“Okay, class. You may start some research on the assignment this weekend. We won’t see each other on our next class. I’ll give you the time to ‘explore your assignment’ then,” the lecture emphasized on the words before continuing, “Remember, any kinds of plagiarism of any sorts are prohibited. There are only 10 people allowed to explore each forest and none of you shall pick the same plant. So you should divide yourselves into three groups okay? You can choose where to go. Any questions?”
“Do we choose our own group mates?” One of the students asked.
“Unless you want me to pick for you?” The lecturer questioned back.
There were low murmurs “no, thank you” that it was barely audible to the lecturer in the classroom but she heard. And she silently wished for the lecturer to pick the groups since she wasn’t familiar with her classmates.
The journey to the forest took approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes from their city. They had to search it up on the internet since the lecturer wanted them to discover a rare plant and study it. The name of the forest was what intrigued Irene the most… The Sad Garden Paradise. It was underrated and not many people knew of it. Not even Irene’s group before they fervently searched for the rarest forest to ever been explored. The ride was unbearably awkward and Irene couldn’t wait to arrive at their destination so she could keep her distance. It was always like that anyway. Irene wasn’t close to any of them and it was torturous to sit in a bus throughout the whole journey even though she was sitting alone.
“Hey. We’ve arrived.” One of her classmates who she didn’t remember said, tapping her shoulder lightly.
“Oh, thanks.” She said groggily, rubbing her droopy eyes.
They exited the bus and was graced in awe as their eyes wander the beauty of the marvellous ablaze forest in front of them—washing away their worries. The tall trees were standing triumphantly poised in their place like skyscrapers of the glades, sheered with iridescent and sepia leaves and flowers. They moved closer into the forest in a group, like a pack of hungry wolves. The birds were humming merrily in the distance with the sound of squirrels swiftly climbing the trees and chattering indistinctively with each other. The place, even though unexplored, looked like it had been kept in check by gardeners. The grass wasn’t long and had a beautifully long track walk. They stopped walking and studied the routes.
“Okay, let’s split and meet here again in 30 minutes. Do not walk aimlessly and always be aware of the direction you came from and walk to.” A voice spoke. It was Amber, she assumed. A leader figure in the group. They all nodded in agreement and walked away.
The forest looked like it was split into two, she noticed. One part of the forest was dazzlingly multicolour and the other was blotchy and sombre, like the name of the forest. Irene chose the latter while most of her group mates went to the former. Some leaves was dotted with faded ashy colour as it fell flat on the uneven ground, blew by the peaceful wind. She continued to trail deeper into the heart of the sombre path in front of her warily as she was alone. The sound of her own footsteps shuffling through the dry leaves and broken twigs kept her occupied and the sound of singing birds were replaced by shrieking birds and cawing of crows. She contemplated to turn on her heels when she was greeted by a peaceful smell of damp tree trunks and the sound of rippling waterfall. She followed the sound and stopped in her track. There, she saw myriads of azure and cerise flowers crowding the branches of the trees surrounding the waterfall that it looked magically surreal. She was so engrossed by the view she barely noticed the colour of the amethyst and a hue of coral waterfall. Her mouth agape at the sight, words deserting her mind. The picture-postcard view could be mistaken by a brilliant magnificent painting if Irene didn’t see it for herself. She walked closer to the only greenish 10 metre tall plant she saw amidst the brilliantly flamboyant colour of nature. It almost seemed like it didn’t belong there so she stepped closer and noticed the dense rounded crown of foliage. The bark was dark and the leaves were shiny. She saw faint tinge of alabaster amongst the dense foliage and realized it was a small flower. She noticed there were round and green fruits attached to the tree. After observing the plant for some time, she recognized it as the jellyfish plant. It was said to be extinct years ago and can only be found in 2 kilometres from the sea.
“Interesting. It’s similar yet different from the Jellyfish plant. Maybe it’s from the same family.” She mumbled lowly.
She, then took pictures and sampled parts of it to be brought home to study it for her assignment. As soon as she was done, she felt relieved washed over her. Now, she didn’t have to worry about finding rare plants and could go back to their promised spot. Just as her foot started to amble on the uneven damp soil, away from the waterfall, a swift of violent wind suddenly attacked her and blew her hair with detestation aggravatingly. An uncanny feeling of being watched made her bones shuddered in icy cold as she hastily walked back to be reunited with the groups. The cawing crows made its way to Irene’s ears again. A group of ravens came out of nowhere and hovered over the tree’s branches near her which made her cowered down in fear—almost as if they were watching her. She could’ve sworn she heard muffled snickers in the air and that’s when the wind greeted her in the face again, a little gentler this time. She took that as an indication to leave and so she ran to the promised spot. To her horror, her group mates weren’t there yet. She heard the wind and the squirrels and bunnies rustling mockingly at her. She could sense an unusually cold presence behind her, watching her. She glanced around nervously but there was nobody there.
