The cold woke me up, my muscles shivering and my joints stiff. I opened my eyes and slowly became aware of my surroundings: dirt digging into my skin, the musty stench of earth in my nostrils, leaves rustling in the wind, green everywhere, the soft m...
The cold woke me up, my muscles shivering and my joints stiff. I opened my eyes and slowly became aware of my surroundings: dirt digging into my skin, the musty stench of earth in my nostrils, leaves rustling in the wind, green everywhere, the soft mulch of a forest floor.
What the hell?
I sat up, vigorously rubbing my legs, trying to use friction to thaw my limbs. The sunlight acquired an emerald hue as it filtered down through the leaves; a damp chill lingered in the air. Slowly and painfully, I got to my feet. Brushing off the debris, I ran my hands along my torso, and then my extremities, waiting for the stickiness of blood or the jolt of pain that would inform me of any injuries. Everything seemed to be intact. The last thing I remembered was setting my alarm to take an hour long nap. Had I been kidnapped? Drugged? Was this some sort of amnesia thing, where I had gone on a camping trip and forgotten the past two years? I looked down and saw the same jeans and t-shirt that I had worn to class. Starting to panic, I re-examined myself, just in case I had missed something. I looked carefully in every direction as I massaged my aching limbs, searching for whoever had brought me here, or at least some kind of clue, but there was nothing: no footprints, no sign of human life at all. Then a dark shape moved in the corner of my eye, and a branch snapped behind me.
My legs moved of their own volition. Pumping against the ground like a pair of high-speed oil rigs, they carried me through the spongy terrain. Branches whipped me in the face. I didn’t hear anyone pursuing me, but I kept running anyway. My thighs tightened, as if someone were twisting a peg in my knee, like tuning a violin. My arms and legs now hollow and useless, every stride had become an effort. My head hurt from the incessant thumping; was that sound my heart or my feet? Maybe I tripped on a root, or maybe my muscles just gave up, but my knees hit the ground first. I fell forward onto my stomach, too exhausted to feel the pain in my legs.
I lay motionless, listening to my heart pounding against the ground. Once it slowed to a normal rhythm, I sat up and looked around. The stump of an uprooted tree sat rotting not far from me. I crawled over to it and pulled myself up, glad to be up off the cold and damp earth.
A nearby shrub quivered. My breathing stopped. I jumped up, my heart pounding against my ribs again. Swinging around, I scanned the trees, listening for any signs of movement, but heard only the beating drum in my chest. I forced myself to breathe, but it came in gasps.
“Pull yourself together.”
I can’t breathe.
Someone is hunting me.
“You don’t know that. Now calm down.”
“You’re hyperventilating. You have to breathe.”
Using the technique I had learned as a teenager—my parents had insisted I go to a few sessions of therapy after my father’s second divorce—I closed my eyes and listened to the rhythmic rush of the air as it passed in and out of my lungs. Nothing else existed. No forest, no danger, just breath. In, one, two, three, four, five, pause. Out, one, two, three, four, five.
I sat back down on the stump, still uneasy. The birds chattered away, reminding me of the children on the playground behind my house. Lost in the woods, with no idea how I had gotten there, how to get home, or how to stay alive long enough for someone to find me, I feared I might never hear those children again.
I felt the sobs fighting to liberate themselves, a burning mass in my throat, constricting my airways. I slipped down off the stump onto the ground. One escaped, and then another; the rest followed in a torrential outpour until I was emotionally bankrupt. Lowering my head onto the ground, I rolled onto my side and brought my legs in, hugging my knees. I stayed there for a while, listening to the birds chirping and the leaves dancing in the breeze. I heard my mother’s voice in my head.
“There’s always hope until you’re dead. And even then, things happen. Now get up, I didn’t raise a quitter.”
I imagined the police talking to my mother, telling her they had found my body. “It looks like she just gave up,” the officer would tell her.
I sighed and sat up.
If I kept walking straight, it’s inevitable that I’d come to the end of the forest. However long it took, I just needed to survive. I needed to eat something.
