[Some small parts of this story really did happen, just this way!]
When Michael first became lost, he didn't think he was lost at all. Michael was on a big adventure! He loved the woods. He knew the names of the towering oaks, big-leafed maples, and white-bark birches. He knew about the moss that grows on the north side of the oldest trees. He had his canteen, and understood the mysteries of brooks and streams and hidden mountain springs. Michael was confident in all the woodsman lore he'd learned as a Boy Scout. He was twelve years old. He wasn't afraid.
Michael was on a mission. He wore the heavy winter coat his Dad had bought him for Christmas just a couple months ago. His feet were warm in clunky hiking boots, still a little wet from playing in the creek near camp. He carried his trusty mess kit, plus a few candy bars in case he got hungry. He didn't have far to go, just over the hill and around the bend, down to the highway. Michael didn't have a compass, though. Or a map. And the woods stretched all around him, chilled and uncaring about the little boy who strode through trees that reached fifty feet above his mop of long brown hair.
The brave, small Scout whistled to himself as he walked. His eyes, behind bookish glasses, roamed the leafy ground, watching for snakes and branches that might trip him . Deeper and deeper into the forest, Michael hiked. Two silent owls watched him pass beneath their perch, fuzzy heads turning together as the boy went by, unaware. A hungry cougar, fur coat dusty and matted after a long winter spent chasing mice and rabbits, scented Michael from hundreds of feet away. The wily old cat knew about Man, and loped off to a safer part of the mountain. Timid rabbits, still shedding their heavy winter coats, hid beneath leaves and wiggled pink noses as the young man rattled and whistled along a faint forest trail nearby. High in the treetops the March wind stirred long branches.
The first night Michael spent in the big woods wasn't so bad. It was cold, but he had water to drink, and he knew how to snuggle into the leaves for warmth as the rabbits did. He slept fitfully, dreaming of his bedroom and of basketball in the driveway and of the smell of peanut-butter cookies from the kitchen. He awoke at first light that Sunday. Crawled from beneath his leafy shelter and combed the crispy remnants from his shaggy head with dirty fingers. His mess-kit was gone, left behind somewhere along the way yesterday. He could taste the last tantalizing hint of a Butter-finger on his teeth. He was thirsty, and glad when he found a tiny creek with cool, clear water. His stomach gurgled and made him worry about dysentery and cholera and all sorts of scary water-born dangers.
Michael skirted deep ravines and rocky outcroppings as he walked deeper into the woods all day Sunday. He knew the road was just ahead, around the next bend, just past those trees. Or those trees. He spoke quietly to himself about this and that. He was hungry, and wished he had a twenny-two, so he could round up some lunch. He had no matches anyway for fire. He passed through thickets of mountain brambles, brushing the thorny shoots aside carefully. He tore his jacket and worried that his Dad would be angry when Michael got home later. A tangled dead-fall beside the trail would have made a good shelter, but it was early afternoon and Michael had no thought of spending another night under the stars.
When Monday dawned cold and gray Michael finally knew he was lost. He tried not to be scared, but his stomach hurt all morning. He sniffled as he searched the mountain for a better trail, but not because he was sad or afraid! His nose just wouldn't stop running. His feet were wet and his toes were itchy. He passed the same soaring oak tree twice but didn't notice. He made a stout walking stick from a hickory branch that was just the right size; he thought he might need it if he came across a momma bear (he hoped he wouldn't!). He scanned the bushes for berries that he could eat, and found nothing familiar. His ears played tricks on him, buzzing and humming funny background sounds that might have been helicopters. Some of the things that Michael saw through the branches weren't there at all.
Night fell early that evening for Michael. Giant flakes of brilliant white drifted down through the trees and hid the last rays of sun. He buried himself in another leaf pile, cried a little, scrunched his eyes shut, and fell fast asleep. The two old owls watched over him silently, yellow eyes winking in unison. The mountain lion loosed his lonely cry on a hillside half a mile away. The wind blew stronger as darkness descended. Snowflakes swirled and raced between the creaking old trees.
Michael awoke to a winter wonderland. Not a breath of wind. Icy diamonds flashed in the deep blanket of snow around him. The owls said, "who? hoo, hooo." The big cat appeared in a clearing that hadn't been there when darkness came last night. His coat was nearly white, and glistened in the blinding sunlight. Two snowshoe hares, dappled white and tan, sat on either side of the cougar, motionless. The cat turned and trotted down a broad snow-path into the woods. Michael stood up, wide-eyed, snugged his jacket tight, and followed along. The rabbits flanked him, skipping along on top of the crusted snow.
Walking the path, with rabbits and cougar as guides, Michael felt a great joy fill his heart. Suddenly the woodland trail ended in a circular clearing. In the center, nestled beneath a towering spruce, was a perfect little house with a red door and white-frosted windows. A plume of pale smoke curled up from a wide brick chimney on the rooftop. A magnificent sleigh rested in the dooryard. The cougar stood proudly between Michael and the team of snorting reindeer that surrounded the sleigh. Their shiny silver bells jingled when the reindeer raised their heads. Michael's heartbeat raced, his eyes wide with wonder. He heard voices inside the house. Somewhere nearby a dog barked. And the illusion shattered in an instant.
"Michael!" Like a cry in a dream. "Michael!" again. Then there was a cold tongue on Michael's cheek, and an enormous "woof" in his ear. The little boy awoke again, to the real world this time. Sunlight flashed off orange jackets. The big dog, Gandolf, was as real as the orange coats worn by the jubilant search party. Unable to speak yet, Michael stood up on shaky legs as his rescuers radioed out, "We have found Michael. He is OK."
[Michael Auberry was found on Tuesday morning, March 20 2007, near Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina - about a mile and a half from his campsite - by rescue workers and a search dog named Gandolf. He was weary and disoriented, but unharmed. Merry Christmas!]
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