What information?” Linda snapped. “There's kids lost in the forest, that's all you need to know!”

   “Okay, ma'am. Just one thing. Do any of them have wilderness or survival training?” The parents all shook their heads, except for Bob and Linda.

   “Yes; Tina's in the Thundergirls,” said Bob.

   “So, she'll know how to seek shelter and stuff? And, hopefully, she knows the first rule of survival, which is to stay put?” confirmed Kevin, and Bob nodded. “Okay, let's get back in there, and look for them. Here's the things you'll need...”

 

Each adult was given a torch, a map of the forest, and a walkie talkie, and they immediately re-entered the forest. Bob took Linda's bag, as the added weight was making her walk lopsided.

   “It's sweet of you to help look,” Linda said to Harper and Mason, who were peering into the bushes.

   “Oh, think nothing of it; I couldn't go back home and relax, knowing there's kids out here,” Harper gestured to the dense woodlands, and Linda smiled warmly at her.

The two rangers briefly held back.

   “So, what do you think?” muttered Kevin, glancing over at the retreating group.

   “Still think it's some kinda sex cult,” said Danny. “An adult 'Hansel and Gretel,' type thing, maybe? The adults take the kids into the woods, come back here and do their thing, then collect the children. Only, they lost the kids.”

   “It makes the most sense of anything I've heard today. I've never known a group of kids to disappear like this,” admitted Kevin. “Well, we'd better start looking for them, anyhow.” He stepped into the forest. “Alright, listen!” he called, and everyone turned to fix their eyes on him “Don't go too far right away,” he said. “Retrace your steps; you might have missed something the first time you look. You gotta look everywhere.”

 


 

   “Okay, everyone,” began Tina, and the kids stopped what they were doing to listen. “I've got good news, and I've got, uh, news. The good news is, the berries are edible.”

Gene whooped and stuffed a handful into his mouth.

   “Mm! Tangy!”

   “But we shouldn't eat them all at once. Just in case. The other news is, we need to make a fire.”

   “Fire?” Louise grinned widely.

   “Yes, so everyone needs to look for dry leaves and sticks, and dry grass, and stay together,” she said.

   “What? We've already searched for food, and we've been walking all day, and now we have to go and find wood?” Jimmy Jr. whined, pulling a face.

   “Well, it's a choice of bein' warm or freezin', and I choose bein' warm,” shrugged Zeke, and they all, Jimmy Jr. included, headed off to gather firewood, Louise hurrying as fast as she could, her face ecstatic.

 

Pretty soon, they had a wide assortment of twigs, bark, dry leaves, and clumps of dried grass. Tina lay down the grass and the bark on a clear patch of dirt ground, surrounding it with stones, but then she froze. None of them had any matches, and she didn't know how to make a fire without one.

She looked around; Jimmy Jr. was sat on a nearby log, arms folded; Rudy was standing and watching with curious eyes. Gene was sat in front of the berry pile, sifting his hands through them, and Louise was standing over Andy and Ollie, who were sat against a tree, with several sticks in front of them. She caught Zeke looking at her.

   “Have you got a lighter?” she asked quietly.

   “Sorry, T-Bird,” he walked up to her, turning out his pockets. “Do ya have anythin'?”

   “No,” she ducked her head. “At my Thundergirl meetings, we always used matches.”

   “Isn't there any other way ya know how to make fire?” He sat down next to her, crossing his legs.

   “Plenty, but they need stuff we don't have,” she sighed.

   “Have ya tried the old rubbin' two sticks together?”

   “I've never done that. But, we can try.” Tina picked up two long sticks, and began to quickly rub them, like she was preparing to carve a turkey. Although smoke emitted from the wood, there was no flames or even sparks. Maybe if her shoulder wasn't hurting so much, it would be easier. Zeke picked up two sticks and tried himself.

   “What are you guys doing?” asked Gene, walking on his knees over to them.

   “We're trying to make fire, but it's not working so well,” Tina panted, her arms aching with the effort. This was so much harder than they made it seem in the movies, and that felt like false advertising to her.

   “Have you tried singing 'Light my Fire'? Maybe that's the secret.”

   “Well, if you pick up some sticks, you could find out,” Tina nodded to the pile of sticks, and Gene picked two up, beginning to sing to them.

   “You know that it would be untrue,
You know that I would be a liar,
If I was to say to you,
Girl, we couldn't get much higher.

Come on baby, light my fire,
Come on baby, light my fire,
Try to set the night on fire.”

 

   “Hey, how long is that fire gonna take? I'm freezing,” called Jimmy Jr., watching the three of them with a hint of annoyance on his face.

   “We gotta do this the old-fashioned way,” said Zeke. “If y'all wanna come up and give us a hand, it might speed things along.”

   “Uh, I'd love to, but I can't; I have to, uh... watch over my brothers,” his head quickly scanned the area for the twins, and he gestured to them, shrugging.

   “Okay, then,” Zeke turned around and resumed his work. “I'm sorry, Tina; I don't know what's got into him.”

   “Hm?” Tina looked up at him, the look of concentration turning into one of confusion. “Got into who?”

   “Jay-Ju; he's bein' a bit of a wimp, and I dunno why he ain't helpin'.” It wasn't right, Zeke thought, to sit back and let someone struggle, and not even attempt to help. Rudy was exempt, as he needed to keep away from the dust, and Louise appeared to be working on something with the twins, as they had their own pile of sticks. Zeke reckoned that if he and Gene did not step in, poor Tina would be there all night.

   “Oh, it's okay. He's probably just cold.”

   “We're all cold,” said Zeke, “but he should be helpin'.” Tina only nodded and looked back down.

   “I don't think this is going to work,” Gene admitted sadly after a while, examining his reddened hands. “Even the song didn't help.”

   “There is another way, but it might not work.”

   “We might as well try it, right?” asked Zeke.

   “We could try using rocks instead.”

In a flash, Gene was on his feet, and had soon brought over an armful of small rocks, and the three of them started scraping the against one another.

   “Oh! I got it, I got it!” Gene screamed, as his rock sparked, and then fizzled out.

   “Gene, do it again, and hold it close to the leaves,” Tina ordered, and Gene did so. When the spark appeared again, Tina leaned down and blew a little, grinning as a small flame appeared. She, Gene, and Zeke began to feed it with sticks, and they soon had nice little fire. “We got fire!” she called delightedly, putting some more leaves and bark onto it.

   “Finally!” Jimmy Jr. gasped, moving closer, as did the others. Louise instantly dumped a handful of dry leaves on it, grinning as the fire danced and crackled. With them regularly adding more sticks, the flames grew large enough to sufficiently warm them all. Tina made sure the younger kids were closest, as they needed it the most, and she warmed her hands in appreciation.

They sat silently, admiring the flames. Every so often, one of them would reach down, and scoop up a handful of berries. They had a nice little collection of blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries. Not quite the barbecue feast they had been looking forward to, but food was food.

   “This is nice,” said Zeke after a while. “Just need some marshmallows, and it's like we're campin'. Maybe we should tell ghost stories.”

   “We're not camping,” Jimmy Jr. muttered, staring broodingly into the fire.

   “Aw, come on now, Jay-Ju, we got heat and food, so let's make the best of it?”

   “I've only been camping once,” said Tina. “It was supposed to be with my Thundergirls troop, but I was sick and I missed it, and so my family took me on a make up trip.”

   “We got lost in the woods then, too,” Gene added.

   “Really? Y'all must know what you're doin', then. Hey,” he turned to Tina, “what're we gonna about sleepin'?”

   “Oh, yeah, sleeping; I knew I should have brought my night cream,” Gene lamented. “I so need to get more prepared.”

   “Can't we just sleep here?” asked Jimmy Jr.

   “Well, it's not a good idea to sleep out in the open,” said Tina. “We'll need to find a nearby shelter.”

   “We've got that covered,” said Louise, “we'll just do what we did last time; make a little tree tent.”

   “Tree tent?” Rudy repeated.

   “Yeah, you lean sticks over a fallen log, and it looks like a tent.”

   “Oh, okay,” he said, still not sure what she meant.

   “Well, we'll need to find some kind of shelter,” Tina stood, and looked around. Spotting a large bush, one of several, she crawled through it. “Guys, come here!” she called, and was soon was joined by the rest of the group. Just past the bush was a sort of clearing, with taller bushes at the back. “It's like we're surrounded, and we're not in the open. It's perfect; we're hidden,” said Tina.

   “Great; we'll sleep here tonight,” said Zeke.

   “Why do we wanna be hidden?” asked Rudy.

   “Because sleeping in the open wilderness is a terrible thing; we'll be cold, and... it – it's just not good,” Tina decided not to mention the fact that they would be less vulnerable to wild animals. She didn't want to scare them, and she knew there were wild animals in this part of New Jersey, but she was unsure if any were in the forest. She hoped not.

   “The fire won't reach us if we're back here,” Jimmy Jr. complained, and Tina turned to stare at him.

   “That won't be a problem; we're gonna put it out,” she said slowly.

   “Why?”

And Tina again stared at him, wondering just when he got so stupid.

   “Because,” she explained patiently, “an unattended fire in a forest is a recipe for disaster.”

   “But how will we keep warm?” he asked, and Tina closed her eyes. Maybe it was the stress of the day, but his whining was beginning to annoy her.

   “We huddle together, right, T-Bird?” Zeke turned to her, and she nodded.

   “Yeah, we need to huddle together to conserve body heat.” Tina felt weird; nobody had ever listened to her this much in her life. And Zeke was actually helping? Had she hit her head and stumbled into some kind of alternate universe or something?

   “And the youngest go in the middle, am I right?” he asked, and she nodded after a moment. She wasn't sure what she was more shocked at; his kindness, or the fact that she was still being listened to.

   “Yeah; oldest on the outside, youngest on the inside,” she confirmed, and Zeke began shepherding them together. Tina walked over to the dying fire and covered it with dirt until it had completely gone out. It was quite dark now, but a full moon provided them with the little light they needed.

   “Andy, Ollie, Louise, Rudy; get your butts in there,” Zeke gestured to the ground, and they moved forward. “What're those for?” he asked Andy and Ollie, noticing that they were both carrying a large bundle of sharpened sticks. Louise only smiled.

   “Go!” she ordered, and the twins let out an excited squeal, and began stabbing the sticks into the ground in a semicircle, at an angle with the ends pointing away from them, creating a protective barrier. Zeke was shocked, although he shouldn't have been; of course Louise knew how to sharpen sticks to make a potentially deadly weapon.

   “How will we keep warm?” asked Jimmy Jr.

   “We huddle together,” Tina repeated. “One thing we can do is put our arms inside our T-shirts, and that'll keep 'em warm.”

Jimmy Jr. did so, and lay down on the ground, curling up on his side.

   “Right, oldest to youngest to oldest,” said Zeke, “so it'll go: me, Gene, Louise, Rudy, Andy, Ollie, then Tina, and then you, Jay-Ju.”

   “What?” Jimmy Jr. sat up, frowning. “Why?”

   “To keep the others warm; it's gon' tear me apart being this far away from ya, Jay-Ju, but it's gotta be done.”

The kids got into formation, trying to make themselves comfortable on the cold, grassy ground. Tina couldn't help but be thrilled that she and Jimmy Jr. would hopefully be spooning; it was everything she had dreamed of, and she couldn't believe that something like this was really happening. Perhaps this whole thing would put their relationship switch firmly back in the “on” position. And maybe this time it would stay that way. She smiled a bit; her and Jimmy Jr., together, under the stars; it was literally her perfect date, minus all the other kids. And the fact that they were lost.

   “You know, Jimmy Jr., if you get cold, you can always hug me; that's a really good way to get warm,” she suggested, turning over, and smiling at him.

   “Thanks, Tina; I'm good like this,” he looked down at his arms, which were stuck inside his shirt. He'd removed his vest and draped it over him, as well.

   “Oh. Okay,” she turned back around disappointedly.

   “Hey, Rudy?”

The boy in question lifted his head to see Louise looking over her shoulder at him.

   “Yeah?”

   “If you touch me, I will punch out your kidneys through your stomach.” Without waiting for an answer, Louise lay back down, resting her head on her elbow.

It didn't take long for them all to fall asleep; walking for many hours was tiring, and many of them felt confident that pretty soon they would be awakened by the voices of the adults searching for them.

 


 

   “Now, listen up!” Park Ranger Kevin gestured for the adults to gather around him, which they did. They had regrouped back in the clearing, their torches the only light. “We're going to temporarily put the search on hold – just for a moment,” he clarified, raising his hand over the outraged shouting. “We don't have the equipment to deal with this with us, and we need to wait until it arrives.”

   “How long will that take?” asked Linda.

   “It's on its way now; less than twenty minutes. They'll bring infrared detectors, which we will use, and more rangers to help search.”

   “What are we supposed to do until then?” Sylvester asked, a panicky undertone to his voice. He was pacing, his phone clutched tightly in his hand.

   “We can have a little break, and catch our breath. All we can do is wait,” said Danny. “I know that's not what you want to hear, but it's almost 10pm. The kids have obviously wandered further than we thought, so we have no choice but to get some help. It's dark, and the torches won't help. Plus, there's the chance of someone accidentally ruining any tracks, as you won't be able to see them.” He decided not to mention the bears that he knew lived in the forest. It was far too dangerous for them to keep looking, at least, not until some more professionals arrived.

   “Do you mind telling me how in the hell a bunch of kids managed to walk so far, that we haven't been able to find them when we've been looking all day?” Jimmy snapped, running his hand through his pompadour once again.

   “It's very easy to lose your sense of direction in a forest,” Kevin explained, urging the adults to sit, which they did. Despite it being the beginning of June, the breeze was picking up, and many of them were finding it quite chilly. “Disorientation happens to even the most experienced hikers. It's possible that the kids thought they were walking back here, but instead went in another direction.”

   “Yeah, yeah, so how long until those rangers get here?” Sylvester looked from the table, desperation written all over his face. “My kid's got asthma, you know!”

   “I understand you're worried, sir,” said Kevin. “The rangers are on the way. Anyone who gets lost in a forest is a priority for us, especially children, so we will do everything we can to find them.”

   “Hey, Bob, I thought you said your daughter knew all this survival crap?” asked Jimmy, and both Bob and Linda looked at him. There was an accusatory undertone to his voice that they didn't like.

   “What are you saying?” Bob asked slowly.

   “If your kid knew this stuff half as well as she should have, we would've found them by now.”

   “Don't you put the blame on my kid, when your kid probably doesn't even know what the word 'survival' means!” Bob shot back.

   “I don't have time to send him to stupid camp!”

   “Oh, but you got time to sit around and watch him dance? Really useful skill(!)” Bob snarled.

   “I don't ever sit around, because I'm always working, serving my customers! Know what those are? Yeah, they're people that come in to your restaurant, and they actually stay and eat, and then they pay you -” Jimmy then cried out as Bob stretched over the table and clocked him square in the nose. The force actually knocked Jimmy off the bench, and Bob marvelled at his own strength.

   “Damn it, Jimmy!” was all he could say. The pizza man got to his feet, hand over his nose, glaring at Bob. “What's your problem? Our kids are lost in the woods; no food, no water, no warm clothing – they don't even have any hiking stuff! – and you're making jabs at me? Good to know where your priorities are!”

   “Alright, enough!” Kevin stepped in between them. “You,” he turned to Jimmy, “over there!” he pointed to one end of the clearing. “And you, over there!” Bob got pointed in the opposite direction, where he went, with Linda following him.

   “I'm impressed, Bobby; you actually hit him,” said Linda honestly. 'Right in his handsome face,' she thought.

   “Yeah; me too. Not so handsome now, is he?” said Bob, and Linda chuckled. “I don't get him; his kids are missing, too. Doesn't he even care?”

   “Well, he's never cared before, so why should he start now?” Linda shrugged. “I wonder why they didn't stay put, though? Tina knows that's what you do.”

   “Well,” Bob began, “she might have thought they hadn't gone too far. Or they might have thought they were walking back to us, like that guy said, but went the wrong way.” He caught sight of her face. “We'll find them,” he told her. “They have each other, so they'll be fine.”

 

   “Right!” Kevin yelled, and everyone turned to look at him. “The rangers will be here very soon, and we're going to need some people to remain here, sort of like base camp. In case the kids show up.” No one volunteered to do so. Kevin sighed. “We can get a few of the rangers to stay, but I think a few of the parents ought to stay, as well; we don't want the kids to freak out when they see a bunch of strangers waiting for them.”

   “We'll stay,” Bob raised his hand, ignoring the look his wife was giving him.

   “Okay, then, we'll get a few of the rangers to stay here, and the rest of us will go back into the forest.”

   “Bobby, why did you say that?” Linda asked, as Kevin continued giving instructions. “We're not staying!”

   “I think we should; if the kids are still walking, then they might have gone in a circle. If we're here, then we can meet them.”

   “I don't wanna meet them; I wanna find them!”

   “If we're here, then we can get stuff ready for them; they might need blankets, we can get those ready. We can get all the food and water ready.”

   “No; we can take it with us.”

   “The others will take some with them. Look, Lin, it's like I don't wanna go; I do, but we have to be realistic,” he sighed.

   “Realistic? Bobby, our kids are lost!”

   “I know, but what if we all go looking, and they turn up here? If we're not here, they might go looking for us.”

   “I guess you have a point.” Linda paused. “All right, I'll stay here with you, and get the stuff ready. Right, we need blankets – do we have those?”

   “The other rangers will bring them.”

   “Okay, we need food; we got that, and we need water; got that, too. Hey, if we have to switch over, there's a tote bag in the trunk; we can put this stuff in.”

   “I'll go get it,” said Bob, as he walked over to the car, using the torch to find the way.

   “Don't worry, my babies; Mama's gonna find ya!” Linda growled, as she arranged the food on the picnic table.

 


 

Zeke opened his eyes and rolled onto his back. He didn't know how long he'd been asleep, but he was sure it was at least a couple of hours, as the moon was high in the sky. He quickly looked to his left, squinting as he counted the rest of the group; they were all still there, all huddled up in a line, and he looked back in front of him. Straining his ears, Zeke leaned forward, hoping against hope that soon he would hear the faint sound of an adult yelling for them. But there was nothing, nothing except for the sound of cicadas, and rustling leaves. It was almost peaceful; if they weren't lost, he would be enjoying this.

Movement from the group caused him to glance back over, and he saw Tina sit up, as well.

   “Are ya all right?” he whispered, and she jumped.

   “Ah!” She quickly covered her mouth, casting her eyes down at the kids. “I'm fine,” she whispered back when they remained asleep. “How come you're awake?”

   “I dunno; I just woke up.”

   “Oh. Okay.” He could sense she wanted to say something.

   “Come over here,” he whispered, gesturing with his head, and Tina followed him a few feet away, where they sat down together underneath another bush. “What's the matter?”

   “I just, um, I was just thinking,” she whispered, crossing her legs, and looking down at her hands, “about what we should do tomorrow.”

   “Okay?”

