The hike was not a real challenge. It would’ve been impossible without his mom’s last gift, the special aluminum snowshoes. Thomas floated across the top of the pure white surface even though his backpack weighed more than half as much as his own ninety pounds. He counted one out loud every forth thrust of the webbed shoe, keeping track on fingers inside both of his mittens. With the day beginning to wane, and his count reaching ten thousand, he flowed between the huge pines, knowing he had covered just a bit more than nine miles. Nine miles of deep snowy pines, leaving the horror of his life behind, all the while knowing that even the large state of Maine wasn’t big enough to hide in. Only the hugeness of Canada could do that. Thomas knew that from his intense study of old geographic maps collected by someone who’d left them at the bottom of the cabin’s firewood box before he and his mom moved in.
In two days Thomas would be twelve, big and strong enough to make a successful escape, but not big or strong enough to confront his fake step-father. The thought of that man made Thomas count louder, until Harold began to protest, raising his meow with each voicing attempt. Although the sound was not his loudest complaint, the cat’s muzzle was squeezed through a crack in the pack’s cover right next to Thomas’s right ear.
“Alright Harry, we’ll call it a day. I’ve got to gather some dry wood from under the trees and you have to sniff everything in sight.” Thomas knew he wouldn’t lose Harold, as the fifteen-pound predator absolutely refused to step on snow. Thomas searched for the biggest pine among the giant evergreens until he found what he was looking for.
It was a great wide branched pyramid of a tree, with extremely wide branches spreading at the bottom. Covered with over a foot of snow from the night before alone it looked to Thomas like a colossal gingerbread cookie with thick frosting. It was not a Christmas tree really because it had no lights or decorations, but it would have to do for both of them. There had been no real Christmas since his mother had died.
Thomas crawled under the lowest of the branches, Harry complaining at the jostling. Once underneath the boy laughed. It was wonderful. He laughed out loud.
“Plenty of old dry branches right here, “ he informed the cat, before gently unstrapping the pack and easing the animal out. Before letting him loose, Thomas messaged the scarred lines of missing fur, six of them in number, one for each time Thomas had run away in the past. Releasing Harold, he then removed the snowshoes, as the cat climbed inside the center of the tree, winding upward around the trunk until the boy could only hear him.
“Don’t stay up there. As soon as I get a fire going you’re going to want dinner. The only mice here are out under the snow and you know how you are,” he yelled quietly with cupped hands. It would not due to have anyone hear, as both of his last two attempts to get away had been thwarted by well-meaning strangers. But this time, Thomas just knew, it would be different. It was why he’d decided to take Harry. They were going to make it together or die together in the wonderfully beautiful forest of Maine. There would never again be a terrible punishment delivered by the man his poor sick mother had thought would take care of Thomas when her disease became final.
Before unpacking any of his supplies Thomas took out the roll of tin foil stored vertically on the side of the big pack. He unwrapped four long sections, approached the trunk of the tree, and then began to work the material up against the bottoms of the lowest branches until he had what he thought resembled a flattened silver umbrella.
Thomas read a lot. A lot. His mother said it was the people of the past teaching the people of the present about how to do things. You didn’t have to learn everything yourself. The ‘Terrible Times Survival in Hell Guide’ had given up all of its information to the boy’s prodigious memory. He gathered and stacked pieces of wood, the smallest at the bottom. His stack eventually resembled a short thick Eiffel Tower, just as the guide said it should. With his Swiss Army Knife blade extended, he opened a small can of Sterno, gouged out a good sized chunk, and then shoved it carefully through the slots at the bottom of his ‘tower.’ Unscrewing the back of his stolen knife handle, now his and not his fake stepfathers, Thomas took out a single waterproof match. He scratched it once, firmly on the haft of the knife. Quickly he pushed the burning sulfur tip into the Sterno. In moments he had a blazing small fire, with its ascending heat drawing the cat back down to his side.
Thomas was nearly exhausted from his long escape. After consuming four cans of Vienna sausages, with Harry assisting, he unfurled a cut piece of old rug, covered himself with a shoplifted space blanket and instantly fell asleep. His last thought, with the cat lying on top of his small chest, that he should have put more wood on the fire.
An inner alarm awakened the boy. It was too warm. He opened his eyes and adrenalin shot through him. Frozen to immobility with fear he could only lay and stare upward. A man sat, legs crossed, only inches away from him, one hand feeding small pieces of wood into the fire, the other stroking Harold’s back.
“You’re awake,” the man said, “that’s good. The snow’s so thick on these trees that carbon monoxide from your fire can be dangerous.”
Thomas stared at the huge man, his eyes unwilling to blink.
“What’s his name?” the man asked, smiling softly at the pleased animal.
“Harry,” Thomas squeaked out, trying to come to a sitting position as far from the man as possible.
“Named after Harry Truman?”
Thomas shook his head, having heard the name in school but not remembering.
“No, after Harry Houdini. Harry can get away from almost anyone or anything.”
“Hmmm,” the big man observed, “seems like he’s had a few close calls.”
“My fake step-father hurt him,” the boy replied, surprised at himself for answering the stranger truthfully. Thomas clutched the unwilling cat back to his own chest, dislodging his shirt and sweater. He quickly pulled the material back into place, noting the man’s eyes having glanced there.
“What’s your name?” the man asked, looking away to stare deeply into the fire.
“I suppose that’s after somebody famous too?” The man inquired.
“Thomas Aquinas,” the boy responded.
“Who’s that?” the big man asked, frowning.
“The famous saint!” Thomas said, forcefully. “Haven’t you been to school?”
The man smiled, “that’s quite a fancy moniker.”
“They call me by my nickname at school. Checkers. How’d you find me so quickly?”
