“Shut up”, I told the trees. “I’m trying not to die”.
They just answered back with a whisper. Good enough.
I looked around, pushing away despair. I had completely lost my bearings, had so for a while, but I refused to be bones found by some old bloodhound in five years. No, I would get out of this one, I told myself, and I would become a better person. Or something.
I had been walking on what could be a trail for what I thought was an hour. I saw the sun going down to my left, just over the treeline, so north was up ahead. I felt a moment of pride in my deduction that lasted all of ten seconds. Ok, fine, there’s north. But where the hell do these woods end? And most important, how in God’s name did I get here?
Had to find higher ground, I thought. Try to make some sense of where the fuck I was. Those survival movies had to do some good in my life. But where?
I had thick woods on either side of the trail, and they didn’t seem to slope up any way. Said trees were towering thingamaboobs which I couldn’t climb if I knew how. Boy, this city life really came back to bite me in the ass. So I had just two choices, either walk back to where I woke up or keep walking to see where I ended up. Considering how much I thought I had walked option one did not appeal immediately, but then I thought I might find out more about what happened to me. So I guess we walk back. Retrace steps. Whatever.
Some bird called out, first sound of life other than the trees I had heard in a while. Fine by me, did not want bugs or bears in this adventure. I head back where I came from.
While I walked back, I tried to remember what strange chain of events ended with yours truly walking in the woods. I knew I hadn’t been exactly a shining light of virtue, but come on. Little too far, if you ask me. I tried to remember what was the last thing I remembered before being stuck here. The haziness of said memory told me that I had been drugged. Heavily, if it had been enough to knock me out. Who was with me? Larry? Meg?
Tendrils of shame and concern always came with that name to my head. Sharon had the three “B”s: brains, bod and bat-shittiness. When we met, I remember thinking that no women that smart should be that hot. Because she read and studied as much as she went to the gym. But she had been “wronged” by every man she dated. I was so randy for her that I didn’t realized how sensible she was to that. She made me promise ten times I would never hurt her, and I took one look at that perfect body and said sure, babe, I promise. When all I really wanted was that body. Bragging rights. But I couldn’t settle on just one, now, could I? Also, she was intense. Insecure. Jealous, of course. But she knew how to treat her man correctly. No matter how much of an ingrate said man was.
We dated for a year, even moved in, till she found me enjoying the company of another woman. She did not take that well, I think. She disappeared for a year. A whole year. She walked in on me banging the cleaning girl from next door in the kitchen. She was carrying pizza and beer. She just looked at us. She placed the food on the table next to the door --the counter was, well, occupied-- went to her room, picked up her laptop, walked out. Never said a word. And I was too... annoyed? Embarrassed? Something?... to say anything. Or follow.
I called her the next day. She didn’t pick up. None of the ten times I tried. When I texted her, I had a “this number does not exist” message. She quit her job. She moved out of the city. She closed all social media, shut down her email. She basically vanished. Any other guy in my position would just let it go. But you didn’t see her face when she walked out of that apartment. You hadn’t seen the tiny little signs that she was more than intense about everything. I didn’t look for her again after a month, but I kept feeling jittery, like she would jump out from the bushes. It was insane, to just up and vanish like that.
As I kept walking back to the clearing, the memories became a little clearer. I was minding my own business in a bar, by myself. It had been a good week. I had no one to celebrate with, though. So I just went to the local hole and saw a band and drank. And then... What?
I reached the clearing where I had woken up. There were nothing I could see that helped me. No sign of human activity. I couldn’t see any way into the clearing other than the path I was on. So what? I was just air-dropped in? How knocked out was I?
Another bird called out. Or it was the same one as before. A raven? Who knows, who cares. Except... I was no nature geek, but I did notice that it had been the only sound I had heard. This seemed a “largish” forest, certainly thick with trees. So why didn’t I hear any more birds? Why didn’t I hear... anything?
The first true sense of unease hit me.
Fuck that... I was scared. But scared would not get me out of here.
I breathed in, deep, let it go. I sat down on a fallen trunk, trying to look relaxed, indifferent. I didn’t so much look at the trees around me as gaze at them. I had no idea what to look for, I just... wandered with my eyes. I--
I stopped at one particular tree, one big round thing with leaves as green and shiny as new tiles. I looked for another second to make sure I wasn’t just imagining it, walked up, and confirmed: There was an arrow carved onto the bark. I don’t know if recent, if by accident (can those things happen by accident? Did something claw the arrow there?) but it was a sign that I had not been the first human being in these here woods. I scrambled closer.
The arrow seemed to have been made by a small knife, since it wasn’t that deep, and it was pointing down. The soil did in fact look like something --some one-- had moved it at some point. Fear stroke the back of my neck again, and I wildly looked around, convinced that whoever put me here was out there, watching me somehow.
“Is this some fucking game?”, I yelled out, ignoring the madness I heard in my voice. “What the hell do you want? WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?”
No answer. The bird did not call out. The trees just whispered again, maybe holding some conference call on who the loony in the dirty jeans was.
“Fine”, I muttered. “Fine, fine, fine”. I plunked on my knees and started digging.
About halfway through, a dark shape started forming. It seemed leather, or something. I dug a little more frantically, more than a little happy that I had found my first clue, but still with fear very much next to me. That fear sat right on my chest the moment I dug up the shape. Oh yeah, fear made a nice little cozy apartment in my brain at that moment. And the memory of the night before came rushing back.
I had left the bar early, tipsy but not drunk, and I was just walking around, taking the long route home. When I passed an all-night coffee shop, someone called my name. Of course, it was Sharon. My tipsiness packed up and left in a hurry, and every hair in my body stood up. She had cut her hair, dyed it black, which made her creamy white skin stand out even more, plus those huge green eyes. She was carrying the object I was holding in my hand right now: a little Darth Vader backpack slash purse. It was one of the things we had in common: big party and sex animals, yes, but also huge Star Wars nerds.
