I forgot my pack. It was starting to get dark.
I’d walked for nearly three hours, talking to my audience about the money I was about to find, the publicity I was going to receive, the movie I was going to make and all the fame I was going to acclaim. In my excitement of finding the bullet riddled tree, I had completely forgotten about my pack, which I had left leaning against the tree when I sat down to smoke the joint. Now, I could use a joint more than ever, but I had slipped the tin back into the side pocket of my larger pack, now three hours back in the other direction.
You have to go back and get it, my mind told me.
“I can’t go back,” I told the camera still clutched in my hand. “I need to get to the cliff!” I screamed this last and lashed out with my free hand at the nearest small tree. I only succeeded in pulling a few of the top leafs from their branches and losing my balance. I fell back into a large tree and slumped to the ground.
“FUCK!” My words bounced off the trees surrounding me like a pinball in a machine. I could feel the tears behind my eyes again and I sucked them back. There was no way I was doing that twice in one day. I just needed to man-up a little here and press on. I got up from the ground, and continued on my way. I could see in the distance that the ground started to rise. It wasn’t the start of the ascent to Horizon’s End, but I knew I was headed in the right direction.
I ignored the voice in my head telling me this was a bad idea. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and had no food or water.
“Things just got real,” I told my audience, filling them in on my situation.
“Yes, I know it’s probably dangerous, but what adventure isn’t? Besides, five-hundred grand will be well worth it.”
These thoughts kept me going for another hour as I stepped over fallen logs, pushed my way between heavy thickets of saplings, and ran across patches of flat ground that came less and less as I made my way deeper into the woods.
My first inkling that I had made a big mistake came on the wind.
I had just descended into a deep valley in the forest. Like someone had taken a giant bowl and pushed it into the earth. The walls were a mosaic of leaves and fallen logs stuck out in spots like reaching arms. I stood in the bottom of the bowl, surveying my surroundings with my neck craned back and my camera held in front of me. I experienced a moment of complete dislocation, which disoriented me and sent a weight of fear falling into my gut like an anvil.
Which direction was I heading?
I spun around, saw nothing familiar there, kicked up leaves as I whipped in the other direction, saw nothing, then spun back. I was just about to scream when I saw the path of disturbed leaves and exposed earth, like a jagged cut sliding down one side of the bowl that marked my descent. Relief exploded in me like a mushroom cloud.
“Almost had a minor freak-out there,” I told the audience, “but were back on track and headed in the right direction.” I stopped for a minute and admired the collage of leaves littering the floor of the forest.
“See, this is just fascinating,” I said. I held the camera before me and reached out a hand to pick up a handful of leaves. I spread them with my fingers like a poker player inspecting his hand. “Years and years of growth went into making the trees that produce these.” I looked above me and aimed the camera at the canopy. “A sugar maple forest such as this one is very hostile to other trees,” I told them. Forest ecology, a nerdy interest, I know, and one I never told a single soul about in worry of being made fun of, but now that I was going to be famous. Nobody would make fun of me for it then.
“The canopy up there is so thick that the shade literally smothers any small sapling that tries to take root.” I bent low again and pushed aside a portion of the thick carpet of leaves. “That’s if they can even reach the ground to take root. This stuff on the ground,” I used a foot to scatter the portion I had hauled aside, “is called duff, and as you can see, it’s thicker than a 70’s shag carpet, making it almost impossible for any seed to take root.”
A roar interrupted me from my lesson. My heart clenched inside my chest and my head flipped toward the top of the bowl with a crack. The canopy was shaking like thousands of pairs of hands were gripping the branches and shaking the hell out of them. Then, a burst of movement exploded from the lip of the bowl sending a flurry of leaves into the air and raining down on me like snow. Then the wind hit me. A cold blast like someone had just opened the world’s largest freezer door. It sent a shiver right through my flesh and my bones shuddered inside me. Goosebumps rashed out on my skin and a shudder rocked me on my feet. As quick as it came it was gone, restoring the late-afternoon to its normal warmth. I could only look around stunned, like a person who has just survived some massive explosion. I turned to the camera.
“That was fucked,” I said with a shaky voice. I cleared my throat. “Let’s get the hell out of here shall we.”
