When I woke, it was nothing but trees. Giant ones like evergreens, looming up to fence off the lonely little patch of sky above me. I sat up, feeling sore, in a patch of some prickly but yielding plants.
I picked out a few solid thoughts from the soup of phantasmal impressions dribbling out of my brain: confronting Esther in the valley, something pulling her away from me, the Links, wind and pain, then some gobbledygook visions. I shook myself, got slowly to my feet, and shouted for Esther. For anyone.
There’s no need to go over the next twenty-odd minutes in detail. Maybe I took it all in stride like the jaded modern youth I was. Or there could maybe have been some panic. Who’s to say? Not really crucial to the story. What matters is that I was alone, in a place like nowhere I’d ever been.
My first guess was Oregon.
I’d seen sequoia forests in the Sierras, but this was too damp and overgrown for that – saturated, in a word. It must have been as ancient as any redwood grove. Even the air was old, millennia’s worth of the circle of life distilled into vapor. Every breath smelt and felt like moss would start growing in my lungs if I took too many. The forest floor was a mini jungle of small plants like the one I’d landed on – and plenty of animal life too, judging by the constant humming, squeaking, and clicking in the background – all over a carpet of needles, moss, and damp humus.
Wandering around at random like a puppy with its head in a jar would be pointless, I realized after a while of wandering around like a puppy with its head in a jar, and sat down on a rock to get my thoughts in order. I knew Esther had been taken, even if I couldn’t recall exactly how. The image of her in some alpine meadow was consigned to the gobbledygook visions category pending further evidence. I’d watched enough news to know what happened to young girls who were lured away from home and abducted. The twist was that I’d been taken too, just not to someone’s basement. I considered the possibility that I’d angered the Black SUV Squad (or cartel), who had drugged me and driven me off to the middle of nowhere to be eaten by a bear or a survivalist hermit tripping on the mushrooms grown in his beard. Being drugged would go a long way toward explaining both the things I remembered so vividly and the one thing I couldn’t remember at all, despite an urgent feeling that I ought to. It didn’t explain why they would bother driving me this far north when there were plenty of deserts and the Pacific Ocean to drop me in.
Everything I’d had on me was still there too: Esther’s backpack, half of the broken Links, the same clothes. My watch was still working, but it now told me it was just past midnight on January first. Someone or something had reset it just a minute or two before I woke. But these were all questions to worry about once I got out of the woods.
They might have used an off-road vehicle, but there was always a chance that I was still near a road. If I could only get high enough in one of the trees, I might spot it. I looked around, but didn’t see any low enough branches. There was one tree leaning against two others at a shallow enough angle that I might be able to reach the lower canopy by climbing it, but fallen trees and I weren’t on speaking or climbing terms just yet. I might have to suck it up if I wanted to get out of here, though.
I rubbed my arms; now that I was out of the sun, it was too chilly for basketball shorts and a hand-me-down Offspring t-shirt. Plus, my right foot was all wet now. I’d been too distracted to notice it was in a mud puddle. I wiggled my ankle to give it an idle stir.
The puddle stirred back.
I jumped up with a yelp only to fall backward when the puddle impersonator refused to let go of my sneaker, almost like that cornstarch goop we all made at some point in science class. One hand squelched into more of the same substance up to the mid-forearm, but it wasn’t until the squeezing started that I knew for sure I was in trouble.
A dark green glistening mass was moving its way up my arm, while the same was happening to my foot. With the one hand and foot I had on solid ground, I braced myself and yanked my foot out of the engulfed sneaker. When I tried to extract my arm, the stuff only pulled back harder. I could now see it was much bigger than a couple of puddles, with more of it gathering together and moving in my direction. I looked around wildly for anything to use against it. There was a fallen branch nearby, but it proved to be just out of arm’s reach.
The cold stickiness was up to my elbow now, and beginning to reach my lower body. I pivoted, stretching out with my legs for the branch until I was flat on my back. My feet closed on it just as the creature grasped the back of my head and neck.
I pulled away from it with a spin that would have made any break dancer proud and a screech that would have made any little girl envious. As soon as the branch was in my free hand, I stabbed maniacally at the gelatinous flesh around my arm and felt a shudder. The good news was that its grip loosened. The bad news was that I saw and heard the shudder spread out in a wave across all the nearby forest floor.
