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Gone Astray

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The sun glared down at me through a canopy of leaves. Beads of sweat rolled off my face. The backpack that was filled with only water, a camera, and bread felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. I stumbled through the forest, desperate to get out. Branches whipped against my skin, stinging my arms and face, and thorns grabbed and tore at my clothes. Everything looked the same. The trees, the bushes, the ground; it was all alike. I had no idea how to get out. And the worst part? I was alone.


I had been separated from my friends when I wandered off the path after spotting a beautiful blue jay. I chased it, desperate to get a picture for my album. I had recently started bird watching. It was one of the few things I actually enjoyed. It made me feel connected with nature. After I got a few shots of the blue jay, I spent hours watching the birds soar around and sing their beautiful tunes. I wish I hadn't. Now I was lost and had no idea how to get back.


Suddenly I noticed the trees were getting thinner. This must be it! The woods must be ending! I would soon be united with my friends! I rushed forward, the beating of my heart matching the pounding of my feet as they raced across the dirt floor. But then, without warning, something smacked against my ankle, and I flew to the ground. As I fell, pain shot through my foot and up my leg. I hit the ground hard, scraping my elbow on a rock. A feeling like an electric current jolted up my arm. I lay very still, breathing heavy, sprawled on the dirt as the dust settled around me. The pain in my elbow subsided into a dull aching throb, but the hurt in my ankle refused to vanish. I propped myself up and worriedly looked at my foot. Of course, in my haste, I had failed to notice a tree root poking out of the ground, and I had tripped on it. As gently as I could, I moved my foot out of the root's grasp, yet I still winced as the movement caused more pain to rocket through me. I sat up and inspected my ankle. It didn't seem broken, but it was swelling fast. I snatched a nearby branch and tugged myself slowly off the ground. I glanced to where I had been running. I was almost through.


I hobbled forward, trying my best to ignore my sore ankle, and pushed through some bushes, snapping away the branches that tugged at my clothes. Finally, I staggered out of the forest. Then I peered at my surroundings. Grass and daisies sprung up from the ground. A tiny pale yellow butterfly darted by my face. I watched it float down then flap its wings and flutter back into the sky. My heart plummeted and my shoulders dropped. I slumped against a tree and sank to the ground. I had never been in this place before. I was still lost.


Waves of emotion rolled over me; despair that I would never see my friends again or get out of this place, anger that I had wandered off the path, anxiety because I had no idea what I was supposed to do, frustration because everything looked the same, and I didn't know where to go. What was I supposed to do in a situation like this? I think the town was in the east, but how could I be sure I was heading in the right direction? I tried remembering everything anyone had ever taught me about nature and the woods. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, right? Or was it the other way around? And could I afford to make a mistake/ like taking the wrong path?


I realized how desperate my situation really was. I had no friends, no shelter, the sun was quickly retreating from the sky, and the food and water in my backpack would only last me tonight. Suddenly a lump grew in my throat, and my breaths became quick and short. Before I knew it, tears were streaming down my face and sobs were rocking my entire body. I didn't mean to cry, I just didn't know what else to do.


When I had calmed down and wiped away the last of my tears, I shrugged off my backpack and zipped it open. I tugged out my bottle, took a swig of lukewarm water, and placed the bottle back into my bag. Slinging the pack over my shoulder, I grabbed my walking stick, and, using every muscle in my body, pulled myself off the ground. My ankle felt as if it were being stabbed with a hundred needles, but I was standing straight. My whole body was shaking, and I had broken into a cold sweat. However, I knew if I wanted to live, I would have to try and get to the path somehow. So I began my journey back through the forest. As much as I limped, and as much as I tried not to set weight on my ankle, each step was a strain.


The sun was much lower in the sky. Judging by it, I estimated the time was around 6:30. I quickened my pace as best as I could. I had to get out of here before night enveloped the sky, because I wouldn't make it 2 inches in the dark.


