We had been searching all night for Mel and Dex to no avail.
The knot in my stomach overflowed into a wildly tumultuous state—frantic, anxious, unsure. I felt somehow responsible for Mel and Dex’s sudden disappearance. But there was a deeper truth it was hard to admit to myself: I was actually envious. Why didn’t they bring me with them?
The perplexity in my heart made me feel like I was living two warring lives, wrestling each other for control of your soul. The carved message in the tent “THE WORLD NEEDS YOU” hung in my mind—deeply inspiring and yet chilling in some way.
I wanted to trust Rosin, but I still wasn’t sure I ever had. She seemed genuinely worried about my friends, and right now, I felt like I had no other choice but to trust her. I wasn’t sure whether she brought me with her because she trusted me or because she didn’t.
“Too dark to keep looking now. Gotta make camp for the night,” Rosin said.
It was midnight. The adrenaline had worn off, and I was filled with weariness and felt a vague worry in the pit of my stomach as I crawled into my sleeping bag and nodded off.
The next morning, the sun crested the horizon and I woke in a kind of peaceful puzzlement, disoriented and wondering where I was and what I was doing there. Suddenly I remembered and a feeling of anxious dread came over me.
For breakfast, Rosin shared some nuts and dried fruit from her pack with Taylor and I. My head was full of questions, but no one spoke. Rosin looked intense. The three of us quietly packed up camp to continue the search.
“This way,” Rosin said gravely, breaking the silence.
We walked for several hours. I was mostly lost in my head all the while. Thinking, thinking, thinking.
As I put my shoes back on my wet feet after fording a creek, I heard Taylor’s voice from behind. “So… this world is kind of a big place. Do you have any idea where we might find them?”
“I have a hunch,” Rosin said. “Last night, when I was talking with Dex, she told me about her conversation with a needwell. Some of the things she said made me think of a particular place—a marsh near the edge of this forest. That’s where we’re headed.”
The sound of running footsteps approaching from behind set my heart racing. I turned and saw Michael barreling toward us. We stopped, and he slowed to a halt as he caught his breath.
“Michael! What?” Rosin was just as stunned to see him as I was.
“Everyone disappeared sometime after breakfast and I—”
“Everyone?” Rosin interrupted. Her face looked like ash.
“I went to look and found people’s tents empty,” he continued, “and all of them had left the same phrase carved in the floor. It said—”
“’The world needs you’,” finished Taylor, looking at me with wide eyes.
“Yes, in all the tents,” said Michael. “The whole group that was getting ready to go on their expedition last night—they’re all gone.”
“Dex…” Rosin said, shaking her head in disappointment. “Was Mel with them?”
“No, that’s what’s weird. I saw Dex this morning with a pile of hashbrowns and breathed a sigh of relief. I assumed they both came back. But then I overheard people talking—no one’s seen Mel since last night. And now they’re all gone. We need you to come back and help get this under control, Rosin.” Michael explained.
Rosin told me to pull out my map and pointed to the marsh. She explained how to get there and the landmarks to look for along the way.
“I still believe that’s the best shot at finding Mel,” she said. “See if you can bring Mel back. Once I deal with this situation, I’ll come find you.”
Then she and Michael took off, speaking to each other in hushed voices. I couldn’t hear much, but I picked out Rosin saying something about a “charred forest” and “lightning” as they hurriedly walk away.
It was a strange moment. It was one thing to follow Rosin into the wild to find Mel and Dex—but now I was the one leading this trek. And I didn’t even know if I agreed with it! Does Mel even need to be “saved”? And what about me? What did I believe? Who did I believe?
Regardless of my mix of feelings, I decided I might as well try to find Mel. So the two of us made our way through the wilderness. On the map, it looked like a little over two kilometers. We made our way over another creek and past a large glacial deposit that spilled white granite into the valley like a child dumped out their blocks and left them to be cleaned up.
We climbed up and over a small hill and there I saw—huh?—not a swamp, but a beautiful open plain with a clear pond surrounded by green reeds and white lilies, and rimmed by trees in full spring blossom. Birds were singing. It was like a postcard.
There, at the center of it all, we saw Mel. Mel saw the two of us and waved with enthusiasm.
“Hello!” Mel called.