My arm slid free with a deeply uncomfortable sucking sensation, stinging from where my stabbing frenzy had scratched it but otherwise unhurt, and I ran in what I thought was the opposite direction from the creature. I only made it a few steps before more squelches dispelled that error. Not only did its dark greens and browns make for ideal camouflage, the dappled light made avoiding it on the run even harder. I was about to just pick a direction and hope that I could trample over it fast enough not to get caught when there was a pulse of motion across the ground up ahead, converging in front of me to thrust up an amorphous appendage more than half my height. Basketball reflexes turned out to be good for something after all as I spun out of its way, only to stumble into a shallower patch on my hands and knees.
I pulled free before I could lose another shoe or sock. The pseudopod lunged and missed me by inches. I ran for the only surface that looked unmistakably slime-free, a big half-rotted log just yards away. A flying leap and a scramble over powdery, crumbling wood, and I was out of harm’s way for the moment.
The Oregon hypothesis was looking shaky.
I knew the Pacific Northwest had some big slugs, but the nature magazines had left out the sentient army-camo booger monsters. I knew about slime molds, but one would think they’d get more Discovery Channel specials if they could get this big and fast. I also had a nasty suspicion that I’d read about them explicitly in connection with rotting logs.
This one at any rate wasn’t making a move to climb up after me. It was still moving plenty, though; more than half the ground was rippling by now. It was thicker in some spots than others. I was lucky that I’d first encountered it at the edge where it was more spread out. From my new vantage point I could see what looked like a steadily shrinking patch of dry ground, leading away from the far end of the log, that might be my only way out.
The creature was pulsating again, bunching up into more pseudopods on either side of the log. When I ran toward the opening, they struck, hitting the sides of the log on their first try but aiming higher on the next. Still reluctant to make contact with the wood, I noted. One big blob was forming further down the log, trying to get ahead of me. I put on an extra burst of speed, put my foot through an extra rotten section, and fell extra hard on my face. A pseudopod passed right over me, drawn to the heavy thud.
It couldn’t see me, but it could at least sense vibrations through the ground. I crawled forward as quietly as I could and looked up. It was holding off on attacking, waiting for more vibrations to track. But my escape route was still shrinking. I didn’t have time to inch my way to freedom.
Was there anything in Esther’s backpack I could use? A cursory search turned up a can of pepper spray and one of our Y2K survival gizmos, a flimsy-looking multitool which might have a dull blade in it somewhere. Both of them would be thoroughly useless against something like this. Fire would probably hold it off, but if there were matches or a lighter in there, I couldn’t find them. That, and I had reservations about starting a forest fire while I was in the forest.
I cautiously pulled up two hefty chunks of wood, got to my feet, and threw them as far from the log as I could. Just as I hoped, they caused a stir right around where they landed. With that brief distraction, I broke into a run again.
The nearby pseudopods immediately turned toward me. Fantastic, it could multitask too.
Something flew past my face and I ducked reflexively. A second projectile hit my left shoulder and arm, a gob of viscous fluid. The thing was spitting at me now. I brushed most of it off, but the skin it touched was already starting to sting.
Does Australia have forests like this?
The biggest pseudopod still loomed ahead. I hung back to avoid its predictive lunge, dashed forward as soon as it retracted, and was knocked off balance by one from the opposite side. I’d been too focused on the big one to see it coming.
Unable to check my momentum, on the verge of falling off the side into the rising slime mold (or whatever it was) below, I pushed off into an awkward, oblique long jump. I landed on a thinner patch of slime, slipped, rolled my way through it and into what remained of the open space. I was back up and sprinting in time to avoid the thigh-high wave that formed just behind me. Another wad of spit grazed the back of my leg.
Just when I thought I was almost in the clear, I saw the tell-tale sheen expanding ahead of me as if from nowhere, blocking my way. It was coming right up through the floor, I realized in horror. Goodness only knew how much more of it there was underground.
Outrunning it might not be an option.
