The Path of Least Resistance

 

The path becomes softer underfoot with each step I take. At first, the mushy earth seeps between my toes, but it doesn’t take long for it to become ankle deep. I pause, considering retreat.

Looking ahead, I see that the path turns ahead, alluding at firmer footing, so I decide to continue. Within a few strides I am calf deep in the muck, then knee deep. Soon, I am struggling to make any headway as I reach the corner. The path stretches out before me with no promise of an end to the quagmire. Again, I think of retreat. By now, the cold mud is leeching the heat from my body, and I start to fear for my life.

Waist deep in the gloop, I am in a dilemma. I have come too far to retreat now. I realise that I haven’t the strength to make it back to dry land and find another path. I must continue.

Grasping my fear firmly, I take another step, and then another. My heart is beating like a hummingbird’s, fluttering madly. Each breath is a chore, and yet, I somehow find the strength to continue.

My feet struggle to find firm footing beneath the mud. I feel myself slipping beneath the bog, clutching desperately at clods of grass to keep me from disappearing into the clutching mire.

At one point, I find myself submerged, unable to tell which way is up. I cannot control my panic any longer, and thrash around wildly, looking for light. I want to breathe. I need to breathe, but there is no air in this cold wet hell.

In my mad thrashing, my hand strikes at something, something firm amidst the squidgy softness. Grasping at the lifeline, I fumble in the darkness and find the tree root. I’m drowning in a world of rotting earth and cold dank water, but finding something solid gives me a resurgence of hope. Placing my foot on the root, I push upward with the last of my strength.

I am reborn, gasping for breath as I surface. I want to scream for help, but sense that I am alone. This is my nightmare. Only I can find a way to wake.

Clawing at the blankets, I gasp for breath, shivering as consciousness overcomes sleep. Soaked with cold sweat, I shiver uncontrollably. Sitting up with panicked eyes, I cannot be sure if my bed is dry land amidst the swamp, or whether I am truly awake.

My heart sinks as I notice the aging oak tree, where my bedroom door should be. The mirage of a bed sinks back into the mud, as reality envelops me. I am alive, but I’m a long way from my warm bed.

Covered in oozing slime, I try to stay afloat, but the mud has other ideas. I feel the slime pulling me slowly under, despite my best efforts. At the very last second, I find my voice and cry for help. I know that it is futile, but what have I got to lose?

My head slips under, and I spend the last few seconds of my life with futile regrets and what-ifs.

Fingers brush against my wrist, slide over my palm and disappear. Madness has surely taken over as I feel the soft caressing hand again, more urgently this time. Then, the grip is firmer, wrapping around my wrist and stopping my descent into a watery death. I know that I am lost, and yet, hope blossoms. I wrap my own cold numb hands around the hidden saviour and hold on.

I hear children’s voices, far off sounding. I strain to hear the words.

“I’ve got him! He’s here! Help me pull him out.”

I sense movement, but it is hard to be sure within the blackness of the bog pool. Mumbling a silent prayer, I grip the wrist with desperation, refusing to let go, even if it is only an illusion. Even an illusion is better than despair.

Then my head breaks the surface and I know that I am saved. I blink the mucky water from my eyes, try to wipe my face, but my free hand is too covered in slime to have any effect. I feel the warm sunlight on my face, and hear the sound of children nearby. The voices are clearer now, not figments of my imagination.

I’m dragged onto dry land. They carry my limp body over to the oak tree and lay me down beneath its shade. Cool water is poured over my face, into my mouth. I splutter and cough as they wash away the mud.

“He’s alive!” one of them confirms. “Move back and give him some air.!

“That was a close one,” another voice mumbles. This one belongs to a young girl. I look up and study her freckled face. She doesn’t have a pretty face, but I am still glad to see her.

“Welcome to the island,” she says. “You’re safe now.”

“I took the bog road…” I try to explain.

“Yes, we know. We all did.” A short boy with glasses explains, peering over the ugly girl’s shoulder. “Let me guess. You were trying to avoid that pack of bullies on the other road. Correct?”

He seems familiar. I vaguely remember seeing him at school one day, earlier in the semester.

“Where are we?” I ask.

“We call it the island,” the girl explains. “We are stuck here, at least for the moment, but not for much longer. We’re building a raft. We’ll be able to go home soon, and then we won’t have any more trouble from that pack of bullies.”

“Why’s that?” I ask.

“Because there are more of us than them now. Together, we are going to fight back.”

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