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As the blue Chevy Corvair plunged further into the dense forest of the Okefenokee swamp, overhead, the storm was quickly maturing into a tempest. Jagged, neon bolts of lightning raced across mottled gray clouds, each time briefly exposing the sea of trees shimmering beneath a torrent of water right before the deep rumbling of thunder rattled the car’s windows. In the driver’s seat, Paul was clutching the steering wheel with both hands as he leaned in close to the windshield, his eyes narrowed in concentration.
“Jeez Paul, maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” said Maria from the passenger seat beside him, bouncing whenever they hit a new pothole in the dirt road.
Pausing to allow a droning clap of thunder to pass, he replied, “Oh, it’s fine. It’s only a storm. Besides, I don’t think I could turn around even if I wanted to—which I don’t.”
In the years since he had last driven down it, the old logging road had become choked with vegetation, creeping closer and closer inward until, in most places, the route was scarcely more than a single vehicle wide. Towering high above them, ancient oak and cypress trees jostled and swayed in the gusts, their leaves plucked off and carried away on the blustery currents.
Maria had to raise her voice in order to be heard over the clamor of both the storm and the car’s tires splashing through the deepening puddles of muddy rainwater. “Well, maybe we should just stop and let this pass. I’d rather get back home late than be stranded out here for god-knows-how long.”
Paul pretended to regard her suggestion for a moment and then said coyly, “Actually, I’ve got a better idea…”
As he stepped down harder onto the gas pedal, the force pulled Maria back into her seat. “What are you doing?” she asked incredulously, the trees zipping past the window in a blur. Holding on to the armrest with one hand, she placed the other on the dash to brace herself.
“Look,” he said, raising his own voice over the roaring engine, “it’s like taking off a band-aid—the quicker we’re through it, the better.” The car’s rear-end was slipping from side to side as dirty brown fountains of water erupted into the air with each new puddle they plowed through.
“No, Paul. Slow down—are you crazy? We’re going to crash!” The headlights were bouncing wildly, shining alternately from the muddy road in front of them to the shimmery green canopy above.
“Okay, okay, I’ll ease up a little bit.” The car slowed slightly, but the trees were still passing by so fast that Maria was afraid she might get sick. As they sped across the swampy forest floor, her stomach felt as though she were riding on a boat, bounding endlessly atop whitecapped waves and devoid of any mooring to the earth. She swallowed hard to force the bile back down— unsure how much longer she could grit her teeth against the worsening nausea.
Strong winds continued to buffet the car, pushing it first in one direction and then another as the raindrops swirled chaotically in the beams of the headlights. Cresting a shallow rise, a large oak limb, high above the road and brown with death, suddenly snapped free from its massive trunk and plummeted toward the ground below. Before Maria could shout, and with no time to stop in the slick mud, Paul instead stomped down on the gas pedal, narrowly slipping the Corvair beneath the heavy branch as it crashed to the road, splashing mud up onto the car’s rear window.
“Shit, Paul—stop the car!” Sacrificing her hold on the dashboard, Maria’s hand flew to her mouth.
“Stop?” he asked excitedly, the rush of adrenaline visible on his face. “Did you see how close that was? It’s a good thing I was going as fast as I was!”
Maria couldn’t fight it any longer. Doubling over quickly, the vomit erupted onto the floormat at her feet, forming a thick puddle of its own making. Even before she was finished, she could feel her nausea beginning to subside.
“Whoa!” Paul cried out in surprise, recoiling towards his door. In doing so, he jerked the steering wheel to the side, quickly turning the car at a sharp angle. In a desperate attempt to stay on the road, he overcorrected the wheels, revving the engine so high that the noise drowned out the storm entirely. The muddy surface offered no purchase however, and soon their car was spinning in a wobbly circle as it glided over top of the goop.
With bile still fresh in her throat, Maria could only watch in horror as the trees outside the windows melted into a blurry wall of muted greens and browns, erasing all sense of direction. Then, powerless to stop it, the impenetrable wall of foliage rushed up to meet the car. Saplings and weeds slapped loudly against the doors as it tore through the underbrush, angrily scraping against the paint and glass. Just as she realized that they had mercifully missed any of the sizeable trees, the front corner of the car clipped a tall slash pine with a sheet metal-crunching blast, stopping it dead.