   “Well, I really, really think that when we wake up tomorrow, we should stay right here. I mean, not right here, but out in the open, where we can be seen.”

   “That's a good idea, T-Bird.”

   “Only...” she hesitated and looked at him, squinting in the dark. “It would really help if everyone could, like, back me up when I say it, 'cause I know Louise will be mad.”

   “You can count on me; I'll let everyone else know in the mornin'.”

   “Thanks, Zeke.”

   “No problem.” They both took a moment to observe the rest of their group, all of whom were still sleeping. Gene was pressed up against Rudy, the both of them curled up in the foetal position with their arms inside their shirts. Andy and Ollie were cuddled together so tightly it was impossible to tell where one twin ended and the other began. Louise had given into the cold and had her arms and legs tucked up inside her dress, and Jimmy Junior now had his vest draped over his face. Privately, Zeke felt that Jay-Ju should have offered his vest to Tina, or one of the little ones; they needed it more. “Hey, I just wanna apologise again for Jay-Ju; he's been a jerk today.”

   “Has he? I hadn't noticed,” said Tina, and Zeke did a double-take that Tina couldn't see.

   “What do ya mean? He hasn't done anythin' to help; he's been whinin' and complainin' and completely ignorin' ya.” He'd always known that Jimmy Jr. didn't always show Tina the appreciation she deserved, but it wasn't his place to say anything. You don't give friends – especially your best friend – relationship advice. Unless they ask for it, which Jimmy J.r hadn't.

   “Well, that's pretty much how he usually acts,” said Tina, and she felt Zeke bristle.

   “It ain't right,” he whispered. “It ain't right to treat anyone like that; especially your girlfriend.” 

   “Oh.” Unsure of what to say, Tina looked back at her hands. “I'm sure he'll come around; this has just been a stressful day for us all.”

   “I suppose so,” Zeke mumbled. “Well, if ya ever want me to have a talk with him, I'll be happy to do that.”

   “Oh, okay. Thanks,” said Tina, a hint of uncertainty in her voice. Why was he being so considerate? “Well, you've been a big help today, so thanks for that.”

   “Ah, it weren't nothin'.”

   “You helped get the fire started.”

   “That was more Gene than anythin'.” Now it was Zeke's turn to stare at his lap.

   “But you helped anyway, and you helped to get us all organised.”

   “Don't be so modest, T-Bird. You're the one who's got the trainin' and the skills. You'll be the one to get us through this.” Tina felt her cheeks reddening, and a faint smile graced her face.

   “Thanks again,” she whispered. “We should get back to sleep now.”

   “Sure thing,” Zeke scrabbled around for Tina's hand, and they both stood, making their way back to the rest of the group, where they lay down, and fell asleep once again.

 

Chapter Text

North by North Tree-st

 

Chapter 3

 

   “Don't you worry, babies; Mommy's comin'!” Linda, running on empty, and only four hours sleep, gathered supplies for the day. She put extra snacks on the table, along with some blankets, while looking out of the window every so often, as if expecting the kids to show up.

The search had gone on well into the night, but still no sign of the kids. She and Bob had had to be dragged into the ranger station to get some sleep. Teddy was there with them, of course, asleep in a comfortable office chair, snoring loudly.

   “The rangers found no tracks,” said Park Ranger Danny, watching Linda pore over the map, while Bob focused on filling up some bottles of water.

   “They didn't find anything?” Bob straightened up.

   “Well, they found adult footprints, so we might have accidentally gone over them.”

   “Great; that's just great!(!)” Bob threw down an empty bottle. “So, what have you found?”

Danny was interrupted by the rest of the search party entering the little station. Jimmy, Trev, and Sylvester all had dark circles under their eyes, and were yawning. Harper and Mason were no longer with them, the couple had gone home late last night, but there was a steady stream of park rangers. Jimmy rudely brushed past Bob to get some water, and flopped down on the sofa. Jimmy's nose was still bruised, and Bob couldn't help but smile when he saw that. That was a small bit of payback after all the crap he had put up with over the years.

   “The helicopter didn't pick up anything,” Danny said, and Jimmy gawped at him.

   “You guys brought in a helicopter?”

   “It's the most useful tool for this kind of search; the thermal imaging can spot them, even when the naked eye can't see anything.”

   “But they found nothing?” asked Linda sadly, and Danny nodded.

   “But, as it was night, it was to be expected; the kids were probably sheltering somewhere. It'll be easier to spot them in the day time.”

   “But, a helicopter? I mean, can't we just use those thermal thingies ourselves?”

   “It's like you don't want your kids to be found,” Bob said, filling up yet another water bottle.

   “Hey, I want to find my kids as much as anyone else here; I just don't wanna be charged for a freakin' helicopter, when we could probably find 'em ourselves.”

   “Well, we clearly need it, don't we, if we've been looking all day and night, and haven't found anything yet,” Bob did his best to remain calm.

   “Alright, alright; keep what's left of your hair on. We'll get 'em today.”

   “We'd better,” Bob muttered. He wasn't sure how much longer he could stand to be around Pesto.

   “If you guys are all, ready, we'll head back out,” said Danny, and Bob and Linda eagerly gathered up their supplies, and headed out of the door. Jimmy heaved himself off the sofa, muttering something about having just sat down. “Remember to keep calling your son's phone,” said the ranger, as the two of them exited.

   “Yeah, I will, I will,” Jimmy mumbled. “Even though the battery's probably dead, but what the hey, I'll keep calling.” Danny was walking ahead of him, and Jimmy looked down at his phone; fully charged, of course, because he had the sense to bring a charger and a power pack with him wherever he went. “Helicopters!” he scoffed to himself, walking past the picnic tables. “What next, bloodhounds?” He was worried about his children, of course he was; he wasn't a monster. But he felt that everyone around him was going a little bit crazy. The kids were holed up somewhere, bored out of their skull, just waiting to be found. What was worrying about that?

 

Once back inside the forest, the adults, with their walkie talkies, maps, food and drink, continued with the search, walking as far as the ravine, and then spreading out. They looked for anything out of place; broken branches, unusual piles of leaves, footprints, a small piece of fabric; anything that could narrow it down to where the children were.

 


 

The kids awoke at varying times, and one by one, crawled out of the undergrowth. Tina and Zeke were the first to wake up.

   “I'm not looking forward to this,” Tina groaned, in reference to having to tell Louise that she would no longer be running this mission. She could only hope that her sister wouldn't go marching off again.

   “Don't worry; we'll back you up,” Zeke assured her. “When the others wake up, we'll tell 'em, and we'll wait 'til we're all awake. But not like we're gangin' up on her,” he added quickly. “Just so we're all on the same page.”

   “Yeah,” Tina bit her lip, rubbing her sore shoulder. Now, it was all stiff from where she had slept on it.

   “How's your shoulder doin'?” he asked.

   “Sore and stiff,” she admitted, and he nodded. If this were any other circumstance, he would offer to massage it, to perhaps ease the pain. He'd never massaged anyone before, but it was the thought that counted, right? But she was his best friend's girlfriend; it wasn't the proper thing to do.

   “Right; well if it gets too painful, let me know, and I'll try to help out however I can,” he said.

   “Okay, thanks,” she said, before a rustling caught their attention, and they saw Rudy crawling out from their sleeping spot.

   “Mornin', Rudy,” Zeke smiled, and both Tina and the asthmatic boy wondered how he was so upbeat. But the smile soon dropped from his face when he noticed that Rudy's arms and legs were dotted with red patches. “What're those?” he pointed them out, worry all over his face. “Did ya sleep on somethin'?”

   “Huh?” Rudy looked down, and saw what he was talking about. “Oh. No, it's just a rash.”

   “Are you okay?” Tina leaned forward, inspecting them, and Rudy nodded.

   “Yep; it's just a mild one. Like my allergy to chocolate,” he assured them, and Tina and Zeke leaned back, relaxing a bit.

   “Long as yer okay. Got somethin' to tell ya.”

   “Are the grown-ups nearby?” he asked, his face full of optimism, and Zeke felt bad for getting his hopes up.

   “Er, no. But Tina has an idea, and she wants all our support. Can we count on ya?”

   “What is it?” Zeke looked over at Tina, and she nodded the okay.

   “Well, we've decided that we're going to wait here until help comes, and since Louise ain't gonna be too pleased to hear that, we wanna all stand by Tina, and stick with her.”

   “Oh.” Rudy chanced a glance behind him, but nothing indicated that the rest of them were awake. “I understand that; you can count on me.”

   “Thanks,” Tina smiled at him, looking relieved. None of them wanted to have the conversation, but it needed to be done. “I wish I knew what time it was,” she admitted, looking up at the clear, blue sky.

   “It would be easier if one of us had a watch,” Zeke looked up also, as did Rudy. “I dunno; to me, it looks around nine o'clock; what do ya say, T-Bird?”

   “Well, it's not morning-morning,” she knew that much. The sun was already up quite high. “Maybe ten, eleven o'clock? It's hard to guess.”

   “I suppose it don't really matter,” said Zeke. “Would it matter if we slept all day?” he directed this at Tina, who looked slightly confused.

   “I don't think so,” she said slowly. “Although, if we were all asleep in there, the grown-ups might not see us.”

   “That makes sense,” said Rudy, and the three of them sat there for a while.

   “You know what; I'm just gonna quickly check on them. Just to make sure they're all still there,” Tina moved forward, and awkwardly crawled one-handed over to the bush. She did look a little bit like a three-legged dog, but it didn't occur to her to just walk on her knees. Once in the little clearing, she counted, and saw that the rest of the group was still there, all of them asleep. Her gaze lingered on Jimmy Jr.; his sleeping face was very beautiful, very peaceful. She could have stared at him forever, and she wondered if he was dreaming about her. She was so tempted to lie back down next to him, so they could spoon together. Even though he had his arms folded tightly across his chest, Tina felt certain that once he knew she was there, he would wrap his arms around her and -

'Whoa, Tina, get it together, girl,' she mentally slapped herself. She was here to do a job, and that was to keep everyone safe. She couldn't afford to have any alone time with Jimmy Jr. Well, not until they'd been found.

Andy and Ollie were still entangled; they even seemed to be breathing in sync, so that was how she knew they were okay.

Gene and Louise were lying together, the both of them with their arms inside their sleeves. Gene had his left hand poking out so it looked like a little sling, while Louise was curled up in a ball, a slight frown on her sleeping face. “They're all still there,” she whispered, half crawling back out.

   “Oh, good.”

   “Hey, what will we do while we wait?” asked Rudy, feeling for his inhaler.

   “Uh, just sit and talk, I guess?” said Tina. “Maybe play I Spy? Or charades?”

   “That'll be fun,” said Zeke, “it'll be like a little party.”

   “Yeah,” Tina nodded, as more rustling caught her attention, and the twins came out from the bushes, stretching.

   “Hey, where do we go to the bathroom?” asked Andy, looking around. “There's no magical toilet in these woods.”

   “Uh, just go anywhere, I guess,” said Tina. “Just not where we can see you. But, uh, stay close.”

   “Andy, we can find a tree and pee on it, like in the movies!” Ollie looked overjoyed at the prospect, and both twins ran behind a nearby large tree, the two of them giggling.

   “Well, at least they're takin' it well,” said Zeke.

   “Yeah,” Tina crossed her legs awkwardly; now she needed to go. She'd gone in the wilderness before, but that was either with her troop, or her siblings. It was a little embarrassing to try to go when Jimmy Jr. could possibly hear her. And everyone else hearing her, as well.

   “Ya know, maybe we should all go to the bathroom,” said Zeke, standing up, and looking around. “Might as well get it out of the way?”

   “I could pee.” Rudy stood as well, and Zeke nodded.

   “Maybe that li'l cluster of trees could be the boys' room, and that group of bushes can be the girls' room. Off you go, Rudy; I'll go when you come back.”

When the twins had returned, Rudy headed off behind the tree, and Zeke began rootling through the brush, and soon presented Tina with a handful of large leaves, looking slightly embarrassed.

   “What're these for?” she asked.

   “Just in case you need the bathroom.”

   “Oh! Um, thanks,” now it was her turn to look embarrassed.

   “How's yer shoulder? Will ya.. be able to go?” he couldn't believe he had actually just said that. He looked away, his face reddening.

   “Uhh, I should be fine.”

   “Well, if it still hurts, just give me a shout, and I'll help. N-not that I wanna help ya go to the bathroom, or somethin' like that,” he rambled. “I'll just.. help ya in any way I can. If ya want,” he added, his cheeks burning with embarrassment.

   “Thanks,” she said sincerely. “I think I'll be fine though; I still have one good arm, and that's all I need.”

Zeke offered his hand to her, and for a moment, she stared, a little bit confused, before taking it, and heading off to the bushes.

He had just sat down when Gene and Louise came out from their sleeping place. Gene was holding his left arm up, like it was in an invisible sling, and he saw that Louise was holding onto her right arm, though she stopped when she caught him looking.

   “Mornin',” he said, as they both sat, and Rudy returned. “Sleep all right?”

   “Like a baby,” said Gene, while Louise just glared.

   “How's yer arm?” he looked down at Gene's arm, which was still badly scraped.

   “Eh, I'll live. I hope. Worst case scenario: I die. Best case scenario: I end up with a bionic arm, and nothing could possibly go wrong with that.”

   “You got that right,” Zeke chuckled, before turning to Louise. “And what about you? How's your arm?”

   “There's nothing wrong with my arm.”

   “Are ya sure? You were holdin' it a minute ago.”

   “Yeah, so what? Is there some kinda law against that? I slept on it funny.”

   “All right, then.” Zeke did not pursue the subject, as he wasn't an idiot, and turned his attention back to the boys. He was wondering how to tell Gene and the twins about the plan without Louise overhearing. It wasn't like he could just whisper in their ears; Louise was as sharp as a tack, maybe sharper; you couldn't get anything by her.

   “What's that on your arms?” Louise eyed the rashes decorating Rudy's skin.

   “It's just -”

   “Have you got a secret stash of chocolate? Are you eating while the rest of us starve?”

   “No; it's just a rash from the mould,” Rudy said, and Louise looked at the red patches once again.

   “If I find out you're lying, and you're letting the rest of us suffer...” Louise didn't finish her sentence, letting her suspicious expression speak for itself. Rudy didn't answer, keeping his face neutral. “Well, I don't believe you,” she said finally. If she'd had food, she wouldn't have shared it, so naturally, she didn't expect anyone else to. “But, I'll make an exception this one time; you're so weak and scrawny, you need all the food you can get.”

Rudy only gave a small smile, and silence fell over them once again, and Zeke and Rudy pondered how to tell the others what they needed to, quickly and secretly.

Thankfully, Louise got up a short while later, citing the need to stretch her legs. Secretly, she was hoping it would ease the pain in her knee, as it should not still be hurting. As soon as she was out of sight, Zeke leaned toward Gene and whispered the plan in his ear. Rudy seemed to catch on pretty quickly, and did the same to Andy and Ollie, and the three boys' nodded their affirmative.

Zeke crawled back through the bushes, ostensibly to check on Jay-Ju. He found his best friend on the verge of waking up, and quietly detailed his and Tina's idea, and that they all needed to stick together. He felt relieved when a cranky Jimmy Jr. muttered an agreement, and Zeke headed back to the clearing. Tina had returned, and he gave her a subtle nod. She blinked, before a look of realisation crossed her face.

 

Jimmy Jr. finally crawled out into the clearing, looking annoyed beyond belief.

   “Morning, Jimmy Jr,” Tina smiled, but he ignored her, and her face fell.

   “Have they found us yet?” he asked, stretching, reaching his arms up high, before heading over to the log.

   “Not yet,” said Zeke, and Jimmy Jr. frowned.

   “Seriously?”

   “Oh, ya can hear?” said Zeke lightly, and his friend looked confused.

   “What are you talking about?”

   “Oh, it's just that Tina said 'good mornin'' to ya, and ya didn't say anythin', so I figured ya didn't hear her,” he shrugged. For a millisecond, Jimmy Jr. stared at Zeke.

   “Good morning, Tina,” he said, but his eyes were still fixed on Zeke. He raised an eyebrow, as if to say, 'happy now?' But it was enough for Tina, who beamed.

 

The eight of them sat in the clearing, around the fire pit. Tina kept staring at Louise, trying to work up the courage to say what she needed to say.

   “Louise... we have something to say,” said Tina, and her sister stopped pulling up the grass, and looked up at her.

   “What?”

   “I – we feel that it's best to just wait here until they find us.” Just as she predicted, Louise threw her a filthy look.

   “And who is this 'we'?”

   “Um, everyone?” Despite knowing that everyone had her back, Tina felt her confidence faltering. It was always easier to just give in to Louise.

   “Oh, really?” she sneered, “and how did you give them the idea, 'cause they sure as hell didn't come up with it on their own.” Louise didn't miss the scoff from Jimmy Jr. “Got something to say, Junior? Or do you wanna do what you always do, and just sit around, whining?”

   “Hey!” He stood up, as did Louise. “Don't drag me into this.”

   “Keep your mouth shut, then.” Louise turned back to Tina, who had also gotten to her feet. “What is the point of sitting and waiting around, when we could actually do something useful, like, I don't know, get ourselves found? And don't mention that stupid handbook!” she added, as Tina opened her mouth.

   “It's not the handbook,” said Tina quietly. “It's basic survival training. Everyone thinks we should wait.”

   “Well, I'm not everyone, and I say we keep moving!”

   “Louise, we've all agreed to stay here.”

   “We didn't all agree!” Louise shrieked. “I haven't agreed to this! And neither has anyone else!”

Having no other option, Tina, turned to the rest of the group, all of whom looked away awkwardly.

   “Guys, you all think we should stay, right?” Zeke and Jimmy Jr. put their hands up immediately. But Gene, Rudy, and the twins, obviously had second thoughts about incurring Louise's wrath, and they instantly busied themselves.

   “Oh, hey, have you seen this grass?” Gene plucked a blade, and held it aloft, his eyes wide in amazement. “It's so green!”

   “I'm, uh, just making sure there's no poison ivy,” Rudy ducked his head, and began examining the log he was leaning against, and Andy and Ollie began jabbering so excitedly that no one could understand what they were saying.

   “Thing is, Louise,” and everyone groaned at Zeke, not realising he had a death wish. “Out of all of us, Tina's got the most experience. She knew to build a fire, and she knows which berries are safe, and which ain't, so it makes sense that she's the leader.”

   “Leader?” Louise's voice lowered dangerously.

   “Well, yeah; we gotta have a leader, and we think it should be Tina.”

   “I should be the leader! I was in the Thundergirls, too!”

   “Louise, that's not the same,” said Tina. “You only joined to flush out a mole.”

   “Wait, you can flush out moles?” Gene looked surprised. “I thought you only get 'em sliced off.”

