The Wolf Boy disappeared from Forest Lawn Cemetery on the day I moved into my new apartment. The radio in the kitchen was playing, so I learned the news from a muffled voice coming from a distant room as I unpacked. Jason Wolf and his sixth grade class from City Academy were visiting the cemetery as the conclusion to their year-long study of local history. Somewhere between Chief Red Jacket’s monument and President Millard Fillmore’s grave, the teachers noticed that Jason was missing. They assumed the boy had wandered off but would soon be found.
Read all the winning stories from the Great American Fiction Contest 2013:
- “The Decline and Fall”
by PJ Devlin
- “The Wolf Boy of Forest Lawn”
by Stephen G. Eoannou
- “Surface Tension”
by Andrew Hamilton
- “The Battle of the Pewhasset Pie Palace”
by Cynthia McGean
- “A Corner Room at the Y”
by Marvin Pletzke
- “The Conch Shell”
by Caroline Sposto
They were wrong.
The police were notified and squad cars crept up and down the cemetery’s curved and intertwined roadways, the cops calling his name through loudspeakers. By the time I ate my dinner that night in front of the television and surrounded by empty moving cartons, all the local channels were broadcasting live from the cemetery about Jason’s disappearance. His class picture was shown along with a phone number to call if anyone had seen a ginger-haired boy wearing khaki shorts and a white golf shirt in the vicinity of Forest Lawn.
By morning, volunteers from Jason’s school crisscrossed the grounds on foot, moving in a grid, finding nothing.
Searching the cemetery was no easy task.
Forest Lawn was inspired by the designers of Paris’ Père Lachais, who thought a cemetery should be a celebration of not only lives already lived but the life that continues after us and represented by a lush, natural, rugged setting. The cemetery consisted of 269 acres of rolling hills and valleys, spring-fed lakes, twisting creeks, and ten thousand trees. It also backed up to Delaware Park with its additional 350 acres of meadow, forest, and lake.
The Wolf Boy’s story interested me because Jason was a middle schooler, and I had just been hired to teach English at PS 64, the public middle school in the same neighborhood as Jason’s private one; I was to begin that September, and it would be my first teaching job out of college. Jason could’ve been my student, lost on my watch during a class field trip. Some of my incoming students in the fall may have known him from the neighborhood, or gone to elementary school with him, or at least seen him around.
Over those next few days after his disappearance, however, we all got to know the Wolf Boy from the news reports: how he was an average student, an only child, and had visited the emergency room several times over the years for suspicious bumps, bruises and, once, a broken wrist. We learned how the police had been summoned to his home twice this past year on domestic disturbance calls. Another picture emerged as well: how he was a Scout and loved to hike, fish, and camp. Interviewed neighbors told how his tent was always set up in the backyard and how he would sleep in it even in foul weather. It made me wonder how bad life inside his home must have been if he always wanted to stay outside in a leaky tent. As the days passed and he was still not found, we were told how family and friends clung to the hope that his outdoor skills would help him survive until rescuers found him. But he wasn’t found, and no ransom note was received, and each day the Wolf Boy was in the news less and less.
By September, I had nearly forgotten about him. I had my own problems to worry about. Because of a maternity leave, a nervous breakdown, and an unfortunate late-summer lawn mowing accident, PS 64’s Science Department was down three teachers and I was told that I, an English teacher, would not only be teaching seventh grade science for the first semester, I’d also be in charge of The Seventh Grade Fall Expedition, a semester-long study of a topic explored in depth from the perspective of as many classes as possible—history, art, geography, science, math and music. In past years students explored the development of the city, the impact of immigration, and our natural waterways. The year the Wolf Boy disappeared, our expedition focused on Forest Lawn Cemetery and Delaware Park.
Two days before school started, I sat in my classroom reading about native plant life when I heard a knock on my open door. A petite woman standing in my doorway gave me a small, tentative smile, revealing a space between her top front teeth that I found endearing. “Are you busy?”
