In retrospect, I thought as I stabbed another tree, this is gonna take freakin' forever if I leave marks everywhere I go. I scraped my knuckles on the bark, tearing open scarcely-congealed scabs.
"Dammit." I shook my hand, as if that would alleviate the sharp stinging.
Instinct told me to suck on it, but that would invite infection. Allowing the injury to bleed itself out would cleanse it of contaminants, hopefully. Then I would apply chapstick. The oily layer would protect the open injury from outside germs—also hopefully—as well as keep it from drying out, which supposedly promoted healing.
Planning kept me calm.
Moisture weighed in the air. My lungs ached for a cool, unladened breath. Sweat made my skin itch. I kept slapping myself or looking down, expecting a mosquito, but finding nothing. (I didn't believe for a second that this was some magical land without mosquitos. I just wasn't seeing them. Hence the paranoia.)
Birds trilled and chirruped overhead. Indigenous insects emitted strange clicks and reverberating, nasally whines. Plants rustled and twigs snapped quietly. I couldn't help but jump and cast paranoid glances, although the largest creature I had seen was a squirrel, reassuring in its familiarity. And, with prey nosing about, there likely wouldn't be predators.
This place is gorgeous. I could spend years, and never quite capture everything on canvas.
Despite the circumstances, awe kindled under my heart as I trekked the uneven ground, feeling active and wonderfully alive. Had survival not been a pressing concern, I would have loved the impromptu hike—even with the humidity. Veils of mist granted the extraordinary forest a mythical, fairy-tale-esque aura. Thin shafts of sunlight broke from the canopy of leaves, peircing the mist and illuminating the wafting water particles. Miniscule white bugs flluttered inside the golden light.
I had no doubt: something had been very wrong with that dead-silent clearing.
With a look up at the distant treetops, sunlight glittering between the leaves, I thought fervently: Thank God I didn't take my sneakers off.
Or worn heels. I would've been doomed.
I periodically carded my fingers over my scalp, wary of tics—a product of living at the edge of town with a forest out back. Occasionally, a bug would bzzz too close, making a whine climb up my throat. The sound scuttled under my skin, made my heart race. I pressed trembling hands over my ears, continuing to march through the forest.
One of my quirks: I was terrified of insects crawling into my ears. That cute little phobia manifested whenever something buzzed in my general direction. Beneath the unreasonable panic hammering throughout my body like a peasant shrieking about witches, I found myself very annoyed. Stupid operative conditioning.
Suppressing a cough, I cautiously uncovered my ears.
No buzzing. Nothing to panic over.
Not that there was anything to panic over to begin with—besides waking up in Narnia. I snorted, which aggravated my sore throat. "I could really use a Mr. Tumnus right about now."
As I navigated the labyrinth of trees, tidbits of information returned to me.
Standing water wasn't safe to drink. Talking or singing kept predators away, or at least bears—I hadn't found the courage to put that into practice. Animal trails lead to flowing water.
"Or they'll lead in circles," I muttered. And that's assuming I can even follow an animal trail.
A flare of anger made me stomp my foot. I trembled with it, teeth and fists clenched tight, my face a thundercloud. The youth group had hosted wilderness getaways—for the boys. I totally would have gone roughing it if I'd been allowed to, and now I didn't know how to survive.
Assholes. Pig-headed misogynists. Short-sighted and exclusionary, thinking they're so much tougher 'cause they're bigger. Smug, condescending troglodites.
"Girls get lost in the wilderness too, you chauvinists," I hissed, unwilling to shriek at the sky.
(Of course, the youth group would never allow co-ed camping, and the female leaders never even seemed to consider wilderness survival getaways as an option, but my fury knew no understanding!)
The angle of sunlight changed slightly. It spilled straight down, rather than at a slant. Noon. Evidentally, I had arrived in the late morning. Although I felt no noticeable change in temperature, the cloying mist lightened, dispersing into a suggestion of opaquity.
I had yet to find any food or water.
No convenient fruit or nut trees for me. I couldn't have been paid to eat the mystery berries. The fact that they were so plentiful in a forest teeming with wildlife was highly suspicious. And the mushrooms? Ha! That was an ugly death waiting to happen.
