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.