“No, not at all,” I said, standing and moving toward her. “I was just reading about eleocharis tortilis.”
She bit her lip as she thought. “Wright’s Spikerush?”
“Twisted Spikerush,” I corrected, “if these notes are right.”
“I’m Pat Green,” she said, and extended her hand. “The long-term sub for Mr. Clark.”
I squinted at her. “Clark? Lawn-mower-accident teacher?”
“No, nervous-breakdown teacher.”
“I’m David,” I said, shaking her hand. “Maternity leave replacement teacher.”
She was a petite with flashing dark eyes, and high, delicate cheekbones. A yellow short-sleeved blouse clung to her, and I guessed she was 10 years older than me, maybe more. I glanced at her tanned left hand and saw the pale line where she had recently worn a wedding ring. It was difficult not to stare.
She walked in and glanced around my bare science lab. The only things that hung on the walls were a clock that ran 12 minutes fast and, strangely, a portrait of John F. Kennedy, as if he was still the sitting president.
“I love what you’ve done with the place,” she said.
“I haven’t had a chance to work on my bulletin board or hang posters. I’m trying to figure out how to teach science.”
She flashed her gapped smile. “Me, too.”
“Have you been teaching long?”
“I’m trying to get back into it,” she answered, looking out on the student lab tables, as if picturing the seats filled with seventh graders. “I’m hoping this will turn into something full time.”
“That would be great.”
She turned to me, her dark eyes looking nervous and shifting, their gaze moving around my bare room until they settled on me. “I wanted to talk to you about Cole.”
“My son. He’ll be in your first period class. He should be on your roster.”
I glanced at the rosters sitting untouched on my desk. “Yes, of course.”
She nodded. “I wanted to ask you for a favor. Well, two favors, actually.”
She bit her lip again before she spoke, this time harder, so the color drained. “Cole is a good kid. A smart kid, really. But he has a hard time focusing and is easily distracted.”
“A lot of boys have that problem in middle school,” I said, trying to remember if this was true or not. It sounded right.
“He was in trouble a lot last year because of being disruptive or just not engaging at all.”
“I see,” I said, nodding and furrowing my brows, attempting to look like a teacher.
“I’m worried how he’ll be this year. My husband and I separated over the summer, and Cole is going through a hard time. I’m afraid he’ll be even more of a problem this semester.”
So she was available.
“Which brings me to the first favor,” she said, taking a deep breath. “I don’t want you to treat him differently than any other student. I’m not looking for special treatment.”
“Of course not,” I said, and could see her pulse fluttering in the soft, kissable hollow of her throat.
“But if his behavior gets out of hand, if things have to be elevated, could you just let me know before you report him?”
“Absolutely,” I said, forcing my eyes to stay locked on hers and not drift downward. “That’s not a problem at all.”
“Maybe if I know beforehand I can talk to him, try to get him to straighten up before the administrators are involved.”
“Sure,” I said. “I just want what’s best for Cole.”
Her whole body relaxed then, and her smile was wide. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” I said, like I was accustomed to solving student problems. “What kind of kid is he? What’s he into? Sports? Music?”
Her body once again tensed as if a key had been inserted. “Jason Wolf.”
“What about him?”
“That’s what he’s into. Jason Wolf. He’s become obsessed with him ever since his disappearance. He cuts out articles about him and hangs them in his room. He draws pictures of him in the woods, living in a cave and fishing.”
“They were in Scouts together until Cole decided scouting was stupid and dropped out. Jason was always the top scout. The newspaper’s right: He is a regular Daniel Boone. He had more merit badges than anybody. Cole is convinced that Jason is alive, that he planned the whole thing, that he’s living out in the park and cemetery like some savage. And right now, unfortunately, the idea of living in the woods, away from his family situation, is very attractive to Cole.”
“Are you afraid he might sneak off during the expedition? To try to be with the Wolf … Jason?”
Her chin quivered as she nodded.
“I’m sorry, Pat,” I said, and reached out and stroked her warm arm, her arm so richly tanned I imagined her massaging coconut-scented creams and lotions into her skin until it glistened in the summer sun.
