The Way Back Home

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
March/April 2016

Sawyer McCloskey

“Hey look, everybody! It’s the loser! Hey shrimp, how’s your dad doing?”

Joey hooted and pointed a grubby finger at Finn, who stood horrified as the group of kids on the playground laughed.

Finn lowered his head and pretended not to hear them as he walked slowly off the playground and back to the classroom. Don’t listen to them, he thought to himself. None of them knew what it was like not to have a father. He wished he were brave enough to fight back against Joey and the others who constantly bullied and harassed him. But this was a low blow. Why did Joey have to keep bringing up the fact that he didn’t have a dad?

“Everything OK?” Mrs. Simons, his sixth-grade teacher, asked him kindly as he walked into the classroom.

“Yep,” he said with a fake smile. The last thing he needed was for Mrs. Simons to get involved in his problems. It would just make everything worse. He looked at the clock. It was two o’clock. Just an hour left to go, he thought to himself…

*          *          *

Finn trudged up the hill to the secluded cottage he shared with his mom. It looked welcoming and warm, but there was never anyone inside to greet him. His mother worked very hard all day as a waitress, so Finn was always home alone. He knew his mother loved him, but she really wasn’t able to show it much because of her long hours away trying to support the both of them.

The Way Back Home waiting for classes to end

Just an hour left to go, he thought to himself…

Finn’s father had died when he was seven. He had no memories of his dad at all. Finn plopped his satchel onto the kitchen table and looked in the refrigerator for something to eat. There wasn’t much, but he pulled out a rather bruised apple and found some peanut butter in the pantry.

Finn’s cottage was on the outskirts of town and was surrounded by forest that went on for hundreds of miles into the Canadian Yukon Territory. Finn loved going out and exploring the vast expanse of trees and finding cozy spots to relax and daydream. This is where Finn felt most at home. He could always find his way back, since he kept a self-drawn map that he had made a year ago. There were so many animals, streams, and rocks to play among. Finn never got tired of the woods. He was also an expert tree climber and would take his binoculars up a tree and perch himself up high to watch birds and dream about being one so he could fly away.

*          *          *

Shortly after the sun had set that evening, Finn heard the distant sound of his mother calling out his name. He quickly ran back to his house, hoping his mother wasn’t worrying about him. He saw her in the little clearing around the house. She waved to Finn, but he didn’t wave back. He slowly walked towards his house and went inside.

“Hi, honey,” Finn’s mom said in a tired voice, “how was school?”

Finn didn’t answer. He said a quick good night to his mom, avoiding a kiss, and ran to his bed. He thought of his day at school and buried his face in his pillow. Finn fell asleep to his own sobs.

Crash! Finn abruptly woke to the sound of a pot falling to the ground. He climbed out of bed and walked around the half-wall, rubbing his droopy eyelids to wake himself up.

“Sorry, Finn,” his mom said from a few yards away.

“Thanks a lot, Mom!” Finn shouted. “This was my only day to sleep in and you woke me up. I’m going out to the forest to get some peace and quiet!”

“Finn, I don’t want you going out there today,” his mom argued. “You were out there all day yesterday! You need to get some rest.”

“You won’t even be here to see if I decide to go out there or not! You’re never even here with me. Go ahead and leave, Mom, it would be the same here without you!” Finn shouted. “You don’t even love me! I feel better when I’m out in the forest and not cooped up here with you; I’m leaving for good!

Finn bolted out the door and sprinted all the way into the trees. He didn’t turn around to see his mom’s face streaming with tears.

*          *          *

Finn was so in the moment that he forgot his map, binoculars, and shoes. He knew one way he wasn’t going, and that was back. It was already really late; Finn had been running and hiking for several hours. It was getting dark quickly. He’d have to make a shelter soon. Things started to seem spooky as he collected leaves and sticks. Finn wasn’t sure if he had ever ventured out this far. He could barely find anything to make a fire, let alone make a whole shelter. He decided to go up in a tree to try to find a comfortable spot to sleep. He finally found a thick branch that was sturdy and fell asleep. Finn’s dreams were a jumble of voices, whispering to him about having no parents and no one to love him. He tossed and turned all night, nearly falling off the branch. He woke up with tears in his eyes and a sore back. Swinging off onto the ground, he sniffed the air. His nose shriveled in disgust. The stench was coming from his own dirty clothes, so he set off to find some fresh water.

Soon he found a gurgling creek with crystal clear water. He got in with his clothes on to wash himself and his clothes at the same time. Since he had no parents, he had no rules. As he stepped out of the creek, his stomach grumbled in protest. Finn realized he hadn’t eaten in a really long time, so he decided to make a fire to cook his food on. Taking some small branches he had found, he rubbed them together really hard. In a short time there was a blazing fire in front of him. He found a larger stick under a maple tree and, using a thin, sharp rock he had retrieved from the bottom of the creek, he whittled the end of the stick to a point. Now Finn had a fishing spear. He walked to the edge of the creek and waited for a fish to swim by. Finally, Finn spotted a pink salmon trying to head upstream. He slowly positioned his spear and quickly jabbed it into the water. When he pulled the spear out of the water, he had a wriggling salmon on the end of it. Normally, Finn would have never hurt an animal, but being in the wild had already begun to change him. Finn roasted the fish for a little bit, peeled the skin and scales off, and then wolfed it down, using his bare hands.

The smell of food had attracted a group of three raccoons. They approached Finn’s fish, foam dripping from their mouths. Finn instantly realized that they had rabies. He dropped the rest of his fish, grabbed his spear, and sprinted away.

Finn found a clearing about a mile away from his old campsite. It had lush grass, wide-open space, a small little pond, and tall trees all around the edges. Tired from his long day, Finn curled up right in the soft, tall grass and went to sleep under the bright full moon.