Before I even knew it was coming, night fell on me like a sheet. I was just beginning to notice the darkness starting to seep between the trees. As if it were aware I was watching it, it started to sneak in around me, moving between the trees and seeping through the canopy like billions of misty black snakes, slithering and sliding its way around me until it was complete blackness.
“Son of a bitch,” I said. I flicked on the flashlight attachment on my camera, and used that to navigate my way along. This didn’t last long though. The look of the solitary glowing orb of light on the forest floor reminded me too much of the Blair Witch Project and really freaked me out. However, when I turned it off I was left standing in complete darkness.
The wind that had assaulted me before had returned. Now it was more of a constant barrage instead of a single attack. Leaves kept skittering into my chest and face, causing me to jump in the air. I moved on a little further, trying to keep myself from breaking into a run. Somehow, I had gotten the idea in my head that it would be completely terrifying if someone (something) tapped me on the shoulder. The idea clung to my mind like a June bug on the end of your finger and wouldn’t let go. More than once I thought I heard something moving in the leaves behind me and I picked up my pace, panting with the effort. I was sweating from every pore and my throat was burning. The thought of my pack, with all it’s supplies of food and water and pot, leaning against that tree all that ways back only made my throat hurt worse and my stomach grumble louder.
“At least there’s no set up or take down,” I said, laughing into the camera. I wasn’t sure if I could be seen in the dark so I flicked the light back on. It blinded me and I looked away. Glancing around I could see nothing but a flashing astral orb of light moving between the trees. “I guess that’s one benefit of forgetting your pack.” I laughed again, but the sound was almost horrifying in the darkness and I cut it off. It died in the silence like the choking off of an old engine. “I’m in serious trouble here,” I said. The realization, voiced into words, made my stomach feel like I had swallowed a block of ice. The wind felt like it was freezing the sweat to my skin and before long I was clutching my chest and shivering. I knew I needed to find somewhere to hide for the night. Soon. I walked on a little longer.
I was definitely hearing something. It was crunching leaves behind me and rustling branches long after I had long moved through them. I was practically sprinting through the forest. Trees were lashing out at my exposed face, arms and legs, but I ran on. I fell down more than once, my muscles seeming to lose their coordination with one another. As if there communication systems had gone from Bluetooth to a couple of tin cans attached on string. I felt something on the back of my neck and I slapped it away.
The rock wall sent me sprawling back and onto the ground. It also seemed to knock a little sense into me. Or shatter the shell of panic which had encased my body. I whipped around, snapping on the light of my camera as I did. Obviously, there was nothing there. I turned to the left, then to right. Nothing but large maples and darkness.
“I need some help,” I said. The words were the passcode to the door holding back my despair and as they were spoken, the door clicked open and I started to cry. I was covered in scratches, which bled and mixed with the mud caking my entire body. I was shaking terribly and the sobs raking their way through my lungs didn’t help the dryness in my throat. “Please.”
I turned around, not getting up, just rolling on my side through the cold leaves and shining the light to see what exactly I had crashed into.
The rock face shot up for as far as I could see in the darkness, rising up like the base of a giant skyscraper. It was cracked and dimpled across its entire surface and covered in places by carpets of lichen. I shone the light up as far as it could reach, then back down to the ground. It was here I found a little bit of hope. The rock didn’t sit directly against the earth. Instead, the bulk of it bulged out like the belly of a severely pregnant woman and allowed a small space for me to crawl beneath. I hoped.
I moved slow, my muscles wouldn’t cooperate when I tried to get up and I ached all over. I could feel cuts peeling open and dirt stinging into them, but I ignored it. I needed warmth.
On my first attempt, I only managed to slam the top of my head into the curved bottom of the rock face. I heard the GoPro smash into and the shards fell down my face in a plastic rain. I ignored this too. With a groan I pushed myself further in, bringing with me scores of leaves and sticks that hung up underneath my dragging body. I still had the camera held in front of me. In the dim light it cast I could see nothing but rock, and when I reached the final point I could crawl, I judged I was about two feet beneath the rock face. Using muscles that felt like blocks of wood I tried to pull all the leaves and whatever else I could manage toward me in an attempt to cover my freezing limbs.