She took a deep breath, recomposing herself, before she continued. “My second favor is if I could co-chair the science part of the expedition with you. If I’m involved in all the planning, if I know what’s to take place and when, if I’m there as a chaperone to keep an eye on him, it would make me feel as if I’m in control somehow.”
“Sure. Absolutely,” I said, imagining us working closely together and getting to know each other.
“Thank you,” she said.
I looked at the clock running 12 minutes fast. “It’s getting late. Do you want to go for coffee or a drink and figure this expedition out? I have the folder Mrs. Durant started on the expedition we could go through,” I said, and half turned, pointing to a stack of folders on my desk with my thumb. I was almost certain I saw a folder on the expedition in the pile.
She hesitated for a moment, weighing the pros and the cons, the implications, the messages, real or perceived, which were being sent, and then, finally, said no.
My students were confused on the first day of school. They’d walk through my door, take two steps into the classroom, then stop when they saw my posters of Dickens and Steinbeck hanging on the wall, the bust of Hemingway on the lab table in front of the room, and my “Read Banned Books” bulletin board. They would look down at their class schedules, check the room number, and then look up at me, uncertainty and a touch of fear splashed across their faces.
“Come in,” I said to them. “You’re in the right room if you have Science this period. I’m Mr. Sanders.”
“What’s with all the stupid book posters then?” one boy said, slouching his way to an open desk. He wore his hair long, and it hung in his eyes; he’d flick his head, tossing his hair aside so he could see. Even if Pat hadn’t showed me the picture she carried in her wallet, I would have recognized her son right away. They shared the same dark, almond-shaped eyes, and identical cheekbones. He was a sullen version of her.
“Those posters will be replaced with more science-oriented ones as the semester goes on. I just wanted to have something on the walls for now.”
“Weird,” Cole muttered as he slid into his seat and began immediately to draw.
As more of my students filed into the classroom and filled the empty desks, the more I found myself pacing in front of the lab table, a manic energy coursing through me as I greeted them. I’m sure I would have been nervous on my very first day of teaching no matter what, but my anxiety was compounded by not only being forced to teach an unfamiliar subject, but also by having Cole in my class. Pat and I had stayed late twice to plan the expedition, and each time I asked if she’d like to get a drink or a bite to eat afterwards, and each time she had politely refused. I had a feeling that if I was to get anywhere with her, Cole was the key. I wanted all my students to like me, to think I was the cool new teacher, but especially Cole. If I could win him over, I was certain I could win over Pat as well.
After the bell rang signaling the start of class, the majority of the period was spent doing housekeeping tasks: reviewing homework, attendance, and detention policies; explaining the grading system for the semester; handing out lab books. Cole ignored me the entire time, his head bent to his drawing. Occasionally, I would hear him sigh or mutter “Boring” under his breath.
“The real foundation for the fall semester is The Seventh Grade Expedition. Does anyone know what that is?” I asked, looking out on rows of blank, bored faces.
I looked toward Cole, but his head was resting on the crook of his arm. Pat had told me she wasn’t going to tell him about the trip until she had to; she was afraid he’d start making plans like Jason had.
“Don’t we go somewhere and study something?” a girl in the front row answered. I think her name was Jill. Or Judy.
“That’s right,” I said. “And this year, all the seventh graders, not just this class, the whole seventh grade, will go camping in Delaware Park and Forest Lawn to study the wildlife and plant life of the region. It will give you a feel for how real biologists and botanists work in the field and the skills and tools they use to conduct research.”
Cole’s head snapped up. “The cemetery?”
Jill-Judy wrinkled her nose. “We’re going to camp out on graves?”
“No, we’ll camp in the park, but we’ll spend a lot of time studying the flora of cemetery. They named it Forest Lawn for a reason, right?”
“The Wolf Boy lives in the cemetery,” Cole said.
Jill-Judy half-turned in her seat and looked back at Cole. “No, he doesn’t. He disappeared from the cemetery. He doesn’t live there.”
