We took off down the path, leaving the ruins behind. The only problem now was the path deteriorated back into bush territory and we were back to slogging through mud and crisscrossed roots for the rest of the way. Sometimes we would come across a pretty curve of beach or a scenic outlook but with that constant armor of fog at our doorstep, nothing was as pretty as it could have been. Yesterday would have been the better day to go exploring. But then again, yesterday felt like a whole different life all together. Even the hockey game we went to – the strip club, God damn it – felt like something that happened years ago and to other people other than us. It had only been 30 hours or something but it felt like my whole life was rain, cold and fog, with the occasional foot thrown in there.
The south end of the island came up and we were soon making our way up the bottom, tripping up the east coast. Aside from the little girl, we hadn’t come across anyone else. Dex pointed out that just because the perimeter was clean it didn’t mean people weren’t hiding out in the middle.
I started to doubt it though. We hadn’t seen signs of anyone. The boat was still there the last we looked, and as we struggled through the brush until we saw our own tent again, shining in its blue plastic glory like a beacon, it only solidified the fact that if there was someone else here wanting to make trouble for us, they would have done something else, right? The boat would have been gone, our campsite would have been destroyed. It would have been more.
Unfortunately, this didn’t mean the end of our journey. Dex was so determined to still find those “pontoon–slashing motherfuckers” that he made us keep going and hit up the one place we had missed… the dead heart of the island.
It really was starting to get dark. From the way the clouds grew blacker near their tops, it must have been at least 3:30 or 4 p.m. We maybe had an hour before the sun would set in a place unseen.
But Dex was insistent and as much as my feet hurt in my boots, as much as my bones and hands throbbed subtly from the fall, I still wasn’t brave enough to wait it out alone at the campsite. So we kept going, heading deep inside to where the ferns grew to prehistoric heights and the only light seemed choked out by grasping limbs.
Though it was his idea, I could see Dex was apprehensive about heading into the middle. At one point in the path he stopped and quickly handed me back the knife for “safe keeping.”
We reached the end of the path and started back again. There was nothing there. No raccoons, no saboteurs, no giggling girls. Just the hanging moss, rotted stumps, a floor of grey, wet leaves and the stench of dying vegetation.
As we walked along, our pace quickening with the relief that we were leaving, Dex looked at me and smiled. “At least this has taken your mind off of all the blog comments.”
He was right about that. I wasn’t quite in the place to smile about it yet but it all seemed very frivolous when compared to a real–life dangerous situation.
He looked up at the marker on the tree as we passed it and frowned.
“I don’t remember seeing that tree before.”
We stopped and I looked behind me. The tree looked like any other tree in this area. Slimy, scaly bark flanked with beaded moss and the drip of rainwater. There was a tiny nick in the side of it though, where the inner bark was clean and white. Almost like someone took a few whacks of an axe to it and then gave up. He was right. I hadn’t seen that before. But I wasn’t sure that meant anything.
I looked at him unsure of what to say. “I don’t know.”
He sucked in his lips and reached into his pocket. He brought out the pack of cigarettes. It was empty. He crumpled up the package in frustration and threw it on the ground.
“Really, Dex? Littering?” I bent over to pick it up but he grabbed my arm.
“Just leave it for now, trust me.”
He brought out a pack of Nicorette gum and popped a few pieces in his mouth instead. Then he shrugged. “Almost there.”
I gave him an odd look and we continued on our way. He pointed off to the side and started in that direction. It wasn’t on the marked trail anymore but I went with it. I wasn’t sure why he felt littering was of any importance at the moment unless he was just finding another way of being stubborn. Still, I–
“Shit!” Dex cried out. I turned my head in time to see him take off, booking it up the path like a racehorse out of the gate.
There was a two–second lag where I wasn’t sure what was going on but I was quickly running after him, trying to follow his form through the mud and thick trees.
“Where are you going?!” I yelled after him, losing my breath already.
“There’s someone here. I just saw them running!” he yelled over his shoulder, part of his words muffled by the trees he was darting in front of.
I gripped the handle of my knife tighter and struggled to catch up with him but with his comparatively long and agile legs, it was a losing game. It wasn’t long before I lost sight of him and the sound of his breathing and strides were hidden by the density of the forest.
I stopped running and felt utterly lost.
“Dex!” I yelled. And waited.
I yelled again. Same deal.
I was alone in the forest, in the very worst part of the island. If it was a movie, I would have kept looking for Dex and gotten more lost. After all, I did have a knife on me. I was armed. But I still had a tiny rational part of my brain that functioned despite being waterlogged and hungry.