“Buy me a coffee. Let’s talk”, she said. She didn’t wait for an answer, she just walked in. She had my favorite pants on, the one that made that perfect ass look God-made, and I hated myself for the pang of horniness that came with my uneasiness. As I stared at the cartoon Vader covered in soil, I cursed myself for being so easy.
The bird --I was now convinced it was the same bird-- called out again. Was it closer? Fuck it, I had other things in mind.
I carried the backpack to the trunk with unsteady hands as I remembered bringing the two coffees to where she sat, also with unsteady hands. “I can’t say I missed you, but it’s... good to see you”, she said. Yeah, I bet it was, I told Darth as I stared into his cartoon masked face. “I guess you’re wondering where I’ve been this last year”.
Not really, no, I thought. Not sure I wanted to know, either. “I thought you never wanted to see me again”, I said, like an idiot.
--Oh no, that really isn’t true. I couldn’t wait to see you again.
--Don’t worry, you’ll have time to explain, if that’s required. Let’s just make small talk for now. How are you?
The plainness of the question caught me completely off guard. It made me not focus on the “if that’s required part”. I told her, yeah, I’m fine, I remembered, as I unzipped the backpack. There were only three things inside: two ripe, red apples, a mirror, and a note. I did not want to read the fucking note as much as I could not wait to read it.
--Fine? Just fine? You were doing pretty good at work, I remember.
--Well, yeah, I am. It’s steady. Good gigs. I can’t--
Her face did not change with this question. I held her gaze; kinda proud I managed that.
--No. I’m not seeing anyone.
--How’s your mother?
--She died. Six months ago--, I said immediately. Did she know that? As I saw the pale, haggard old thirty-something staring back at me from the mirror, I thought now that yeah, she must have known my mother died of a heart attack. I was close to my mother. It wasn’t her fault I turned out this shitty. She died without the grandkids she so wanted.
--Sorry to hear that. She was a good woman.A good person.
--She loved you.
--I know. So did--
She was taking out a pack of Stevia. She could only take that, for some reason I never knew. They fell out of Darth Vader. I instinctively bent down to grab them, ever the gentleman. Of course that’s when she drugged me. It had to be. How the fuck she managed, who cares. That’s when.
“You... bitch”, I whispered in the forest. The trees whispered back.
--Here you go-- I said in the coffee shop.
--Ever the gentleman. Thank you-- she said.
--So are we going to pretend you didn’t fall off the face of the Earth for a year--
--A year to the day, by the way.
--or are you going to tell me where you’ve been? Because here’s one thing I’d like to say, Sharon. That’s not what normal people do.
--I’m not normal, baby. You should have known that by now.
Hearing those words in my head send an ice-cold shiver down my spine. They sounded harder in my head as I stared at the note. But the apples woke up my stomach, which spoke even harder. I had no idea what time it was --I didn’t wear a watch and of course I didn’t have my phone-- but I was pretty sure the last thing I ate were the cheese sticks at the bar. More than a few hours ago.
--I left the country, after I saw you guys-- she went on--. I went to Europe. didn’t quite backpack, but didn’t go... sight-seeing, either. I just wanted to get away. Not just from you, don’t flatter yourself. From everything. But yeah, you were... I don’t know, the catalyst? You know, the last straw.
--Last straw for what?
--This world has treated me like shit, man. I give and give, and all I get thrown back is turds and mud. So I decided to get away from the world. Find a new one, maybe. And I did. I made new friends in eastern Europe, traveled to Greece, made new friends. Friends who could show me ways to... oh I don’t know, right some wrongs.
Her words became woozy after that. And then I woke up here.
I knew the note would finally explain what happened here, and I know Sharon was to blame somehow --friends? What friends? Right what?What the hell do they have to do with anything?-- but I felt so very scared to open it. And what the hell was the mirror for? The bird cawed out, one more time, and now it really seemed close by. I looked around in the woods, but the trees just whispered away (maybe a little harder?), hiding everything.
Oh fuck it. I opened the note.
“The apple of discord plus the apple of temptation”, the note read. “Try them. While you see yourself wither away, your own true victim. Say hi to the harpy for me”.
More than angry, I was confused. And a little... disappointed. That was a lame note. Sharon was truly off her rocker. And who the fuck was the harpy?
I took one of the apples. I had a brief crazy image of the old “Snow White” movie where the poisoned apple was all shiny and gleaming, and paranoid told me “IT’S A TRAP”. But my stomach had other ideas. I took a bite.
The bird crashed through the branches screaming at the top of its unholy lungs, diving straight towards me. It was as big as a vulture, but that wasn’t the worst. It had tits. Huge old lady knockers that hung like a turkey’s things over its chest. And what was worse, it had a face, a fucking old woman face, filled with teeth, and it screamed, and SCREAMED, AND I SCREAMED---
It tore the apple away from my hand, knocking me down with the force of its wing beats. It soared off and landed on a branch that bucked under its weight. It turned and look at me, a hideous absurd thing with an apple in its mouth. There was nothing but craziness in those eyes. Ancient madness. Like a parrot from hell, it took the apple from its mouth with one of its claws and started munching at it, never once taking its insane eyes off me.
I slowly understood what lied ahead of me. I saw no other food anywhere except for the other apple. If I tried to eat it, this thing would take it away before I could. I could only see it rot, or know it would if I chose to get rid of it somehow. I would starve. And there was the mirror, eternal temptation, so I may see how I slowly deteriorate. All this because I porked someone else but her.
I screamed again. The harpy just kept eating.