   “Let's settle this, once and for all,” Louise turned to the group. “Everyone who thinks Tina should be the terrible leader, raise your hand.” Her expression grew furious as everyone raised their hand, with Gene and Rudy not making eye contact with her. “Fine! Who wants me to be the leader; a proper leader, who will actually get us out of here?” No one raised their hand. If looks could kill, they would all be nothing but smears on the ground. “Fine! Fine!” She turned back to Tina. “I hope you're happy! Get us all killed, I don't even care!” and she marched off, and sat down against a nearby tree, her back to them.

No one said anything; a few shared glances, and they silently agreed to leave Louise alone and let her cool off.

'What do we do now?' Zeke mouthed to Tina.

'We wait.' She mouthed back. There wasn't anything else they could do.

 


 

   “Right, it's time to extend the search!” called Ranger Kevin, as the adults gathered around him. “It's quite obvious that they're not in this area, so we need to spread out further.”

   “What do we do? Where do we go?” asked Linda.

   “We think it's best to climb down the ravine, and start looking from there,” said Kevin. “There is a hill we can climb down, and we can look for tracks down there, too.”

   “Okay,” said Bob, and he and Linda set about climbing down. It wasn't so much of a hill, as it was a very, very steep, rocky incline. Thankfully, they were able to use the large rocks as handholds, and soon enough, they had all made it down to the bottom. “Whoa, that's high,” Bob looked up at the top of the ravine. “I really don't think the kids went down this way, Lin,” he said honestly. “I mean, that was an effort for us to climb, and our kids aren't exactly good at that.”

   “Yeah, maybe.” Her eyes were fixed on the ground, “but they're somewhere! We gotta look everywhere.”

   “We will,” he assured her. “We'll look everywhere.” Hitching his tote bag full of snacks, water, and a blanket, he started walking. His map and walkie talkie were in his pockets, while Linda was holding hers.

The rangers were carrying little medical kits, which didn't make him feel good at all, but Bob told himself that it was just a precaution. They wanted to be prepared, right? That was all it was.

He continued walking, keeping his eyes focused on the ground, hoping that he would see footprints. There had to be something, he told himself; they couldn't have vanished into thin air.

   “Do ya think they could have gone down here, Bobby?” Of course, Teddy was practically pressed to his side.

   “I don't know,” he admitted. “But those rangers think so, so we might as well look, right?”

   “Yeah,” Teddy adjusted his own tote. “It's too bad we can't get a car down here, or something. We'd get so much further.”

   “Well, I'm sure I heard one of them say that they've got cars -”

   “Why aren't they using them, then?” Teddy growled.

   “They are,” Bob couldn't refrain from sighing; he really disliked being interrupted. “There's, like, another station in the forest, maybe more, so I think they said that some of the others would be going out in the car.” Teddy nodded, pausing to examine a discarded leafy branch.

   “The leaves are unbroken,” he said, after standing. “That's what they said, didn't they? If the leaves are broken, it might be because of footprints.”

   “And grass that's bent,” Bob remembered. “But there's no grass here.” He sighed again. “They probably did go off into the forest.” Although he was very worried about his children, he couldn't stop that little twinge of annoyance. Why did they go walking? He let out a tiny groan as he realised that it was probably Louise who had lead them wandering away. He knew his daughter, he knew she meant well, but why couldn't she just listen, for once?

Now, Bob was falling into a mental rabbit hole; what if they'd gotten separated? What if one of them had tripped and hit their head or something? It was just as unlikely as it was likely to have happened, and now he couldn't stop thinking about it. “Teddy, they're okay, right? I mean, they're just walking around, aren't they?” Bob stopped and stared at the ground.

   “They're fine,” came Teddy's unusually soft voice. “They're complaining, I know that,” he chuckled lightly. “When we find them, they'll be the ones telling us off.” Bob had to laugh. It was true; Louise would scold them for taking so long.

   “You're right,” he said, continuing to walk. He couldn't believe that Teddy – Teddy – had made him feel better. This was turning out to be yet another weird day.

 

   “Hey, you guys! Look what I've found!” Trev's voice echoed through the ravine, and all the adults began heading towards him. To no one's surprise, Linda got there first; she actually sprinted, barely even feeling her heavy bag, and crouched down next to him.

   “Is that -?” she asked.

   “Yep,” he nodded, their faces falling.

   “What? What is it?” cried Sylvester, panting heavily, as he caught up to them. Trev held up a black iPhone with the screen smashed.

   “That's Jimmy Jr's, isn't it?” said Linda, and Trev nodded, as Jimmy knelt down.

   “Yep, that's his cell,” he said heavily.

   “Does it work?” Bob asked, and Trev pressed the home button, but nothing happened. He pressed the power button, but again, nothing happened.

   “Do you think maybe they left a message on there?” Linda wondered aloud, certain that this broken phone held the clues to her babies' disappearance. “If we charged it, we might be able to find something.”

   “What do you expect to find?” asked Jimmy incredulously. “A vlog? A Blair Witch style video? Pictures of where they went?”

   “Um, maybe a little message saying 'we're headed east,' or 'we found shelter over here,' or something like that,” Linda snapped. “Don't you think it's worth looking into? What if,” her heart started beating wildly, “what if someone took them, and they managed to get something?”

   “Oh, you're outta your mind!” Jimmy growled. “You seriously believe that? How is one person gonna kidnap eight kids? God, you're dumb.”

   “Hey, don't speak to my wife that way!” Bob stepped forward his eyes blazing. “I swear to God, Jimmy -”

   “You swear to God what, Bob? You gonna hit me again?”

   “Don't tempt me,” the burger man sneered, his hand just aching to punch that smug look off Pesto's face.

   “Who's to say there isn't a crazy group of people living here? Huh?!” Linda's voice grew shrill. “How can we know that? We can't!”

Travis rolled his eyes and tapped his foot impatiently, while Sylvester was frantically studying the map, trying to calm himself. The rangers knew they should step in, but truth be told, they kind of wanted to see where this would go.

   “There are no crazy hermits living here, and if there were, they certainly wouldn't want your kids!” said Jimmy.

   “Oh, like yours are any better? Five minutes with Jimmy Jr., and they'll give him back!”

   “Not before your crazy daughter's screaming deafens them all!”

   “Well, at least my kids know how to defend themselves! How is Jimmy Jr's dancing gonna get them out of this? Real good survival tool there(!)”

   “Yeah, about as good as your daughter's wilderness training!”

   “ENOUGH!” They all turned, shocked, at Trev, who looked surprised at himself. “No one took the kids,” he said. “Didn't you even notice?” He pointed to the log next to them. The end closest to them was on the floor, a few wood splinters around it, while the furthest end was lying against the wall of the ravine, as though it had been placed there.

   “What's yer point?” asked Travis.

   “Don't you think maybe the kids were on the log and it fell?”

   “That does seem like something they'd do,” said Bob, panic written all over his face.

   “And it explains the broken cell phone; Junior dropped it.”

   “So that means they're probably hurt!”

   “It doesn't mean that,” Ranger Kevin felt it was time to step in. “It's very unlikely that they'd go wandering off if they had injured themselves; they would have waited here.”

   “How do you explain the log, and the broken phone, then?” Sylvester glared.

   “We don't know for sure that's what happened. For now, it's just a theory. What we need to is keep searching. Mr Pesto, Mr Stieblitz,” he looked around, “Mr White, and Mr Carson,” he pointed at Trev and Travis respectively, “join us. Mr and Mrs Belcher, and Mr Hollis,” he looked at Teddy, “you go with Danny, and the other rangers; spread out, and look everywhere.”

 

   “So...” while the rest of the group fanned out, Danny, Kevin, and a few other rangers hung back. “You think the kids are actually alive, or not?” Kevin asked.

   “I think so,” said Danny, “Like I said, 'Hansel and Gretel,' and all that; the kids just wandered off.”

   “Yeah, I think after this, the parents will think twice about leaving their kids in the woods while they play weird sex games,” said Kevin. The rest of the rangers nodded, having been filled in on the theory.

   “Well, let's just get to 'em before that storm hits,” Danny nodded toward the sky, in which dark grey storm clouds were brewing in the far distance.

   “Yeah, or any wild animals,” said Jeremy. “Hopefully, it won't come to that.”

   “It shouldn't,” Kevin replied, “The kids can't be too far, and with the helicopter flying over, we'll find them sooner rather than later.”

The rangers then hurried up to the frazzled parents, and resumed the search.

 


 

As they had been doing for the past several hours, the group of children, waited and waited. The casual chattering had died down long ago, and they were all growing extremely bored.

   “Anyone wanna play I Spy?” asked Tina, yet again.

   “Tina, for the hundredth millionth time, no, we don't wanna play I Spy,” Louise retorted from her spot on the ground.

   “Okay. Well, if anyone changes their mind, just say.” She looked around at her siblings and friends. Yet another annoyed huff from Jimmy Jr. caught her attention, and she saw him fold his arms out of the corner of her eye. She didn't blame him for being irritated; she wanted to go home, too.

She was sat on the log in front of the fire pit, along with Zeke, Rudy, and Jimmy Jr., who was sat at the very end, occasionally stamping a foot into the ground in disgust. Rudy had his inhaler resting on his knees and was gripping it tightly. Every so often, he would look around, as though expecting to see someone.

Andy and Ollie were sitting together on the ground not too far away from them, their heads together, talking in that strange twin language that only they could understand, while Louise, still smarting from rejection, was still by the tree. She was lying on her back, her left arm tucked under her head, looking up at the sky.

Zeke was, again, patting out a tune on his knees, nodding his head to the beat. It was making the log wobble slightly, and she glanced at him

   “Sorry, T-Bird; old habit,” he grinned, when he saw her face. He clasped his hands and began twiddling his thumbs.

   “Never knew you were so fidgety,” she said quietly.

   “I ain't usually,” he admitted. “But in this kinda situation, I feel like I need somethin' to do, ya know?”

Only Gene seemed content; he was sitting cross-legged near the fire pit, picking the daisies around him, and was making daisy chains. He'd already made two bracelets, which he'd already put on his wrists, and he was busying himself with turning the rest of them into wreaths.

   “This can be our thing,” he said, placing his own wreath on his head. “It's like a beautiful badge of honour.”

   “This isn't a club, Gene.” Louise kept her gaze fixed on the sky.

   “It could be. These daisy chains could be our symbol of hope; you know, the thing that will be on the poster after we get our movie deal. I'm gonna ask if Jennifer Lopez can play me.”

   “Wait, why do you want Jennifer Lopez to play you?” asked Rudy.

   “Yeah, I see you as more of a Hugh Jackman, myself,” said Zeke.

   “Because the film's going to be a musical,” Gene explained. Then he gasped. “Scratch that; it's gotta be either Mariah Carey or Diana Ross!”

   “I want Bruce Willis to play me,” said Zeke. “I played him, so it'd be a nice li'l call back, ya know?”

   “Me and Ollie are gonna be played by the Sprouse twins!” said Andy causing them all to look at him, unaware that they had even been paying attention. “We already look just like them!”

   “I'll be Cole!”

   “And I'll be Dylan!” Andy cried, and they both embraced.

   “What about you, Jay-Ju?” asked Zeke. “Who do ya want to play you?”

   “No one. I don't care about any of that; I just wanna go home!”

   “We all do,” said Tina, “but we might as well do something to pass the time, right?” Jimmy Jr. only threw her a displeased look, and resumed looking ahead. “I think I'd like.. um, Courteney Cox to play me; she has black hair,” she said.

   “I reckon that Anne Hathaway or Natalie Portman would be great as you,” Zeke grinned.

   “You think?” she asked, and Zeke nodded.

   “I'm still holding out hope that Harrison Ford will play me,” Rudy chimed in. “If he's not available, then I'd ask Paul Rudd to do the job.”

   “Man, y'all are gettin' me so hyped up for this movie, and it don't even exist,” Zeke slung his arm around Rudy, resisting the urge to wrestle him. “Hey, what about you, Louise?” he looked over at her. “Who's gonna play you?”

   “No one,” Louise still stared at the sky, crossing one ankle over the other.

   “Aw, come on, now; ya gotta be in the movie. What about Hailee Steinfeld?”

   “Ugh,” Louise groaned and sat up, “if I give you an answer, will you shut up and leave me alone?” Without waiting for a response, she continued, “Anthony Hopkins – Hannibal Lecter, specifically,” she said.

   “How come Hannibal Lecter?” asked Tina.

   “We're gonna have to turn to cannibalism to stay alive; Hannibal actually enjoys eating human flesh, and Anthony Hopkins has that experience; he knows what he's doing with stuff like this.”

   “We ain't gonna become cannibals,” said Zeke breezily. “We won't be here that long.”

   “And how do you know?” Louise glared at him. “We're gonna sit here until we rot. Aren't we?” She stood, facing them all. “I mean, we might as well start now; who wants to be the first person to peel a bit of their skin off, and cook it over the fire?”

   “We don't have a fire,” said Tina quietly.

   “I know that, T,” Louise rolled her eyes in exasperation. “But we're gonna have to eat something, and I don't see anything else.”

   “We've got berries.”

   “We can't live on berries!” she cried, her voice growing louder and louder. “I'm talking about proper food! We could have found a river and caught some fish, but nooo! You chose to have Tina as the leader, and now we're gonna sit here until we die! Pretty soon, we'll have no choice except to eat each other.”

   “Calm down; we'll be found soon,” said Zeke, but naturally, Louise only grew angrier.

   “Don't tell me to calm down! I'm trying to get us out of here! What are you doing?! You're just sitting there; I'm the one who's thinking ahead, so we don't die!” Her enraged voice filled the clearing, echoed around them, and seemed to bash them over the head. Perhaps, if she were quieter, they would have heard the helicopter fly overhead. But as the clearing they were in wasn't a proper clearing, and had thick trees surrounding them, they went unnoticed, and therefore, they made no attempt to get out in the open.

   “Louise, we're not going to die,” said Tina, standing up. She barely refrained from telling her sister that it was okay to be afraid, because she knew this wouldn't go down well, no matter how true it was. “I know about stuff like this; Mom and Dad will have got help; the park rangers will be looking for us, as well; they know how to search for people. They'll have cars and stuff. I know that when kids go missing, they send out helicopters, so they can see better.”

   “You mean, they could be in a helicopter right now?” asked Rudy, and Tina sighed in relief, relief that someone else understood.

   “Yes,” she said, turning away from her sister's penetrating, ever so slightly worried gaze. “So, maybe if we're all quiet, we might be able to hear it.” She hoped that everyone, especially Louise, would pick up on the meaning.

   “What do we do if we hear it?” asked Zeke.

   “We should try and find somewhere with less trees, and lie down on the ground to make ourselves look bigger. Then, we wait for them to get us.”

   “I'm all for waiting, but if we see any hanging stick figures, I'm out of here,” said Gene, reaching over to place his wreaths on Andy and Ollie's heads.

   “Should we move?” Rudy cast an upwards glance at the treetops.

   “Not yet; we should wait until we hear one.”

Louise's face turned into a scowl so fierce that Tina genuinely feared that her face would break.

   “Fine. I get the hint,” she sneered, and sat back down next to the tree, her back facing them.

 

Chapter Text

North by North Tree-st

 

Chapter 4

 

Still sitting undiscovered in the forest, the children could only wait. The conversation had dwindled long ago, and now they were sat there in silence, though their ears would simultaneously prick up at any sounds they heard. It was a breezy day, and the trees constantly whispered to one another, while the children shivered with the chill every now and then.

They had all silently agreed to not make any unnecessary noise, for fear they wouldn't hear any of the adults trying to find them. Once they had that confirmation, however, they would be free to make as much noise as they wished. Even Zeke and the twins were keeping still, which was something previously thought to be impossible. It only made Tina believe in miracles even more than she already did.

 

They were all wearing the wreaths Gene had made them, even Louise, it having been draped over one bunny ear, though she still looked irritated.

Now that they had their accessories, Gene continued with his daisy chain, making an extra long one this time. Not only would the daisy chain be forever associated with them and their battle for survival, it was also something to do, and so Gene kept at it. He wanted to see how long he could make it. Possibly long enough to encircle them all? That would be cool.

Andy and Ollie had stopped talking, and pulling up the grass, while looking through the trees. Every so often, they would look at one another, appearing to read the other's mind, before looking back out into the trees.

Tina was leaning back on her hands, looking up at the sky. She had moved to sit next to Jimmy Jr., and their knees were touching. Reaching out, she took his hand, unable to stop herself from smiling when he didn't pull away. It made her feel good knowing that she could comfort him in some small way.

She felt a lot better now that they were staying put; they would be found in no time. Well, before the end of the day, at least.

 

The only reason they hadn't yet moved to any kind of clearing was because Tina didn't know how far the nearest clear patch was, and she wasn't about to go wandering again. Although, it did make it harder for when the helicopter would inevitably come; they wouldn't know where to go.

The more she thought about it, the more worried she got. One the one hand, they could remain where they were, and watch helplessly as the potential helicopter flew over them, not seeing them. Or they could start walking again, potentially getting themselves more lost, and hindering the search process. It seemed there was no right thing to do, but she'd said that they should wait, and so they were going to wait.

'They will find us sooner or later,' she told herself, 'and it's better to be in one place. The more we move, the harder we'll be to find.'

Feeling restless, she sighed, and rested her chin in her hand, looking around.

 

The kids couldn't help but think of that moment when the adults would find them; Louise, personally, couldn't wait for a few days off school, and being waited on hand and foot. For reasons she couldn't quite fathom, her parents didn't jump to her every command 24/7; they were much more accommodating when she was sick or injured, and so this was a great opportunity to get them settled into their new roles. Ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? They couldn't object; she'd been lost in the forest, it wasn't like there was anything she could have done about it. She reminded herself to go through her parents' underwear drawer again and dig out the air horn; she would be needing it. She was trying to decide what she was looking forward to more; the meals in bed, or the complete control over the TV. Maybe... her expression brightened slightly. Maybe she could eat all her meals in front of the TV? Now, that was worth getting lost for.

 

Gene was still working on his daisy chain, and was also mentally composing the soundtrack for the musical feature film of their story. If those trapped miners got a movie and worldwide fame, then why not them? He had a vision, and it was of interviews, and book signings, and concert tours, and merchandise. He couldn't help but sigh a little; plush daisy chains would be sold in every store, the movie soundtrack playing on every radio station. A glittering premiere in Los Angeles, with a red carpet, and paparazzi; it was what he was meant to do in life. Their movie would open at number one, and stay in the cinemas for at least six months, breaking all records, and they would be the most famous group of kids to ever exist, including the Goonies. Truly, it would be the ultimate dream come true.

 

The snapping of a twig caused Tina's head to snap up, and her breath caught in her throat.

   “Guy, I think they found us,” she didn't know why she was whispering. “I think they found us,” she repeated, louder this time, and stood up.

   “They're here?” Jimmy Jr. rose as well, grinning widely.

   “I think so.” Tina allowed a small smile to cross her face, as they all stood and gathered together.

   “Over here!” Jimmy Jr. cried, “we're over here!”