I remember seeing a film when I was in grade school. It was one of those PSA–type shows, akin to why you shouldn’t play with fireworks and that sort of thing. They did a video in a local Portland area forest about a young boy who got lost. The best course of action for him was to stay put and curl up for warmth. The kid also had a package of some granola–like treats that kept him sustained. I remember really wanting those granola treats; I can see the pink packaging clearly in my head, even till to this day.
I also remembered the way he huddled inside a hollowed up log until the rescuers found him the next day. Now, I had no treats and though there were many creepy logs here I could certainly crawl under, I wasn’t having any of that. If Dex even came back there was no guarantee that he would come back this way. There was, of course, no search party.
So I turned around and decided to get back to the main path as quickly as I could. I knew that would take me to the campsite and the campsite was the one place we both knew we could find each other. It was our constant. If I could get back there, there was no doubt he would eventually show up there.
I hurried down the path, fully aware that Dex was out there chasing something and that there might be other somethings around, watching me from the dead trees. I quickly passed by the cigarette package and picked it up. Even stuffed into a crack in a tree, it was better than leaving it on the forest floor.
I looked up at the tree we passed earlier and noticed again the nicks in the bark.
Only the marker wasn’t there.
I stopped. Walked back to the tree. A few minutes ago the red and white glowing disc of the trail marker was on the tree. Now it wasn’t. And it wasn’t on the ground or on any part of the tree. It had just disappeared behind our backs, like someone was going around and plucking them off of the trees.
My breath came in short and shallow. My head felt heavy and my vision began to swim. After everything that happened today, I knew the panic attack was long overdue. But fuck, I didn’t want to go through it alone and in this dead place.
“Think, Perry, think,” I said to myself. My voice cut clearly across the glade. It almost made me feel embarrassed, which was a nice change of emotion given the circumstances.
This tree did have a marker on it earlier, which meant this was the path. But where was the next marker? Where did the path go? The ground was muddy and debris–covered in every direction, whether we had walked on it earlier or not, and with the way the trees were spaced out, it was easy to imagine a million paths were running in a million different directions. Without the markers, you really were lost and for the first time, I couldn’t see a single one anywhere.
“Shit,” I swore under my breath. If going forward was impossible, maybe going backward wasn’t. The shoreline and the Mary Contrary were only ten minutes away at the most. It wasn’t the campsite but it was something and in the worst case scenario, I could probably turn over the Zodiac and use it as shelter.
Part of me wanted to sit down on the nearest stump and cry my eyes out. I was lost, Dex was gone somewhere, chasing something, and we were stranded here. Not only that but my parents and my sister had no idea what was going on with me and were probably sick with worry. There was this constant irrational fear deep down in my chest that I might not see them again.
Maybe Dex would shoot off his flare gun and let me know where he was. That thought cheered me up enough to carry on back to the west shore and the boat.
I took in a deep breath and walked off in that direction.
And I stopped. I heard the sound of twigs snapping and feet shuffling slowly, not wanting to be heard in the quiet forest.
There was someone behind me.
I knew it wasn’t Dex.
My arms and legs were frozen in fright. There was someone behind me. Someone who wasn’t Dex. Someone who was either alive or dead.
I slowly turned my head, expecting to see lepers or a homicidal maniac with an axe and Dex’s head in his hand.
There was nothing there. Just stillness. Just the forest.
Maybe the sound was a delayed reaction of–
I turned all the way around and tensed up, ready to fight or flee, my knife shaking in my firm grasp.
A burst of movement appeared between trees in front of me.
I took a step forward, keeping my eyes locked on the trunks they must have gone behind. If they were running away from me and not towards me, that was at least one good thing I had going.
“Who is there?” I yelled, my voice warbling.
A flash of a person. They left the tree and were running to my right. Between the trees I could make out long hair and a dress of some sort. She was tall, taller than me, a girl, but not a child.
I didn’t know what to do but start running after them.
For once, I was the faster one and I was able to come closer in a short amount of time, all the while jumping over small logs, leaping over mud puddles, ducking between fallen limbs and slapping past reaching branches. I kept my eyes on the person, trying to suck in all the details I could. The girl’s hair was very long, messy and dark, either from dirt or the natural color. The dress was black and old, patched in some lucky places with huge gaping tears in others. It was a very modest outfit with long sleeves, high collar and an ankle–grazing length. As I watched the girl run, as I started to catch up with her, I noticed the girth of the dress wasn’t hampering her ability to jump over stumps or launch over streams. It was like she knew the landscape internally.
At one point I was close enough to reach out for her, but she darted around a heavy fallen tree and had let a thick branch swing back into my face. I put my hands up to protect myself just in time but ended up dropping the knife and was nearly flung backward.
I picked up the knife again and went past the branch but she was gone. There was no one there and the only sound was the ragged, raspy ones that my lungs were making.