Heavy rain continued to drum on the roof of the car as the motionless headlights shined onto a large honeysuckle bush just beyond the hood. Inside, Paul rubbed his head and said in a foggy voice, “Shit, hunny—are you okay?” He leaned over towards Maria who was holding her arm and wincing in pain.
“Yeah, at least I think so. I banged my elbow on the door when we hit the tree but it doesn’t seem broken.” She flexed her arm open and closed a couple of times and then turned to look at him. There was a thin trickle of blood running down the left side of his forehead from a cut above his eye, but otherwise he seemed equally lucky.
“Oh, your head…” she said, squinting in the dark interior of the car.
Paul reached up and gingerly touched the small cut before holding his fingers up in dim light to see the blood. His mind had begun to clear again, and he said, “It probably looks a lot worse than it is. I must have knocked it against the steering wheel.”
“Well thank goodness it isn’t bad,” she replied, looking around them into the dark forest, “but now what do we do?” Outside, the storm seemed to be growing stronger still, with lightning flashing from every corner of the sky in brilliant bursts.
After briefly assessing the scene through the glass, Paul turned the car off and said, “Hang on, let me check it out,” before grabbing for the door handle.
Maria clutched his arm quickly. “You can’t go out there,” she said with alarm.
“I just want to see how bad it is. It’ll only take a minute.” He leaned over and kissed her forehead before opening the door and scrambling out of the car. The sheer chaos of the storm swallowed him instantly, as stinging drops of rain lashed angrily against his face in the wind. All around him, the concussive rumbling of thunder seemed to be coming from every direction at once.
Struggling to keep his eyes open, he had to lean against the stricken car as he staggered to the trunk. Opening it, he quickly rifled through the contents, first by groping blindly in the dark and then aided by lightning, until his fingers brushed against what he was after. Taking the old flashlight out, he slammed the trunk closed and headed back to the front of the car, still bracing against the gale.
Shining the light onto the Corvair where it met the tree, he was relieved to see that the damage wasn’t very bad. The metal was crumpled in on the corner, but the weeds and underbrush had slowed them enough that they hadn’t been going very fast when they hit the tall pine. Seeing Maria’s worried and distorted face through the rainy windshield, Paul forced a confident smile and gave her a thumbs up.
Suddenly, a powerful gust of wind passed through the trees overhead, blowing his wet, brown hair backwards. What sounded like a volley of gunfire erupted throughout the forest, as heavy limbs and treetops snapped off and fell to the ground—each crack accompanied by a chorus of crashing leaves and twigs before ending in a loud thud. Shit, Paul thought to himself, this ain’t good.
As he staggered back around the front of the car, thinking of what to tell Maria, lightning flashed across the sky. Startled, he looked up just in time to catch the glint of a reflection through the trees in the distance. Squinting to see through the wind and rain, he had to wait for another bolt of lightning to illuminate the forest. When it came, he saw the angular peak and protruding walls of a second story box window poking through the leafy canopy less than quarter mile away.
Climbing back into the driver’s seat and closing the door, it was like leaving an alien world as the howling wind disappeared. “Okay,” he said, turning to Maria as he wiped the water from his face, careful to avoid the fresh cut, “do you want the good news or the bad news first?”
“I’d be incredibly surprised if you managed to come back in here with good news, Paul.” He was the most competent man she knew, but at present, their mounting problems seemed to be far beyond even his usually very capable hands.
“Well, then you would be wrong,” he said, smiling. “But, since you didn’t pick, bad news first it is. We’re stuck,” he said matter-of-factly. “I mean, really stuck. Even if the car will drive, which I don’t think it will, we’re still buried in the mud up to the fenders. I can probably get one of the Bannefort boys to pull me out with a tractor, but obviously not until the morning.”
Maria groaned in despair. Then, as her foot sloshed in the vomit on the floor, she groan even louder. “The morning, Paul?”
“But—” he cut in quickly, “the good news is that I can see a house from here.”
Upon hearing that, she perked up immediately. “A house? Really? Way out here?” she asked in rapid succession, her voice a combination of incredulity and relief.
“I know, it’s crazy. Why on earth would anyone want to live all the way out here?” He turned in his seat to look out the rear window towards the direction of the road and said, “Look there—just wait.”