   “Here in the trees! We're here!” The other kids joined in, cupping their hands around their mouths, all them beaming. They were finally going home. Tina's smile widened and she felt like she could finally relax. She stood where she was, allowing the others to move and clamour in front of her. She didn't mind; they were excited, and so was she.

More snapping of twigs, along with rustling, and the kids grew even more restless, practically squirming with impatience.

Something came out of the bushes in front of them, but it wasn't their parents. It wasn't even a human. It was a bear. A huge, black bear, and the kids froze.

Zeke had the presence of mind to quickly step in front of the rest of the group, his arms out slightly. Tina took a step forward before her bravery failed her; she hadn't been trained to deal with this, and none of them had any weapons. Well, they had the spears, but could they reach them in time? If it decided to attack... She bit her lip, and stared at the bear, trying not to look it in the eye. She couldn't remember if that made them angry or not.

For a moment, they all just stared at the beast. It surveyed them with its brown beady eyes; it had black, shaggy fur, and a lighter coloured snout. A lot of nervous glances were thrown at its long clawed feet, at the mouth which hid its sharp teeth.

A quiet sound from behind them made the group stiffen, until they realised that it was Tina hyperventilating softly, which only caused them to worry more, with nervous glances being thrown at the bear. Gene closed his eyes, bracing himself for the attack. It never came, and he opened one eye, observing the bear that was still watching them.

   “Tina, shh,” said Zeke quietly, calmly, not taking his eyes off the bear. They wouldn't stand a chance if it went for them. To her credit, Tina did stop, but then she began to groan. Zeke slowly, very very slowly, reached out, and took her hand, and she fell quiet.

A high-pitched whimper escaped Jimmy Jr's lips. Zeke turned his head slightly, keeping one eye on the wild animal, trying to get his friend's attention, but he couldn't see him, and Jimmy Jr. whimpered again. 'Please shut up,” Zeke thought.

   “It's okay, Mr Bear,” Tina murmured, her soft voice shaking slightly. “We're not going to hurt you; we're just a bunch of kids, lost in the forest. You probably live here, don't you? We're just gonna back away now,” and they all began to slowly shuffle backwards, keeping a tight grip on each other, not unlike when they were up on the log. Their eyes remained fixed on the bear, and it stared back at them, opening its mouth, exposing sharp, dagger-like white teeth, and they froze once again. The bear surveyed them for a moment, before turning around and heading back into the bushes.

Only when the rustling died down did they relax. Tina sighed, her heart racing.

   “That was -” Rudy paused to use his inhaler, “- close.

   “Yeah,” Zeke breathed. “I reckon -” but he stopped when he heard more rustling, and it sounded like it was coming towards them.

   “It's come back for us!” Ollie screamed, and he and Andy took off running. The others didn't hesitate to follow, all of them trying to be as quiet as they could while running through bushes, leaves and twigs snapping underfoot, gasping in fright.

They paid no mind to their injuries as they sprinted; Louise didn't even notice her bad knee, and she and her siblings were frantically pumping their arms, as though it would help them run faster, even Tina. She and Gene slowed to each take Louise's hand, and they all continued running, panting, ignoring the stitches in their sides.

Rudy kept one hand clutched tightly around his inhaler; there was no time to put it in his pocket, and it didn't seem like such a good idea to do so; too easy for it to fall out, and then he would really be in trouble.

Jimmy Jr. was way in the front, whimpering and screaming in fright, his arms wind-milling as he hurtled forward. If it wasn't such a serious situation, it would be comical. Andy and Ollie were behind him, holding hands tightly, and screaming in fright. Zeke, and Rudy and the Belchers brought up the rear, the five of them silently cursing themselves for not being more active in P.E. After casting a quick look behind him, Rudy tripped and went sprawling on the ground. In a flash, Zeke had grabbed Rudy, and carried him in his arms.

No one else dared look behind them. The older kids knew they were being incredibly stupid; it was physically impossible to outrun a bear – on foot, at least – and there was nowhere to hide, as bears could climb trees. But the only thing worse than not stopping was stopping.

 

They continued to race through the forest, leaping over logs, doing everything they could to put as much distance as possible between them and the bear. Running blindly, shoving branches out of the way, so terrified that they weren't even looking where they were going. Unfortunately, it meant that they didn't notice Jimmy Jr., who had stopped dead in his tracks.

   “OW!” Zeke, unable to see properly with Rudy in his arms, slammed straight into the twins, who in turn were propelled into their older brother. Jimmy Jr's arms spun wildly as he tried to stop himself from falling, but before he could do so, the Belcher kids, still running blindly, came full force, slamming into the rest of the kids in a domino effect.

Jimmy Jr. fell forward, toward the raging river, and he frantically reached behind him, grabbing on to Andy in a panic, who grabbed on to Ollie.

There came a lot of screaming, a lot of scrambling, and the rest of them toppled into the river.

   “Why does stuff like this always happen to us?!” Gene screamed, gasping as he surfaced. The river was very fast, too fast for them to fight against it, and so the only thing they could do was, quite literally, go with the flow.

   “Because we're not allowed to have it easy!” Louise screamed, concentrating on keeping her head above water, her good arm clutching the tassel of her hat in a death grip. “It's drama for your movie!”

   “Do you think we could lay off on the drama?” Rudy gasped, holding his inhaler high above his head. “Because I don't think I can take much more!”

   “Sorry, I don't get to decide!” cried Gene.

   “Y'all,” Zeke yelled over the shouting and splashing, and the sound of raging water, “try to save your energy! If -” he quickly held his breath as he went under, and he soon resurfaced, shaking his head. “If – if y'all see somethin', grab on to it!” But it was impossible; they were being swept along, being shoved into one another, turning this way and that, bobbing under the water, fighting to stay afloat; there was no way any of them could hope to get close enough to edges to grab something. Even Jimmy Jr., who was the strongest swimmer, was having trouble.

   “Argh, where does this river end?” cried Tina, who had had the presence of mind to remove her glasses, and was also holding them above her head. She hoped she didn't drop them; she was prone to doing that, and it was something she really couldn't afford to do right now.

   “It's gotta end somewhere, right?!” cried Rudy, his free arm splashing continuously. It was just a river in a forest; it wasn't the Nile, it wasn't going to go on forever. Then, an expression of horror crossed his face. “Oh, no!” he wheezed.

   “What?” Louise looked over to see a steep drop, and she gasped. “Oh, crap,” she reached up to knot her bunny ears under her chin. “Get ready, guys!” she yelled, splashing as she went under and resurfaced once again.

   “Ah, no!” Now Gene had spotted it, and was shaking his head. “This is like a more wet version of Toy Story 3!”

   “Everyone hold your breath, and try to go limp!” called Tina, and they all collectively inhaled, which was thrown right out of the window, and they screamed as they plunged down the waterfall.

 

The landing wasn't as bad as they were expecting, in that it wasn't rock hard, not was it boiling or freezing; after the time they'd had, it appeared Lady Luck finally smiling down upon them. Or maybe she wasn't, as the landing forced them under the water, the now-gently flowing river not doing much to help them.

Zeke was the first to surface. He broke the water, coughing, and immediately began looking around him.

   “Guys?! Jay-Ju? Gene?” he paused to cough once again, spitting out some more water, before looking around again. Where were they? He was beginning to worry, and he was just contemplating diving, when Louise surfaced, gasping for breath, shaking her head, and breathing heavily. “Louise! You okay, girl?” he swam over to her, but she ignored him, and looked down at the water, her eyes wide.

   “Gene? Tina?!” She tried to keep herself afloat, but it was difficult when she only had one functioning arm, and as a result, she kept sinking.

Zeke noticed her struggling, and came even closer.

   “Come here, let me help,” he said, extending his arm.

   “Get away!” she snapped. “Gene! Tina!” she cried, and her siblings came up soon after, followed by Rudy, the twins, and Jimmy Jr. “Oh, thank God!” she cried, awkwardly paddling over to them.

Tina, her eyes slightly red and naked without her glasses, was panting, her legs kicking wildly.

 

Now that the water was calm, they were able to make their over over the to the shore. Zeke immediately began pulling the others out of the water, and then the eight of them collapsed onto the ground.

   “At least... we're clean now,” Gene panted.

 


 

Exhausted and stressed, the frantic parents walked through the forest, calling for their children. They were still split up; one half went in the opposite direction of the log, while the rest went the other way. Neither group was having much luck.

   “We've gotta find 'em before night!” Linda whined, sitting down to rest her aching feet. Bob sat down next to her. They had somehow separated themselves from Teddy, and Bob was grateful for the peace and quiet.

   “I know,” he said, slipping off a shoe and rubbing his foot. “But the others are still searching, and that ranger said that the guys from the other stations are looking, as well. Now, they're using cars, so they should find them pretty soon.”

   “I want them now!” Linda ran her hands through her hair, as she had been doing throughout the day. “They need their mommy!”

   “I know they do.” Bob did not bother with the whole 'we'll find them soon', because it wasn't what she needed to hear. He knew they would be found eventually, it was just a matter of when, and, as a parent, it wasn't something that he wanted to think about. “And when we find them, then we can take them home, and relax.”

   “If they aren't hurt,” Linda sniffled.

   “I'm sure they aren't. Remember what the ranger said? If they were hurt, they wouldn't have gone off walking. Let's face it; they must be fine for them to have walked this far.”

   “Yeah, I suppose you're right,” she raked her hair again, and looked down at the ground. “I'm just worried.”

   “I know; I am, too,” he admitted. “But they'll be fine. Look, Tina's been in the Thundergirls for years; she knows what to do.”

   “But they didn't take any food with them.”

   “Well, I've seen blackberry bushes; I'm sure the kids found some, too.” Then he looked up, mentally slapping himself. “Oh, my God, why didn't I check them? Maybe we'd have known if the kids picked them; those rangers would know right?”

   “I'm sure they would.”

   “Okay, next time we find some berries, we'll have a look.”

   “Why not just go back to the one you found?”

   “Because we should keep moving forward.” Bob stood and took her hand, and they continued walking.

 

Neither of them knew how far they walked; they didn't have watches, and, of course, the phones were at home, being useless. “Lin, maybe if we scrimp and save a little, we can afford to get two smartphones,” he said, as they trekked through the dense woodland.

   “You wanna get a smartphone?” she asked, bending almost double so she could examine the leaves.

   “If we can get two cheap ones; even if they can only call and text, then we can have one, and so can the kids.” Then he looked guilty. “If they'd had a phone, they might have been able to call us, and this would've been over yesterday. They can both be, like back up phones, and we'll have one on us all the time, and the kids will have the other. They would probably work better than our other phones.” Now Linda was looking at him.

   “Aw, Bobby...” she embraced him tightly. “That's a nice idea. Maybe we will do that, or maybe we can just tie a rope to 'em,” she chuckled. “Or stick some tracking devices on 'em.”

   “That's a good idea,” smiled Bob. “That would definitely work. GPS Kids.”

With their arms around each other, they resumed walking, stopping every so often to check out bushes and grassy patches, along with piles of leaves.

 

As the day went on, their legs began to ache even more, but they ignored it and carried on, doing their best to look out for stuff they weren't trained to see. When the light began to fade, they pulled out their torches. It wasn't dark enough to need them yet, but every little thing helped.

   “Hey, look at this over here!” came the voice of Ranger Danny, and Bob and Linda ran toward the sound.

   “What is it?” Linda cried, bursting into a little clearing. “Have you found them, are they here?”

   “No, but they were,” said Danny. “Look,” he pointed down to what was clearly a fire pit. The nearby leaves were broken, tufts of pulled up grass lay nearby, and there was a discarded daisy chain near a log.

   “Oh, my God, they were here!” Linda began to dance on the spot, and she ran at Bob and hugged him, almost knocking him over. “They were here, they were here!” She let him go and looked around frantically. “But where are they? Where did they go?” In full mama bear mode, she strode over to Ranger Danny, who, quite rightly, looked afraid for his safety.

   “I'm not sure just yet,” he admitted. “I've only just discovered this, so we need to search the area.”

   “Let's do it!” cried Linda, and they began examining the nearby surroundings.

   “I'll call Kevin, and the rest, and let them know that the kids are around here.” Danny pulled out his walkie-talkie, while Bob, Linda, and Teddy continued looking around nearby.

   “So, they probably slept here,” said Bob, glancing over at the fire pit, “but why'd they leave? And when?”

   “The daisy chain looks fresh; the flowers were picked today,” Linda picked up the daisy chain, holding it up to her face. “I can't think why they'd leave, though.”

   “Maybe they went looking for water? Maybe they tried following the river.”

   “They could have,” she nodded, before crouching down and pointing. “Look! Berries! You were right.”

   “At least they've eaten,” Bob said, which made him feel a little bit better. “So, they've eaten, they made a fire, and they left pretty recently. And they probably left to find water.”

   “Yeah, the berries wouldn't give 'em enough liquids,” said Linda. “Well, if we find the river, that'll be a big help, so let's keep moving.”

   “It says here, the river is.. that way, and we are.. here,” Bob pointed vaguely to a spot on the map “I have no idea what the distance is, though.” Linda nodded, her mind focused on the woods in front of her, and the two of them continued walking.

   “What is it? What's happened?” Teddy approached the clearing, placing his hands on his knees. He paused for a few moments, wheezing heavily. Taking a deep breath, he attempted to speak, but instead began coughing.

   “Teddy, are you okay?” Linda ran over to him, with Bob following.

   “I'm fine,” he gasped. “Just haven't moved this quickly for a couple of years, now. Anyway, what's going on?”

   “The kids were here,” Linda told him, and Teddy's face lit up. “But they went walking again, so we're trying to find out which way they went.”

   “Okay,” Teddy nodded, still breathing heavily with his hands on his knees. “So, we should -”

   “I found footprints!” came Ranger Danny's faint voice, and Bob and Linda instantly abandoned Teddy, and sprinted toward the sound.

   “Where?! Where are they?” Linda could be heard before she could be seen, and Danny waited patiently for the parents to arrive.

   “Here, look,” he pointed down to the ground when the Belchers had caught up to him. “There's no grass here, just mud so you can see them.” Sure enough, there were several small footprints on the ground, all pointing away from them. “So, they went east; we know that for sure. I'm gonna call this in.”

   “Aren't we gonna follow them?” asked Bob, ignoring the tell-tale panting of Teddy behind them.

   “Of course we will; I'm just going to let the others know. The other Rangers might be able to get down there before we can.”

   “Look!” said Linda, as Teddy finally arrived, and the four of them leaned in. Near the footprints, scattered around, were several daisy chain wreaths. “Why did they leave them here?”

   “They probably just dropped them, or they fell off,” said Bob reasonably. “But, look, there's another one up there, a few feet away, so we know they definitely went this way.”

   “Alright, let's go!” Linda ordered, walking ahead, keeping her eyes on the ground.

 


 

The kids' rest was short-lived, as Rudy began gasping heavily. This wasn't his normal gasping, and he rolled onto his back, his chest heaving. His hand was gripped tightly around his inhaler, but for some reason, he couldn't seem to raise his arm. All he could was lie there, and hope that someone saw him.

The rest of the kids were lying on the embankment, either on their back or their front, panting. Soaking wet, their sopping hair all over their faces, they remained on the ground, getting their bearings, and tried to get their collective breath back. Nobody seemed to notice Rudy. Zeke was the first one to realise that something wasn't right.

   “Rudy? You all right?” Zeke asked, slowly getting to his hands and knees, looking over at the wheezing boy. Rudy did not answer, his chest heaving, his inhaler in a death grip. “Rudy?” The others now saw what was going on, and concern for Rudy immediately became top priority.

He went to move closer, but Louise got there first, and knelt over him.

   “Damn it, Rudy! You do not get to die; you don't get to take the easy way out! If we have to suffer through this, then so do you!” She grabbed the inhaler and placed it in his mouth, pumping it several times. The boy's breathing soon eased, and his stiff limbs relaxed.

   “Thanks,” he gasped, sitting up and taking his inhaler back. “Boy, that was scary.”

   “Don't do that again,” Zeke admonished, more scared than anything else.

   “I'll try,” he said, managing to sit up.

   “Your leg,” Tina, just able to see in her smeared glasses, pointed, and Rudy looked down. His left leg had a nasty cut all down the side, and he hissed in pain. “How did you do that? And when?” she asked.

   “Um, I think it happened when we went down the waterfall.”

   “Does it hurt?”

   “It stings a lot,” he admitted, hoping that there was no infection.

   “So, we got falling off a log into a ravine, sleeping in the woods, being chased by a bear, and now, falling down a waterfall! Things can't get any worse!” Louise snapped.

   “Sh! Don't say that!” the kids panicked, and looked hurriedly about them, just waiting for something else bad to happen. Thankfully, nothing did, and they relaxed slightly.

Zeke leaned over to a shivering, soaking Tina, and whispered something in her ear, standing up when she nodded.

   “Now, listen, y'all,” he said, pushing his sopping hair out of his face, trying to keep his teeth from chattering, “we need to light a fire as soon as possible, or we're gonna get sick, and we can't afford to be gettin' sick right now. I know y'all don't wanna, but we gotta do this, so let's get to it. The sooner, the better.”

Coughing, shaking, the eight of them got up and began looking for sticks and leaves; even Louise joined in.

 


 

The group of adults had continued walking east, even when the footprints had faded. According to Danny, they were going the right way, as indicated by the crushed leaves and broken twigs. As they walked, they were joined by the other parents, Ranger Kevin, and a few other park rangers.

Pretty soon, we had reached the river, but there was no sign of their children.

   “Oh, God,” muttered Jimmy. “It's like they can sense us coming, and just disappear!”

   “Right, should we split up?” asked Bob. “Half go one way, and half go the other way?”

   “I don't think that would work,” said Kevin. “Down south is a waterfall, so they probably went north.”

   “Yeah, but the kids wouldn't know about that, would they?” Sylvester argued. “Why couldn't they have gone that way?”

   “It's just not likely,” said Danny, consulting his map.

   “You also didn't think it was likely that the kids went down into the ravine, and they did,” Bob pointed out, ignoring the fact that he himself didn't believe it at first, either. But that wasn't the point; they were rangers, they were supposed to know about stuff like this. “So, why couldn't they have gone toward the waterfall?”

   “Alright, sir,” said Danny after a while. “You have a point; we'll split up. You guys -” he gestured to Bob, Linda, Teddy, and one or two rangers “-go north, and the rest of us will go south.”

   “Right,” Linda adjusted her bag, and began walking alongside the river. Bob, Teddy, and the rangers soon followed her.

   “Hey, Bobby,” came Teddy's voice, and Bob groaned quietly. “Do you think the kids are along here?”

   “I don't know, Teddy; I hope they are,” was all Bob said, concentrating on walking, and scanning his surroundings for clues. “They would have wanted to find water, so they came here; the footprints tell us that. We just need to figure out why they didn't stay right here.”

   “Maybe they tried to find a pond or something with cleaner water?” Teddy suggested.

   “Maybe,” Bob agreed. It seemed unlikely, but so had the entire weekend. “Well, all we can do is keep walking.”

