A short story by Meg Sorick
I lost sight of the dog and I knew I was in trouble. I called her name but whatever had caught her attention was more enticing than me. Mom was going to be so mad. Especially if she had to come looking for me. She hated the woods. She said they were all bugs and snakes and stones to turn your ankle on. And why couldn’t I be a proper young lady and play with my dolls? Why couldn’t I be more like my sister and do as I was told? Yeah, she was going to be mad even if I found my way home. My pink jeans [which I hated] were muddy at the cuff and grass-stained at the knees. I was sweaty and I’m not sure I got all the twigs out of my hair. The woods were my refuge, my enchanted forest, the place where my imagination set itself free. How could I stay at home and play with stupid dolls? Still, I should have known better than to stray from the path.
I stopped and looked behind me while keeping my feet pointed straight ahead. I didn’t want to get even further turned around. Nope. The path was nowhere in sight. I squinted, hoping maybe I could see evidence of my trail —footprints, broken branches or crushed weeds— but there was nothing. With a deep breath, I tried one more time to call the dog. My voice ended in a shriek and I felt tears welling up. I shook my head. Crying was not going to save my bacon.
I stood still, listening, hoping I could hear sounds that would help me figure out where I was. Maybe if I was really quiet I could hear the gurgling of the stream that ran through the property. I could just follow it upstream till I caught sight of the house. I held my breath and tried to hear over the heartbeat sounds in my ears. Nothing. But then… the crack of a branch. I jumped. It sounded big. Mom would be extra mad if I got eaten by a bear. No, that was silly. She would be sad, right? I let out a giggle and clapped a hand over my mouth. Shoot! Now the bear would know I was there. Another branch broke and I heard a snort. Cautiously, I turned my head in the direction of the noise. Saplings bent and branches shook as the buck stepped out of the thicket. Tawny and smooth with at least 10 points on his rack, he was magnificent and he was staring straight at me.
I kept my hands over my mouth and tried to be still. Deer weren’t dangerous. I could just clap my hands and yell at him and he would run away. Even so, I couldn’t help shaking. He dipped his head just a little, still holding my gaze. Then with one deliberate step after the other, he approached. I swear my heart was about to burst from my chest. He stopped just inches away and snorted again. Maybe I was a little stinky? Gross, I suppose. But why would a deer care? And why would a deer get this close? This wasn’t normal. Maybe I should be afraid.
He snorted again and this time he was so close, I felt the breath. My instinct was to run but I rooted myself to the ground. He backed away just a few steps and shook those majestic antlers. Then he turned, moved toward the thicket he’d emerged from and looked back at me. I swear he was trying to tell me something. Follow? I took a tentative step towards him. He moved ahead just a little and waited. I made two more strides. He did the same. Yes! It was like he was saying, “This way.” It never occurred to me that he could be leading me deeper into the forest and further from home. I just knew he was trying to help. I took a deep breath and followed.
The buck moved at a much faster pace than my little legs could manage. I ran and stumbled through the forest, trying to keep up. As he moved out of sight, I fell over a branch and landed hard. Sprawled on the muddy, mossy forest floor, I gave way to the pain and frustration and sobbed. Stupid, stupid, stupid. What was I thinking? Now I would never get home. I would die in these woods. I would starve to death if I didn’t get eaten by a bear. Or maybe I’d get so hungry I would eat poison berries out of desperation. Or get bitten by a snake. Or wolves would get me. Did we have wolves around here? Coyotes, maybe. As I lay there imagining all the ways I would meet my end, something nudged my foot. I screamed and sat up, bracing for the first bite or claw. Instead, it was the buck. He came back! I wiped my tears on my sleeve and stood up.
“Not so fast, this time,” I said. The buck blew out through his nostrils and resumed his trek. And like he got the message, at a much slower pace. On and on we walked and I started to worry. Had I really wandered so far from home? It felt like forever since I’d left the path to chase after the dog. Soon though, I smelled water. You know, that cool, loamy smell that forest streams have? And now I could hear it! Water gurgling, babbling as it rushed over rocks and around bends. I hurried on, down a steep bank, holding onto tree roots and branches as I slithered down to the stream bed. My feet squished in the mud when I landed but I didn’t fall. The buck peered over the bank like he was checking to make sure I was ok. “Thank you!” I yelled up to him. “I got it from here!”
With a shake of his antlers and a big exhale of breath, he was gone.
I waded through the shallows to clean off my sneakers —wet was better than filthy— and followed the course upstream. Soon I found familiar landmarks that told me I wasn’t far from home. Good thing, too. It was starting to get dark and Mom would be extra mad if I ruined dinner.
The dog came running when I emerged from the woods, happily barking and jumping to greet me. “This is all your fault,” I said, grudgingly ruffling her fur.
My mother stuck her head out the door and frowned. “Look at you! Just look at you! You’re a mess! Shoes off and straight into the tub,” she ordered, pointing. “And get right back down here when you’re done. Dinner’s almost ready and your shenanigans aren’t going to hold the rest of us up.”
I obediently pulled off my sneakers and left them at the door. Mom was still muttering under her breath at the state of my appearance till I got out of earshot. I cleaned up and brushed the tangles from my hair as fast as I could so as to not make things worse. My sister would pout. Even though I was the one in trouble, she hated not being the center of attention. Mom would be exasperated and play the martyr as always. Rolling her eyes heavenward and wondering what she did to deserve such a child as me.
As we took our seats at the table, the interrogation began. Where did I go? What did I do? Why was I so late? When was I ever going to learn? And then to my father, “I hope she grows out of this…” and “I told you we should have sent her to camp for the summer.”
“But Mom,” I started. “The coolest thing happened!” Hoping the story would impress enough to distract from my shortcomings, I told them about the buck.
My mother raised an eyebrow. “Led you to the stream. Really.” Then with that pinchy frown that made her look like she’d just sucked a lemon, she said, “Making up stories is not getting you off the hook. You are grounded through the weekend. No playing outside, no dessert and you will wash the dishes every night.”
“But it’s true!” I cried. I turned to Dad for support but he just shrugged sadly. “I’m not making it up!”
“That’s enough!” Mom shouted. “Keep it up and I’ll add more days!”
After clearing the table and scrubbing the pots and pans, I retreated to my room. No TV for me either. I plopped on my bed and stared out the window at the purple dusk sky. Movement at the edge of the forest caught my eye. The buck stepped out of the trees and looked at the house. I jumped from the bed and pulled the screen from my window so I could lean out. The buck saw me, I swear. I waved and he shook his head side to side in response. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back,” I said. And I concentrated real hard so maybe he could read my mind. Then with a flick of his tail, he bounded along the perimeter of the woods to an opening and was gone.
I stayed at the window until it grew fully dark, dreaming. They couldn’t keep me out of the woods forever. And maybe someday, I’d leave and never come back.