Heart of the Woods

The Path Less Traveled

“You know, Puck never said if we’d even get out of here,” Jeremy said, thinking aloud. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we got to the end, only to get lost in the woods.” The dark humor was impossible to push down. Jamie fidgeted with her hair nervously, opting not to verbally agree with his negative attitude.

“What if part of this whole test is to see if we can hold up strong?” Merrick questioned.

“The fact that the forest turned dead makes me agree, Merrick,” Samuel nodded. “We can’t just give up. I’d rather die trying.” The intensity in his eyes gleamed strongly in the shadowed path.

It uplifted Jeremy a hair, making him stomp the fire on his pessimistic outlook. “You’re right. Let’s just hope dying isn’t the outcome,” he said, not quite losing his skepticism.

Amy’s expression was hard to read. Jeremy studied her face, trying to see if something irked her. She made eye contact with him, smiling weakly.

“Are you okay, Amy?” he asked, worriedly. The faint smudge of freckles on her face stood out in stark contrast to the paleness of her skin.

“Yeah, I’m just feeling a little tired and hungry,” she said. Patting his arm, Amy picked up the pace as if to convince him she was fine. Jeremy decided not to dwell on her unusual behavior for right now. They had a load to deal with and he probably looked just as unwell.

“You did well on your first test,” a voice hollered out from nowhere and everywhere. It was Puck. “Fastest time I’ve seen,” he said. This wasn’t a track marathon.

“How much more of this do we have to do?” Jamie whined, shakily.

He chuckled for a moment, a sardonic sound that caused Jeremy to shush his sister. “You have only just begun, dear,” Puck answered. “We wouldn’t want the games to end so soon now, would we?” The rhetorical question hung in the stilled air.

Puck yawned, a dramatically prolonged thing that made Jeremy clench his fists in annoyance. How dare this guy act so casual about their distress? “Ah, wish I could stay but… I’ve got people to see, places to go…” His voice faded like the last time until it was just barely a whisper.

Stomping ahead, Jeremy seethed in anger. What kind of sick jerk allowed innocent people to struggle while he tended to his own business?

He barely slowed down for the next hour, striding blindly ahead, before Samuel’s voice called out from behind him. “I think we should take a break, Jeremy.” By that point, his anger had ceased, leaving behind a numb, hopeless feeling. Looking at his watch, he was surprised to find that it was only 4 in the afternoon. That is of course, if time was not altered here like everything else.

Amy rubbed her stomach, making Jeremy realize just how hungry he was. There weren’t many options of food to eat, the peanut butter and jelly, two bags of bread, beef jerky, apples, chips, and marshmallows wouldn’t suffice for long. His mouth watered as he imagined the Perch and Trout fish they would have caught if he hadn’t gotten them lost. No, just keep moving forward, he fought struggling to keep himself aloof.

Everyone decided that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would be a good idea because none of them had eaten anything since their rude awakening with the trees. No one was concerned about running out of food for quite some time. Water however, was a different matter. With only three bottles each, their dwindling supply was starting to become a huge problem.

“We’d better start rationing how much we drink. I only have two bottles left and I’ve got a bad feeling that we’re going to be out here for quite a while,” Merrick spoke, pushing his constantly slipping glasses back up his nose.

“Man, I’ve already finished half of my second bottle,” Samuel said, worriedly.

“You’re the biggest of all of us, Samuel. You’ll need to drink a little more than the rest. Jamie, I think that you should give him some of your water. It’s only fair. You don’t need as much as Sam does.”

Jamie crossed her arms and gave Merrick a glare before taking out her second water bottle and handing into Samuel’s hand so hard that it made a loud slap.
“I’m not going to take much,” he assured her.

“Whatever,” she replied back, rolling her eyes. The strains of the predicament they were in had worn Jamie’s already irritable attitude thin.

Like a domino effect, the negative mood fell upon Jeremy as he sat on the ground staring off into space. Peering over at Amy, he saw her expression hold the same defeated look. Amy, the enthusiastic and optimistic one. Something was terribly wrong for her to have an atmosphere of such sadness and hopelessness. Merrick fidgeted uncomfortably in his spot, not being able to ignore the emotions spiraling around in his friends. Samuel was the only unaffected one, standing up to give each person a hard stare. As his eyes landed on Jeremy, Jeremy looked away.