   “What if we don't find 'em?” whined Linda from the front. “What then?”

   “Well, I guess we turn around and go the other way,” said Bob. “Although, if they did go the other way, then the others will radio us.”

Linda was grunting quietly, muttering to herself, as she marched ahead, both hands gripping the straps of her tote. It just didn't make sense; why would the kids walk away from the water? They'd obviously gone searching for it, and yet, they appeared to have moved on, and that was what Linda couldn't understand. Perhaps something had scared them off? It seemed to be the only rational explanation, for why else would eight lost children walk away from their only source of fresh water?

It was getting properly dark now, and Linda knew that soon the rangers would want them to go back and get some sleep, and she couldn't allow that to happen. She had to find her babies before nightfall.

Taking a deep breath, she quickened her pace, and began calling for her children, her voice echoing through the forest.

 


 

Again, it took the kids a long time, but when they had finally gotten the fire lit, they crowded around it, as close as they possibly could. They'd had to walk quite a bit in order to find dry kindling, and Tina and Zeke had made another fire pit, several feet away from the water, where there was no chance of a sudden freak wave putting the fire out, because that was just the way their luck was going at the moment.

Just as she had done before, Tina moved her siblings closer, as they were more in need of it. None of them spoke; instead, they tried to dry and warm themselves, doing their best to ignore the steadily darkening sky. Now that she was dry, she was able to clean her glasses properly, and so she could keep an eye on things.

   “What – what'll we do about the bear?” shivered Gene, after what felt like hours of silence, looking behind him nervously.

   “It won't come down here,” said Tina. “Bears don't usually jump into rivers.”

   “But they could, right?” asked Jimmy Jr.

   “No,” she said, feeling pretty confident that she was right. “It will have gotten bored, and gone back to its cave.”

   “There are others,” Louise muttered, staring into the flames. “There won't be just one bear; there'll be more. We should get moving soon.”

   “No, Louise,” said Tina. “We'll be fine here. Besides, we're not even dry yet; if we move, we'll get sick.”

   “I'm willing to take that risk.”

   “Me, too,” Ollie chimed in. “I don't wanna get eaten by a bear!”

   “We won't,” Tina tried to assure them, but the younger kids just weren't listening. She could understand why; they were scared, and so was she, but she was trying to be rational. She was the leader, after all; she couldn't just get them up and start moving again.

   “Louise is right,” said Rudy. “There's definitely other bears here. Do we really wanna stay here, and risk them finding us?”

   “They won't,” Zeke stepped in, in order to give Tina some support, and she looked at him gratefully. “It's gettin' dark, and they don't hunt in the dark.”

   “Look, why don't we all sleep on it, and then we'll decide what to do in the morning?” Tina suggested, and Louise looked at her like she was crazy.

   “And get mauled to death in our sleep?”

   “That won't happen. Look, it's been a long day, we're almost dry now; the bears won't come near the fire, so try and get some sleep. We'll stay awake for a while, and keep watch.”

Still looking none too happy, Louise, Gene, Rudy, the twins and Jimmy Jr. lay down a bit further away, and tried to sleep. Apart from having no choice, they were tired; too tired to put up much of a fight.

   “Jay-Ju, you're sleepin'?” asked Zeke in surprise.

   “I'm tired,” was all Jimmy Jr. said, resting his arm over his eyes. Zeke raised an eyebrow and shook his head.

Tina and Zeke remained where they were, both of them sitting cross-legged, and watched over the group as they huddled together and tried to get comfortable. Soon enough, the kids were asleep, and the fire was going out, but warm enough to sufficiently keep them from shivering.

   “You can lie down and get some rest, now, T-Bird; I'll stay awake,” Zeke whispered.

   “What? No; you need to sleep, too.”

   “I'll be alright.”

   “No; it's not fair to make you stay awake all night.”

   “It'll be fine. You go on and lie down.”

   “Why don't we both stay awake?” she suggested.

   “I suppose; if ya really wanna.” Zeke felt that, for now, it was the best solution, and so he remained where he was. “Do ya think it's after midnight yet?” he asked.

   “I don't think so.”

   “Well, if they ain't found us by mornin', then that'll be be our third day out here.”

   “Oh, you're right. And tomorrow's Monday; we're going to miss school,” Tina realised. “I wonder what the teachers will say tomorrow.”

   “Do ya think they'll believe us?” Zeke had to chuckle a little bit. “We didn't come to school 'cause we all of us was lost in the woods.”

   “They'll never believe it,” Tina grinned. Normally, she would be worried about missing school; she hated it when the teachers were mad at her. But, she didn't feel too concerned about it at the moment, which was new. “They'll think we ditched to go somewhere fun.”

   “Ah, well, we got proof,” Zeke pointed to his bruised arm. “And our parents will back us up.”

   “That's true. And at least my arm can get me out of gym.” Did she just say that? She liked gym (even if she did always get hit with the ball); Jimmy Jr. sweated a lot, and his shirt got see through. She usually only skipped when coerced by Louise.

   “Hell, yeah, girl. Lucky thing,” Zeke grinned again, and he leaned back and observed the night sky. “It's so clear,” he said, and Tina also looked up. “Don't think I've ever seen so many stars.”

   “Me neither.”

   “Hey, do ya know any of the constellations?”

   “Uh, I know Orion,” she looked back up, “but I can't see it. I know the Little Dipper and the Big Dipper, and the North Star. That's it; I don't know a lot,” she admitted, looking back down.

   “Ya know more about stars than I do; I just know the North Star and the Big Dipper. It's that one, ain't it?” he pointed up, and Tina lifted her head.

   “Yeah, that's the one.” They both sat there in silence for a while, before Tina spoke again. “You see that one there?” She pointed, and guided Zeke's head in the right direction. “The one that's red? That's Mars.”

   “Really? That's cool. If we had a telescope, we might be able to see some aliens!” he grinned. Then, he noticed her looking at him. “What?”

   “You're so cheerful,” she said quietly.

   “Oh. Well, sittin' around and complainin' ain't gonna help no-one, is it? Might as well make the best of it.”

   “Yeah. I guess that makes sense.” Again, they sat in silence, but it wasn't an uncomfortable silence. The two of them were content to just sit and look at the stars. “Hey, I have a question for you,” she said, looking down at the ground.

   “Ask away, T-Bird.”

   “Why did you poop for me?”

   “What?”

   “You were the Mad Pooper, and you said after a while, you were doing it for me. Why?”

   “To help ya with your story.”

   “Yeah, you said that, but why?”

   “Why what?”

   “Why would you help me?”

   “Well, why wouldn't I?” Even in the dim light, Tina could see that he wasn't looking at her.

   “I don't know why you wanted to help, though,” she tried to make him understand. “You didn't need to.”

   “Yeah, but I wanted to. Look, T-Bird,” he sighed, “I think of ya as my friend, and I know how badly ya wanted to be on the school news, so I decided to do what I could.” He still wasn't looking at her.

   “It should have been Jimmy Jr.,” she said so quietly even she barely heard it. 'Jimmy Jr. wouldn't have done this,' she realised.

   “What ya say, T-Bird?”

   “Oh, um, I said, that it was nice of you. To help me out, I mean.”

   “Aw, think nothin' of it.”

   “Well, it meant a lot, so thanks.”

   “T'weren't no problem.”

After a moment, Tina got up and doused the dying fire with dirt, and then sat back down next to Zeke.

   “The bear won't come back, will it?” she asked.

   “Course not,” he assured her. “If it ain't come by now, then it won't. It's gone on back to its cave.”

   “Okay, good. Good, good.” She gently rubbed her sore arm, wincing. Why was it still hurting?

   “Are ya cold? Here...” he moved closer to her, so that their sides were touching. After a moments hesitation, he gently placed an arm around her shoulder, being careful to avoid her bruise. “Gotta share body heat to stay warm, right?”

   “Right. Right.” Luckily, he was sitting on her right, so he was pressed into her good arm. It was working; already she didn't feel as cold as she had.

As it happened, the two of them ended up falling asleep together.

Chapter Text

North by North Tree-st

 

Chapter 5

 

Zeke was the first to awake the next morning, a gentle breeze making him shiver enough to rouse him. He found that he and Tina were still in the same place where they had talked last night, and his arm was draped over her. They were practically spooning, and he sat up, being careful not to disturb her, and stretched. Glancing down at Tina, he saw that she looked comfortable and relaxed, and he really wanted to just leave her sleeping; she'd done enough for them, she deserved to rest.

Of course, he knew that he couldn't leave her like that; they had to decide on what they were going to do, and Tina was the leader.

Nonetheless, Zeke decided to alleviate her of at least one job, and he checked on the rest of the group, sighing in relief when he saw that they were all still there, and still sleeping.

When he returned to Tina, he saw that she was waking up.

   “Mornin', T-Bird,” he extended his hand out, and she took it, standing up. “I just checked on the others; they're all sleepin'.”

   “Oh, okay, good. Thanks.”

   “It's all right. Shall we just leave 'em to wake up on their own?”

   “Uh, yeah, that seems like a good idea.” Tina tried to stretch, but was unable to move her left arm too much without pain.

   “How's yer arm today?” He walked over to her, looking concerned.

   “I think I slept on it,” she admitted. “I think it'll be fine; I just need to keep moving it.”

   “Yeah, hopefully. I reckon when they find us, they'll get us all patched up,” said Zeke, and Tina only nodded. The two of them stood in silence for a moment; Tina looking at the ground, and Zeke glancing over at the children. “It's funny; I don't know about you, but I felt like a dad when I was checkin' on the kids,” Zeke grinned, and Tina looked up at him, chuckling.

   “I know what you mean; it's our job to look after them, and keep them safe.” She thought it was a little bit funny, and she was glad she had a lot of experience in looking after children.

   “We're officially parents!” Zeke immediately mentally slapped himself once he realised what he had said. “What I mean is, it's like when you're little, and you play at bein' parents; that's what this is,” he rambled.

   “Don't worry; I understood what you meant,” Tina said, a slight smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “I was thinking the same thing. It'll be good practise for when we grow up and have kids.” Now it was her turn to mentally slap herself. “No, not like that! I meant, when I have kids with someone else. Not that I don't want to have kids with you – wait, I don't mean that. I mean, I don't mean it like that. I meant, when we each grow up, and get married to someone else, and we have our own kids. That's what I meant. I – uuuuhhhh...” Tina looked back at the ground, her face red. Zeke had to laugh.

   “Don't worry, girl, I get it,” he grinned, and Tina looked up.

   “Okay, cool. Cool, cool.” For a moment, they both just looked at each other. Zeke opened his mouth, but a sound to his left caused him to stop, and they turned to see Jimmy Jr. stirring.

Tina and Zeke remained quiet as Jimmy Jr. slowly ambled his way over to them, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, and stretching.

   “Mornin', Jay-Ju!” said Zeke brightly.

   “Morning, Zeke,” Jimmy Jr. mumbled, clearly still tired and irritated. “Morning, Tina,” he said, deliberately looking her in the eye, as if to prove a point.

   “Good mor-” Tina began, but Jimmy Jr. had already turned his attention back to Zeke.

   “What were you guys talking about?” he asked, noticing the raised eyebrow Zeke was giving him. “What?”

   “Didn't yer daddy tell ya it was rude to interrupt?” was all Zeke said. It wasn't just because it was Tina; he would do the same for anyone else. He really prided himself on trying to have the best manners he could, and it drove him crazy when others didn't treat people with the simple courtesy that they deserved. Everyone deserved to be treated like a basic human being; not being interrupted, looking at someone when they spoke to you, saying 'please' and 'thank you', and actually listening to and acknowledging them. Zeke couldn't fathom treating anyone the way his best friend treated Tina.

Jimmy Jr. slowly turned back to Tina, and gestured for her to continue.

   “Good morning,” she said slowly, feeling a bit awkward. She wasn't too sure why Zeke was making such a big deal out of it; this was just how Jimmy Jr. acted. Still, she supposed that it was nice that Zeke was trying to be nice. She barely acknowledged Jimmy Jr's answer, as she was too deep in thought. Maybe... the way he acted wasn't the norm? But if boyfriends didn't act that way, then why did he? It was confusing enough to hurt her head.

   “Anyway,” Jimmy Jr's voice brought her back to reality. “What were you guys talking about?”

   “Uh, we were just deciding on.. what we should do next,” stuttered Tina, shocked at herself. She had never (well, rarely) lied, much less lied to Jimmy Jr. What was wrong with her? Maybe she had got food poisoning or something.

She didn't have much time to dwell on this, however, as the rest of the kids awoke, and gathered around the fire pit. Dry and clean, they looked around them for berry bushes, but none of them had the energy to actually get up and search.

   “What do we do now?” asked Jimmy Jr.

   “We should keep moving,” Louise insisted, her voice a little bit shrill. “If we don't, the bear will come and eat us. I'm not supposed to get eaten by a bear! I'm supposed to get eaten by a shark!”

   “We need to find food,” said Gene. “We need to eat.”

   “We can't be walkin' around right now,” said Zeke. “We need to save our energy.”

   “But if we stay, then the bear will come back!” Andy glanced behind him fearfully. “I'm too young to die!”

   “We're not going to die,” said Tina. “I just need to think for a moment about what to do.”

   “We should go find food,” Gene repeated. “I'm wasting away here.”

   “We'll get some more berries soon,” Tina assured him, though she privately agreed. She nervously tapped a foot, looking around, trying to figure out what she should do next. She was the leader, after all, they were looking to her for guidance. Well, they weren't, but still, Tina knew she was the only one who knew the slightest bit about wilderness survival, so she felt she owed it to everyone else to at least try and get them to safety. It would be a whole lot easier if they (meaning Louise) would just listen to her, though.

   “They should have found us by now,” Louise muttered, her left arm gently holding her right one.

   “We would have been found if we'd stayed put,” Jimmy Jr. shot her a dark look.

   “It's not my fault we were chased by a frickin' bear!” she snapped.

   “Not that; if -”

   “You're blaming me because you can't figure out how not to run into a river?!”

   “Stop it, both of you!” Zeke ordered. While Jimmy Jr. and Louise glared at one another, they did quieten down. Jimmy Jr. scoffed and crossed his arms, still glaring at Louise.

Tina was tempted to get up and pace, sure that it would make her feel calmer, but she stayed where she was.

   “Right, I really, really think we should stay where we are,” she said firmly. “If we stop moving around, they will find us sooner. I think we should go back to the river -”

   “But you just said we should stay here!” said Jimmy Jr.

   “What I mean is, a river is where they'll be expecting to see us,” she continued. “So, we should go back there and wait.”

   “But where is it?” asked Rudy, and Tina's face fell. “We had to walk to find stuff for the fire, and we didn't go back. I don't think. I can't see the river, or any water.”

   “Right. Right.” Tina sighed and looked around, wondering what to do. She wished there was a proper grown-up there with them; they would know what to do.

   “No, we gotta keep moving,” Louise demanded. “It's our only chance.”

   “We can't go back to the river!” Jimmy Jr. insisted. “That's where bears drink!”

   “Okay, let's take a vote,” suggested a frazzled Tina, feeling like she had no other choice. “Everyone who thinks we should stay here; well, go back to the river and stay there, raise your hand.” She and Zeke were the only ones to do so, and she deflated a little bit. “Everyone who thinks we should keep moving?” Everyone else's hands went up, and Tina looked around hopelessly, trying to find something that could convince them all to stay put. But there wasn't anything, just a bunch of tired, hungry, scared kids. Tina understood where they were coming from; she was tired, hungry, and scared, too, but she just wanted the grown-ups to find them, just like everyone else. She was hugely outnumbered, and she couldn't, in good conscience, allow them to go without her. “Okay. Okay,” she sighed, slowly getting to her feet. “Maybe we can find a ranger station or something.” At this point, it was their best chance of rescue, and the rest of the group got up as well, and they began walking once again. Dragging their feet, rubbing their eyes, they stumbled slowly ahead, wishing for this to be over and done with already. All of them remained silent, save for a few sighs and grumbles here and there, just waiting for the moment when they would be found. Picturing themselves back at home, covered in warm blankets, with a mug of delicious hot chocolate, was enough to keep them going.

 

They walked and walked and walked, occasionally looking around for signs of human life, but finding nothing. Nothing except copious amounts of trees, and never ending bushes, and broken sticks, and leaves, but nothing that would be of any use to them, like another human being, or an abandoned phone. Maybe some miraculously discarded warm clothing. Okay, it was more than a long shot, but there was no harm in imagining, and it kept them occupied. They were all tired, hungry and thirsty, and the daydreaming helped to take some of that away.

 

It was at that point that the heavens decided to open, as of course, what the children needed was more drama, and they looked up at the increasingly darkening sky in exasperation.

   “Oh, come on!” Louise snapped, wiping the rain off her face.

As the kids stopped walking and huddled together, they stared at the rain falling all around them. The droplets fell onto the green leaves and down the bark, leaving glistening trails as they fell to the ground. The flowers bounced as the rain splashed down upon them, their petals swaying and fluttering as though they were dancing to some invisible music.

Pretty soon, the entire forest looked as though it was sparkling. It was really quite a beautiful sight. Some of them were too taken in by what they were seeing to remember that they were lost, hungry, and annoyed.

However, the kids' wonder and awe was soon replaced by unease as the rain grew heavier, and the wind picked up. Soon, they were soaked, and they subconsciously moved in closer together, looking around them nervously.

Tina looked up, observing the sky, her hand shielding her glasses.

   “Guys?” she said, but no one could hear her over the howling wind. “Guys!” she repeated, and they turned to look at her. “We need to move. Now.”

   “Why?” asked Jimmy Jr.

   “There's gonna be thunder and lightning, so we need to get going.” Tina ushered them along, and they began trudging along as quickly as they could, wincing at the heavy rain that pelted down upon them, the drops now so thick and heavy that they actually hurt.

   “Shouldn't we find shelter?” asked Rudy, covering his head as he fought to walk in a straight line.

   “No; it's too dangerous!” Tina called, jumping along with the rest of them as the sky lit up, followed by an ominous rumble soon after. “Come on!” She quickened her pace, and walked through the woodland, avoiding the trees as best as she could. “We need to get to a clearing!”

   “A clearing?” Jimmy Jr. looked rather worried. “But what if the lightning hits us?”

   “Lightning's gonna hit us?!” Andy cried, holding Ollie's hand even tighter.

   “No, no; a clearing is safer; lightning is more likely to hit a tree, so we don't wanna be near them,” said Tina, and the rest of the group exchanged glances, before quickening their pace.

The harsh wind made them want to close their eyes, and the slippery, mushy ground made it difficult to find secure footing, and as a result, there was a lot of stumbling and sliding.

Soon enough, they were lucky to find a relatively small but empty clearing, and they piled into it, trying to get right into centre, as far away from the trees as possible.