Usually a needwell looked drab and decaying, but everywhere Mel had been working was full of luscious life. Beyond the pond, green ivy shooting up tall trees, wildflowers blooming, a trickling stream running through it.
I saw all this life and how content Mel was, and I shook my head again at Rosin harping about the dangerous nature of the needwells.
“Mel! Why are you out here? We were supposed to go find our wildlings last night!” Taylor said.
“Oh, that. Well, after we came out of the fire, I had a talk with Dex. The truth is, although that adventure sounds fun, it’s going to take a really long time. What we saw was a hundred years into the future! And who knows where our wildlings will take us… I mean, can we actually trust them? They’re wild, after all. They need to be tamed and caged—we shouldn’t be following them off to god knows where. Not only that, but the world has real needs. Those pie in the sky dreams from the fire are a distraction. Creating and exploring the world seems outright selfish in the light of that.”
“That’s right,” I heard a voice say. I couldn’t figure out its source; it seemed to be coming from everywhere. But it was certainly familiar. “We’re dealing with real problems here. Spots in the world that are desolate and need someone to come and give them life. Those worlds you’re thinking of creating? They’re not real. What’s real is right here.”
I considered this. I did wonder what creating those worlds was for. They were beautiful and exciting, but were they filling a real need? Was I really needed?
“But…what about my wildling?” I asked.
“I can tell you exactly where your wildling is,” I heard the voice say. “And I can make sure it doesn’t send you on a wild chase into unknown territory. All you have to do is promise you’ll bring it back to me.”
I listened, confused and unsure. Taylor looked unsettled.
“Hey, I know it’s been fun at that camp,” said the voice. “You’ve met people, and you’ve played at being explorers. But you’ll never be somebody if you’re just going along with everyone else. You need to be your own person; an individual! And I can make you great.”
Suddenly, I saw a vision of myself on a stage, being applauded by an arena full of people. I was filled with a sense of pride and accomplishment. I truly was needed.
“That’s right,” the needwell continued. “That vision you see? That’s what happens when you fill the world’s actual needs. You will be important and respected. Everyone will see what’s special about you. You can’t get that by going along with that group. You will be just another one of the crowd.”
I looked at Mel’s smiling face. They really looked happy. And they’ve made this place beautiful.
Taylor nudged you says quietly: “Is that Mel’s wildling?”
I looked in the direction of Taylor’s gesture. A small cage made of iron hung from one of the trees. There’s a wildling inside. Instead of looking at me with bright, brilliant eyes, it was lying down, eyes closed, fur matted, nearly lifeless.
The vision of myself on the stage disappeared as I was filled with a sorrow I can’t explain. Everything Rosin had been telling me came together into a moment of truth I could not ignore. Rosin was right: Mel was in extreme danger.
“Mel! Wait! Have you looked at your wildling lately?” I asked.
“Yeah. I guess it’s a little tired,” Mel said. “But it can’t be energetic all the time. Filling needwells is a lot of work. But it will be worth it.”
“It’s more than a little tired, Mel. It’s caged and suffering,” I said. Then terror filled my heart as a jarring realization hit me.
“Mel—your wildling came out of you,” I said. “It’s how we got into this world. What happens to you if your wildling dies? I think you need to step out of the needwell.”
Mel looked uncertain. “It’s surely not going to die! My wildling will be fine. It probably just needs a little break. And—man!—I feel seriously great. I feel so much meaning and purpose. But don’t worry: We’ll take a rest here in a bit and I’m sure my wildling will recover.”
I tried a different tactic. “Mel, remember going into the fire last night? Remember the mountain range we created together? That granite peak was magnificent; you said it was the most beautiful thing you’d ever seen.”
“Yeah but… the world has needs; we have to fill them or else who will? This place was a blackened swamp before I got here—look at it now!” Mel stopped, interrupted by a deep wailing sound coming from the cage in the tree. Startled, I looked over and the wildling looked even greyer and more lifeless, its mouth gaping in pain.
Mel looked, too. Suddenly, they saw.
In horror, Mel ran over to their wildling’s cage, but they couldn’t reach; it was too high in the tree. Mel looked for a branch to grab onto, but there were no branches low enough to climb. In a panic, Mel looked for a log or something; anything they could use to reach up into the cage.
It was too late. The wailing stopped. Everything was still. For a brief moment, Mel gasped in a horrified realization.
And then, just like that, Mel was gone.