“Yeah, he does,” Cole answered. “He’s like Mega-Scout. He could live anywhere.”
“I heard that, too,” another boy with a mouthful of silver braces said. “He’s a jungle boy.”
“I think he’s part Indian,” a girl with acne said. “Iroquois or something.”
“He is not. I went to Sunday School with him,” a redheaded kid said. “I think he’s German.”
Suddenly my class was alive. For the first time that morning they were attentive, engaged, and talking. They had found a topic that interested them – the Wolf Boy– and everybody had an opinion.
“Why couldn’t the police find him in the cemetery then?”
“Because he’s the Wolf Boy!” Cole yelled.
“Some psycho got him. They’ll find his chopped up and rotted body next spring when the snow melts.”
“Yeah, and what about the snow? How’s he going to survive the winter?”
“I heard he runs around the cemetery naked,” a kid in the back of the room said.
“You’re weird,” the girl next to him replied.
“What does he eat?” Jill-Judy asked.
Suddenly I saw how I could reach them, how I might actually educate them. “OK, OK. Time out,” I said, making a ‘T’ with my hands like a referee. “Jill raises a good question.”
“Judy,” she corrected.
“Judy,” I repeated, and smiled apologetically before walking toward the chalkboard. “What would the Wolf Boy eat if he was living in Delaware Park and Forest Lawn?”
No one answered.
“Come on,” I said, the chalk poised above the board, my heart beating fast. “What would he eat? Call them out.”
“Plants?” Judy asked.
“Absolutely,” I said, writing it down.
“Nuts,” someone else called.
I added it to the list.
“There’s deer in the park.”
“How’s he going to kill a deer?”
“He’s the Wolf Boy,” Cole said. “He can do anything.”
“There’s lots of birds there.”
“I saw a turtle there once.”
“He could set out buckets and drink rain water.”
“Where’s he going to get a bucket?”
“He could kill the deer with the bucket. Just sneak up on it and smack it in the head.”
I turned to face them. “OK, settle down,” I said, and miraculously they quieted. I jerked my thumb over my shoulder. “That’s a pretty good list you came up with, and you came up with it fast. And guess what? That’s what we’re going to study during the expedition. We’re going to study the plants and animals of the park. We’ll identify and name them. Categorize them by their species and scientific names. The specific plants. The specific berries. The specific nuts. The types of birds that live there. What would the Wolf Boy eat? What plants would make him sick? Which flowers are edible?”
For the first time all period, Cole raised his hand, his eyes bright, his face flushed. “You mean the whole semester is going to be about the Wolf Boy?”
The bell rang like an alarm, signaling the end of class. “Yes,” I said, the words rushing from my mouth before I had a chance to stop them. “This whole semester is going to be about the Wolf Boy.”
I was sitting at my kitchen table that night, trying to learn the next day’s lesson plans, when the phone rang. Pat’s voice was low and angry on the other end of the receiver. “This semester is not about Jason,” she said, and I imagined her spitting the words through the adorable space between her teeth. “How could you say that?”
“I reached them, Pat! All of them, but especially Cole.”
“This is not what we talked about. This is not what we planned.”
“I know, but they got excited. They got excited about learning. They got excited about nuts. Wasn’t Cole excited?”
There was a pause on the line, and then Pat said, “It’s all he’s been talking about since he got home.”
“See? When’s the last time he’s been this eager to learn?”
“Never,” she said, her voice still low, but the anger now drained from it.
“I think I’m on to something with this Wolf Boy angle, Pat. I really do. I think it will work. Why don’t we meet for a beer and brainstorm about it?”
She hung up without saying goodbye.
The next several weeks were spent preparing for our excursion to the park and cemetery. In history, they learned about Fredrick Law Olmsted, the designer of Delaware Park, and his other work around the city as well as the lives of those buried in Forest Lawn—Chief Red Jacket, President Fillmore, Civil War General Daniel Bidwell, and the 19th-century industrialists who brought the city into its golden age. In art, the students learned sketching techniques and studied the artists–Charles Cary Rumsey, Grace Goodyear, Antonio Ugo—whose bronze sculptures are found in the cemetery. In health class they learned emergency first aid, survival techniques, and identifying poison ivy, oak, and sumac.