As a particularly harsh gust of wind sent them staggering, Louise once again knotted her bunny ears together. “Everyone huddle up!” Tina shepherded the younger kids into the middle, where they stood in a tight circle. She, Gene, Zeke, and Jimmy Jr. formed a protective circle around them, and they all ducked their heads, closing their eyes.

Tina was sure there was something else they were supposed to do; something along the lines of squatting to make themselves small, perhaps? She knew that Ginny had told them some helpful tips that would be sure to help them in a situation such as the one she was in now, but she couldn't remember. It wasn't in the manual. Now, she was panicking, wondering whether she had gotten the instructions mixed up, and they were really supposed to shelter in a cluster of trees, but it was too late for her to do anything about it.

The thunder appeared to make the ground shake, and the lightning was so bright they could see it through their closed eyes. The wind constantly pushed them sideways, causing them all to huddle closer together. The older kids had their heads bowed together, Tina's forehead pressed into Zeke's. He reached out and grabbed her hand, squeezing it tightly, and his other hand found Gene's. Tina took Jimmy Jr's hand, too scared to be happy that he didn't pull away, and the four of them stood there, holding hands, silently supporting each other.

The younger kids had their heads bowed, trying to prevent the wind and the rain from getting into their faces, their shoulders touching. Rudy had never been scared of storms before, but now he definitely was. This was something he never wanted to experience ever again. He trembled as yet another crack of thunder sounded above them, biting his lip, and squeezing Ollie's hand even harder.

All of the younger kids seemed to be rethinking their stances on thunder storms; being out (and lost) in one was far scarier than just watching from the window in the safety their own home. Some of the older kids were feeling the same way, as well. Gene had always loved storms, even when he was little; he'd loved watching the sky light up, and seeing forked lightning, counting the seconds until he heard thunder. Now, though? There was a very sure chance that he would be crawling into his parents' bed the next time a storm hit.

Rudy couldn't help but cry out as another crack of thunder – the loudest one yet – seemed to come from right next to them. He continued to squeeze Ollie's hand so hard, that if he weren't so scared, he would be worried about breaking it.

All they could do was just stand there and wait for the storm to pass, and hope lightning wouldn't strike them.

 


 

   “We got another fire pit here,” called out Danny, and Bob and Linda, along with the other parents, leapt from the jeeps.

After yet another frustrating night of being forced to rest and sleep, they had all been transported back to where they had left off. Once again, the helicopter had found no sign of the children. If it weren't for the fire pits, and the footprints, the rangers would have doubted that the kids even existed.

They had travelled down past the waterfall, and had discovered the pit about ten yards away from the water banks. The nearby cluster of flattened leaves and grass showed that the children had slept there.

   “So, they're on the move again,” Teddy sighed. “They're lookin' for us, you know. Maybe what we should do is try and get ahead of them.”

   “Well, how do we do that?” Bob asked. “We don't even know which way they went.”

   “We'll split up; we can cover more ground that way, and whoever finds them can let the others know.”

Bob could only stare at the lovable handyman. When did he become so mature and thoughtful? It was weird seeing him like that. Apparently, their children being lost was what it took to bring out the adult in Teddy.

   “Let's get movin'!” Linda barely hesitated before marching straight ahead.

   “Hold on there a second, ma'am,” called Kevin, and Linda turned to face him, annoyance written all over her face. The rangers were looking up at the dark sky, concern written all over their faces.

   “What?”

   “We haven't found any footprints here, so we don't know which way they went. I believe they headed back to the river, and followed it; it's the most likely theory.”

   “And what if they didn't?”

   “Well, we can split up again, but we can't do anything right now.”

   “Why not?” Bob, who had been examining the ground around the fire pit, straightened up, and stared at Kevin.

   “Because there's a big storm about to hit, and we -”

   “Even more reason to find them now, then!” cried Sylvester, biting his lip. “They're children; they shouldn't be out in a storm.”

   “We will still search for them, but it's too dangerous for us to go on foot, so we'll use the cars.”

   “But what about my babies?!” Linda snapped, her eyes filling with tears. “It'll be dangerous for them, too!” She couldn't believe what she was hearing. “It's too dangerous for us, but it's all right for our kids?!”

   “That's not what we're saying, ma'am,” Danny stepped in. “We will continue searching for them; we'll just be in the cars.” The rest of the adults were staring at him, looking frustrated, so he continued, “why don't we all get in the cars, and that way we can carry on looking? It will be quicker.”

Muttering angrily to herself, Linda threw herself into the back seat, rummaging through her tote, her mouth set. Bob and Teddy climbed in after her, and Jimmy Pesto, Trev, Sylvester, and Travis got into the other jeep, and they headed off carefully into the forest. They had to drive slowly in order to avoid hitting the trees, and to manoeuvre around discarded logs.

Bob gave Linda's hand a gentle squeeze, and she rested her head on his shoulder, the both of them looking out of the window.

He felt her tense against him when it started raining, and he clutched her hand even harder as the rain came down thicker and heavier.

   “Jeeze, that's one heck of a storm, Bobby,” said Teddy, shielding his eyes from the lightning.

   “I know, Teddy!” Bob snapped, looking out of the window worriedly. He didn't feel guilty about snapping; he was far more concerned about his children. His kids were lost in a thunderstorm, and he felt absolutely terrible. He felt as though it was his fault; logically, he knew it wasn't, but he still felt like a failure because he hadn't protected his children from this storm that he couldn't have predicted.

His heart seemed to beat faster as he observed the storm. Part of him felt angry that Danny was driving so slow, and the other part knew that they couldn't find the kids if they themselves got injured in a car crash.

   “Can't you go any faster?” he asked, the irrational papa wolf winning over logic.

   “I'm going as fast as I can under the circumstances,” Danny assured him. “I know it's frustrating, but I have to drive carefully.”

   “What about my babies?” Linda turned to Danny, tears in her eyes. “What are we supposed to do?”

   “All we can do is hope they're safe, and have found shelter, ma'am,” said Danny, focusing on driving safely through the dense, soaked woodland.

   “They'll have found shelter, Linda,” said Teddy comfortingly. “Tina's smart; she knows about this stuff.”

   “Right,” Bob agreed, hoping that Teddy was speaking the truth. “You're right; Tina will know what to do.”

The three of them pressed their faces up against the windows, desperately searching for any sign of the kids.

The trees shook dangerously, and the rain splattering the windows made it almost impossible to see, but they still continued to look. There was still that slight chance that they might see something. Some of the kids were wearing bright colours; they would be easily noticeable. They had to be somewhere close; there was no way they could have gotten too far away. But, then again, the kids had done lots of unexpected things over the past three days, and they seemed to be very adept at not being found, so right now, anything seemed possible, and it didn't make them feel good.

Linda rolled down the window, and was greeted with a face full of ice cold rain, and a frighteningly loud clap of thunder, not to mention the roaring of the wind, and she quickly rolled it back up, regretting her decision.

   “Oh, my face!” She shook her head, wiping her wet cheeks, her hair all over the place. “That was loud,” she said needlessly, and she continued to try and dry herself, before she resumed looking out of the window. 'Where are you, my babies?' she thought, resting her head against the cool glass. 'Where are you?'

Who would have thought a simple community barbecue would have turned out like this? She agreed with Bob; the kids did need their own phone. They could afford a cheap phone, especially if it was an old model, and then, stuff like this could be avoided in the future. It wouldn't matter if Tina kept losing it; Louise would be pleased to have a smartphone, and would keep hold of it. Well, they could worry about that later, what her babies needed was hugs from their mommy, and lots of kisses. That was better than any medicine in the world. Linda couldn't wait to sweep them up in her arms, and never let them go.

Bob was thinking the same thing; after this, he never wanted to let his kids out of his sight ever again, not even for school. If they could somehow manage to get lost while just out of eyeline of the adults, then what could happen on their way to school? No, from now on, he was going to drive them everywhere. Or, better yet, just keep them at home with him, because he was most definitely never going to one of these stupid community events ever again. 'Bringing the community together'? What nonsense! It had only done the exact opposite. He didn't blame Linda; how could he? She could never have imagined what was going to happen, and neither could he. Logically, he shouldn't be blaming anyone, least of all Harper and Mason, but he felt like he needed to blame someone, or else he would go mad. Bob didn't even have it in him to be angry at his kids; he was far too worried for that now.

The four of them remained silent as Danny continued to drive, keeping his eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary, his radio turned all the way up, in case there was any news.

 

What seemed like hours later, the howling winds died down, the trees stopped thrashing, and the rain stopped. In a flash, Bob, Linda, and Teddy had leapt from the car, and had resumed looking. None of them cared about the squelchy mud they now had to wade through, nor the last few remaining drops that fell from the leaves; no, the most important thing was finding the children.

   “Guys?” Danny called, and they turned to face him. “I've just spoken with Kevin; they haven't found anything, and so they're gonna head this way.”

   “They didn't find 'em?” Linda looked crestfallen.

   “I'm afraid not, ma'am. It's possible that the kids are still in their shelter, so we've all got to double and triple check every nook and cranny.”

   “Right,” Bob nodded, and they all moved forward, feeling determined.

 


 

An eternity seemed to pass before the raging wind began to die down. The kids' shivering didn't let up, even when the rain slowed, and eventually stopped.

They remained in the huddle, not knowing what to do, shaking, and trying unsuccessfully to dry themselves.

   “Why can't we have nice adventures?” asked Gene, looking miserable.

   “We're not allowed to have nice anything,” said Louise, glowering at the floor.

   “It's definitely stopped now, for sure,” Tina said, taking off her glasses and gently shaking the droplets from them.

   “You're sure?” asked Rudy, still not looking up nor releasing his grip on Ollie's hand. He already had his inhaler up near his mouth, just in case.

   “Yes; it's finished.” The rest of the kids seemed to take her word for it, as they slowly began to break away from the huddle. Tina turned away and used the inside of her shirt to clean her glasses. They were smeared, but at least she could see.

   “What do we do now?” asked Jimmy Jr., rubbing his wet arms, his teeth chattering.

   “I – I don't know,” Tina admitted, hanging her head. They were too cold and wet to keep moving, and staying still wouldn't do them much good either. “Maybe we should all just catch our breath,” she said quietly, not lifting her head.

   “Fine by me,” said Louise, leaning forward, and shaking the rainwater out of her bunny ears. Tina bit her lip as Rudy sneezed.

Zeke was making sure that the kids were all still together, his hair surprising long when wet. Tina couldn't help but stare at it; he looked so different with straight hair that went down past his collar. Jimmy Jr's hair did the same thing when wet, but Tina couldn't help but think that it didn't suit him the way it suited Zeke.

   “Now ya know why I never go swimmin',” he joked, having caught her staring, and she quickly looked away.

   “It looks nice,” she said honestly, using her good arm to wring her hair dry, but not doing a very good job, due to the aforementioned one arm.

   “Lemme give ya a hand with that, girl.” Zeke stepped over to her, and began to gently wring her hair out, the both of them silent. When he was done, he stepped back, examining her now limp, stringy hair. “Perfect,” he grinned through chattering teeth, trying to lighten the mood. It was just what he did. “Now it's your turn,” he said to Gene, before squeezing the water out of his hair, as well.

   “Thanks,” said Gene, reaching up with his uninjured arm and feeling the damp locks. Now his head didn't feel so heavy.

   “Welcome. Anyone else need me to dry their hair?” Zeke asked, looking around at the group, and they all shook their heads. “Louise, how 'bout you?”

   “You come near me, and I'll rip your face off,” she threatened, and Zeke smartly didn't pursue the subject further, instead turning to Rudy.

 

After a bit of squirming and wriggling, Gene peeled his drenched shirt off, and twisted it up, gesturing for his sisters to come forward.

   “Here,” he shivered, and he pressed his mouth to the fabric, and began to drink, with Louise and Tina following suit. It was bliss; their first proper drink for days. Perhaps the rainstorm hadn't been such a bad thing, after all, apart from the fact that they were all soaked and freezing. After all that trouble they had gone to to build a fire the previous day, and now they were definitely going to get sick. There was no way they would be able to build a fire now.

Zeke did the same, inviting Rudy to share, an offer which the younger boy gratefully accepted. However, Zeke noticed that Jimmy Jr., who was now shirtless, had turned away from the group, and Zeke frowned as he realised what his friend was doing.

   “Hold on a sec,” he muttered, handing Rudy his shirt, and walked over to Jimmy Jr, standing behind him. “Give that to yer brothers,” he said, quietly, but firmly, ignoring the way Jimmy Jr. jumped. “They need it more; ya got yer vest.”

Wordlessly, Jimmy Jr. turned around and gave his shirt to his brothers, while taking his vest for himself. He glared at Zeke. Andy and Ollie immediately grabbed each end of the twisted up shirt, and began suckling like newborn kittens.

For a moment, they all contentedly drank in silence, until they had gotten every last possible bit of moisture they could out of the shirts. Then Rudy, Andy, and Ollie removed their shirts, and they all drank from those, too. It gave them that little bit of energy, that motivation that they needed to keep going.

   “Well, should we take a vote?” said Tina, once the boys had put their shirts back on. It felt weird to her that she didn't even care about seeing Jimmy Jr's abs for once; she didn't even feel the need to look at them. Tina just put it down to the situation she was in; gone were the ideas of romantic starry nights, and in came rain, thunder, cold, and hunger.

   “Vote on what?” asked Jimmy Jr.

   “On what we should do next.” Tina looked around at everyone, standing close together, hugging themselves to try and get warm. She really had no idea on what was best to do. They were surrounded by trees on all sides, and it was silent all around them. Though she was tired, Tina was content to keep moving, if that was what everyone else wanted. At this point, she was willing to do anything that would get them found sooner.

   “I just wanna be warm,” Rudy muttered, biting his lip to keep from shivering.

   “Maybe if we move, we'll warm up,” Gene suggested, desperate to be anywhere other than where he was. What if there was another storm? He wouldn't be able to handle that.

   “Sounds good to me,” said Andy, arm in arm with Ollie, their hair plastered to their foreheads.

   “Okay, well, if everyone thinks we should keep moving, then we'd better get started,” said Tina wearily, and they all began to silently stumble along. They walked slowly, for they were cold and tired, and many of them did not lift their heads, preferring instead to listen for the sounds of other humans.

Tina walked in the front, leading the way although she didn't actually know where she was going, and Zeke brought up the rear, making sure no one got separated from the group.

Jimmy Jr. lagged behind, walking beside Zeke, and for a moment, they walked in companionable silence, before he grabbed Zeke's arm.

   “What's your problem?” he hissed. “I was gonna give the shirt to my brothers!”

   “What? You were?” Zeke tried to make it sound less like a question than it already did.

   “Yeah; I'm not a monster, you know.”

   “All right; I just wanted be be sure; I'm sorry; Jay-Ju.”

   “You've been really weird with me since we've been in here. What's your problem?” he asked, and Zeke hesitated.

   “I ain't got a problem with ya; it's just... you've been a little, moody lately. We don't need negativity right now, and I'm just tryna keep things positive, ya know?”

   “Well, maybe I don't wanna be positive,” said Jimmy Jr. “Maybe I just wanna complain about the crappy situation we're in, and I should be allowed to do that.”

   “Of course ya should,” said Zeke amiably, “but I don't think it does everyone else much good to hear that. We're tryna get outta here, and I think keepin' positive help us keep goin'.”

   “Yeah, fine, maybe, but I should be allowed to vent!” snapped Jimmy Jr., and Zeke sighed.

   “Yeah, you're right,” he said, knowing that he couldn't change his friend's mind. He noticed the glare on Jimmy Jr's face, but he made no comment on it, focusing on making sure no one wandered off, or fell behind.

 

As they had been doing for the past three days, they walked, and walked, and walked. Their shoes squelched as they stepped on the marsh-like ground, and stray droplets of rain fell from their clothes every so often.

None of them spoke, none of them made a sound, not even a cough, or a groan. They were just too tired, and walking took up most of their energy; they didn't want to use any more than they had to.

Tina was clutching her left arm, trying to keep it still as much as she could. It seemed to ache more with every passing second.

Gene was resting his right elbow in his hand, almost cradling it; the long graze was stinging like crazy, and his wrist felt like it had seized up.

Louise's knee hurt more and more with every step she took, and she was soon slowing down, as her entire leg felt like it was being squeezed. Not to mention her shoulder pain, which appeared to have spread down the length of her arm.

The only person walking slower than her, bar Zeke, was Rudy, who was limping. He hissed in pain every so often, putting the least amount of pressure on his left leg as he could. His dad was going to completely freak out when they found him; he'd be surprised if he would be allowed to leave the house without being covered in bubble wrap in the future.

 

   “Guys?” They all turned around to Louise. She looked like she was struggling with something, and she hesitated for a moment, working her jaw. “I – I'm sorry,” she said quietly. “I'm sorry I got us all into this; it's all my fault. If we'd just stayed put, then we'd all be at home right now. I should have listened to you, Tina,” she looked up at her older sister, who was staring at her in that way that always seemed to make her feel guilty.

   “It's all right, Louise,” Tina assured her. “You were just doing what you thought you could to help.” There was no point in making Louise feel worse.

   “Thanks, T,” Louise smiled, and everyone else smiled as well, bar Jimmy Jr.

   “Wait, that's it?” he said incredulously. “After everything she put us through, one simple apology, and she's forgiven?”

   “Excuse me?” Louise turned to him, fire in her eyes. “What's that supposed to mean? 'After all I put you through'?”

   “Yeah! You made us walk and walk and walk, and we got attacked by a bear, and we fell down a waterfall, and got stuck in a storm!”

   “How the hell is that my fault?! I can't predict the future!” Her anger at Jimmy Jr. seemed to have given her a burst of energy. “If anything, this is all your fault!”

   “My fault? My fault?!” Jimmy Jr. took a step closer to Louise, and Tina and Gene moved forward as well, while the others could only watch. “I didn't make us walk for hours, away from everyone! That was you!” The events of the past three days seemed to have finally caught up with him, and he exploded. “Don't you try and pin this on me!” he screamed.

   “Hey, leave my sister alone!” Tina snapped, enraged.

   “I don't need you to fight my battles for me!” Louise whipped around to face Tina, before turning back to Jimmy Jr. “And don't you put the blame on me! I'm not the idiot who started dancing on the log! If you hadn't done that, we wouldn't even be here!”

   “That's enough!” Tina ordered, taking another step forward, but Jimmy Jr. didn't listen.

   “It's your fault for leading everyone into the woods!”

   “I didn't force you to follow me!” Louise shrieked, and the twins covered their ears. “If you hadn't done your stupid, sucky dancing, then none of this would have happened!” She jabbed her finger into his chest, and he batted it off.

   “Hey!” Tina stepped forward yet again, fire burning in her heart; no one laid a hand on her siblings. “Don't touch her!”

   “Stay out of this, Tina!” Louise snapped.

   “No, Louise! I'm trying to help!” Tina insisted.

   “I don't need your help!”

   “All right, now that's enough!” Zeke ordered, and everyone fell silent, even Louise. “Enough, all of ya! Look, Jay-Ju, Louise apologised, there's no need to go on and on about it, all right?”