Suddenly I heard a faint noise. I stopped in place, not sure if I had imagined it or not. Then again, a little louder this time, another noise. It sounded as if someone was shouting. More noises. More shouting. The sound of running feet. I squinted through the trees, trying to locate where it had come from. I noticed a faint light that seemed to be growing larger by the second.


Abruptly, four figures burst into my view. My friends! I hurried forward to greet them, but something was wrong. Three passed with panic in their eyes, not even processing that I was there. The fourth, my best friend Rachel, grabbed my arm and started painfully yanking on it.
"Amber!" she shrieked. "Run!"
"What? Why?" I asked, bewildered.


She didn't need to answer my question. At that second, I saw what they had been running from. The light I had noticed before had grown bigger and bigger until it blazed in front of me, eating and engulfing everything in its path. Heat radiated from it, instantly warming my face. A forest fire. I turned on my heel and sprinted, tossing back my crutch and backpack and ignoring the pain that was shooting up my leg. The fire was spreading faster than I ever thought possible. The flames lapped at my heel and the heat scorched my back. I didn't need to turn around to know everything the fire consumed was being turned into a blackened crisp. Suddenly I heard Rachel scream. I snapped my head to the right and watched in horror as she fell. I skidded to a stop and swiveled back, then darted to her. Before I could pull her up, a flaming branch fell on her leg. I jumped back as sparks and ash spurted onto my shirt and singed little holes in the material. Rachel shrieked again, her body thrashing and jerking uncontrollably. I bolted forward, and in one quick motion, tore the branch off her leg. I tore off my sweater and started beating frantically at her burning clothes while she jerked around. When her pants were mostly out, I pulled her to her feet.
"Come on! Hurry!" I yelled.


She stumbled forward with me half dragging her. The smoke billowing from the fire was making it hard to breath and see. The trees started thinning. Was this the same place I had come to before? We staggered out of the forest and almost immediately plunged into icy water. I gave a small yelp of surprise before going under. I stayed submerged in the murkiness for a few seconds before kicking my way to the top and pulling Allie with me. My head burst out of the water and I started treading in place, sputtering and coughing out the water and smoke that had gathered in my lungs. I squinted through the darkness and noticed three other heads bobbing through the water, almost at the other side. I turned around. The fire was almost to the lake. I turned to Rachel.
"Rachel!" I cried.
She coughed. "Yeah?"
"We're going to have to swim, okay? Do you think you can do that?"
She tugged out of my grasp. "Of course."
"Great, let's go."


With those words, I turned and started dog-paddling my way to the shore. The swim was awful. I could feel each individual muscle screaming and protesting against my movements. My clothes were soaked and weighed me down. Every stroke made my arms and legs feel as if they were going to fall off. The bitterness pierced my skin and froze up my body, and although this helped numb the excruciating pain in my ankle, every kick felt like someone was hacking at it with an ax. My heavy breathing caused me to choke on water more than once. But finally we made it. Rachel and I crawled out from the lake and lay, panting, on the sand.
"We did it," I said. "We got away from the fire."
"Yep," Rachel breathed.


I propped myself up on my elbows and looked around. Elation swept through me. I recognized where we were. I had been here before, many times in the summer. Not too far from here was the town. We made it! Then I heard a groan in the sand next to me.
“Rachel, are you okay?” I whispered hoarsely.
“Ugh,” she grunted. “My leg.”
I crawled over to her and inspected it. Most of her pants on one leg had been singed off, revealing the raw skin beneath. Shiny, bright red blisters, blackened around the edges, were scattered all over. The biggest was nearly the size of my outstretched hand and was located on her thigh.
“It hurts,” she whimpered.
“First thing we are gonna do when we get back is take you to a hospital,” I promised. “Just hang in there, okay?”
She grimaced and closed her eyes, then continued breathing through gritted teeth.
Suddenly, I heard feet crunching towards us. I looked behind me and saw my other friends approaching. I sighed, relieved, and suddenly aware of how tired I really was.
"Guys," I said. "Let's go home."



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