Marilyn peered around, hoping there wasn’t a nosy neighbor looking at the school. Not seeing anyone, she lifted the broken link in the fence and ducked under. The chain link clattered back into place as she ducked into the small woods on the school grounds. She didn’t see Robbie anywhere.
She huffed, “He better not have backed out on me. This was his stupid idea.”
Just then, a stick cracked nearby and she whirled around. She relaxed as a brunet kid came into view.
“Good, Robbie. You’re here.”
“Duh, I said I’d come.”
“You also said you’d come at 7 and its 7:05. You’re late.”
“By a whole 5 minutes. No biggie.”
“No biggie?! Very big biggie! The Biggest Biggie when we’re doing something we’re not supposed to be doing!”
“Oh please. We’re just at school.”
“At 7 o’clock at night, on a Saturday! You know we ain’t supposed to be here.”
“So. There ain’t no way we’re going to find out what’s so bad about these trees during recess. So we gotta be here now.”
“What do you think is going on?”
“I don’t know. But when we were in kindergarten, they didn’t care if we came over here. They didn’t even care a couple of years ago when we’d play tag and hide and seek in here. But now suddenly as 5th graders, no one is allowed in here. I want to know what is so bad about some simple trees.”
Marilyn huffed but didn’t argue further. Instead choosing to follow Robbie as he headed into the small woods on their playground.
A little bit later, Robbie dropped his backpack and plopped down on a stump in the center of the woods.
“I don’t get it. Nothing’s changed from last year. What’s so bad about being in here?”
Marilyn nudged him over, making him make room for her on the stump.
“How do you know there is something bad? Maybe the teacher’s got tired of having mud in the classroom on rainy days so they got Principal Howard to make it a rule no one could come here?”
Robbie shook his head.
“I overheard Mrs. White talking all hush with Mrs. England while we were having library time. I couldn’t make out all the words, it was the library after all. But it was something about the woods and how we’re not allowed in here anymore.”
“I asked my mom about it when we first got told the rule. She said that it was supposed to just be when it was rainy. That’s why I thought maybe the teachers just got tired of the mud. But she was surprised when it was at any time.”
“Well, we’re here. It’s been raining all day. Maybe there’s something going on in here.”
Marilyn gazed around, spotting a clear circle in the trees.
“Maybe it’s over there? Where there’s no trees.”
Robbie got up, coming to a stop by the last tree before the clear large circle.
“You know. I never noticed. We were always so busy playing. But this is kind of a strange circle, isn’t it?”
Marilyn came to a stop next to him, “Yeah. It is. Trees all over in here and suddenly, none right here in a clear ragged circle.”
Marilyn tapped out a foot, holding onto a tree. She grimaced at the sluck sound.
“It’s certainly really muddy there where it isn’t out here.”
“Yeah. It’s like a puddle there, minus the water.”
Despite Marilyn’s misgivings, Robbie stepped out into the mud puddle. His feet sunk a few inches, feet slucking every step. He reached the middle and turned around.
He shrugged, “It’s really muddy but nothing bad.”
Marilyn frowned, “Are you shrinking?”
A look of confusion came over Robbie’s face, “Of course not. I’m growing.”
“No. Are you shrinking right now?”
Robbie looked down and realized that Marilyn was right, his feet was sinking down into the mud puddle now that he was standing still.
“No biggie. This puddle can’t be that deep. I’ll just have to hide my shoes from my mom. This is probably why they don’t want us out here. They don’t want to have to help us out.”
He tried to lift his right foot but couldn’t get enough height to pull it out. He started panicking, trying to lift his feet one at a time but only sinking further. He finally lost his balance, hands landing in the mud, feet sunk past the ankles now.
A look of sheer panic washed over his face, blue eyes filling with unshed tears. His knees hit the mud even as he fought to get out, managing to free a hand. He looked up, tears starting to escape when he didn’t see Marilyn.
“Mari! Mari! Help me!”
His voice broke, “Ma-ri!”
Marilyn reappeared, “Robbie! It’s okay!”
She reached out the branch she’d broken off a tree.
He latched on with the one free hand, struggling to free his other hand.
“Calm down! Your thrashing is making you sink faster! Just breathe!”
HIs breath hitched as he struggled to calm. His heart pounding, he pulled his other hand free and grabbed onto the branch as tightly as the slippery mud would let him. He never noticed the cries he was emitting in his panic.
Once he had a tight grip, she started walking backwards, pulling with all her strength.
“Don’t let go! Try walking up as if you’re crawling up stairs.”
He struggled, squeezing his eyes closed, cries never stopping, legs still moving.
Before Robbie knew it, the branch stopped moving. Terrified Marilyn was giving up, his blue eyes flew open only to see her inches away, grabbing his ahands, pulling him the rest of the way out of the sinkhole.
Grasping her hands tightly, he realized his knees were above the mud and he scrambled to crawl out. He didn’t stop, dragging Marilyn with him until he was several feet away.
He collapsed on his side, tremors wracking his small body, heart still pounding, lungs struggling to pull in a breath.
Robbie’s fingers spasmed as Marilyn forcefully pulled her hands out of his. His eyes struggled to focus as he looked for where she was going. Only for arms to wrap around him, blond hair filling his blurry vision, as she hugged him tightly, trying to calm them both down.
After what felt like eternity had passed, both kids had finally calmed down enough to sit up, Marilyn letting him go.
He grabbed onto her hand with his, not quite ready to let her go just yet. Both kids stared at the innocuous mud pit.
“I think we found out why the school no longer allows anyone in here.”
“But how did that start? How did they find out?”
They both jumped a foot as a kid suddenly appeared at the edge of the mud pit.
But something wasn’t right with this kid. Robbie realized that the kid was glowing.
Marilyn pulled him to his feet as the glowing kid took a step towards him.
She vaguely recognized him as a 5th grader from the year before.
“You went here last year, didn’t you?”
The boy nodded, mouth closed.
Robbie managed to voice, “You didn’t make it out of the pit, did you?”
He shook his head, image suddenly shimmering to reveal patches of mud covering him from head to toe, hands ripped bloody, nails torn out.
“Others saw you sink, didn’t they? So the Principal, teachers and parents know now.”
Marilyn frowned, “There were other kids, wasn’t there. This can’t be sudden.”
The boy pointed to the pit that started glowing much like him.
Robbie reached his limit, scared those kids wouldn’t be as peaceful as this one.
He pulled Marilyn out of the woods, grabbing his backpack on the way by the stump, both slipping out of the broken fence.
Neither kid stopped running until they were on Marilyn’s street, three blocks away from the elementary school.
“We’re never going in there again, are we? Please tell me no.”
Robbie shook his head frantically.
“No. No way! Actually, we need to keep this between us. My mom would freak if she knew what happened and no one would believe us about that kid.”
“My lips are sealed.”
True to their word, neither kid entered those woods again and even years later as adults, they never forgot what happened that night. Neither ever realized the boy wasn’t the last the mud pit claimed, preferring to avoid all public mentions of those woods.
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