"Admit it, we're lost. We have been walking for days. When are you going to give up and accept that we are going to die out here."
"We're not lost," I croak, my voice sticking to the insides of my throat. My entire body feels the fatigue and ache from dehydration– everything slowly shutting down until that bright light in the sky envelops you. I muster an attempt to focus on the fading map in my hands, subconsciously waiting for a great Aha! I know where we are! moment that in my gut I know will never come. The last glimmers of hope that we will get out of these dank woods have begun to fade. Exhaustion toys with me, persuading me to lay down on the welcoming Earth and embrace death under the beautiful green canopy. But I can't. I have a duty to put on the facade of being calm, collected, and optimistic.
We balance each other out, my partner and I. Everyone always tells us that. On the hundreds of treks we've done before; my level-headed nature kept us alive, and his bravery too. Where he sees life like a glass half empty, I see it as half full. In moments like this, when the balance is more like a pendulum, I feel the tension ripping us apart. Were we the only survivors of some twisted prophecy? A decided fate? Why? Why us? I'm sure he's not thinking about this. He wouldn't, but I would. They say I was the most thoughtful of the two of us.
We lost the rest of our group in a mudslide. The rain came out of nowhere, and so did the thick, lung-clogging mud. I feel my stomach turn at the thought. My friends! All of them either suffocated or washed away. Neither of us know how long ago it was anymore. We have no compass to direct us or clock to pace our slipping sanity. Instead, we measured it by the sugary and carbohydrate pumped rations we took out of our dead comrades' backpacks– well, the ones we found. Between the both of us, we burned through them quickly, and as soon as the food ran out, I could feel our sanity slipping away. I lay awake at night on the spongey, soupy ground wondering what it would be like if he had died in the mudslide too. Would that be all I needed to survive? In my trance-like state, I hear his voice, slightly distorted, yell "If we're not lost then what are we?"
I crush the map between my fingers, letting all of the fear and frustration out in a burst of energetic anger. "We're lost! Okay? We're out of food and water. We can't survive this much longer. No one is coming to save us!" The words hang in the air. Panting, breathless, I wipe away the thickened spit that's pooled in the corner of my mouth. "Is that what you wanted to hear?" I couldn't bear to look into his dead, unforgiving eyes. I know they're fighting to meet mine in an empty silence. I can see in my mind his jaw tensing and untensing with words I know he wouldn't speak. Without speaking a word, he turns away from me, continuing in the direction of the setting sun. Just as I expected. He doesn't look back to see if I'm following him, and I'm sure he doesn't want me to. But I still follow.
Walking has turned into days as the night begins to fall. I look ahead of my partner whose shadowing legs are limply dragging down through the roots and rocks of the forest floor. Something about the path in front of us made me feel uneasy, as if it were almost familiar. I quickly realized that we had walked in a massive circle, the only marker of this being a shoe string tied around the neck of one tree- one that we had tied possibly days earlier. "I think we're walking in circles."
"You are," He says quietly, his voice empty in the buzzing air around us. He turns, looking to face me, his ghastly eyes peering into my soul. "You're not making it out of here." Chills tingle down my spine, I am sucked into the emptiness of his eyes. When I look into them, he feels distant, almost like he's not really there. I assume it's from dehydration, hunger, or exhaustion.
I let myself sit in his words momentarily, chewing them curiously and spitting out a sarcastic response. "Very foreboding, man. Seriously, I think we've been here-" I shake my head, giving up an argument with him. Neither of us have the energy to bother. I push past him with my shoulder, my eyes trained to watch my boots sink and squelch in the deep mud. Underneath a thin layer of leaves I barely notice what looks like tee shirt fabric, shredded on the ground. My feet stop before my body does, lurching me forwards. My eyebrows furrow and curiously, I lean down with what little energy I have, intending to pick up the small bit of fabric.
Ew, God. The bugs crawling over the fabric make me reconsider my intention to pull it away from the rotting corpse under it. I could only assume it's a corpse based on the squirming white larvae overlapping one another over the blue fabric. It's not uncommon for people to get lost in these woods, and maybe if I take a fabric sample there will be DNA left to identify a body. Maybe it's one of my friends who got washed away. No matter who it is, it'll motivate me to get out of here. "Don't think like that." I feel his whispers over my shoulder, as if he's inside my head reading my thoughts. His cold breath makes the hair stand up on my neck. "Just leave it alone."
This doesn't deter me from my new mission to return this piece of fabric home. If there's anything getting home, it's this. I push my palms through the opportunistic bugs and I pull, but it doesn't tear away. I squint my eyes closed. Don't think about the bugs squishing between your fingers. I pull again, this time with more might, and along the ripped seam it gives. The larvae launch over the shoulder of my hunched over body! I stumble backwards, falling to the ground next to the shredded and twisted pile of fabric. A pungent smell pierces my nose, making my empty stomach flip. He wouldn't puke at this. If I could puke, I would. I cover my mouth and nose. "Oh God." Move the leaves. My shaking hand reaches out, shuffling the leaves just enough to realize for certain what was in front of me.
I am staring into his eyes. They are dead, cold, and lifeless. He is dead. My partner, my companion looks nothing like himself- his face is contorted in an awkward, unnatural position, with blackened mud lodged between his crooked teeth. All the air rushes out of my lungs as my body enters fight or flight, hurling me into a running position, but I am unable to sprint. My body sways back and forth, my knees beginning to buckle. I scream for him with what energy I have left, the sound crackling in my throat and burning its way up my chest. I pivot around in the spot frantically looking for my partner, using all the energy I have left in me. Remember. The woods are empty. Remember. The trees look darker than before, the grass mossy and molding with the rain, and my partner- sprawled out in front of me under the dead greenery. How he died. My head is spinning. It won't stop spinning. How did he die? I feel electric pulses running through my body as it begins to convulse. Remember.No. No. No. This isn't real. This isn't-Th-