“Come on everyone. I don’t care how bad the forest is out there. We’ve got to keep our heads up. It’s only been one whole day and you’re already on the verge of giving up? All I know is that I’m going through with this nightmare, with or without you, and I pray to God that it’s not the latter of the two.”

The little speech was all it took for Merrick to pull himself up off of the ground and shake the broken leaves and dirt from his jeans. “I’m with you, Samuel,” he said, nodding.

“Me too,” Amy quietly rose.

“Well, I want to get out of this stupid place, so I’m with you too,” Jamie spoke hastily.

All looked at Jeremy, who sat looking blandly ahead into the distance. It was a moment before he responded. “I have to protect Jamie,” was all he said as he stiffly rose and stood beside his sister.

It was settled then. They marched on, attempting small talk in order to keep their thoughts from trailing into darker realms.

“Remember that time we put that stink bomb in the girl’s locker room?” Samuel snickered.

“That was so freaking hilarious,” Jeremy grinned- a genuine smile at the memory.

Scowling, Amy said, “Maybe it was delightfully amusing for you boys, but as for me and all the other girls who had to change in there during P.E. it wasn’t.”

With that, Samuel’s light laughter turned into a chuckle. “At least we found out that the cameras in school didn’t work like they said.”

“It was a conformity,” Merrick said matter-of-factly. Everyone, even Jamie who didn’t fully understand Merrick’s unique sense of cynicism, laughed.

The light-hearted conversation suddenly expired as the group saw something up ahead. Anticipation and anxiety were as strong as an electric shock as Jeremy hastened to discover what awaited them. The first thing he could see was a fork in the path, but as they rushed towards it, a sign came into view directly between the two paths. Written in capital bold black letters, it read:


“Ah, what a lovely message,” Jeremy said. Turning to the left hand path, he frowned. It was darker than the one they were on, ominous masses of raging clouds billowing up above the dead trees. The right path however, was beautiful. Colors ranging from the entire spectrum of the rainbow touched each nook and cranny, making it look like paradise; a dazzling sun shone through verdant leaves.

“Ooooh, let’s go on the pretty one. It’s obviously better than the one on the left,” Jamie said, nodding enthusiastically at it.

“Jamie, now hold on just a second,” Jeremy said. “I think this is a trick.”

“I think you’re right, Jeremy,” Amy agreed, forehead bunched together in thought.

Merrick stepped up to both entrances, studying each for signs of anything that could make the decision easier. Shaking his head, he turned back to them. “I would think that the simplistic-looking path would be the answer for those who are unwilling to calculate and choose the road less traveled.”

“The only thing I could add in defense of the right path is that it’s the right path. What if that means it’s the correct one to select?” Samuel asked. It was an observation that had not occurred to anyone else.

“We can’t get this wrong,” Amy said.

“We won’t.” The confidence flowing from Samuel was back.
Jeremy set his jaw in determination. “I’m saying that I am positive that the left path is the correct choice,” he boldly stated.

“Let’s just think about it for a second,” Merrick replied. “This decision can’t be made too quickly.

“Maybe that Puck guy could help,” Jamie threw in. Puck? Puck my rear, Jeremy snorted. He’d rather go by his own gut feelings than ask for the help of some voice calling down like a failed attempt at an angel from heaven.

“Did someone call?” a voice rang out sleepily. “I was taking my evening nap.”

“Well Jamie? Go ahead,” Jeremy derisively mocked her. This Puck guy tested his temper and he knew he’d regret being so awful to his sister later.

Not as hotheaded as she was moments ago, Jamie raised her head to look in the direction she thought his voice was coming from, which was most likely completely wrong. “I just wanted to know if you could give us a hint.”

Barking with laughter, Puck took a moment to catch his breath. “Forgive me for my manners. I can’t help you out. They’d have my head if I were to do so.”

“Who’s ‘they’?” Samuel asked, suddenly very attentive to Puck’s sudden decrease in egotistical nonsense.

“No one you need to know about,” he replied smoothly. “I wish you luck in your decision.” Puck was gone again, without a single bit of information they could use to choose the right path.

“How about we take a poll for who thinks what path is correct?” Merrick suggested. With nods and mumbles of approval, the five got quiet for a moment, selecting their answers. “Who votes for the left path?”