I was close to the leaning fallen tree I’d spotted earlier. If my guess that the creature wouldn’t climb trees was right, up might be the only way out. The direct approach was blocked, however. I made for the nearest standing tree, one of a tight cluster that I might be able to use like stepping stones to get closer. As soon as I jumped onto the exposed roots, webs of pulsating green began creeping over them. I had to make an emergency test of my theory, hugging the trunk with my back to it. To my very tempered relief, the creature tolerated the outlying roots but wouldn’t approach as far as the trunk.
All was quiet for a moment, and I made the mistake of taking a breather. I was covered head to mismatched feet in ick by now, with needles and dirt sticking to me in patches, and the pain from that projectile spit was worsening. I noticed movement around the perimeter of the stand of trees, which when I looked closer turned out to be a very literal perimeter, an encircling wall that the slime thing was steadily raising up. I could only assume that if I didn’t make a move soon, it would start closing in.
The pseudopod forming on the roots at my feet was still growing, but more slowly than normal. It was a safe bet that the roots inhibited it somewhat, and there were roots all over the place here. If I was careful where I stepped, I might make it out before the barrier grew too big to hurdle.
I made a run for it, leaping from root to root wherever I could, furiously stomping slime with every footfall where I couldn’t. The upturned root system of the fallen tree, my last hope, was almost within reach when the barrier bunched up to block me.
I launched myself off of a big knot at the base of the last tree, up and over the wall of slime. I clipped the top of it, but still landed messily on the other side, rolling over and over until I hit the dead tree. Immediately I was clawing at the dirt-covered roots to pull myself up as the patch of slime I’d landed in tried to drag me back down. Its tendrils had me by the leg, shoulder, and shirt, with one more reaching up for my left foot.
That was the last straw. Whatever happened, this overgrown snot wasn’t getting my other shoe. I roared, pulled with everything I had, kicked at it, and broke free. I tried climbing higher but was stopped short by a tug on the backpack. One tenacious pseudopod was still clinging to it, dragging it off my shoulders to the ominous sound of zippers unzipping.
I slipped one strap off, secured the other strap by hooking my arm around a root, and grabbed at the backside of the pack to keep it from coming open. With some more adrenaline-fueled pulling and a few more kicks, I got it loose – either that or the creature realized it wasn’t food.
I dragged myself halfway up the sloping trunk before accepting that I really wasn’t being followed and collapsing into the fork between two branches. Screw Oregon, screw Australia, screw whatever this place was. “I hope my shoe gives you food poisoning!” I shouted hoarsely at the huge squirming mess below. “Go die in a Kleenex factory!”
Remembering belatedly that it could still spit at me, I hurried the rest of the way up into the branches of the standing tree. Nowhere to go now but up. Unless I fell, of course.
The branches were dense enough to climb quickly and easily. When I reached a comfortable spot, I lay back across two branches and took a rest, though actually relaxing was out of the question after the reception the forest had just given me.
I was banged up from the falls I’d taken, and whatever the slime thing had squirted me with stung worse than a jellyfish now that the pain’s intensity had leveled off. My bare sock was soaked and torn but still intact enough to use. I took it off for now to avoid any further wear. Miraculously enough, the shoe was the only thing I’d lost. The backpack was all intact, so I took a full inventory of its contents.
Esther really had packed this thing in a hurry. It looked haphazard by her standards, with the main compartment full of things clearly intended for a trip, but the front pouch still containing some of her stuff from school.
In total, my wilderness survival kit consisted of a pencil case with writing implements and markers, scissors, a journal, her little Olympus camera, hair ties, tweezers and nail clippers, a Ziploc bag of tampons and a few toiletries, a roll of athletic tape, a water bottle, a small compression stuff sack with a few pieces of extra clothing and undergarments that I didn’t examine too closely, the multitool and pepper spray mentioned earlier, and most exciting of all, three smushed granola bars. A minute and a half later, the bars were gone and the most exciting thing was a mini hand-cranked flashlight radio. Buried at the bottom, whether left there intentionally or not, I found her CD Walkman and headphones.
The radio yielded nothing but static. Not only did this crush my hopes of finding out where I was, it meant that whatever was in the Walkman would be all I had to listen to out here. The odds of finding something good or some of the trash Esther listened to with her friends were about equal. I squeezed my eyes shut and popped it open, begging for anything but Christina Aguilera.