“H-hey… guys? It’s not funny. Come out if you’re done. We don’t want to be late.” She yelled, gradually becoming calmer as she was more convinced it was them playing pranks on a poor timid classmate of theirs.
She heard loud exaggerated footsteps stepping on a creaking branch and stopped. She was surer of it now and smiled in relief.
“Seriously, come on. You’re so slow.” She uttered in frustration.
“You might want to rethink what you said, young lady. I’m far from being sluggish like you mere humans.” A voice whispered so close to her ears and disappeared in a swift before she could even turn her head to see the owner of the voice. A feeling of dread crept up in the pit of her stomach. Her heartbeat was loud in her own ears and she could feel her vein pumping blood ardently, adrenaline rushing through it. She was close to tears when she heard another footsteps rustling in the backgrounds and was about to break when she caught sight of Amber and another two girls who she couldn’t remember.
“You’re done?” Amber asked in disbelief. ‘Its 27 minutes into the search of course I’m done.’ Irene thought to herself in annoyance but she just smiled and nodded instead, thanking Amber for making an appearance. Her anxiety made her feel on edge but Amber’s strong leadership aura calmed the raging fear in her.
“Where are the others?” One of the girls asked. Irene almost snapped at the question but almost as if on cue, the sound of giggles and chatters filled the background distinctly. The other girls and boys walked leisurely towards them. Now that she noticed, nobody went along with her to the other part of the forest. She huffed disapprovingly. ‘Of course they’d pick the other side of the forest. It’s beautiful.’ She thought, forgetting the waterfall she’d been to earlier. After making sure they didn’t make any mistakes or left trails that would make the forest inhabitant unhappy, they hopped in the bus and drove off. A sudden thud was heard on the bus but none of her group mates noticed because as usual, they were preoccupied by themselves. Irene sighed. She felt uneasy and was restless.
“Whatever. It’s probably just a fragment of my own imagination.” She said, trying to make sense. “Just because the forest looked magical, doesn’t mean it stored magic in it.” She shook her head, holding back her laughter at her own silliness.
The scorching sun made its way through her window. Her eyebrow arched in frustration. She turned around in disapproval but the sudden abrupt wind she felt took her aback. She didn’t remember letting the window stayed opened last night and at that her eyes fluttered open. She got out of the bed and closed the window. She hopped in the shower and went downstairs to get breakfast.
“Morning, kid.” Her father greeted, ruffling her hair causing her to retaliate.
“I’m not a kid anymore, dad.” She said escaping from under his arm.
“Oh. Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, huh?” He questioned.
She simply stayed silent, grabbing a piece of toast and spreading Nutella generously on it before taking a big bite.
She stopped halfway when she felt the unusually cold presence staring at her again. It was just her feeling, she convinced herself. Who would be watching her in her own house, anyway? A cold breeze touched Irene’s face. She looked to the source of the breeze coming in and was about to ask if someone had opened the window when her mother beat her to it.
“Did you forget to close the window, honey?”
“I haven’t even went close to it, how was I supposed to open or close it? Maybe it’s Loey.” He darted his attention to the 16 years old boy.
“Wasn’t me. Maybe it’s you who forgot to close it, mom. Who else hangs out in the kitchen?”
“Loey, sweetie. I wasn’t hanging out, okay. I cooked. It’s called cooking.”
“Whatever.” He said. “Brat.” Irene mumbled under her breath. How was he even his little brother anyway? They have nothing in common except for their eyes. She lost her train of thoughts and forgot about the icy cold feeling and focus on questioning Loey’s relation to her instead.
The atmosphere was quiet when the sound of car horns honking on the front porch pierced through the silent room. Loey instinctively stood up and kissed their parents’ temple before leaving.
“Well, at least he hadn’t lost his manners completely.” Irene mumbled under her breath which earned a glare from Loey.
The weather was gloomy, the sun was hiding behind the grey dark clouds and Irene grew wary of her surroundings. Her footsteps were small but quick. The feeling of uneasiness crept behind her again as she walked home. The wind brushed her hair gently and swift rustling of leaves and branches being blew away and distinct sound of cars swooshing its way across the street accompanied her. She felt something heavy tapped on her shoulder but when she stopped and turned, nothing was there. She kept walking hastily, wobbling on the front porch and trying to open the locked door. She slammed the door shut when she was finally safe in the security of her own house and the warm feeling of being welcomed by her family. Irene walked upstairs to go to her room and showered. When she walked out of the bathroom, her room was dark. She halted in her steps and the wind whispered softly on her damp hair. She was sure that she left the lights on and the windows closed.