In my class, they learned about the Wolf Boy.
I broke my students into teams. One group researched the plants the Wolf Boy could eat and how to identify them. Another group reported on the poisonous ones he had to avoid. A third group cataloged the fauna and ranked them from the easiest to hardest to catch. Cole led the team studying the cemetery’s and park’s physical layout. He poured over maps like Eisenhower planning D-Day; he found aerial photographs; he studied Olmsted’s original design; he identified areas where the Wolf Boy most likely lived.
“Heavily wooded to avoid detection and close to a water supply,” he told us when he presented his findings to the class, pointing to the map he’d hung on the wall, replacing my Steinbeck poster. Since I had announced that the whole semester was going to be about the Wolf Boy, Cole had become my best student. He gave his presentation without reading from his notes and referenced the art work and monuments he had learned about in his other classes. He knew more about Delaware Park and Forest Lawn than anybody.
Pat stood in the doorway watching, a mix of fear and pride alternating across her pretty face. Cole’s presentation ran long, right up until the bell rang; the other students clapped when he finished. When Cole passed me to head to his next class, he gave me a high five, slapping my hand hard.
After the last student hurried out, I turned to Pat, smiling. “He was good, wasn’t he? It was the best presentation so far.”
“Congratulations,” she said, her eyes as black and hard as stones. “You’ve turned my son into the Wolf Boy.”
She left my classroom before I could answer, her heels clicking down the hallway like low caliber gunfire.
The Expedition took place over Columbus Day Weekend that year. The temperature was still warm enough that we could wear shorts during the day and hold off donning sweatshirts or light jackets until early evening when the air turned crisp, foreshadowing the colder, darker hours ahead. The foliage was near peak. Oaks and elms were ablaze with color and fallen acorns crunched under our feet as we hiked to our campsite. The kids kicked chestnuts at each other.
“There are a ton of these,” a voice behind me said.
“Castanea dentata,” another voice said.
“He could roast them,” the first student answered. “He could eat these all winter.”
They had learned something.
I had taught them.
“Don’t look so damned pleased with yourself,” Pat said in a low voice, hiking next to me. Cole was about 10 feet ahead of us on the path; Pat never took her eyes off him.
“He’ll be fine, Pat. All the chaperones know the situation. Everyone’s keeping an eye on him.”
“You don’t know anything. When you’re a parent you’ll understand. Christ, you’re just a kid yourself,” she said, and she hurried away from me to catch up with her son, her words stinging, but I still couldn’t take my eyes off her calves.
Cole disappeared the second night of the expedition.
He’d snuck off with his sleeping bag and backpack sometime after lights-out, not disturbing anyone. I imagined him dressed in black, creeping past chaperones who were supposed to be vigilant, his mother who swore she wouldn’t sleep the entire trip, and rows of tents containing his slumbering classmates.
The news spread quickly through the camp. Students huddled together in front of their tents as the soft morning light of autumn fell on them. Some cried, others looked scared; a few wore dazed expressions, bordering on awe.
“He did it. He actually did it,” Jeremy, the boy with braces, said, as if Cole had shared his plan ahead of time.
Pat came up to me, hate and fear in her dark eyes, tears streaming down her pretty face. She punched me hard in the heart with the side of her fist, like she was hammering a spike through it. “I told you this would happen.”
“We’ll find him, Pat,” I said, trying to keep my voice from trembling. “He’s not gone.”
“He’s not? Then where hell is he, David?”
Panic gripped me; I’d never thought Cole would sneak away. He’d seemed so happy these last few weeks, so engaged, a different boy from the one who had slouched into my classroom six weeks earlier. Everyone—Pat, the students, the other chaperones—stared, waiting for me to answer Pat’s question, waiting for me to take charge, waiting for me to teach.
