4. Dear The Monster That Gets Me,

You’ll want to eat what’s in my girly backpack next. Might I suggest starting with the little black canister. Make sure you twist the top first. If you’re still hungry after that, try the pointy metal things and the one that lights up. Make you feel all tingly inside.


Dear Tori,

I have a better near death story than you now, nya nya nyanya nya. I guess its not really a near death story if I actually die but try and top getting eaten by mutant forest monsters. I fought some of them off first so I’m already more badass than you.
OK what really happened was I ran away a bunch and pepper sprayed one of them, but when you and Essie tell my story, give me a machete or a flamethrower or something. Or just have me thrashing on them with my bare fists, that’s cool too.

Take care of yourself, man. Everyone’s got to face down the demons. Youll kick their butt someday soon.


Dear Mom and Dad,

Good news and bad news. Your schedule for next school year just got a lot more relaxed

Bet you never thought following her footsteps instead of Tori would get me killed. So much for

I’m so sorry.

I should have told you. I should have stopped this. Coulda woulda shoulda done most things better. Is it any less of a disappointment that I went out trying to make it right? I miss you, and home, and everyone. Guess this is what it takes to make me appreciate it all. Don’t be mad when you find the missing blender in my room. It’s a long story and I’m pretty sure it’s fixable
You did everything you could, Mom. It’s not your fault.


Dear Esther,

HA, I’ve got your journal now. This is what you get

What was the point of keeping this stupid thing locked up if you weren’t even writing in it

Turn this into one of your stories, why don’t you. Kiara and Doc Get Banished to the Back End of Nowhere and He Dies of Starvation and She Gets

What were you thinking?

You’re supposed to be the smart one. And the everything else one. Why would you do this to us? You used to at least trust me enough to drag me along. This is what happens when I have to drag myself.
Is this what you wanted? I try to do something on my own for once, I try to be the responsible one and this is where it gets me. Did you know about this place? Did you know how messed up this whole place is? Can’t even walk on the ground. It’s so dark now, I havent seen the moon all night and barely any stars. You left me a decent CD but I can’t even get halfway through it without feeling awful.
At least now everyone’s going to see who you really are. You’re impossible You’re stuck up and selfish.
I hope you’re happy I hope you read this. I hope you got away.
I don’t hate you.


Just one voice would be fine. One human voice that isn’t Stephan Jenkins please. Shouldn’t have left me markers. I’m gonna end up drawing faces on these big seed pod thingys before long.


Dear aliens,


TOO QUIET. SOMETHING MIGHT FIND ME IF I KEEP YELLING SO I NEED TO YELL IN HERE. THIS IS STUPID AND UNFAIR AND DUMB AND IF THERES MORE TO THE UNIVERSE WHY DID I HAVE TO FIND IT OUT LIKE THIS AND WHY ARE GIRLS SO DUMB AAAaaaAAAA


[Insert two full pages of assorted expletives]


Is my obituary just going to say Esther’s Brother?


Why is everything too alive?


After an hour of being stuck in a tree with no one to talk to and nothing to do but wait, I had turned to writing. It wasn’t enough to distract me from my thoughts.

At first I had opened Esther’s journal in search of answers, any record of what was going through her head leading up to this mess. It was the kind with a little built-in padlock, which I could have picked, but one more ransacking of the backpack turned up the key. Instead of clues, all I found inside were blank pages. A handful of them had been torn out from the front. “Really? Does everything here have to be a gyp?”

The reason I was stuck in the tree was that I had no plan to protect myself once I was on the ground again. The closest thing I had to a plan was to head west, downhill, on the assumption that the forest had to end at some point, but that would only work if I could walk without getting swallowed. It was hard to tell in the rain and low light if the slime creature was still around. I saw something stir in the understory after I threw some seed pods into it, and chose not to find out in person. By the time the rain cleared up, the sun was setting, and I resigned myself to staying where I was until I could at least see what was coming to kill me.

I was a little cleaner now, and a lot damper. I’d attempted to wash off some of the slime and dirt in the rain, even though it left me shivering with no way to dry off. The stinging patches didn’t feel any better after I cleaned them, but they weren’t getting any worse. I had also refilled the water bottle with runoff from the branches.

I’ll admit it, there were tears that night. Facing down your mortality for the first time is hard enough even when you don’t have to do it alone, bewildered, and in the dark.