Jeremy thrust his hand into the air before Merrick finished speaking, glaring defiantly ahead to dare anyone to oppose him. Merrick and Samuel followed in a calmer fashion. Amy gave one last fleeting glance towards the right path before she too raised her hand. Jamie didn’t even try to defend her desire to choose the other path as she finally raised her arm halfway.

“Sorry Jamie, but it looks like we’re going to choose the left path,” Samuel said, patting her reassuringly on the back. She was too young to see more than what met the eyes but she knew that the young adults would make the best decision.

Picking up his backpack, Jeremy wasted no time walking straight for the left path. He feared that if he allowed himself to think too much, he’d back out and become indecisive. The group walked as a pack, nervously following their stubborn and proud leader towards the darkness.

No one knew when it would become obvious that the chosen way was right or wrong, but as they continued to tread down the path, the dark sky began to clear, parting into pure light. The sun poured through the thick clouds, gloriously conquering and warding away any remaining signs. Slowly, the trees began to grow before their eyes, tiny leaves unwrapping to reveal luscious, thick greens. Fruit trees leaned over the path- easy to grab-, creating a tunnel of coolness from the sun’s heat. The land surrounding the path began to look as if it was otherworldly; majestic mountains roamed in the distance, snowcapped and tranquil as the setting sun shown upon one side, leaving the other in shadows. Tall pines mixed with the deciduous trees, giving off a pleasant woodsy smell that was different from the ones the group was used to.

Perhaps the most unexpected change of all was the path itself. Flowers framed the sides, giving touches of rainbow to the ground. Such flowers were the most unusual things that Jeremy had ever seen. Neon purples, greens, and blues displayed themselves in varying patterns on large, dark green leaves. They bunched together to form a center, and in those centers were beautiful white flowers, silky and perfect to the eye.

Jamie was captivated in the beauty of the flowers. Eagerly, she reached towards one. Jeremy caught her by the backpack, yanking her to his side. “Do not touch the plants, remember?” he sternly told her, insensitive out of fear for her safety. He had to keep her out of trouble, a task that was progressively becoming harder to do.

“We must have chosen the right path,” Amy said to relieve the tension. Her words did their job.

“You’re right! Man, I was pretty nervous back there. I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t,” Samuel replied, his laughter more a release of his tension than one of finding anything to be remotely funny.

“I’d hate to see what would have happened had we chosen the right-handed path. I bet it did the exact opposite that this one did: a change from beauty to death.”

“Let’s just be glad that we don’t have to find out,” Merrick remarked.

Jeremy spoke quietly, “Who’s to say that this path is so much better? The way I see it is, the more beautiful something is in a situation like this, the more cautious we should be.” Even though he was glad to have the change of setting, Jeremy knew that looks could be deceiving, especially after being warned about the plants and fruits. Things were about to get worst; he could feel it in the pit of his stomach.

“This path is clearly better, Jeremy. We would be dead if we had gone the other way,” Merrick said logically. He mumbled a ‘you’re right’ opting to drop the topic.

By the time they grew hungry for an unsatisfying meal, the sun had gone down. The sliver of a moon gleamed weakly down on them as they ate another sandwich. What I would give to have some hot food, Jeremy thought. He stretched, the muscles protesting at his actions. The day had been exhausting. There were no words that any of them could think to say as they stared off into the night, greedily eating their food.

Getting out the tents, Jeremy quickly got to work. He wanted to lie down and sleep away the soreness of his legs. Once up, the group entered their tents, retreating to a place in their minds where horrors didn’t come true.

It was in that silence, that they heard it. Someone was singing, the faint melody of a girl’s voice echoing eerily into the night. She was too far away for the words to be distinguished, but the sadness infiltrating Jeremy’s heart made him thankful for the distance.

“I-I can’t sleep,” Jamie whispered shakily.

“You’ll just have to ignore it, Jamie,” Jeremy whispered back. “Cover your head with your blanket.” He knew the advice would do little to tune out the song, but it was the only idea he could think of. Trying it himself, he breathed out a heavy sigh. It wasn’t good enough, but it was the best he could do.

With a shut of the eyes, Jeremy slowly coaxed himself into a restless sleep.