The stillness of the air was heavy. Meiko took comfort in sound of the nylon cord as it unrolled in her hand. It seemed strange, to find comfort in such a thing, in this place. 97, 98,99…she counted the paces and when she reached one hundred she turned to the nearest tree and wound the bright yellow string around a low hanging branch before correcting her course and heading off again. The string behind her stretched from tree to tree, the sections zig-zagging back and forth but its entirety providing a guide back to whence she had come, a guide that would take her back to civilization, hopefully not alone. It was easy to see how people got lost out here, and why they chose this place as their final resting place. Following the course of the winding trails was difficult enough; they always seemed overgrown no matter how often they were tended to. The moment she had stepped off of the path she found herself she had found her feelings of confusion and aloneness multiply a hundredfold. The forest had swallowed her like some great living organism. Here, in the belly of the beast, the silence and isolation provided by the dense foliage forced her to listen to the sound of her own thoughts, and the sound of the string.
Even the insects out here seemed to be in on some conspiracy, for they too failed to make any noise that would shatter the oppressive atmosphere. A suicidal person would have a hard time not giving into their dark urge once they had made it out here. Even though killing herself was not her intention, Meiko felt the depression creeping into her brain, and she shuddered. Putting such thoughts aside, she chose to reflect on her mission. She had come to this place with purpose, and she would see it through, one way or another.
The note he left had let her know that he was out here, and although she could not be certain that she was headed in the right direction, something inside told her that she was. It was weird. She kept thinking back to the other times she had been here with him. This place had always given her the creeps but it held a strange fascination for him. She had pretended to understand but she hadn’t really tried. When they came out here, she always had brought her fears along. If he had any, he’d never shown them. Until that day.
She had to find him before it was too late. Her feelings of shame and remorse were the fuel that drove her quest. In all likelihood he would never forgive her, but if she was not able to save him, if her actions led to his death, she knew she would never forgive herself either. She pressed on.
As she walked her foreboding grew. Somewhere she thought heard a rustling in the bushes, loud against the backdrop of silence and she almost let out a shriek. Hands over her mouth she waited for moment and listened, but heard nothing more. Had it been real or only in her head? The latter idea was more appealing so she chose to believe it. The thought of anything out here with her, even if it was harmless wildlife, was frightening, especially after having walked so far alone.
She had been out here for a while, an hour at least. She pulled out her phone to check the time but to her dismay the readout didn’t seem to have changed since she had walked off of the trail. Resetting the device did no good, and when she had turned it back on she noticed that she had no service either. With a hesitant look over her shoulder she decided to proceed. Clock or no clock, time was ticking away and she wasn’t sure how much he had left.
The roll of nylon was getting smaller but there was still some left so she continued to string it along behind her. Even with the difficult terrain, she had to have covered a fair distance. The flora was growing ever denser and she was, for the first time, beginning to actually feel lost, despite the safety line she had left behind her. The choice had already been made though. She had to continue, no matter how frightened she was becoming.
A fallen branch caught her foot and she stumbled, catching herself on her hands and scraping her palms on the rough forest floor. As she began to rise from the ground she thought she saw movement out of the corner of her eye, but when she turned her head there was nothing there, at least nothing she could see. Just shadows, all around, mocking her with their emptiness. She stood and brushed dirt from her skirt and sweater, foolish attire for a hike in the woods but she had not exactly been thinking clearly when she had set out to find him. Another handful of steps and she heard it again, and this time she was certain. Something was out here, with her. A whispered prayer fell from her quaking lips. “Please don’t let it be anything dangerous.”
The prayer made her feel better, if only a little. The more she thought about it, the easier it was to convince herself that the sound was just some wandering squirrel or bird crashing through the tangled branches woven overhead. In fact, the only reason the sound frightened her, she decided, was because of how it clashed with silence that had remained unbroken for so long at the beginning of her trek. Why she hadn’t seen any other indication of wildlife, she chose not to consider.
The cord was almost gone now. She might have enough to make it another hundred paces. She would have to tie it off and rely on her own sense of direction from here on out. This thought added to the feeling of panic that had continued building inside of her. Where was he? How far out here could he have come? Was she even headed in the right direction? Questions such as these flooded her mind, bouncing back and forth, rising in volume until she felt the sound would burst from within.
SNAP! A twig breaking right behind her jolted her out of her reveries and she finally let out a piercing shriek. Whatever had done that was not a small forest dweller and she was not about to hang around to see what it was. Before she even realized what she was doing she was running full tilt into the thickening woods. The tree branches closed in around her, snagging her sweater and tugging at her like the hands of a giant. She crashed through a spider’s web, reaching to wipe it from her eyes without even slowing her flight. Whatever the thing was behind her it was running also. Its measured footsteps provided counterpoint to the pitter patter of her petite feet. A particularly dense patch of foliage loomed directly in front of her and she tumbled through it, eyes closed tight for protection. Snarled wooden fingers scratched deeply across the soft flesh of her delicate face and for a split second she seemed to be caught but then her momentum prevailed and she was free. Her eyes opened just in time to see a pair of feet flying towards her but she didn’t have time to react before she crashed into them. The shoes connected with her forehead and knocked her sideways. She lay sprawled on the ground, momentarily dazed. As she blinked her mind cleared and she looked up at the obstacle that had stopped her in mid-stride.
It was him. The shoes were the same tennis shoes she had bought him two months ago, white with gold trim. Her eyes tracked up his legs, across his torso, and locked onto his face. It was swollen and gray, his eyes bulging grotesquely in their sockets. Too late, she had found him too late.
A ragged sob escaped her lips. All of the mistakes she had made throughout their sordid relationship came back to her, flashing before her eyes in the way that life is said to for a dying person. It was all her fault; she had done this to him as surely as if she had knotted the noose and placed it around his neck herself. Sadness and regret overwhelmed her and she cried; cried like she had never done before.
Lost in her grief she forgot the horror of her journey out here, all of the fear and uncertainty that had plagued her, the sense of being followed, the blind terror as she had run the last leg to this place of death. All that was left was remorse.
From behind it pounced on her.
Kenichi followed the yellow line suspended between the trees to its abrupt end. As often as not these lines led to the final resting place of some poor soul. He had seen many dead people hanging from these trees over his years as a volunteer searcher, and he was rather jaded to the sight these days. He had been ready to find another body at the end of this yellow string, but, looking around he saw nothing out of the ordinary. Shrugging he continued along the line indicated by the string. Behind him other searchers poked through the underbrush, looking for any signs that would lead them to a suicide victim.
Something in the back of his mind, instinct maybe, caused him to take a closer look at a certain group of bushes. Some of the branches were broken. Years of experience told him that something large, something human sized had passed through this area, and seemingly in a hurry. He could make out the hole in the foliage where the thing or person had gone through. With some trepidation, he proceeded towards the spot, waving the other volunteers over to him. On the far side of the bush cluster he found them. A double-suicide. Man and woman, probably lovers. From time to time he found these, he had even come across entire groups who had killed themselves together as some part of a twisted suicide pact. That had always disturbed him more than finding a single person. Sighing he walked towards the swinging corpses, pulling a blade from his pocket as he did. It still bothered him that he could not save these damned souls but at least he did what he could. The volunteers would cut them loose, return them to whatever family they had, and see that they had a proper burial. It wasn’t much, but it was something to hold on to.
From the bushes, the beast watched as the searchers cut its victims down from the spot where it had hung them. It chuckled.