The Way Back Home alone in the forest with a fire

Being in the wild had already begun to change him

The next morning, Finn went over to get a better look at the pond to see if the water was drinkable. Not looking down at his feet, Finn walked right on top of a jagged- edged rock. He cried out in pain. The sight of his own blood spilled out over the grass made him nauseous. Finn sprint-limped over to the pond and shoved his foot into the water. The pain was intolerable. It stung even more in the water. Finn stayed strong though and kept his foot in the water. The water would clean the wound so the gash wouldn’t get infected. While his foot was soaking, Finn tied some long strands of grass together. He put the makeshift Band-Aid around his foot so he could walk on it and then slowly got his foot out of the pond. He decided to take his spear with him and leave. Who knew what else could be lurking under the grass? Finn walked carefully and entered the darkened forest once again.

Now Finn was bored. He had been walking for a long time and his feet ached with pain. He collapsed onto a rock. For the first time in his life, Finn actually missed his house; he missed his mom. He wanted to go back, but he was hopelessly lost. If he ever got back to his regular life, he decided he would stand up to Joey and the other kids. The forest had made Finn a stronger person. Finn turned around; a sudden surge of energy filled him. He stood up off the rock and marched backwards, heading straight to where he thought home was.

Five minutes passed and Finn’s surge of energy was already gone. There was a huge storm and it was pouring. He was cold, wet, and tired again. He was dripping and his clothes were heavy, which made every step a burden. The wind was screaming in his ears. His hair was like a tornado being whipped around. Thorny rose bushes scratched his legs. Hundreds of leaves and branches clawed at his body, as if trying to hold on and not get swept away by the irate vortex of wind. The force of the cyclone was so powerful that Finn felt as if he could just let go and fly along, letting the air carry him to wherever it wanted him to go. No! he thought to himself. Focus. You’re getting back home and some silly little breeze isn’t going to stop you.

As if on cue, the wind angled itself so it was blowing straight into Finn’s face. His eyes were watering, clouding his vision. He stumbled around trying to stay on track, but his foot snagged a root and he went crashing down to the ground. His chest hit the muddy dirt, knocking the wind out of his lungs. Finn rolled onto his back, gasping for air. He waited there for a while, letting the storm subside. Finn finally stood up, rubbing his sore chest. Every part of him was caked with mud. He looked around and saw that he was at his old campsite where he had met the raccoons. He leaped into the creek, rolling and swimming around. It felt so good, and he was sure he could get back home from here. Finn froze as a shadowed figure approached suddenly from behind the bushes. Finn quickly hopped out of the water and grabbed his spear.

“Whoa there, kiddo, I don’t want to hurt you,” a thin, middle-aged man with a bushy beard said and stared at him with curiosity.

Finn was so surprised to see a human being that he stumbled backwards and almost fell into the water again.

“What are you doing at my campsite?” the stranger asked.

“Your campsite? This was my campsite! Some raccoons came and drove me out of it two days ago,” he said, his voice rising. “I’ve been stuck in this forest for like… three days! How did you even get here?” Finn demanded.

“Well, if you want to know the truth, I’ve been stuck out in this forest for longer than you can imagine,” he said. “I had a business that was just starting to boom, and life was about to change for the better. But my partner wanted everything for himself. He had me kidnapped and transported clear up to the top of the Yukon Territory. They left me for dead, but I managed to survive for several years in the wilderness. I’ve been trying desperately to make my way down south back to the town I’m from, and I think I’m getting close. I haven’t seen my wife or my boy, Finn, for so long.” His voice broke.

“Finn?” Finn asked, dumbfounded. “Could you really be…?”

The recognition happened for both of them at the same instant. Finn ran towards his dad. They hugged each other and didn’t let go. It had been so long since Finn had felt the comfort of having another parent, another person to love him and care for him. He didn’t remember what it was like to feel the strong arms of his father embracing him. The moment was disrupted as they heard a low growling. Both of them whirled around. Right in front of them was a gleaming silver wolf. Finn’s dad quickly snatched a small wooden stake out of his pocket, while Finn held his spear poised at the wolf. The wolf pounced on Finn’s dad just as Finn’s dad jumped at the wolf. The wolf got there first.

The animal clamped its teeth on his leg but got viciously punched in the snout in return. The wolf whined and retreated a few steps back. This time it decided to attack the weaker opponent, Finn. The wolf lunged and bared its teeth, but Finn quickly dodged the attack and spun around. He then smacked the wolf with the flat end of his spear. The wolf crumpled to the ground, stunned from the blow to its head. Finn moved in for the kill, but his dad’s hand grabbed his leg. Finn turned around to see his dad lying on the ground, his leg ravaged by teeth marks. Finn quickly went to help him.

“It’s OK, son,” said his dad calmly. “The teeth didn’t get very far in. Nice job handling the wolf though. You saved our lives.”

Finn blushed. He helped his dad put his leg into the water. As his leg was soaking in the creek, Finn was making another makeshift Band-Aid like the one on his foot. He tied the strands of some nearby grass together and wrapped it around his dad’s leg. Finn’s dad looked up at him, impressed.

“Come on, Dad, let’s go back home. I’m sure Mom is waiting. I’ll also probably be in big trouble, since I kind of threw a temper tantrum and ran away,” Finn explained with a sheepish grin.

“Finn,” his father faltered. “I’ve been lost out in the wilderness for so long. Do you really think we can find our way back?”

Finn felt a sudden surge of confidence and a sense of protection for the man sitting next to him. He put a reassuring arm around his father and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get us back home. I promise.”

The Way Back Home Sawyer McCloskey

Sawyer McCloskey, 13
Eagle, Idaho

The Way Back Home Katie Lew

Katie Lew, 13
Winchester, Massachusetts

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