   “But it is her fault!” he raged.

   “It is not,” Tina insisted.

   “Yes, it is!”

Gene, Zeke, Rudy, and the twins were watching, none of them saying a word. Zeke was careful to stay near Jimmy Jr.; it wasn't that he thought he friend would ever hit a girl, but with the way Jimmy Jr. had been acting lately, Zeke didn't want to take that chance.

   “Look, I said I'm sorry, what more do you want?” Louise snapped. “What, you want me to go into the future, build a time machine, and then use it to come back here, so we don't go into this stupid forest? Is that what you want?!”

   “It's all -” Tina couldn't be heard over her little sister's enraged shouting, but she understood. She would be angry too if she was being blamed for this. But (and Tina would never, ever admit this aloud) it was partially Louise's fault, because they should have stayed put. But if Jimmy Jr. hadn't have been dancing on the log, then they wouldn't have gotten lost. Tina felt that they were both equally to blame, but she also knew that there was no reason to say it; it would only make Louise and Jimmy Jr. madder. Still, Tina thought it was really unfair that he was blaming Louise for the bear, and the waterfall, and she was disgusted at the way he was speaking to her sister.

   “Look, I was just trying to help!” Louise continued, turning to face the rest of the group. “All I did was try to get us found quicker; what's wrong about that? Again, I didn't ask you all to follow me, so you can't blame me for being 'lost',” she air quoted. The other kids wisely kept quiet. “I knew that if we kept walking, we would have found something eventually, and I'm right; this isn't an endless wood; there's gotta be something else out here.”

   “It's gonna be all right, Louise,” repeated Tina.

   “I know that! I just – I... I want this to be over!” she admitted, deliberately not looking at anyone. “I want Mom and Dad to stop being so useless and find us! And,” a pained expression crossed her face, “my right arm and knee are hurting.”

   “Really?” Tina moved in closer, as did Gene. “Since when?”

   “Since the first day,” she revealed. Tina didn't ask why Louise hadn't told them, because that was just what Louise did. Being injured was akin to being weak in her eyes, and there was very few things Louise hated more than people thinking she was weak. She must be hurt bad for her to actually tell them about it. This explained a lot about why Louise had been the way she was. She gently took Louise's arm. “Don't touch it!” Louise snapped, taking a step back.

   “Does it hurt to walk?” she asked.

   “My leg is completely ruined; of course it hurts, you idiot!” Louise clenched her left fist, glaring at her sister, who looked sympathetic, but unfazed by the attitude. Again, it was just something Louise did when she was hurt.

   “I'd give you a piggy back, if I could,” was all she said, “but my arm is hurt, too.”

   “I know, T.” Louise rolled her eyes.

   “Same here,” Gene chimed in. “My right arm's about as useless as Bruce Campbell's, and I don't have a chainsaw stuck on to it, which would be a big help.”

   “I'll do it,” Zeke offered. “There's nothing wrong with my arms.”

   “I don't need it,” said Louise.

   “How the hell did the three of you manage to injure your shoulders?” asked Jimmy Jr. in disbelief, certain that Louise was lying for sympathy. He found it weird that she just happened to reveal that she was 'injured' right when she was beginning to lose the argument.

   “Our cycles are synced together!” Gene told him.

   “Climb aboard,” Zeke gestured for Louise to get on his back. She paused for a moment, scowling at him.

   “Ugh, fine, if it'll shut you up,” she sighed, walking over to him.

Zeke knelt down, allowing Louise to place her arms around his neck. He then stood, gripping her knees, being careful not to hurt her right one, before he resumed walking. He was tired and hungry, which slowed him down, but luckily, Louise didn't weigh a thing, so there was no extra strain on him. Her dress was still wet, which meant that he was soon damp himself, but he didn't complain.

 

They continued to walk; the clouds had soon cleared and the sun was shining, rays of light beaming though the gaps in the trees. The children welcomed the sunshine, appreciating the warmth on their cold, wet bodies. Now that their clothes had dried somewhat, and were now just damp instead of soaking, they were able to move that little bit quicker.

The only other thing that kept them going was the knowledge that they would be found sooner or later. Either, they would spot the adults, or the adults would see them. It was going to happen, it was just a matter of when. Sitting and waiting no longer occurred to any of them; they just needed to get out of the forest as soon as possible. The more they walked, the sooner that would happen.

 

   “Do.. do you hear that?” Tina lifted her head, bringing a finger to her lips. The others immediately quietened down and stood still. “Guys, do you hear something?”

They remained where they were, listening intently. There was the usual woodland sounds; birds singing, leaves rustling, and twigs snapping underfoot, they heard something else. It was very faint, but -

   “That's voices,” said Louise. “That's voices!” She jabbed Zeke sharply in the side with her left heel, causing him to yelp, and he quickly released her.

   “Damn, girl,” he muttered, rubbing his side, before walking ahead.

   “Quick! Let's go!” Tina ordered, and they all began moving as quickly as they could towards the sound. Finally, some good luck.

Louise and Rudy completely forgot about their leg injuries, and they joined the others in running as fast as they could, all of them beaming.

As they got closer, they realised that they were indeed hearing voices. Actual human voices, and they moved even quicker. Even if they stumbled upon a group of random campers, it would be better than nothing.

Tina was jogging in the front, looking behind her occasionally, to make sure everyone was still with her. She didn't even stumble or trip, which was a miracle. She hoped the people would help them; it would be very unlikely if these potential saviours turned them away. Tina couldn't imagine anyone doing that, especially to children. Unless, of course, they happened to run into a group of cannibals, or a creepy cult that stole children. It seemed far-fetched, but Tina felt that they had dealt with a lot of far-fetched stuff over the past couple of days.

   “Listen!” Jimmy Jr. stuck his hand out, and they all stopped once again. “They're calling us, can't you hear it?”

The kids strained their ears, some of them actually standing on tiptoe, and recognised their own names being yelled from a great distance.

   “Yay, they're here!” cried Andy, jumping up and down, and he and Ollie resumed their speed walking towards the voices.

   “They finally found us! Thank you for answering my prayers, Bob Marley!” Gene clasped his hands together, and looked up at the sky.

 

It seemed to take forever, but they used the sounds of the voices to guide their way, and the louder they got, the more excited the kids became. They were finally going home.

Despite this, they began to slow down; three days of living off berries had taken its toll on them. None of them shouted out in any way, or even spoke; instead, the focus was on moving forward, and nothing else. They kept going, of course, but the jogging had become regular walking. Still, the voices grew louder and louder, giving them hope.

   “Gene! Tina! Louise!” came a faint, nasally voice, and Gene gasped.

   “That's Mom. That's Mom!” He sprinted toward the sound. That's right; Gene actually sprinted.

Once they had gotten over the shock of seeing that, the others were quick to follow. They ran and ran; running slowly, but still running, doing their best to ignore their growling stomachs, their protesting limbs.

Before too long, they saw the sight they had been waiting for. A small group of adults in the distance. One of them was a park ranger, and the others? Well, it was none other than Bob, Linda, and Teddy.

They didn't see the kids at first, and they were heading off to the right, all them carrying walkie-talkies, and torches.

   “We're here! Here! Mom! Dad!” They all began shouting and waving, while walking ahead. Thankfully, the adults heard them, and around around.

   “Oh, my God, my babies!” Linda shrieked so loud, that many birds took off in fright, and she raced toward her children, the tote back thudding against her side with every step. “My baby-baby-baby-babies!”

The ranger ran towards them as well, his walkie-talkie pressed to his mouth, no doubt alerting the other group.

Overjoyed, the kids began to run, forgetting about their hunger and injuries once again. Those things could be fixed, but none of them wanted to spend a second longer than they had to away from their parents.

As the kids got closer, they pushed their way through a clump of trees, and came face to face with the adults. Tina, Gene, and Louise ran straight into their parents' open arms, all of them smiling, and laughing in relief. Gene leapt straight onto Linda, causing her to stagger backwards as she struggled to balance him, and Bob had scooped Louise up in one arm, hugging her tightly, and using the other arm to embrace Tina fiercely. Their torches, walkie-talkies, and Linda's tote dropped to the ground, completely forgotten.

Both Linda and Bob began to cry, unable to even get their words out, as they gasped and sniffled, and laughed, and they shook with happiness. They finally had their babies back.

Things got a little bit uncomfortable when Teddy came up, and wrapped all five of them up in a bear hug, sobbing loudly.

   “Oof... Teddy... can't... breathe,” Bob gasped, and Teddy released his hold.

   “Oh, my God, my babies are here! We found you! Are you okay?! Let me look at you, let me look at you!” Linda peppered little kisses all over Gene's face, before doing the same to her daughters; it was a little bit difficult as Gene had his arms and legs wrapped around her in an iron grip, but she didn't care. She even managed to notice that Louise did not wipe her face clean, as she normally would. Even though it was a bit of a struggle to hold Gene and hug her daughters at the same time, she wasn't complaining; she'd missed her Genie Beanie so much, and if he wanted to cling to her like a sloth, well, she wasn't going to stop him. His head was buried into his shoulder, and he was rambling about how much he'd missed them.

Tina was beaming, her right arm tightly around her dad's waist, and her left hand wrapped around Linda's forearm; if it didn't hurt so much, she would have hugged her mother, as well. She leaned into her dad's side, sighing contentedly as he hugged her tighter. The pressure made her injured arm hurt a little bit, but she didn't care.

After a while, Bob used his free arm to lift Tina up slightly; he leaned down and kissed her on the top of the head, resting his cheek there for a moment. He gently placed her back on the ground, keeping his arm around her.

Louise, although smiling, was the only one not crying. She just felt glad to not be standing on her bad leg any more, and Bob's shirt collar was bunched up in her good hand. After a few moments, she wrapped her other arm around his neck, hugging him. She didn't care if the others teased or made fun; she'd missed her family.

They remained in their own little huddle; Gene in Linda's arms, Louise in Bob, and Tina in the middle, being hugged tightly with both parents' free hands. Teddy hovered close by, his smile wide, his face shining with happy tears. To him, the Belchers' looked perfect; all happy and peaceful in their own blissful little bubble as they reunited with each other. He was so tempted to sweep them all up in another giant hug, but he seemed unable to move. So, he just stared at them, savouring their happiness.

 

The rest of the kids stood watching the scene, the five of them feeling quite wistful, and truthfully, a little bit sad.

   “Where's Dad?” asked Ollie, looking around, but seeing no sign of any other adults.

   “I don't know,” shrugged Jimmy Jr., not even attempting to hide his disappointment. Why couldn't his dad be here? Didn't he care about them? Maybe his dad was just waiting back at the barbecue, letting everyone else do all the hard work. Jimmy Jr. knew his father wasn't a complete jerk; he was worried about them; he just couldn't help but feel disappointed that his dad wasn't there.

   “He's coming, right?” asked Andy.

   “Sure he is; he's just late,” said Jimmy Jr., squinting through the trees, waiting, hoping to see his father run up to them any minute now. Any second, he'd come bursting through the trees.

Jimmy Jr., the twins, Zeke, and Rudy waited and waited for their dads, not seeing or hearing anything. Jimmy Jr. looked up at the ranger, who was standing near the Belchers, and still talking into his walkie-talkie, wondering if he should ask.

The ranger was looking around them, radio held up to his face. He seemed to be looking for something.

To be honest, Jimmy Jr. was kind of afraid to ask. What if he asked where his dad was, and the ranger said “who?” Or “oh, he went home, and told us to call him when we found you.” Of course, the boy knew it was ridiculous, but to him, there could be no other reason as to why his father wasn't there with them. It didn't occur to him that neither Zeke nor Rudy's fathers had shown up yet either; Jimmy Jr. just wanted to know where his dad was.

   “Over here!” Ranger Danny's voice made him jump, and he straightened up, looking all around him, listening for footsteps and voices.

In an instant, something big had slammed into him, and began hugging him intensely. Jimmy Jr. managed to look up, and saw it was his dad. His knees buckled in relief.

   “Pepper! Thank God!” Jimmy Pesto pulled his eldest son closer, before releasing him, and turning to the twins. “Hey, Andy! Ollie!”

   “Daddy!” they both leapt into their father's arms, hanging off his neck, all of them beaming.

   “You guys okay?” Jimmy Pesto asked, pulling Jimmy Jr. closer, using his other arm to hold the twins.

   “We're fine!” cried Ollie.

   “My knees hurt,” said Jimmy Jr., but his father wasn't able to examine them, due to holding his arms being full.

   “Don't worry, Pepper; we'll get you all patched up,” Jimmy assured him, hugging him tighter. Jimmy Jr. hugged him back, closing his eyes and sighing happily.

 

   “Zeke!” The booming voice of Travis echoed through the trees, and Zeke turned to see his father racing toward him, tears streaming down his face. Travis wrapped his son up in a tight hug that was full of so many emotions that Zeke was surprised his shoulders didn't break. “My boy! Oh, thank God!”

Zeke was crying, too; how could he not? He didn't care about anyone seeing him cry; crying was a natural, human emotion, and he wasn't going to hide his tears. “Don't ya scare me like that again, okay? Don't do that ever again!” Travis admonished, gripping Zeke by the shoulders, and looking him in the eye.

   “I'm sorry,” he sniffled, before Travis swept him up into another hug.

   “I ain't mad, boy; I was just scared,” he admitted, planting a kiss on his son's head. “I'm just so glad yer safe; are ya hurt?”

   “Nah, I'm fine. Just got a few bruises.”

Travis again took Zeke's shoulders and held him at arms length, looking him up and down.

   “Ya look fine,” he observed. “Bet yer desperate fer a bit of home cookin', huh?”

   “I could really go fer some peach cobbler right now,” he admitted, his mouth actually watering at the thought, and Travis laughed good naturedly. Zeke had to smile; his grandma made the best peach cobbler in the world.

   “You got it. We'll make the biggest peach cobbler for ya. Anything else?”

   “Uh, some cornbread and Hush puppies?” He knew they were basically the same thing, but he couldn't decide which one he wanted more. Travis laughed again.

   “No problem; I'll get Cheryl to make 'em for ya; ya know she makes the best cornbread.”

   “Yeah, she does. Where is she?” Zeke had realised that she wasn't with them.

   “She's at home, waitin' for ya. She had to take the baby home,” he explained, and Zeke nodded, before they embraced once more.

   “How's Grandma? Does she know?”

   “She knows; Cheryl told her. They weren't about to let her leave the nursin' home, so she whacked the boy with her purse until he said yes,” said Travis, and Zeke laughed.

   “Yup, that's Grandma, all right,” he grinned. Anna May was pushing eighty, but she was a true Southern grandma in every way.

   “She's already at home, bakin' up a tonne of yer favourite buttermilk biscuits,” Travis told him, and Zeke grinned again; Grandma sure knew how to make him happy! He wouldn't be surprised if their entire kitchen was full to overflowing with biscuits and other delicious Southern cuisine by the time he arrived home.

 

Perhaps the most emotional, if that were possible, was Sylvester. He had Rudy cradled in his arms like a baby, and tears were streaming down his red face. He had his cheek pressed to his son's, and he kept kissing Rudy's head.

   “Oh, thank God! Thank God!” He was crying, clutching his son like he was the Holy Grail. He fumbled in his pocket for Rudy's inhaler and pressed it to his son's mouth. Rudy, suddenly overcome with exhaustion, said nothing and allowed his father to pump his inhaler; he would probably be needing it soon anyway.

Sylvester's knees buckled, though he managed to stay upright. He was never letting his son out of his sight ever again. Not after this. He dreaded to think what his wife was going to do; she probably wouldn't let Rudy leave the house for at least a month. Speaking of his wife, he would have to call her soon, and let her know the good news. Sharon was going to be overjoyed, just as he was. “Oh, look at you!” He had noticed Rudy's arms and legs. “Is that from the mould, or is it something else?”

   “It's the mould,” said Rudy, unable to keep the grin off his face.

   “You'll be fine,” Sylvester told him. “We'll get you to the doctor's, just in case, and then I'll take you home.”

   “Yay,” Rudy smiled tiredly, relaxing in his father's arms, feeling safe and happy for the first time in three days.

 

The rangers felt almost guilty breaking up such an emotional reunion, but they had no choice.

   “Okay, everyone, if you can all make your way to the Jeeps; we just wanna get the kids checked out,” said Kevin loudly.

Still tightly hugging their children, the parents, and Teddy, all began moving towards the two Jeeps. It was going to be more than a tight squeeze, but luckily, one of the several ranger stations wasn't too far away.

Gene did not let go of Linda, and Bob didn't put Louise down, and both of them had their free arms around Tina.

Linda could not wait to get her babies home, and shower them with even more love and kisses. She was going to pamper them like they'd never been pampered before. They absolutely deserved it; her poor babies, lost in the forest. She was adamant that they were not opening the restaurant tomorrow, and they were all going to have a family day on the sofa. It would be perfect.

Bob was thinking along the same lines; however, he wanted to close the diner early, but then he felt guilty for wanting to open at all. They did need money, after all. But his kids had been missing for the past three days, which had struck fear into his very core. He'd never felt so scared and terrible as he had over the last few days, and having his children back was the best thing that could ever happen to him. He subconsciously tightened his grip on Louise, and made up his mind; the restaurant was going to stay closed tomorrow. Bob knew he would regret it when the time came to pay the rent, but at that moment, he had everything he wanted. He had his children back, and his amazing wife was by his side. That was all he needed.

 

   “Tina?” Linda noticed that Tina had fallen behind, and was now looking around her. “Come on, sweetie, we're going.”

   “Okay, just one minute,” Tina promised. Linda was about to say something, when she saw Tina head over to the rest of the group, and she fell quiet.

Zeke felt a tap on his shoulder, and turned around to see Tina.

   “Everything all right?” he asked, and she nodded.

   “Can I talk to you?” she asked, and Zeke nodded, and they moved away from the group. Standing near a tree, Zeke turned to face her expectantly.

   “What is it?” He noticed that Tina seemed to be struggling to find the right words, and he waited patiently.

   “I just wanted to thank you. For being so calm, and brave, and helpful, and everything. So, thank you,” she said, and Zeke felt like blushing.

   “It was nothin', really,” he said modestly. “You did all the work; if it weren't for your Thundergirl trainin', we'd have been screwed.”

   “Oh, thanks. But I couldn't have done it without you,” she smiled, and took his hand, surprising herself.

It took Zeke a moment to fully realise what was happening, and when he did, his jaw dropped, and he quickly looked around for Jimmy Jr. But Jimmy Jr. was with his family and didn't even glance in their direction, and Zeke relaxed. He looked at Tina, who was still smiling, and he smiled back at her.

   “You're welcome.” He gently squeezed her hand, an action which she repeated. Tina hesitated briefly, and then stood on tiptoe, kissing him on the cheek. Zeke could only stare, slightly slack jawed, and Tina then reached up and kissed him on the lips.