The man frowned again. “Find you? I wasn’t looking for you. I’m hunting.” He pointed toward a nearby branch, against which a rifle leaned. A rifle like none Thomas had every seen. It looked more like a machine gun from a television movie than a hunting rifle.
“What are you hunting,” Thomas asked, a glimmer of hope beginning to glow in his chest.
“I don’t know. I’m trying to learn to hunt again. Just can’t seem to do it. So I’m out here trying. Maybe I’ll shoot a Christmas buck,” the big man answered, scratching the top of his totally bald head.
“How can you forget how to hunt? Nobody forgets something like that. That’s just dumb,” the boy shot back.
The man moved his hand to massage his forehead for a long moment, until Harry pawed him for a bit more attention, which surprised Thomas, as the cat did not normally take to any humans but him.
“I was in some places you’ve probably never heard of. I was in something called Desert Storm, and then Afghanistan. After I got home I went out to hunt, which I always loved, but found I couldn’t do it.” The man shrugged with both long arms extended when he finished, revealing a blue tattoo atop his right wrist.
“Don’t you just aim that rifle at something and pull the trigger?” the boy inquired, pointing at the menacing weapon.
“Yeah. But I can’t do it. I can’t pull the trigger anymore. And its like the animals all know. Earlier, just after dawn, a big buck walked right up to me, snorted, and then walked away, like he knew.”
“He did know. Like Harry knows,” Thomas concluded. “It’s okay though, cause I’ve got plenty of Vienna sausage. Harry and I love Vienna sausage.” He rummaged through his pack pulling out two cans before handing one to the man.
“What’s your name and how’d you get that tattoo?” the boy asked, as he and Harry rapidly consumed the small canned sausages.
“I was with the French Foreign Legion, but I wasn’t a Legionnaire. I was a Marine, but they liked me so they gave me the tattoo.” He held out his wrist for the boy to see. “Names Jim Nelson, but they call me Hugo.”
How’d you get your scars?” Jim asked, keeping his tone light.
Thomas ignored question. “After the author, Victor Hugo?” he inquired instead, proud of himself for remembering.
“Nah, ‘You Go,’ Jim said, spelling it out, “not Hugo.” They looked at each other for a few seconds and then began laughing.
“The scars. Where’d you get ‘em? That why they call you Checkers?” Jim asked,
his tone turned back to serious.
The boy nodded with a sigh, unconsciously rubbing his stomach. “My fake step-dad takes hangers and straightens them out. When you get hit by the end of the wire it leaves a very small mark, like a little ‘v’ or check-mark,” he held up us hand very close to Jim’s face so he could see. One of my teachers said that the marks would probably fade over time, so I’m just waiting. He put his hand down and finished eating what Harry had left of the sausages.
“What are you doing for Christmas?” Jim asked, to change the subject.
“Goin’ to Canada,” Thomas answered, wiping his mouth with one sleeve of his sweater. “We’re staying here for Christmas. This’s our Christmas tree,” he waved one hand up and around at the tree surrounding them. Harold jumped up and crouched down on a branch just over their heads.
“What about music, decorations and presents?” Jim asked, in an interested but analytical tone.
“We don’t need any of that, and I brought this.” The boy hauled out a thick two-piece flute and started screwing it together. “My Mom taught me,” he went on with a great smile. “And we’re not going back. Not ever. Even if we don’t make it.” Thomas’s smile left his face, as he stopped his labor for a moment to look Jim in the eyes. “We’ll just stay out here in this wonderful forest.”
“Okay,” Jim said, after a moment’s reflection. “Okay. We can do that. You can come with me. Karen, my wife, is back at the cabin a few miles from here. She’ll think you’re just great and she loves cats. Her cat died awhile back so you’ll have to watch Harold or he’ll run off with her.”
The boy looked at Jim with a frown, then laughed when he realized that the big man was teasing him.
“My fake step-dad will come looking for me. I’ve got to keep moving,” he said, in a whisper, his expression turning to one of dark foreboding.
“Why do you call him fake?” Jim asked.
“Cause he’s not real. He and Mom never got married. Never did the adoption thing they’d talked about. But nobody really knows that.” He finished assembling the flute and blew a few experimental notes. Holding the instrument like a professional, he delayed for a moment. “You can’t help me. He’s real tough and he’ll hurt anybody who helps me. Said he would kill them.” The flute sank to his crossed legs in surprise as he watched the big man across from him start to laugh.
“Oh, that would be so wonderful,” Jim said, when he settled down. “I haven’t gotten to do anything like that for some time. That’d be such a great Christmas gift from God. And you won’t have to go to Canada, I’m thinking, unless we want to. By the way, Checkers isn’t your nickname anymore.”
The boy stared at the smiling man, seemingly so elated at the idea of meeting his brutal step-dad. He took him in, eyes sweeping over to the automatic rifle leaning against the branch, then down at the man’s tattoo. Suddenly a warm feeling began to flow through his entire being. Being with the man made him feel safe. He realized that he had not felt that way since his Mom died. And the man had said “we,” not “you” about going to Canada.
Thomas started to play the flute, moving through the haunting notes of the entire piece without error until he was finished. The man before him brushed a tear from one eye, turning his head slightly in an attempt to hide the fact.
“What was that song? I’ve heard it before, but I didn’t know it was a Christmas song.”
“Mom said it was the best one of all. It’s called Greensleeves. It’s about not being loved and being sad about it, but how everything will turn out alright anyway if you keep on going.”
Jim nodded, putting a few more sticks on the fire. His life had changed again and he knew it. They’d leave the Christmas tree soon but he wanted to stay under it, with the boy and Harry, for as long as he possibly could. Besides, he thought to himself, it would take some time to work out a new suitable more nickname.