I made slow progress since I no longer had the adrenaline pumping through my system, which meant that I could actually feel the pebbles and branches digging into my feet through my socks. I searched for food. A multitude of leaves and roots and bits of bark within my reach, but nothing I viewed as edible. Innumerable insects scurried through the organic debris, following trails that had been blazed by their predecessors. No. Not happening. Ever.
Why couldn’t I just come across an apple tree, or a roasted chicken? I laughed out loud at my own absurdity. This is the wilderness. Did I expect a mattress to sleep on, too? I really should have eaten that cinnamon bun.
I kept walking, sitting down often, until the light started to change; it had an orange hue to it now. This meant a few things. First, it would be dark soon and I wouldn’t be able to see, so I would have to stop walking. Secondly, it was going to get cold.
There are three necessities in life: food, water, and heat. I lacked all three, but the third one immediately worried me. I looked around for something to make a fire, quickly gathering up as many of the countless twigs and bark fragments littering the forest floor as I could carry. When I found a big enough gap between the trees, I looked up and made sure that there weren’t any overhanging branches low enough to catch fire. This was the spot. With one of the bigger sticks from my kindling pile, I carved a small basin into the earth. I scooped some old dry leaves into it, and then piled my sticks over top, trying to make a tipi. With a smile of satisfaction, I sat back. It was beautiful. Now all I had to do was light it. But I didn’t have a match, lighter, flint, or anything.
Taking a deep breath, I tried to draw upon my very minimal knowledge of fire-making. I needed a large, flat hunk of dry wood, some dry grass, and a large stick. Hopefully the movies had gotten it right.
Holding a large piece of thick bark, I crumpled up some dead leaves and grabbed my stick. The leaves sat in a pile on top of the bark at one end, and I held the stick in both hands, rubbing it back and forth. This was going to work. The friction would heat up the leaves and they would catch fire. Even girl scouts could do this.
By the time it was fully dark, I had aching arms, blisters and cuts on my hands, and no fire. I grabbed a large branch and raked some of the dead leaves into a pile big enough to sleep in. Trying not to think about the bugs creeping all over me, I crawled onto the pile and pulled more leaves on top, burying myself as best I could.
I drifted down into the black of oblivion, weightless. A drop of something cold landed on my forehead, another on my cheek. Reaching out, I tried to find something to hold onto, anything to keep me from floating back up to consciousness. A third drop landed on my lip. Jolted by the cold, wet slap, I lost my grip on the darkness. Abducted from my slumber, wakefulness claimed me.
I heard the sound of trees fighting against wind—branches creaking with strain, leaves flapping helplessly—raising the alarm of an imminent storm. The raindrops on my face told me I should close the window. I stretched my arm upwards to move the blankets, meeting no resistance. I opened my eyes. Brighter than I had expected it to be, my surroundings were well-lit, and the leaves covering my body unmistakable. I lay on a forest floor, not in my room.
Not just a nightmare.
My lungs deflated, like an unbound balloon, leaving me gasping and reeling.
The raindrops multiplied. I crawled out from under the leaves and hurried over to the biggest tree, taking shelter against its trunk. Lightning, now enlisted in the cause against me, illuminated the forest in flashes of daylight. I hugged the tree with my arms, its coarse bark pressing into my skin. Thunder chased the lightning, getting closer each time. The wind pulled at my hair, whirling it about my head in a chaotic mess. The raindrops blasted against my skin, tiny pieces of ice trying to tear through me. I squeezed tighter against the tree, as if I could somehow become absorbed by it. The smell of the wood and the sound of the storm reminded me of a moment in my childhood.
I lay curled up in my wooden toy chest to get away from the storm, the toys strewn about my room so I could fit inside the newly-vacated sanctuary. It smelled like wax; I had drawn all over the interior with orange crayon. I didn’t hear my mom come in because of the thunder.
