The Road Less Traveled
I checked my cell phone again. I had a full battery charge, and the park was in the middle of Virginia Beach’s oceanfront area. Really, if I walked too far, I’d just end up in a marsh next to some fancy houses. Other than snakes and horseflies, there wasn’t much to worry about.
Still, my heartbeat thundered in my ears and I slid the phone back into my pocket.
A mom and two small girls skipped past. I gripped the handrail with one hand, and stepped out onto the bridge across green, swampy marshwater.
One of the little girls paused, her head swiveling to me as her family moved ahead. Her eyes were serious as she shook a stubby finger at me. “That’s not a good place to go. Everyone knows that.”
Her mother called her name, and she skipped away, all somberness gone.
“Creepy little kid,” I muttered.
The bridge looked only a few years old, despite the rust-darkened rails and messy appearance. I crossed quickly, hearing the plop of a startled turtle as I moved over the water and stepped onto the opposite shore. The path was barely visible, and the ground was spongy under my sneakers. My lip curled. I really hoped I wouldn’t sink into marsh mud. That smell never comes out, and these shoes were nearly new.
A few yards down the path, I smelled smoke, and nervous butterflies started to flutter in my gut. Something was wrong. Really wrong. The little girl’s words swirled in my head, on endless repeat. I shouldn’t be here.
But I kept going. It was like I wasn’t in control of my legs anymore.
A few more yards, and a weird little hut came into view. The walls and roof were made of dead branches woven together, the cracks and hole stuffed with Spanish moss and leaf litter. Smoke curled from a hollow, blackened trunk that acted as a chimney, and the door was an old, cracked and weathered boat hull.
Every instinct screamed at me to run. I whirled, ready to sprint back, and an old woman, bent at the waist, with hair that looked like Spanish moss and a dress made of bits of trash and sail cloth grinned at me.
Her teeth were black and pointy, and her eyes were like hard, bright coals.
She lifted a bony finger and waved it, clicking her tongue. “Ah ah. There’s a reason you aren’t to stray from the paths in this park.” She stepped closer, and I whimpered.
“You should have listened to your mother.”