“Wh-Who knew i-i-it got s-s-so cold he-here in the su-su-summer,” I managed. I could feel my body wanting to sleep, but it wasn’t like a normal tired feel. Instead of heavy eyelids slipping closed, a milky sort of blackness was seeping over my vision and pushing me toward unconsciousness. I was afraid it could possibly be my body slipping toward death.
“D-Death, ha ha ha,” I set the camera on the leaves in front of my face and curled my body into the tightest ball. I stared into the brightness it gave off. “I’m n-n-not going to d-d-die,” I said. “I’m si-sixteen.”
This fact didn’t make me feel better though, because that milky black sheet was still trying to slide down over my vision, like the curtain closing at the end of an act.
A tremor of shakes rocked my body; the worst yet. I clutched the pile of leaves tighter to my chest, as if maybe I could draw some warmth from their dried husks.
“I’ll b-be f-f-fine in the morn-ning,” I said.
I lay in the dark, staring out at the forest which was a few shades brighter from the moonlight managing to sneak through the thick canopy. My mind drifted away as I concentrated all my will on keeping my eyelids from sliding shut. In the darkness I kept seeing faces peeking in at me from the other side of the crack in the rock, but each time they did I blinked them away. It got into my head that this was my punishment, for what, I didn’t know, but tears were leaking down my cheeks and my mind slipped further back.
In the third grade I’d made a kid eat dirt. I had forgot his name long ago, but I will always remember the feel of his sharp shoulder blades against the insides of my thighs and the choking gags he made as I stuffed the sun-baked dirt of the lower soccer field into his gasping mouth. I never got in trouble for it because the kid never told.
In fifth grade I stole Lindsay O’Connor’s diary and, walking down the main corridor, ripped out the pages and pasted them on the walls for everyone to read. The very next week Lindsay switched schools. For that I got pulled into the principal’s office and my parents were brought in. They acted stern and angry in the office, but when we returned home I received no scolding. They acted as if it never happened and when I asked my mom if we could order a pizza that night, she got on the phone right away.
After grade nine I made it my mission to initiate every wimpy-looking kid that set foot inside the school’s door. Many noses were bloodied from the hallway floors as they nudged nickels along with the encouragement of my heavy sneakers pounding their asses. Rolls of saran wrap evaporated as, with the help of friends, kids were affixed to trees, soccer poles and even bike racks. I was pulled into the principal’s office countless times during my high school career and they always led to the same outcome. Regardless of what the school prescribed: detention, suspension, extra community service hours, whatever, the reaction from my parents was always the same. As if they were incapable of getting angry with me. I loved it. It was like they were my partners in crime and I saw nothing wrong with what I was doing. I was tough, and everyone knew it.
I wore my hats cocked to the side and my jeans hanging well down below my waist. I wore shirts with rap slogans that I knew the teachers hated just because I knew they hated them.
Curled beneath a giant rock, shivering like a newborn kitten and more terrified than I had ever been in my entire life, a part of my brain was widening in realization.
I wasn’t tough, never had been tough and never would be. I was only a human, and if mother nature wanted to end you, she very well would. Part of me was realizing this, but the other part, the part that swore I was still a tough as nails kid from the city, clung to that belief with all its might. Like a screaming toddler not wanting to leave the playroom, it was gripping the doorframe as the room it had occupied for so long was rejecting it.
Outside the rock it started to rain. My eyes joined in.
A small flicker alit in my stomach that perhaps now I could get a drink of water. However, I knew that it would be a terrible idea to move from my small cave. I had just started to gain some semblance of warmth and by crawling out into the open (and getting wet) I would negate all of that and only make things worse. Part of my mind was trying to tell me that none of that mattered, that I really wasn’t even that cold and a drink of water would feel good. This voice wasn’t a strong one though and I remained where I was, listening to the patter of raindrops on dried leaves.
At some point during the night, as I stared out into the dark, seeing the occasional glisten of a raindrop in the moonlight, I fell asleep. I’m not sure when it happened or how, I just merely slipped away. The way a sand castle will disappear as the tide comes in. My consciousness simply evaporated as the black sheet finally slid down over my eyes. I remember I had stopped shivering though. I was alarmed by this because I was still freezing cold, incredibly thirsty and felt like I could eat every item off the Mcdonalds menu, but my body wasn’t reacting. A small part of my mind, like the voice of a toddler trying to be heard during a rock concert, attempted to tell me I was in trouble and I needed to stay awake. It was drowned out though.