“Wynona?” The light hurt my eyes when my mother lifted the lid. “There you are.” She hugged me and carried me back to bed. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, sweetheart. I know it’s a lot of noise, but that’s all it is. Like a radio. It’s just noise.” After she tucked me in and kissed my forehead, she turned the light off and left, closing the door behind her. Another bang of thunder filled my room and I was right back in the wooden chest.
Too bad I didn’t have a wooden chest to crawl into now.
The hair settled around my head. My skin no longer stung from the tiny, cold bullets. I turned away from the tree and looked around. The forest around me had started to calm; the trees were no longer flailing in the wind, the barrage of rain had subsided, and the thunder’s sharp crackle had given way to a distant rumbling. I sunk down onto one of the tree’s larger roots, exhausted. The leaves from my bed had scattered and acquired new green fellows, prematurely ripped by the wind from their homes above. Unlike me, the forest had been left relatively unperturbed by the storm. My arms and legs pulled in against the cold, loud thoughts and fears crowded my head.
When I woke up, my whole body ached; it felt as if all my muscles had shrivelled up while I slept, playing tug-o-war on my joints. I still smelled the rain from last night, the forest floor covered in a layer of mud. I stood up, despite the pain in my limbs, moving slowly. Leaning against the trunk, I glanced around the clearing, just in case food had miraculously appeared overnight. Nope, no food.
The sunlight, softened by the umbrella of leaves, illuminated the forest with a gentle and uniform glow. If it had been in a photograph, it would have been beautiful and serene. But it was reality; my reality.
I said goodbye to my tree and continued on my way, looking for food as I walked. Even though it was still fairly early in the morning, I had to stop, so I sat down against the trunk of a large birch tree, the papery bark hanging from it like a half-sharpened pencil. Folding my legs up, I put my head on my knees. My stomach felt cold and empty.
I lifted my head, and right in front of me, a few feet away, sat a bush covered in blueberries. Slowly, I got to my feet and approached it, afraid that it would disappear, like a mirage in the desert. I held one of the berries between my thumb and index finger. It felt warm and soft. I gently pulled until it came free from its branch and placed it in my mouth. The berry burst on my tongue, its tart juices soothing my thirst. Crouching down in front of the bush, I pulled a few more of them off, eating one after the other in an assembly line.
After I had eaten about a handful, I stopped. Any more berries might be too much on my empty stomach. I looked around for something to put them in, so I could take more with me, but found nothing.
I set off again. The leaves provided a cooling shade, something I appreciated more as it got further into the morning, and the air got hot and humid. I caught glimpses of the sun through the trees, and when the sun was at its peak, I sat down again, leaning my back against a large tree covered in blemishes and pock-marks. The warty knobs on the tree dug into my back and shoulders, but I didn’t care. I let my head fall back to rest on the trunk and closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, the light in the forest had changed. The leaves were no longer ablaze with green light, casting sharp shadows on the earth and mulch below. Everything blushed orange. I had fallen asleep. Standing up, I screamed as my abdomen burst with pain, dropping to my hands and knees. I took a deep breath as it passed. After a moment, I attempted standing again. The pain ripped through my stomach, worse than before, bringing me to the ground. I rolled onto my back as the searing pain continued to tear through me, wave after wave, the red-hot magma in my stomach burning me from the inside out.
Curled up in pain on the forest floor, any thoughts I had quickly vanished, chased out by the next stab in my abdomen, any sounds drowned out by my screaming. Then the pain changed—the fiery mass in my stomach rose. I struggled onto my hands and knees to vomit. With every convulsion, every punch to my gut, burning bile came up through my mouth. Eventually it ran dry, but the heaving persisted. When it finally stopped, it took everything left in me to crawl a few feet away and collapse on my side. My skin was slick with sweat; my throat stung with bile. The pain in my abdomen started to dull, but the episode left my whole body aching and shaking violently. When the darkness came, I welcomed it. All I wanted now was eternal rest.
Let me die now. Please, just let me die.
Embraced in the arms of oblivion, I found comfort. No more pain, no more hunger. No more fear.