Tilting my head back, I marveled once more at the sheer girth of the trees looming like skyscrapers.
Is tree bark edible...? I blinked at the thought; there certainly was a surplus. That happened in Hunger Games. Chewing it then spitting it out. But wasn't that pine bark? Is there a difference? I considered a climbing-vine as I passed it. I saw a guy on TV peel the skin off of something like that and eat the plant fiber within.
I coughed into my elbow, then sighed. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I should have watched more reality TV."
An appalling realization dawned upon me with the chill of proverbial clouds passing over the sun. I almost dropped the pocketknife.
"Insects." I touched my face, which had become a rictus of repulsion. "That's my best food source. Insects." How many times had I seen people eat writhing, many-legged bugs in commercials for reality shows? Violent shudders wracked my body at the thought.
"They're full of protein!" I recalled, horrified.
My eyes flicked to the dark crevisces in bark, the twitching leaves of the forest floor, and every tiny spec darting through the mist. Bugs. Bugs everywhere. Creeping, crawling, flying. Buzzing. I rubbed my arms. Imaginary insects prickled my scalp, my legs, under my shirt.
I glared at the forest. If Edward Elric could eat bugs to survive when he was seven years old, I can do it at twenty-one!
But he didn't do it immediately, I reasoned with myself.
"I'm at least waiting until tomorrow," I decreed to the unknowing woodland. Dropping my chin to my collar bone, I regarded my stomach. Not overweight, quite, but still rounded. I had fat to burn. "Although," I murmured, brightening, "I'm much more likely to die of thirst before it ever comes to that."
That soothed me, somehow. Macabe humor.
Perhaps it was arrogant or naive of me, but in a place so green and lush, the ground soft and loamy, I had expected to find a water source quickly. The plants had to be getting it from somewhere, and there were no signs of recent rainfall—droplets, puddles, or even clouds, in what little I could see of the sky. Just...vapor.
I could always chew on plants for moisture. Tree leaves ought to be safe. Enough weedy saplings stretched above the ungrowth that I'd have a decent supply.
But that wouldn't offer enough water to live off of. Panic squeezed my chest.
Maybe it's so humid I won't need to drink.
I chuckled to myself, feeling my expression twist into something alarming. Other methods of emoting risked my composure, which risked my life. I laughed louder. The sound seemed abrupt, out-of-place.
In a way, it is funny—didn't I love stories like this, growing up? Being wisked away to a strange world...
Pulling up the bottom of my shirt, I mopped the sweat from my face. For a moment, I rested my head in my hands, breathing through the fabric. Closing my eyes came as a relief. My head hurt. An aching, fragile place in my chest trembled. Help me, God. Help me. I'm gonna die.
Sniffing, I blinked at the walls of bark. Time to mark my direction in a tree; I had a pattern to keep up.
"Stupid bark," I muttered, snapping my pocketknife closed. "Doing its stupid job, protecting the stupid tree."
Stepping back from my weakest arrow yet, I marched in what may or may not have been an animal trail. Winding inanely or not, it's more likely to lead to water than I am.
I massaged my palm with my thumb. I suspected I would have a bruise tomorrow from the knife handle.
Aren't there two different kinds of bark? My gaze drifted, thoughtful. One of them almost smooth, rather than dense and craggy? The first sounded better to carve on, certainly, but I had no confidence in such vaguely remembered facts.
Without breaking my stride, I stooped to pluck a damp, yellow-green leaf from underfoot, and turned the specimen over in my hands. Gritty bits of dirt stuck to the surface. It was bigger than my hand—perhaps to be expected from such monstrous trees. Five points, like a maple leaf. Smooth-edged, although I didn't remember what that meant. Junior high biology seemed a lifetime ago. It had...veins.
I wish I remembered more about nature.
Tossing away the leaf, I sighed, rattling phlegm in my esophogus. Despite the growing feeling of uselessness, I tilted my face upward, continuing my observations.
The only trees I knew of that grew this big were redwoods. They were beasts of nature, so large that roads could be tunneled through them—but weren't they supposed to be red? These had dark brown bark. I didn't know the branching pattern of redwoods, but these shot out horizontally like pine trees, excepting their lack of lower branches.