The surprising thing is that I got any sleep at all. When I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer, I tried to break off some smaller branches to form a perimeter and stop myself from rolling off the crude little platform I’d made. When that failed pathetically, I had the bright idea of looping one of the backpack’s straps over a branch and shoving my arms and upper torso through the other one as an uncomfortable safety harness. I passed out briefly, then sat up for several more hours to watch the forest slowly brighten and come awake. It was a mercifully short night, only eight hours and forty-one minutes, of which I’d managed to sleep for fifty-two.

At least, those were the numbers that felt right when I checked my watch, and I was too frazzled to question why I was so sure of them.

After exhaustive testing (read: chucking lots of seed pods at the ground), it looked like the slime thing had moved on during the night. I still trod as lightly as I could while making my escape. I couldn’t be sure if the dinky little bubble compass built into the survival tool had ever worked, but in any case, it was pointing all over the place now. I’d have to just do my best to walk the opposite way from the rising sun and keep going downhill.

Although nothing attacked me that morning, I got more uncomfortable the more I saw of the forest. I had to admit that most of it was beautiful in a primal, mythic sort of way. And the abundance of wild green after the arid vistas and landscaped yards I was used to reminded me of the thickets behind our old home in Connecticut. But then I would find sections of it that struck me as not just different, but wrong.

A series of meadows, for instance, where there were enough flowers together for me to notice they were all pointing in the same radial direction. Looking closer, I saw the growths on the trees also facing as if toward a common center. Then, farther in, the branches of the trees themselves. I gave up on investigating when I noticed the ground sloping downward, like I was walking into a funnel. There were no animal sounds nearby, only a low hum coming from the ground.

Elsewhere, I found branches from one tree growing into another, and a little farther on I started seeing trunks twisting and merging into each other. Beyond that I could glimpse outlines of stranger shapes melded into the wood, but changed course without daring to find out what they were. The whole thing was beginning to look too much like a maze or cage for my liking.

I skirted areas that smelled mostly of decay, where the trees were losing their needles and the wilted brown undergrowth seemed to be spreading, reaching out to take in more of the surrounding life. The overall impression I was getting was of a biome in conflict with itself.

Each time I went out of my way to avoid something unsettling, I found myself drifting to my left, north according to the sun. Before long I was going that way by default, because it was working. Less of what I saw as the day wore on felt like a “what’s wrong with this picture” puzzle.

Not to say that I felt comfortable or even much safer. Safety didn’t seem to be an option here. Whenever I took a rest, I made sure none of the nearby plants were moving. When I found a river and stopped to refill my bottle, a dark shape near the other bank poked its eyes above the water to stare at me until I left. Some of its eyes, anyway – I saw at least three. And once, I heard a distant commotion of trampled undergrowth and looked just in time to spot something sinuous and segmented, as long as a pickup truck and with too many legs, gallivanting away into the shadows.

My mind was done being blown by unearthly sights for the time being; in fact I was actively avoiding thinking about them and the connotation “unearthly” in particular. I was too busy stressing about how alone I was. I’d never gone this long without someone to talk to, let alone help me stay alive. I went back to ranting at Esther for a while for getting us into this, but that only made me feel worse when I thought about what was probably happening to her.

It was back to my inner thoughts, which was no improvement. The jar of bees, as Dad would call it, that real silence let loose in my head was worse than the growling in my stomach, which for a thirteen-year-old boy is saying a lot.

The rain returned in the afternoon, and I had more success cleaning off some of the grime and sweat this time. I was following a river by then, into which I’d have jumped without hesitation had I been anywhere normal. As it was, I had to psych myself up just to stick my feet in while the rest of me dried off.

My right foot was surprisingly blister-free where the sock was still intact, but the tears were getting bigger. To get an extra layer between me and the ground, I emptied the Ziploc bag, feeling a little uncomfortable, and attempted to tape it over my foot. Just as I finished, I heard something rustle in the pile I’d dumped out and looked over to see a small red creature dragging off a tampon. It looked amphibious, like a salamander with more fins. Sure enough, it scurried a short way through the grass and slipped into one of the little streams that fed into the river.