They didn’t have to wait long, and soon the forest flashed with bright light, erasing every shadow and darkness at once.
“There,” he said quickly, pointing at the glint in the distance.
“I saw it,” she said, “how far away is that?”
“Not far. Less than half a mile at the most. We can’t stay here though; with these trees and tops coming down, we’re just as likely to be crushed to death.”
“Oh, no! You can’t expect me to walk all that way. I’m wearing heels; heels that now have vomit all over them—I’ll never make it!”
“Yes you will, even if I have to carry you. I’m sorry, but we really don’t have much of a choice. We can use their phone and ride out the storm in safety. Personally, I can’t believe our luck.”
With every step that she took, the fashionable mauve heels that Maria wore to supper earlier that evening with Paul’s parents sank into the soggy ground of the state road, forcing her to limp and lurch along awkwardly. They had retraced their path of destruction through the vegetation back to the road with Paul keeping one arm wrapped tightly around her for safety as he used the other to guide the way using the flashlight.
Thankfully, the distance to the house was even shorter than he’d guessed, though in the storm, every inch of the way was contested by the heavy wind and rain. Finally reaching the spot along the road that they had seen the glinting off the window, Paul and Maria both stopped and gazed in the direction of the woods, patiently waiting for another bolt of lightning. When it flashed, illuminating the clearing, their hearts sank immediately— their source of refuge and rescue had long ago been abandoned.
Less than a hundred feet from the road, tall weeds and leafy bushes had sprouted up in nearly every inch of open space around a white two-story house that sat brooding atop a gradual rise. The upstairs windows facing the road were exposed, glimmering under a sheet of heavy water, but those on the lower level beneath the covered front porch had been haphazardly covered with boards, crudely nailed over the glass.
From the road, the house had a peculiar look to it, as if something were off, but only slightly so. Paul couldn’t place his finger on what is was however, and the last thing he was going to do at that moment was voice any concerns to Maria, and so he just brushed the thought away for the time being.
Shouting over the rain-soaked wind, Maria asked, “Great, so now what?”
Using his hand to block the stinging cold drops from his eyes, Paul said, “Come on, let’s at least check it out, we can’t stay out here.”
A short flight of wooden steps led up to the sprawling front porch that wrapped around the entire ground floor. The crumbling handrail running along its outside edge was missing several spindles, and the aging façade smiled back at them like a gap-toothed child. Just like the dilapidated structure they both served, the steps and porch were both slowly rotting in the humid swamp air, their moldy white paint peeling off in long, jagged flakes. Dead leaves and other detritus littered the floor, collecting in small, wind-swept piles along the exterior wall of the house.
Grateful to be out of the rain, Paul carefully crossed the rotten porch. When he reached the front door, he had to step over a pile of broken and discarded boards, their rusty nails pointed up into the air menacingly. Grabbing the tarnished door handle, he jiggled it to see if it was locked. When it didn’t move, he twisted harder, wondering if perhaps it was only seized with rust, but it still refused to turn.
“What are you doing?” asked Maria from several steps behind him, hugging herself for warmth. Her wet hair was pressed flat around her face in shiny black ribbons, dripping from the ends. “We can’t just go inside.”
Paul’s eyes widened indignantly. “Why not? Look around, no one lives here anymore! We’re in the middle of the worst storm in a hundred years, our car is wrecked, and we’re stranded somewhere in the middle of the ‘Fenokee—I’ll burn this damn house down if it gets me out of here any quicker. At least in there we’ll be safe.”
Not waiting for her to reply, Paul pulled hard on the door handle in an attempt to yank it open. When that didn’t work, he stepped back quickly before lunging forward and throwing his shoulder against the wood. There was a dry cracking sound, and he rocked back again before slamming into it even harder still, feeling the heavy door shudder beneath the blow.
With only a hundred and seventy pounds at his disposal, it still took several more ramming’s before the latch finally shattered through the old wood in an explosion of brittle splinters—sending the door, and Paul, flying into the house. Stumbling to maintain his balance, he skid to a slippery stop in the entryway as a dense fog of stagnant air escaped through the open door.
“There,” he called back out to the porch from within the darkened house, “that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
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