“Stop,” I shouted over the rain and the engine and my heart beating so loud I was sure it had grown legs and was about to kick its way out of my chest.
The bus slowed.
“Stop, stop, stop,” I yelled again, and finally, our bus shuddered and held.
For a second, we were absolutely still. The bus motor was still running, and Em was still in the driver’s seat, and I was still outside, the rain coming down through the trees in fat cold drips, soaking my hair and sliding down my forehead while my shoes sank farther into the mud.
We were in a forest on the side of a mountain in North Carolina, thirty miles from the nearest town in an area with no cell reception, and only one vehicle had passed us since we’d parked there the night before. That vehicle was a pickup truck that had driven by at about 3am with huge spotlights mounted to its roof and about eight deer carcasses in the back.
Em put the bus into drive again. The wheels spun, mud skidded, and the bus stayed in the exact same place.
Over the engine, over the rain and through our bus’s walls, I could hear Em shouting, FUUUUUCK.
I walked once around our bus. There was a cliff directly behind us and a tree to our right. If we went any further back, the tree would knock our right mirror off and then we’d immediately drive off a cliff.
Em tried the bus again, flinging a sheet of mud behind us, and then she turned the engine off.
Through the fogged-up side door, she could have been an impressionist painting, her forehead on the steering wheel, and maybe those were tears, or maybe it was just the raindrops on the outside of the window.
Without the engine running, the whole forest seemed to still. It was water falling in slow motion, the cliff our bus might slide off of, the tree about to knock our mirror off, and even the hunter we’d seen in the middle of the night. I imagined him stringing a dead deer up by its back legs, a streak of blood on the hunter’s chin and the way his back might bend under the strain, blue eyes and a scar above his lip that he’d had since he was a kid.
I looked at my phone but the miracle of time standing still didn’t extend to the miracle of cellphone service, and then I went into the bus and stood there, facing Em with water dripping down my forehead.
“It’s only supposed to rain until Saturday,” I said. “If we wait, the ground will probably dry by Sunday or Monday.”
“What day is it today?” Em asked with her forehead still on the steering wheel.
She counted on her fingers.
“Six days?” she asked.
“I’m pretty sure we have enough food and water.”
“You’re pretty sure?”
I shrugged, and Em peeled herself off the steering wheel and got out of the bus. She circled once while I followed.
“Maybe we just stay here forever,” I said.
“Or maybe after four days of rain, the ground will get so swampy that our bus will slide backwards down this cliff,” she said, pointing to the steep drop about three feet behind our bus.
“Right,” I said, and I bent to look at our bus’s wheels.
When we got in the night before, the camping spot seemed perfect. It was a little pull off on an incline with a firepit and plenty of trees to give us privacy from the road. The same trees that had given us privacy, though, had left enormous roots in our path as well as a thick layer of slippery leaves covering the sandy mud our bus was sinking into with each minute.
“Right,” I said again. I looked at the cliff and then Em and then our bus’s wheels again, then went into the woods and started gathering twigs.
“We need traction,” I told Em.
We didn’t have anything to dig with, so I went in with my bare hands, pulling up globs of slimy leaves and mud and replacing them with twigs, trying to shove the twigs under our bus wheels, first the back two, then the front.
I wiped raindrops from my forehead and smeared my face with mud in the process.
“Try that,” I said.
Em started the bus again. For a second it seemed like it would go, and then it skidded and sprayed mud again.
“Fuck,” Em said.
“Almost,” I said, and I went out and laid down more twigs with the rain coming in through the collar of my coat and Em waiting in the driver’s seat with her head on the steering wheel again.
I took my time this time, finding sticks that were as wide as my finger or smaller and carefully shoving them under the wheels as well as lining them up in front.
This time, the bus caught, going four whole inches before digging itself into the mud and sliding.
Em swore again, and I stepped back out into the rain.
I laid sticks behind the wheels this time, and got Em to carefully back up before laying twigs in front of the wheels again.
This time we went eight inches.
Em stopped the bus and looked ahead of us at the sixty feet of mud we still had to get through.
“It’s not like we can just do this the whole way,” she said.
“I don’t have any other ideas,” I told her.
An hour later, we’d made it ten feet. I was soaked through and covered in mud, and now we’d reached a root sticking five inches out of the ground, and our bus could not seem to make it over.
Em backed up a few more inches, and I laid down more sticks, and on my shout, Em drove while I pushed the back of the bus, just in case it would help somehow.
The wheels caught, the bus went forwards, and just as quickly stopped, spraying mud up my entire body.
We tried again and again and finally stopped.
When I came around to the front of the bus, Em had her forehead pressed to the wheel again, and her body was shaking. It wasn’t until I got inside again, though, that I realized she wasn’t crying, but laughing.
“We’re screwed,” she said. “I think we just have to live here forever now.”
And then I started laughing, too, because there really didn’t seem to be anything else we could do.
I sat on our bus steps, dripping wet and covered in mud, and Em stayed in the driver’s seat with her forehead on the wheel.
“What are we even doing out here?” Em asked. “Who just buys a bus and decides they’re going to live in it?” look at us, we’re freezing cold and covered in mud and we’ve only made it to North Carolina.
“This is our home now,” I kept saying back and laughing. It was this wild and thrilling laugh with panic rising in me. “We have to become forest women now. We have to hunt for our food and eat berries and live amongst the beasts now.”
Em howled like a wolf, and I started making owl noises then barked, the hysteria growing until we couldn’t control ourselves, shouting and making animal noises, and it didn’t matter how loud we were because we were too deep in the forest for anyone to hear us and we were fucked and we would have to live here from now on.
To be continued…