I put my hand over my heart, and I begged it to stop rattling against my rib cage. Rain was hammering my bare flesh. The trees were suffocating me, and I was locked within them. If I stopped now, they would be my tomb. Strands of wet red hair clung to my face where salty tears mixed with freshwater raindrops. I was going to die.
Thorns and branches tugged at my limbs. They scraped my skin until pebbles of blood pooled along the surface. Wobbly legs led to a break in the forest where I could see an empty beach. Dark thunderclaps rolled in the distance. Waves broke along the shore, swirling and frothing with rage. The last time I was here the sun was kissing my cheeks. A cold pink popsicle melted over my fingertips and ran down the length of my arm. My cousins laughed and my mom handed over napkins with smile. This time, I was alone.
I gagged on the sobs I tried to contain as vomit threatened to burn my throat. My mom was probably being told that no one could find me. I imagined her pouring her heart into her hands as she screamed my name. I’ll bet she was giving people a description of the dress I was wearing. It had been so pretty this morning, with delicate blue flowers printed on white cotton. It wouldn’t be recognizable now. I used it to wipe away mud that was smeared up my legs. I raked my hands across the hem to unpack the grime from underneath my fingernails.
I had twirled my way to the campground showers like a princess. Yet the longer I waited for my cousins to finish getting ready, the more impatient I became. I decided to venture off towards the direction of the campsite on my own when one path turned into another. Had I gone to the left or to the right? Or maybe straight? If I could just get up higher… to see where I was, then perhaps I could find my way back.
I climbed a dune near the beach knowing that my mom would be furious. It was against the rules to be out here alone. Although I wasn’t normally a rule breaker, an exception was made in my mind for life and death situations. Yet the water would remain off limits even as the hot sand burned blisters into the bottom of my feet. The task to reach a higher perspective was daunting, and my leg finally gave out from underneath me.
A twisted piece of driftwood sliced through my arch and blood stained its bark crimson red. I screamed in frustration, my wound, throbbing. I sat back on my bottom with a hard thump so I could have a good cry. A random hiker might find the shoe that got sucked into the mud pit. Or maybe they would find the one I threw out of anger when I couldn’t get mud-pit-shoe out of the hole it sank into. I wondered if they would locate my body sometime after that.
Using the back of my hand, I dried my tears. I was a tiny speck of blue and white among miles of rolling sand mounds. I would allow myself to cry but I wasn’t allowed to give up. When the sun broke through the clouds, I shaded my eyes by using my fingers like a visor. A boardwalk path leading back into the woods could been seen in the distance and I whooped for joy! I still didn’t know how to get home, but I might be able to find help. I sprinted and the mud smeared dress swirled torn and tangled behind me.
When I reached the path, the knots in my stomach cinched tighter. I had barely touched breakfast and it was nearly lunch time now. The walkway wound through an eerie marsh lined with stumps and dead limbs, but I tried to keep my mind focused. I giggled when a long tongue darted out from the muck to catch a fly but stuck to the frog’s green eyeball instead. The creature looked confused and wiggled his mouth a little which made me laugh even harder.
A seagull, suspended in flight tucked its wings against its body. It danced with the breeze at a dizzying speed. Through moody storm clouds and patches of sunlight it dived headfirst into the wind.
I bet he could see my way home… I wish I had wings like his.
I rounded a corner to find myself no longer alone with the frog, the seagull, and my thoughts. A stranger materialized and for a moment I was relieved that I might be saved. I wanted desperately to tell someone that I was lost. Yet the voice in my head told me that he was untrustworthy. He tried to appear friendly, but his blue eyes struck me as menacing as he squared his shoulders with mine.
“Where’s your mom?” He asked and I groped for words to wield like a weapon.
“Catching up to me.” I stammer and point in the direction I had come from.
I have the sudden urge to run, so I do. I carry myself as far away from the stranger as I can. When I am out of breath, I think about how his eyes brightened when he thought he caught me out here alone and how they darkened when I pointed to where I wished my mom would have been. It gives me a second wind to pace myself so that my legs can pump even harder in case the man tries to catch up to me.
The boardwalk ended at a dirt road and a three-way junction. I didn’t know where else to go from here. My stomach roared with hunger. The sun tucked itself behind the clouds again so I could barely stay on the path. I was exhausted. My resolve to hold onto hope was weakening with every step. Then I heard something. The rumble of an engine. A man wearing a park ranger vest on the back of a four-wheeler was coming for me. His vehicle skid to stop and relief floods his expression as he shouted into a walkie-talkie that he yanked off his belt.
“I found her! I found her! Tell her mom that I’m bringing her back to camp now!” The static was electrifying.
Through tears of relief, I explained how I lost my shoes. As he doctored up my blisters, I talked about making my way to the beach to look for help only to find it empty. The ranger winced as he applied a sunshine yellow sticker to the cut on my foot. His kind face was contorted into a grimace as he told me that the beach was empty because a boy my age had drowned.
He had been ripped away from his family by an undercurrent. Search and Rescue had been on the water trying to locate him and they cleared the beach, but it was too late. When my mom heard a rumor circulating camp that a missing child had washed up dead on the beach, she thought that the kid might be me. She spent the hours I was missing praying that it was someone else’s child as she searched the campground trying to find me.
The ranger scooted forward and tucked me safely behind him. My legs suspended around the seat; my fingers griping so tightly that my knuckles turned white. I rested my head on the strangers back as we flew through the forest. Myhair waving goodbye to the marsh, the dunes, and the boy I could have been.
Every year three to four people drown in Lake Michigan at or near the Indiana Dunes State Park. Men, women, and children have disappeared. One boy fell through a sand dune never to been seen again, and police in the area are still looking for three women who went missing on a beach full of out-of-state visitors.
While there have been other times throughout my life when I have gotten lost, I’ll never forget how lucky I was to be found that day. In moments when my health has tried to drown me, or in instances where I’ve felt like I couldn’t find my way, I remind myself to keep moving forward. As my grandfather use to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know where you are…put one foot in front of the other.”