“The rugged part of the cemetery,” I said, pointing toward Forest Lawn, the idea just coming to me but certain I was right. “On that ridge where it’s all overgrown. That’s where he’ll look for the Wolf Boy first.”
“How do you know?” Pat asked.
“He told us in his presentation. Heavily wooded and close to water, remember? The stream runs right through there. That’s the closest spot that’s like that.”
“You’re just guessing.”
“If he’s not there, we’ll try the next rugged spot and then the next and work our way to the woods, following the stream. That’s what he’ll do. He’s trying to find the Wolf Boy, Pat. I’m certain of it.”
“Damn you, David.”
“We need to go now,” I said, and she and the others believed me.
We didn’t break camp; the tents were left standing in the park. The students were mobilized, eating granola bars and drinking juice pouches as we marched toward the cemetery. I told them not to call out Cole’s name as that would make him hide from us, but occasionally a student would yell for him, or howl like a wolf, or get excited and point out a red-tailed hawk—“Buteo jamaicensis!”—and Pat would snap at them to be quiet.
We marched past headstones dating back to the 1830s, the inscriptions worn by time and weather. We circled Mirror Lake and past the Birge Memorial, a massive monument with 12 Doric columns with the president of the old Pierce Arrow Motor Car Company buried beneath the marble.
I kept my eyes on the rough ridge on the other side of the lake, periodically raising my binoculars and scanning the tree line for movement, spotting nothing but a doe on the move, doing her best to avoid the young bucks during rutting season. My hands shook as I held the binoculars.
We fanned into a line of students and chaperones as we ascended the hill, the ground getting steeper, rockier with each step. My plan was to march to the stream maintaining that line, trapping Cole between us and the water’s edge. As we moved forward, I looked for some sign that he had been there — a discarded wrapper, an apple core, some piece of his old life he was trying to leave behind. Then I found myself looking for some sign of the Wolf Boy – a smoldering campfire, the gutted remains of a small animal, remnants of shed clothing. I saw none of these things, and a dizzying fear touched me deep to the marrow that maybe both boys were really gone.
Then we heard the scream.
Raw. Primal. Like a howl. The sound froze us. Pat’s eyes locked on mine, growing wider as the shriek continued. She mouthed Cole’s name, somehow recognizing it as her son’s wail. It sounded like he was in agony.
When the screaming stopped, we moved toward where we thought the sound had come. Then the wailing began again, the throat-ripping sound guiding us. We stumbled over rocks and roots, our feet slipping on loose stones and dirt, as we headed toward the fading cry.
We found Cole at the base of a rocky embankment on his knees, his arms wrapped around himself, his upper body rocking. He was kneeling three feet from the Wolf Boy. Pat slid down to him and threw her arms around his shoulders, trying to turn her son away from the corpse.
It didn’t take a biologist or a coroner or even a science teacher to see that Jason had been dead a long time. The elements and animals had left too much evidence to dispute that. Later we’d learn from the paper that he had died soon after his disappearance, that he had lost his footing, toppled down the hill, and struck his ginger-haired head on a rock, killing him instantly. Authorities speculated that he had evaded them until the search had been called off. There’d been no campfires, no living off the land, no months of survival on his own.
There’d been no Wolf Boy.
There’d only been Jason Wolf, an 11-year-old boy who’d grow no older.
Cole had stopped howling as Pat held him and now sobbed and moaned in his mother’s arms. The cemetery had grown very still. The children were all silent, too stunned to even cry, and even the birds—Buteo jamaicensis, Dendroica petechia, Agelaius phoenicus—stopped calling to each other from the limbs above. The only sound I heard was my own breathing and a humming in my ear as if someone was holding a tuning fork close to my head. Some of the chaperones tried to push the students back, telling them to wait at the bottom of the hill, to not look at Jason, or what was left of him. I didn’t do that. I let my kids look. I let them get close, letting them see a real horror story, and hoped I was teaching them something.