When I woke up, a thin film of light was seeping in through the crack in the rock and the calls of birds had reclaimed the silence of the forest. I had stopped shivering, and for the first time since earlier that night, I felt tough.
“I made it,” I croaked. My throat felt like it was lined with concrete, and my words sounded more like grunts than language. I moved my eyes to the camera resting in front of my face, The dim light reflected through the glass lens that stared at me like some cyclopean being. The light was no longer on. At some point in the night the battery had given up the ghost. I looked back at out the sunlight and moved to crawl out into it. I tried to smile but I felt no reaction from the muscles on my face, and when I tried to move my legs to begin pushing myself out from the cave, I received no response. My legs stayed where they were in their curled position. My heart started to beat a little faster. Outside, I heard the harsh squawk of a raven. “Let’s go,” I gasped.
I tried my arms next, thinking I could push myself along in an army crawl until my legs decided to wake up. I went to move them, but it was another dead connection. My heart was now pounding in my chest and my stomach quickly became the coldest part of my body. I figured my body would be too liquid deprived for tears, but I figured wrong, my eyes started to leak again.
“Come on, come on, come on,” I urged, trying to move my neck to look at the rest of me, but unable to do that either. I really started to panic then. I tried to focus all my will on moving my legs, an odd idea because how often does one really think about things such as taking a step, or bending their knees. I tried to do it anyways, but it got me nowhere. My body felt like it had been carved from wood. I didn’t feel cold, I didn’t feel warm, or wet, I felt nothing at all. My frantic eyes, the only thing (besides my frantic heart) that I was actually able to manoeuvre, flitted around the inside of the cave. There was no help there, not even something to briefly take my mind off my plight. Then I saw the drip.
Either the rock was excreting the rain that had poured onto its top the night before, or condensation had built up from the morning coming in, I didn’t know, or care. Hanging above my left knee was a particularly wet patch of rock, and every few seconds a rather heavy droplet would break free from the grey surface and fall. Instead of hitting the ground though, it landed directly on my leg, and I could see that this had been happening for quite some time because my legs were soaked.
Yet, I felt nothing.
I screamed for help. I begged and pleaded for anyone nearby to find me and pull me out. Something bad was happening to me and I was going to die. I cried, yelling through the sobs raking my chest. I didn’t know if my words were even reaching outside the cave or if the surrounding rock was smothering them. I continued to do it though until I couldn’t do it anymore, until my throat was so dry and cracked that it only sounded like the wheezing of an old man instead of words when I tried to speak.
I closed my eyes, seeing the rocks beneath my leafy mattress but not feeling them, seeing the water dripping on to my frozen legs and not feeling it, seeing my arms and legs laying there and not feeling them either. Trying to yell again my throat cracked and I fell into a fit of coughing that cut through my whole body. I heard the leafs rustling with my movements.
“This is it,” I said, staring into the dead camera. “I’m going to die.” My mind found the idea laughable, and I almost did laugh at the melodramatic tone of my words. It was more thought than word actually because I didn’t think it was possible to understand me, even if I had been speaking to someone. I closed my eyes and immediately felt that black sheet start to creep over me again. This time I was absolutely certain that meant my death. I thought it had been the darkness of night that made that idea scary to me, now though, in the bright morning with sunshine outside the crack in the rock, it was still terrifying. I had no will left though, and my eyes started to slip closed.
As they had the night before, the faces started to peak in at me from the rock’s edge, and each time they did, I blinked them away. I waited, passing the time with blinking until I couldn’t blink any longer.
However, a face appeared that I couldn’t blink away. I tried three or four times and it still hung over the edge of the rock, shadowed by the sunlight. The face became a body that crouched at the lip of the cave. I heard sound but I didn’t recognize any words because at that point the tide had come in, and my consciousness was being washed away.
Maybe it’s death, I managed to think before finally slipping away, but who would have thought that death would have a pony tail.