Maybe I'm in California. I looked around myself at the unfathomable maze, as if expecting to see a beach. Could be a different breed of redwood. And California has mountains, which would allow for the uneven terrain.
I wrinkled my nose. Bad logic. Fitting an idea to the facts, rather than fitting facts into a hypothesis. A bird winged up to the green-cast sky, too far away to examine. Not that I have anything better to work with—
A dark figure leapt the branches high above, silhouetted by the sunlight, and vanished.
Gasping, I clapped a hand over my mouth. Was that a monkey?
My eyes ached with strain as I searched the trees. Sunlight glimmered between peacefully swaying boughs. That couldn't have been! Monkeys don't live in America! My stomach lurched. I'm going to be so pissed if I'm not in America. Oh, God. Please let me be in America.
Fear of the unknown gripped my chest. My breath came fast. Clutching my tiny knife close to myself, I listened for anything that would indicate large mammals other than myself. Even rustling leaves seemed threatening. An insect whined in my ear. Cringing pathetically, I flapped it away. Chills crawled over my skin.
Something touched my arm.
I jumped and flailed, dislodging something small from my skin. A squeak caught in my throat. My gaze snapped onto the dark, tiny thing I had sent flying. It wafted on blurred wings in a wide arc, then landed on my denim-protected leg.
It's a beetle. Just a tiny beetle. Every muscle in my body seemed to relax. Sighing, I pressed a hand over my thundering heart, then chuckled. "I have got to calm down. Gosh."
Feeling silly, I glanced around the cheerful woods. No danger to be found. Maybe I was hallucinating.
Whatever. Monkey or not, it's not here. Something is only a threat if it's present. Chill.
Slowly, so as to not startle it, I pressed my hand palm-up beside the insect. "Hello. Sorry about that. I'm a bit jumpy, if you hadn't noticed." I couldn't stand buzzing, but the bugs themselves? As long as they didn't sting or bite or suck my blood—damn those mosquitoes—I didn't mind them at all.
"I must be starved for conversation to talk to a bug," I told it amiably. "I don't even plan on eating you, because I'm not that desperate."
It picked its way delicately onto my fingertip. Smiling, I held it up to the light. "Oh, you're very pretty."
Rich emerald seemed deeper than the shell of a beetle would allow. Sunlight illuminated faint swirls of gold and subtle nuances in its green hue. It probably blended in quite well among leaves.
I wish I had my sketch book. If I could get down all of the little details—the leaf-like pattern of its shell and tummy, the minuscule hairs on its black legs, the folds of its joints—I was sure I could recreate the color scheme from memory. The blending wouldn't be that different from a sunset, although capturing the metallic sheen would be a new experience...
Some unseen stimulus caused the bug to scuttle around the back of my hand and up my arm. It moved alarmingly fast.
"Hey, now." I transferred the pocketknife to my other hand, then cupped a palm over the beetle. 'Nice' bug or not, nothing would stop me from panicking if it got under my clothes.
All at once, weakness seeped through my body. My head throbbed, the constant ache becoming abruptly worse. Dizziness swam through me. I didn't sit down so much as I controlled my fall onto a protrudent tree-root thicker than myself. Oh, no, no, no! I cannot afford to be sick... I dropped my poor head into my hands.
The lovely beetle flew away. I twitched at the buzz, but it went nowhere near my ears.
Self-pity squeezed my throat. My eyes grew hot, but I shut them and breathed deeply through my nose. This just makes finding water even more important. I pursed my lips, determined. If I'm getting sick, my health will only get worse. Now is my best chance to find a way to survive.
Regretfully, I snapped the knife closed and slipped it into my pocket. I would have to pick up the pace. That meant no more marking my path—at least not as often. I forced myself to my feet, pretending I wasn't blinking back tears.
"Anatawadare," said a male voice from behind me.
Fear seized my body as a puppet by its strings. I didn't remember moving. Terror blinded me. It seemed only a heartbeat later that I stood with my feet braced, ready to bolt, facing the stranger—
He was a Naruto cosplayer.
My brain tripped over that thought. My expression blanked.
End chapter two.