“I think we have to back up,” I said to Em. She was still in our bus’s driver’s seat, and I was still on our bus’s stairs, soaking wet and covered in mud. We were stuck in the middle of the forest, thirty miles from the nearest town, with no cell service and no one to hear us scream.
“Back up?” Em asked, and I nodded. We’d made it about ten feet through the sixty feet of impassable mud we had to get through, but now, a particularly large tree root was stopping us from going any farther.
“I think I really need to build up these twig ramps I’ve been making, and then we take a running start at the roots.”
“It’s taken an hour to get this far, though,” Em said. “If we back up, won’t we just lose all the ground we’ve just gained?”
“We might, but I don’t think there’s any other way to get over these roots.”
Em and I stared at the water coming in a steady stream from the trees. It had been raining for twelve hours now, and I had a feeling it would never stop. I had a vision of the Great Lakes lifting into clouds and pouring themselves down on us, the oceans turning to deserts, and a great flood of water from all over the world turning into a wave from the sky and washing us away. At least if that happened, we’d finally be out of that goddamned forest.
Em looked through the rear-view mirror at the ten feet of mud we’d managed to gain.
“Okay,” she finally said, and we both stepped into the rain.
We had to go farther into the forest this time, collecting small branches as wide as our fingers to line up behind and in front of our wheels to use as traction. If the branches were too small, they wouldn’t provide enough traction, and if they were too big, we wouldn’t be able to drive over them.
The sticks were heavy with water, and my clothes were heavy with water, and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be warm or I’d ever be dry again. I imagined myself in the future, standing in a boardroom, giving a presentation with lots of charts and lots of figures. I’d be wearing a pinstriped pantsuit of some kind, but I’d still be freezing cold and wet and covered in dirt.
I came back with a pile of sticks and Em did as well, and we started laying them behind and in front of our tires, parallel to each other, making a ten-foot track out of thin sticks placed half an inch apart.
“I guess it can’t get much worse,” Em said. “I mean as long as we don’t drive off this cliff, the worst that will happen is we’ll end up exactly where we started.”
I nodded and used my muddy hand to push the wet hair out of my face again.
“And besides, look what I learned to do with this stick.” Em had a long straight stick that she twirled like a really shitty baton twirler, and at first I wanted to tell her to focus. We had hundreds of sticks to line up before we could pull the bus back, and I was at sure at any second my hands would fall off from the cold, but then again, what was the rush? As long as we got the bus out of the mud before Sunday or Monday, we’d be winning.
“Beautiful,” I said.
She spun in a circle, threw the stick into the air and almost caught it.
“I meant to do that,” she told me.
“So Avant Garde. So compelling.”
I picked up a stick, too, and used it like a wand to cast a spell on our bus.
“Eye of frog, spooky toes. Get this bus out of the mud until it goes.”
Em was right, as long as we didn’t accidentally drive off the cliff behind us, things couldn’t get that much worse.
Em eased the bus back, and I filled in the latest holes where our tires had sunk into the mud.
When we’d made it the ten feet back down the slope our bus was on, I went to the back to push, just in case it would help.
“Okay,” I shouted.
Em shifted the bus into drive. At first, the wheels turned slowly, and then they spun out, spraying me in another sheet of mud, and digging the whole bus into the ground again, planting us in the exact same place we’d been stuck over an hour ago.
“Well, this sucks,” Em said, looking back at me from the driver’s seat. She was still trying to smile, though. It was stretched across her face like she was having a hard time holding it there while the rain tried to wash it away.
The hole we were in was a complete swamp now, and I started raiding the bus for something beyond sticks that would give us extra traction.
I threw down our dish cloths, tea towels, and all the wood chips we used in our composting toilet as well as way more sticks.
“Let’s try again,” I said to Em, but I could tell she was getting tired.
“Maybe we’ll get service if we climb higher up the mountain,” she said. “Or we can walk down. There might be a house or something.
“But what kind of house?” I asked, imaging a toothless hunter living alone in the woods in one of the most conservative states in America. What would he do when he came across two queer women from Canada who were stupid enough to get their purple school bus stuck in a mud pit?
Em and I looked at each other, waiting for the other to say something, her inside the bus and me still outside, blinking raindrops out of my eyes. Both of us were trying so hard not to snap at the other that I was sure we would both break down crying at any second.
“Can we just try?” I asked.
I arranged a few final sticks under the wheels and along the track leading up to the roots we had to drive over.
“If we get going, try to keep the bus as straight as possible,” I said to Em. “And don’t stop until you’re sure it can’t go any farther.”
Em nodded. There was something washed-out and grey in her face, and I knew she was only doing this for me, and I knew she was tired and wanted to break down, or at least take a break, but I wasn’t willing to give up yet.
“One, two, three,” Em shouted. She stepped on the gas, and I pushed, and the wheels caught. The bus rolled itself forwards, first slowly, then faster. It went one foot, then two, then five, and three more. The rain was making it hard to see, and the wheels kept splashing my body with mud, but we were going.
Em kept the speed up and kept the wheel steady even with the skidding.
“Come on,” I shouted over the rain and the engine and the mud splashing in my face. “Come on, come on, come on.”
There was a pause, and then the bus went forwards again, groaning over the root. The bus jerked and skidded to the side, but Em got hold of it again, catching the wheels on a few more twigs, and getting its speed up as the back wheels hit the root.
There was a pause again, and it had to have been less than a second, but it felt like a lifetime, individual raindrops falling from the sky, and everything happening in some alternate reality where the earth spins slower and time is stretched out.
In that quite half second, a miracle happened, maybe it was luck, or maybe it was the spell I’d cast, but the back wheels went over the root, and the bus landed in a pit of mud and skidded again.
We’d come to a stop, but it didn’t matter.
We were over our biggest obstacle now, and beyond that was another forty feet of mud, but we knew how to handle that.
Em opened the driver’s side door and shouted into the pouring rain, and I did, too, my throat feeling raw, my fingers freezing into claws, and something animal coming out of me again. I was a prehistoric human digging in the mud and the dirt and finally, finally, looking up to see the stars. The rain was washing the mud off me, showing underneath that I was more than what I thought I was. I was stronger than I thought, and smarter, and braver. I could get a bus out of a mud pit in the middle of the woods with nothing but sticks and dishrags as tools. There was nothing I couldn’t do.
Just over an hour later, we’d made it to the safety of the pavement again, looking at the pit we’d emerged from like phoenixes rising from the ashes, except damper.
Em got out of the driver’s seat and hugged me and hugged me. I was still caked it mud, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered because we were free, and we’d done it all on our own.
We could do anything now, fight rabid bears with our bare hands, pull screaming children from burning orphanages, save the world from any sort of imminent destruction. All of that would be easy now. Everything in our lives would be easy from now on. We’d live happy lives, out in the wilds or in cities or anywhere else. No matter what happened to us, we could handle it.
“We are amazing,” I shouted into the sky, and Em shouted it, too. “We can do anything,” and we stood there with the rain washing down on us, ratty and cold and covered in mud, and we really believed it, and we knew that no matter what, the world was ours, and we could take on anything.