Shocked, stunned, and a little bit giddy, Zeke remained where he was, as if frozen to the spot. When he came to his sense, he saw that Tina had returned to her family, and was walking to one of the Jeeps with them. He brought a hand up to his face, feeling a faint blush staining his cheeks.

He took a few shaky steps forward, before realising that he was going the wrong way, and he shook his head slightly. He looked up just in time to see Tina look over her shoulder.

Their eyes met, and they shared a smile.

 

The End.

Chapter Text

North by North Tree-st

Epilogue 

 

A few hours later, the kids were sat in a local medical centre, not too far away from the rangers' station. Wrapped up in thick fleece blankets, drinking special drinks to help replace the salts and electrolytes they had lost, they were waiting for their parents to stop talking to the doctors, so that they could go home.

Their attention was on the television, tuned to “SpongeBob,” which was, ironically, playing “The Camping Episode,” and they were all watching silently, except for Rudy, who had fallen asleep on the only bed.

They had all been patched up; Tina, Gene, and Louise all had their arms in slings, and Louise's knee was bandaged. Gene's wrist was also bandaged tightly, there was a patch of dressing on his arm, and he was using his free hand to eat the fruit that had been left out for them.

Poor Rudy was covered almost completely head to foot in calamine lotion, as a precaution, and his leg was wrapped up. Andy and Ollie had band-aids on their forehead, but were fine otherwise, and patches of dressing decorated both of Jimmy Jr's knees. Only Zeke was unharmed; just a few minor bruises and scrapes.

Tina used her free hand to put down her cup, and pick up one of the many bananas that had been provided for them. It was a bit of a challenge, considering her current limitations, but she managed to hold it in her left hand, and peel it with the other.

Louise, her eyes glued to the screen, used her right, sling-covered arm to hold the edge of her blanket, while her left was holding the cup of blackcurrant-flavoured Dioralyte they'd all been given. Her face screwed up a little at the taste, but she kept drinking. The little doll one of the well-meaning rangers had given her had been instantly discarded, and was now lying on the floor.

 

   “What's taking them so long?” muttered Jimmy Jr.

   “I heard the doctor say they wanna keep us here tonight, and our parents are tryna get us home,” said Zeke.

   “We don't need to stay, do we? We're fine,” said Gene, and Zeke shrugged.

   “I guess it's the doctor's orders.”

He and Tina didn't make eye contact with each other; Zeke was feeling guilty; he'd kissed his best friend's girl, you weren't supposed to do that. But it had been friendly and platonic, right? So, it didn't mean anything, right? Zeke was also a little bit worried about inadvertently revealing what he had done, which he was sure would show on his face if he looked at Tina. He didn't want there to be a huge row in front of everyone.

Tina was feeling.. pretty good actually, in spite of everything. Oddly enough, she didn't feel guilty, which felt weird. Technically, she and Jimmy Jr. weren't actually dating at the moment, so she didn't cheat on him. This marked the third time she had kissed Zeke, and even though only two of them were little pecks, it shocked her at just how much she preferred him over Jimmy Jr.

Tina shook her head slightly; perhaps it was just the stress of the past three days, making her think like this. Still... Zeke was there for her during that frightening time, and he was the only one who had been there for her. He listened to what she had to say, and took her suggestions on board; even her own siblings rarely did that. She had really felt like things had been okay when he was there.

Tina lifted her eyes, looking over at Zeke, who couldn't seem to focus on anything, and kept looking around everywhere. Everywhere but where she was. After a while, his gaze caught hers, and they stared at one another. Tina offered a small smile, and Zeke blushed once again. She had never known him to be so shy, but before she could say anything, all of their parents entered the room.

   “Finally!” said Louise. “What were you doing out there, racing snails?”

   “No, we were talking to the doctor,” said Linda needlessly, “and he said you can all come home!” She had to cover her ears when the kids all cheered, causing Rudy to stir.

Eager to get away, the kids stood up, all except for Rudy, who was still half asleep. Sylvester walked over and picked him up once again.

   “I gotta get him home; I'll see ya later,” he said, as he walked out the door, giving the others barely enough time to bid him goodbye. To be fair, they were all more concerned with getting their own children home, and they all quickly left in the same manner.

Stepping out of the station, a cool breeze caressed their faces, and the setting sun made it necessary for them to watch their footing. Once again, they were all escorted by Jeeps to the area where the barbecue had been held, where their cars were. It seemed so long ago that they were getting ready for what they thought would be just an ordinary day.

 

For the Belchers', the car ride home was silent; all of them too relieved and tired to talk. Linda, though close to falling asleep herself, kept one eye on her kids in the back seat.

   “So, how did it happen?” she couldn't resist asking.

Through her yawning, Tina told of how they had tried to cross the log over the ravine, and it had fallen, and how they had decided to walk.

   “We made a fire, and slept in the bushes, and the next day, we waited for ages,” she said, resting her head against the back of her seat, doing her best to stay awake.

   “So, why did you leave? We found the fire pit, and all those daisy chains the next day, as well.” Linda reached over her seat, and took Tina's hand.

   “There was a bear, and we-”

   “What?!” Linda shrieked so loud that Bob jumped, causing the car to swerve slightly, and Gene and Louise, who were on the verge of dropping off, jolted awake. “A bear?”

   “Oh, yeah; there was a bear,” Louise yawned, and Bob and Linda looked horrified.

   “Are you all okay?”

   “We're fine.” Louise rolled her eyes, and waved her free arm. “But it chased us, so we ran, and we fell into the river.”

   “What?” Bob almost crashed the car. “A bear chased you?”

   “You fell in the river?” asked Linda, and the kids nodded.

   “Yep, and down the waterfall,” Louise yawned again. “No more talking,” she ordered. “That's enough.”

Linda quietened down, though she still held Tina's hand, and Bob continued driving. As he was getting pretty tired himself, he unrolled the window to allow the fresh evening air to hit him in the face.

   “They're asleep,” Linda said after a while, her voice low. Bob glanced in the rear view mirror, and saw that she was right.

   “Okay, good; they looked like they needed it.”

   “I know; poor babies. They've had a rough time. Well, they're all staying home tomorrow,” she said, and Bob nodded. Linda then fell quiet, not wanting to disturb the kids.

 

They were still asleep when Bob finally pulled up outside the restaurant, leaning into one another, Gene mumbling slightly.

   “Lin?” Bob whispered. “Wait here for a minute; I'll just take Tina upstairs.” He pulled his sleeping daughter out of the car, being careful not to knock her arm, and carried her inside the apartment, putting her in her bed. He then returned to the car. “I'll grab Gene, and you take Louise.”

Linda nodded, and manoeuvred Louise carefully into her arms, taking the joy in holding her child close, and took her upstairs, as Bob picked up Gene, balancing him. He stood there for a second, making sure to lock the car, before he headed into the house.

Once they had settled the kids into their beds, Bob and Linda retreated to their room, passing out as soon as their heads hit the pillows.

 


 

Bob was the first to awake the next morning; a force of habit from many decades of early morning prep work. For a while, he lay there, staring at the ceiling, wondering if he could get himself to fall back asleep; he was definitely tired enough. He felt Linda roll over next to him.

   “Want some coffee?” she yawned.

   “Yeah, that'd be great,” Bob mumbled, rubbing his eyes.

   “Well, go and make it,” Linda joked, nudging him gently with her foot. Bob laughed as well, and sat up. It felt so weird knowing that he wasn't going to work today. Like, what was he supposed to do?

He headed to the kitchen and began making coffee, along with breakfast. Linda came in soon after, tying her robe, and yawning. “What a weekend!” She said, as though Bob had not been experiencing it right along with her.

   “I know, but at least it's finally over.”

   “Yeah.” Linda grabbed her coffee cup, and sat at the table. “So, you still up for having a lazy day on the couch?”

   “I don't know,” Bob admitted, the feeling of having a day off still foreign to him. “Sure, I guess.”

   “It's gonna be great; we can watch a couple of movies. I'll make popcorn.”

Bob nodded and grabbed some bowls, placing them on the kitchen table. It sounded good enough to him.

   “Should we wake the kids up, or leave 'em?”

   “Let 'em sleep,” said Linda, as Bob sat down beside her, coffee pot in hand. “They need it.” She paused. “Should they go back to school tomorrow?”

   “I don't see why not,” said Bob. “The doctor said they're fine, and I think they don't have to do P.E for a while.”

Linda nodded, as Bob poured her coffee.

   “I'm sure they'll fine,” she said, more to herself. “But maybe they should have more than one day off? And they'll definitely be happy to stay home from school.”

   “You got that right,” Bob chuckled. “Well, we'll see how they are today, and decide about school later,” he said, and Linda nodded again, satisfied with the answer.

 

Tina awoke a few hours later, her left arm feeling weird in the sling. Yawning, she got out of bed and started to dress, which was harder than it needed to be. She was able to get her skirt on with no problem, but trying to put on her shirt was like trying to solve a maths problem without a calculator – impossible. She eventually managed to do it, and just sat on her bed, panting slightly, using her free hand to brush her messy hair out of her face.

When she went into the kitchen, Bob and Linda were still there, and Linda sprang up, and hugged her tightly.

   “How you doin', my Teeny Tina?” she asked, being careful not to hurt her daughter's arm.

   “I'm fine,” came Tina's muffled voice. “Just a bit hungry.”

   “I bet! What do you want? You can have anything today.” Linda said, as she led Tina over to the table.

   “Uh, chocolate chip pancakes?”

   “You got it!” Linda wrapped her arms around Tina's face, and planted several kisses on her head, before bustling over to the cupboards.

Tina didn't know quite what to say as she ate her pancakes. They seemed to taste even better today, and Linda had made a smiley face out of the chocolate chips. Linda appeared to have made enough to feed a small army, so they were all able to have second helpings, with plenty left over for Gene and Louise.

   “So, what are we gonna do today?” she asked, not knowing what else to say.

   “We're gonna have a movie day on the couch,” Linda told her, sitting down. “We'll wait for Gene and Louise to wake up, and then I'll make popcorn and cocoa. How's that?”

   “Sounds great.” Tina smiled. “Are Gene and Louise okay?”

   “They'll be fine,” Bob assured her. “Just like you.”

   “Okay, good.” Tina smiled again as her dad reached out and gently patted her good arm. “What's wrong with my arm? I didn't hear what they said.”

   “Uh, they said you have a mild shoulder tear,” said Linda, and Tina looked confused. It didn't feel like anything had ripped. “But it'll be fine, and they said to give you ice packs and medication and it should heal up on its own,” said Linda, and Tina nodded. “Gene sprained his elbow and wrist, and Louise twisted her knee, and sprained her shoulder.”

   “Okay,” said Tina.

 

For a moment, the three of them were silent, Tina finishing off the last of her breakfast, and Linda clearing the plates when she was done. Tina was wondering what the kids at school were going to say when she and her siblings returned. She didn't know if the other kids had gone back already, and if they had told anyone. It wasn't like the teachers could give them detention or anything, but Tina wondered if they would believe her; Louise did have a tendency to stretch the truth. Perhaps the teachers would understand if her parents explained it; they'd have to believe the grown ups, right? Adults didn't lie.

As she tried to imagine what school would be like with her arm in a sling, there came a knock at the door.

   “I wonder who that could be,” Linda put down the plates, and headed downstairs. Opening the door, she beamed when she saw Zeke standing there.

   “Good mornin', Mrs Belcher.”

   “Hey, Zeke, how ya feelin'?” She bent down and hugged him.

   “Oh, just fine, ma'am. I was wonderin' how your kids are doin'?”

   “They're fine; you're so sweet for asking.”

   “Thank you, ma'am. Can I speak to Tina?”

Linda stood by and called Tina, retreating back upstairs when Tina had come to the door.

   “Hey,” she said, not knowing if she should hug him, or take his hand, or do nothing, so she did nothing.

   “Hi.” Zeke appeared to be just as unsure as she was, and kept shuffling his feet. “Are ya okay?” he eventually asked, not really knowing what else to say.

   “I'm fine. What about you?”

   “Oh, I'm all right. What about Gene and Louise?”

   “I don't know; they're still asleep. Mom and Dad said they're gonna be okay.”

   “Okay. That's good. ” Zeke bounced nervously on the balls of his feet, while Tina just stared at him. She found that she liked the way his curls bounced when he did, the way he bit his bottom lip. His eyes (a very nice hazel-green, she noted, as if seeing them for the first time) kept looking between her and the ground. He glanced behind him. “Can we talk?” he asked.

   “Sure. Come in.” Tina stepped aside and allowed him to enter. Closing the door, they headed upstairs to her bedroom. Once inside, Tina sat on her bed, and gestured for Zeke to do the same. When he did, she noticed that he was fidgeting a lot, just like when they were in the forest. “What is it?” she asked, watching his twiddle his thumbs, and shake his knee.

   “I don't know how to say it,” he said quietly. Tina merely waited, looking at him. She didn't feel nervous; she didn't really know what she was feeling, except that she was glad to see him. “Well, I've told ya before that I like ya – like, like-like ya, haven't I?” he asked, and she nodded, remembering back to that time in the maze. Back then, she had been unsure if he was genuine.

   “I remember,” she said, thinking to later on that day, when they were all back at home, absolutely drenched from head to toe. It had been late, so after they had dried off and put on their warmest pyjamas, Linda had sent them straight off to bed. And then Tina had got to thinking. Thinking about Zeke. “You had a whole date planned for us.” She could still remember how shocked she had been to discover that Zeke knew what her favourite things were. A typical date with Jimmy Jr. would involve a dinner in his dad's restaurant, followed by a walk on the beach, and usually somewhere where he could dance. She would have loved for him to take her to the aquarium. Not that she didn't enjoy the beach; she loved walking barefoot in the sand, especially at sunset, but Jimmy Jr. would be too busy dancing to pay much attention to her.

   “And I really meant it. What I'm tryna say is that I do like ya, I still like ya, but we shouldn't have done what we did.” His gaze flitted to the ground. “I didn't mean to lead ya on like that.”

   “What? Lead me – you didn't do that,” Tina assured him. “I kissed you, and I did that because I wanted to. Because I like you, too,” she admitted, and Zeke finally looked up at her.

   “You do?” He seemed so shocked that it made her want to laugh. She had a feeling she was going to enjoy getting to know him. The past three days had shown her so much about who he really was, and it kind of excited her to find out about the “real” Zeke.

   “Yeah.” Saying it out loud felt almost cathartic, like a release of some kind. Zeke smiled at her, his eyes crinkling, and she smiled back.

   “But -” the smile quickly dropped from his face “- yer datin' my best friend, and we kissed. That's wrong.” He didn't want to say the word 'cheating'; it just felt too real, and too grown up.

   “Technically, me and Jimmy Jr. aren't together right now,” Tina told him. “We haven't been 'together' for a couple of months now.”

Zeke looked back at the ground, anger building up inside him. How could Jimmy Jr. do that to Tina? How could anyone do that to anyone? If Zeke knew Jimmy, which he did, he knew that Jimmy Jr. would decide to get back with Tina when it was convenient for him, and he would expect her to be right there, waiting for him.

Zeke remained quiet, fearing that he would say something that he would regret. After all, Tina had dated him for what seemed like years, and Jimmy Jr. was a good friend. It felt wrong to talk bad about him behind his back. “Zeke?” Tina's voice caused him to look up at her. “You okay?”

   “Yeah, I'm fine,” he said. “Just feel a li'l guilty.”

   “We didn't do anything wrong,” she said. “I didn't cheat on Jimmy Jr. You don't need to feel guilty about anything.” Reaching out, she took his hand once again. Zeke didn't pull away and merely clasped her hand tightly.

For a while, they just sat like that, quiet and content. They didn't speak; they didn't need to.

   “So, what do we do now?” asked Zeke, looking over at her, and Tina gripped his hand tighter.

   “Well,” she began slowly. It dawned on her that there was only one thing to do. “First, I should officially break up with Jimmy Jr. Even though we're not together, I should still break up with him. Then, after that, maybe we could go out somewhere?” she suggested.

   “Ya mean, like a date?” His eyes practically popped out of his head.

   “Yeah. Don't you want to?”

   “Sure!” he said, a little too eagerly. He felt like punching the air; Tina liked him! She wanted to date him! Was this really happening, or was this some crazy, wonderful dream? He couldn't believe it. “Oh, wow, T-Bird! I never thought this would happen! What time is good for ya?”

   “Maybe this weekend?” she suggested. “Or Friday after school? I'll have to let you know when I have a day off.”

   “Okay.” Zeke was beaming; his face flushed with excitement. Tina had to smile; it was great to see him so happy. She didn't think she'd ever seen him like this when he wasn't wrestling.

   “I think Friday after school would be best,” she said after a moment. She knew her parents wouldn't mind her being a little late.

   “Sure; you got it.” Zeke turned to face her, still beaming. “This'll be a great story to tell our kids,” he quipped, and Tina smiled.

   “Like 'How I Met Your Mother'?” she said, and Zeke laughed.

   “That's it!”

 

Once again, they fell silent, still holding hands. Tina couldn't help but notice how gentle his touch was. Holding hands with Jimmy Jr. was like holding a limp fish; his grip was always so slack. Until he started dancing, and then she would be pulled to and fro. Zeke was just holding her hand, giving a caring squeeze every now and then, his fingers intertwined with hers, his thumb occasionally rubbing the back of her hand. It was nice. “I suppose I should get goin' now,” said Zeke, after a few more moments of silence. “I'm not really supposed to be out; my Grandma will pitch a fit if she finds out I'm gone.”

   “Okay,” said Tina, and they both stood, but they continued holding hands. Together, they walked out of her room, and down the hallway. Only when they reached the front door did they let go.

   “I'll see you Friday, then?” asked Zeke, his eyes bright, a hint of a blush creeping up around his neck.

   “I'll see you probably earlier. I think we're gonna go back Wednesday or Thursday, so I'll see you on those days. I'll see you on Friday, too.”

Zeke only smiled; he loved it when Tina got tongue-tied, and took things too literally.

   “Ya wanna meet by our lockers after school on Friday?”

   “Sure.” Tina smiled. “I'm looking forward to it,” she said honestly.

   “Me, too. So... I'll see ya later?”

   “Bye.” Before Tina could change her mind, she leaned forward and gave Zeke another peck on the lips, smiling again when he stuttered a little bit. “See you later.”

Zeke was now grinning so widely it was a wonder his face didn't split in two, and Tina couldn't help but watch him as he walked down the street, a spring in his step.

Tina chuckled to herself as she heard him whoop faintly in the distance, and she closed the door and headed back upstairs. She couldn't stop smiling, and she didn't even register the pain in her arm; her mind focused only on what was going to happen on Friday after school. Tina made her way back to her bedroom, and lay on her bed, daydreaming about what was to come, and what it would mean for her.

She thought back to what Zeke had said when she had stolen the mascot costume for him, and another smile crossed her face.

'Damn, Tina. Now I got a story to tell on our wedding day. You think that's not gonna happen, but I'll get ya, girl. I'm gon' getcha.'

Not if she could tell it first.