“Nope, little crime against nature, that’s not a stick. Get back here.” I didn’t know what I’d ever be able to use feminine protection for (I won’t pretend I was smart enough to consider first aid), but it took a lot less than being stranded in a deadly nightmare forest to activate my hoarder instincts. I followed the animal until it disappeared under a tangle of submerged plants where the stream divided. It didn’t re-emerge, but I noticed a few others like it swimming and crawling around nearby, some of them also carrying things in their mouths.

The course of the stream itself caught my attention now that I was looking more closely. It was being split and spread out by a collection of little tussocks or islands, to the point where it essentially became a broad, shallow body of water up ahead. Still farther on, it began to look more like a pattern formed by the water, vegetation, and whatever the salamanders were building. And there were a lot more than just salamanders living in it, like clusters of bugs scooting along the surface and fishlike things wriggling around in places where it got surprisingly deep.

As the pattern grew more pronounced and more regular, I got excited. I didn’t know what nature was capable of out here, but square corners? Those were a people thing. There were staggered rows, almost a lattice, emerging in the arrangement of pools and islands. Looking behind me, if I didn’t know better, I would have said the watercourse was growing outward from here, making its own organic variations on the structure. I couldn’t even keep track of which way it was flowing. The needles and leaves I saw fall into it were being pulled in different directions, following invisible currents here and there.

The whole thing finally converged into a narrow channel, a small round pool, and then a set of intertwining curves that looked something like this,

before branching off in two opposite directions. I collapsed onto a nearby stump, stared at the shape, and tried hard not to get my hopes up.

As rough around the edges as the channels were from erosion and plant growth, I would swear that they’d been dug, however long ago. But after all the weirdness I’d seen that day, could I be sure this wasn’t more of the same? “You still messing with me?” I yelled into the air. “Is this another trap? The salamanders were cute, I’ll give you that. I fell for that. Nice one.”

I hung my head, which forced me to pay attention to the stump I was sitting on, and quickly felt like an idiot. I hadn’t registered that the top of the stump was flat, almost smooth – sawed off.

A quick search turned up another just like it. It didn’t take long to find the trees they belonged to, limbed and lined up like a barrier beside one of the streams. And on the other side, overgrown but unmistakably, gloriously man-made, a path.

And as the good book says, there was much rejoicing. I hope I didn’t traumatize the salamanders too much.

The sun was already setting, and I wasn’t spending another night draped over branches if there was even a fraction of a chance I could make it to humans and shelter. I cranked up the flashlight and bullied my legs into continuing.

Eyes glinted out at me from between the trees every now and then. I recalled the advice I’d heard about hiking in mountain lion territory at twilight. 1) Don’t do it. 2) If you have to do it, make noise to discourage them from stalking you. Maybe that wouldn’t work on whatever night vision hunters they had out here, but what the heck, I felt like making noise. And my singing should be enough to repel anything.

Just when I was ready to give up for the night, looking for another tree to climb, a speck of light way down the trail caught the corner of my eye. Once I switched the flashlight off and let my vision adjust, I could actually see several lights, two of them steady bluish glows that could have been the lures of some gross nocturnal predator. But I only cared about the brightest, a cheerful flickering orange.

Firelight.

The villagers on the outskirts of Brenest were getting ready to turn in when a terrible sound from the surrounding woods shattered their peaceful night. Some feared it was the battle chant of an incoming bandit squad, but they soon realized it was just one person. One young person singing himself hoarse in a tongue unknown to them and a voice that had no business singing anything.

“GREEEEENSLEEVES, THEY NEVER GET DIRTY, THE LONGER YOU WEAR THEM THE GREENER THEY GET. SOOOOOMETIMES, I THINK I SHOULD WASH THEM BUT SOMETHING INSIDE OF ME TELLS ME NOT YET, NOT YET, NOT YET…”

A small crowd with glowsticks (and a few regular sticks just in case) quickly gathered by the path in time to see the young person stumble into view, let his song trail off, and grin at them like an imbecile. One man stepped out in front of the rest to block the path.

“Hi,” I said.

He said something incomprehensible and commanding.

“Can I hug you?”

More un-American gibberish followed, but I was too giddy at the postponement of my death to care. I was ready to collapse where I stood, and more urgently, running out of songs my sleep-deprived brain could remember the words to. This was my new favorite person, just for being a person.

He did not appreciate the hug, for the record.

Next:
5. Pictionary: First Contact Edition

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3. Planet Oregon

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