“I didn’t imagine it! There was a light, out there past those trees and waving back and forth like someone was trying to flag down help.” Janet flapped her hands in distress. “Pull over!”
“Anywhere! Just pull over!”
Tom turned the wheel with a sigh, the Jeep following its headlights to a crunching halt on the gravel shoulder. He unsnapped his seatbelt, turning to her with ‘The Look’. The Look said to her he thought ‘Helpful Janet’ was going off the deep end again, just looking for someone to help or save. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again, looking past her, eyebrows rising toward his hairline. Her head whipped around to look through her window, and there it was.
A light, dim in the distance, swinging back and forth in short arcs, exactly like old-time railway inspectors. Or someone trying to flag down help in the dark.
“You see,” she said, spinning back toward Tom. “You see it now?”
“I do,” he replied, shaking his head slightly. “You were right. Let’s go—”
The hinges creaked as Janet flung her door open.
“—see if we can help,” she heard him finish, still in the car as she started toward the trees.
“Wait! Can we at least get the flashlight out of the glove box? Please?”
She glanced back to see him standing by the car looking at her across the roof, backwash from the headlights partially illuminating his worried face. She waved her whole arm in an impatient gesture. “Hurry,” she called over her shoulder, already looking ahead to keep the light in sight. She walked on, keeping a slower pace than she would have liked until she was suddenly back-lit as Tom started after her. She picked up the pace a little and Tom caught up with her, huffing and puffing as they crossed the tree line into the shadows beyond.
“Where did they go?” Tom swung the flashlight beam about. “Did we lose them?”
“This way,” said Janet, striding forward with a ground-eating pace. “I keep losing it, but then it comes back into sight. I think it’s moving.”
“Well, if it’s moving so much, do you really think they need he—”
He broke off suddenly, light flashing everywhere as he windmilled his arms. Janet stopped, looking down to see Tom’s sneaker-clad foot buried up to the ankle in thick mud. He regained his balance and shined the light downward, cursing as he started to wiggle his leg, trying to work his foot free without losing his shoe.
“What the hell is this?”
His foot popped free and he stepped back from the edge of the mud, shaking what he could from sock and sneaker with a sound of disgust. “Oh, terrific,” he said, shining the light at the surrounding ground… or lack thereof.
Janet looked about, taking note of the trees, getting more twisted the farther they stood from the road.
“I think we’re on the edge of a swamp.”
“Brilliant,” said Tom, testing the squishiness of shoe and sock. “So it was just marsh gas? We can go?”
“No,” Janet replied, peering ahead into the darkness. “It looked too much like— there it is!”
She pointed to the light swinging side-to-side between a pair of large trees ahead and to their right.
“Maybe they’re lost, or something went wrong in the swamp. They must not be able to see our light. Come on!”
She ran, skirting the mud hole that had tried to claim Tom’s shoe and darting between the trees. The beam from the flashlight swung and bounced wildly as Tom struggled to keep up, and she could hear him panting even above the thud-squish-thud-squish of his running feet. She ran around a pool of standing water and through a muddy hollow on the other side. She saw the light again, this time off to her left. She wondered briefly if it was moving or if she was just getting turned about in the unfamiliar land. They were closer now, though, much closer, and she heard Tom’s exasperated grunt as she changed direction picking up speed.
“Come on,” she called over her shoulder. “I think they’re just ahead!”
She crested a small rise and saw the light just on the other side of a small clearing at the foot of the hill. She started down, her speed increasing on the sharp decline.
“Hello!? Hello there! We’ve come to hel—”
Words became a squeak as her foot came down and met no resistance. She pitched forward, but rather than sprawling on the ground she landed with a splash.
It wasn’t a clearing, but another bog. She was up to her waist in the mud, but it was the foot and a half of water on top that made all the noise. A beam of light spear across the bog from behind just as she wiped her eyes clear. She heard the thudding footsteps, the puffing breaths.
“Tom! Watch out for the bog!”
Trapped, she could not turn to see, but she heard Tom’s exhausted footsteps pick up speed downhill just as hers had. The thunk of foot meeting tree root. The surprised exclamation. Tom sailed past her to splash right into the middle of the bog.
Landing head first.
Janet screamed, struggling to get to him; Her motions, ever more frantic as his feet kicked, and kicked, then stopped, only served to drive her deeper into the muck.
She did not scream for long.
~ ~ * * ~ ~
Standing at the edge of the bog, Sarah watched the bubbles stop rising. She had hoped these two would do, would be her new Mommy and Daddy, but they left her just like the others. So many had left her since that confederate soldier had taken her from her real Mommy. So many. It had been so, so long. She lifted her lantern, turned and, without taking a step, disappeared from the bank.
Until the next time.