“The window…” She darted her attention to the window and found it left wide opened again. Was she too tired that she’s forgetting things? She sighed and walked towards the light switch and flicked it open and then towards the window. Just as she raised her arms to close the window, the doorbell rang. She paused when she heard her mother called out for her. She quickly put on her clothes and walked downstairs.
“Someone left a red rose at the door step with your name on it.” Loey uttered in disbelief, disgust was evident on his face.
“Who sent the flower?” Her mother asked mischievously and she felt a twist in the pit of her stomach because she, too didn’t know the answer to her mother’s question. She smiled awkwardly and shook her head vaguely. Her mother nodded understandingly and proceeded to serve dinner on the table.
After they finished eating, Irene went upstairs to her room but hesitated in her steps when she noticed the room was dark again. She was sure that she really did left the room with the lights still on. She cautiously walked into the room and heard a swift swish of movement in the dark and then the door was flung closed. She froze. A silhouette of a tall broad man was leaning on the window frame. She couldn’t see the man’s face but she could sense that he was smirking, radiating the room with formidable hauteur.
“About time we met.” The man blatantly spoke up in condescension
Irene recognized the voice. It sounded familiar but she didn’t remember from where or when.
“I’m disappointed.” The man uttered. “You didn’t remember where you heard my voice?” He asked mockingly. “It was in the forest.” He said, voice flat.
Irene didn’t say anything. She felt her insides churned in a funny way. Did he just answer her question without hearing her voice? “He must’ve sifted my facial expression.” She thought.
“Ah. So optimistic. No wonder you weren’t having any of the subtle hints I sent you.”
“W-what?” she finally gained control of herself.
“What? The windows? The lights? The wind?”
“The wind?” She interfered. “How could he have possibly sent wind as a hint? Wind cannot be controlled,” She thought to herself again.
“I can.” He stated simply.
“Y-you can what?” She stammered. “W-why are you answering things that I didn’t even question?” she asked, panic started to crawl into her skin.
“You didn’t even question?” He snickered at that. “You did. I heard you.”
“I didn’t…” She repeated, tears forming in her eyes, threatening to fall. She was scared of the stranger and the possibility of the things that he was capable of. It was all so overwhelming. How he knew what to answer even when she didn’t open her mouth, how she got into her room, how he knew about the forest.
“My, my. You’re so slow. I thought you were bright. If it’s not clear, I can read your mind. I can control the wind.” He stated nonchalantly.
Irene wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or be terrified. How can one read one’s mind and—
Her thoughts were interrupted by the man lunging forward in a matter of nanosecond and pinning her on the door. They moved so fast that Irene barely registered what was happening. She felt her throat being restricted by the strong grip of the man she didn’t know. She gasped, trying to breath. Her brain was screaming for oxygen.
“Hm. I don’t feel like keeping you alive. You’re slow.” He shook his head in disapproval. He pulled her wrist and jumped out from the window. Irene closed her eyes in fear. Her surroundings was a blur as they moved in a deft motion of his nimble speed until they reached a dark alley. She looked around anxiously and returned her attention to the stranger. She still couldn’t see his face.
“P-please.” She heard herself say.
“You want me to spare you?” He stared at her amused. He leaned in closer to her neck in a provocative manner. Irene’s heartbeat was thumping loud in her own ears. Her knees were shaking, tears that she held back rolled down her smooth delicate skin endlessly. She waited for the inevitable but it didn’t come. Instead, her ears were greeted by the aggravating sound of his laughter but it was interrupted as he stumbled back on his feet, back colliding with the dirty vandalised walls and making Irene fell down on her knees weakly. She watched as the two man struggled immensely to overpower one another. Irene stood on her wobbly feet and tried to run—ask for help—anything—her action, however, was abruptly stopped as cold hands grasped a hold of her, tilting her head hastily in an uncomfortable manner. Irene felt cold, sharp teeth—fangs— burrowed into her flesh. Her eyes widened and mouth agape from the excruciating pain. It was so painful that she couldn’t scream. She felt her heart beat in an irregular pace, head throbbing as her blood was being sucked out of her veins. An indistinct “STOP” erupted in the air but she couldn’t see where the source was coming from. Her vision was blurry and her throat was scratchy with thirst. She felt her heartbeat slowed down but the ruthless cold sharp fangs was still sunken in between her collarbone. Something lunged forward, separating his fangs and grip from her, making her fall on the damp street of the dark alley. She felt herself losing consciousness and her fear washed away, replaced with contentment. She remembered the soft caress her mother would give her when she’s anxious or scared and her father’s soothing words. Even Loey would probably hold her hand. But those memories seemed so far from her as she felt her eyelids drop heavier with each breath she exhaled. Maybe this is the end.