Third Eye Blind. Unexpected, but I’ll take it. Now time to get myself a better view of this place.
The forest canopy was its own little world of life. I passed a few spots where small nest-like gardens had formed in the tangle between branches, sprouting other plants and fungi. In my paranoid state, the first bugs I encountered had me freaking out trying to brush them off before they could sting, burrow, or lay eggs in me, but I soon got used to them. The most common ones I found were something like a cross between a caterpillar and a centipede with stubby little legs, and flocks of flying, spinning critters that looked uncannily leaflike, as if those helicopter seeds that maple trees drop had learned how to flap their wings.
The Walkman still worked, so I plugged the headphones in to try and take my mind off how desperate things were and the implication of all these strange creatures. But the distraction did nothing for my spirits except to drag them further down. I couldn’t remember music ever affecting me so strongly, especially when I didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics. After just a couple of songs, I couldn’t take it anymore and turned it off.
As sometimes happened, I forgot to remove the headphones. They did such a great job of blocking out noise that I didn’t hear two pairs of approaching wings and started, nearly losing my footing, when they zipped past my head. Two animals were fluttering around the tree, the size of birds but with mammalian snouts instead of beaks and orange and black fur on their bodies. I couldn’t tell where the fur ended and the feathers on their wings began, if they even were feathers. They ignored me and soon went their own way, but fresh paranoia kept the headphones off afterward. For that, I probably owe them my life.
I was maybe two-thirds of the way up when I heard the branches below rustling and crackling. Swinging its way up toward me at impressive speed was the first large animal I’d seen, almost my size. I was slow to react because it took some time to make any sense of what I was looking at. It was whipping itself through the branches with four long limbs in the form of leathery tendrils, looking up at me with big round eyes mounted far apart on a swiveling head with prominent, sensitive-looking ears. Between its top two tendril arms and its head were two powerful jointed arms it kept folded as it climbed. The claws on the end gave me a good idea of what those were for.
It appeared to be built for two things: swinging through trees and catching any unlucky inhabitants of those trees. In retrospect, it was pretty cool. At the time, it was the bastard offspring of several horror franchises and a jacked sloth coming to decorate the tree with my insides.
I’d last all of half a second trying to use a multitool blade against that. All I could think of was the pepper spray. By the time I dug it out of my pocket and figured out that I had to twist the actuator for it to work, one of the tentacular arms was already curling around my foot and the branch I was standing on, almost poking through my shoe with some kind of retractable spines. I pointed the can downward and sprayed with abandon.
The animal (I would eventually settle on calling it “slothtopus” over “tentacle monkey”) reacted instantly, releasing its grip and backing down with a volley of hoots. It stopped a good distance below after I stopped spraying, its twitching eyes squinted almost shut, then swung around the other side of the tree and went quiet. After a few moments to recover, I heard it resume climbing, attempting a different approach. I jumped to another branch to keep it in sight and fired off another burst.
It recoiled again and swung off out of sight, deciding I wasn’t worth the trouble. I looked at the spray can in awe. It packed a punch for something so small; I didn’t even think I was in range for that second burst. Better use it sparingly. I then screamed every taunt I could think of after the fleeing Slothtopus well after it was out of earshot, sat down to catch my breath, and literally patted myself on the back for my first unequivocal victory. If only I’d saved a granola bar for this moment.
Higher up, the smaller and denser branches slowed my progress, and the more pronounced swaying of the trunk reminded me how far I had to fall. But finally I reached a window in the branches with a view.
Still nothing but treetops.
I couldn’t have told you why I kept climbing after that or what I expected to see. There was more than enough evidence for what you already know. All I can say is that any kind of hope is a powerful motivator, even a false one. That inarticulate hope pushed me as close to the top as I could get.
The view showed me only that the land sloped gradually downward to my right, the direction of the sun, and that rain clouds were moving in. There was nothing else to see, no landmarks, and still no radio signals. I still clung to the swaying pinnacle, squinting in every direction for a sign of anything besides more forest, until the first raindrops forced me back down.