Neptunia B. Cooper
But it wasn’t.
I didn’t know how long I had been unconscious, but the day was already dawning when I opened my eyes again.
Raindrops had started to fall from a gray sky and prickled my cheeks that felt stiff from tears that now were dried out.
A thin, transparent mist was floating weightlessly above the ground and lazily caressed the tree trunks. It was oddly mesmerizing, but the biting cold that crept down my spine made me shudder, nonetheless.
I slowly got up and looked at the autumn leaves in yellow, red, and orange clinging to the last hope of another summer day.
Many had already given up and were either dancing slowly in the breeze or accepted their faith and found their final rest on the ground.
The autumn had always made me a bit sad, although I never fully understood why. Not until today.
Despite all the beautiful colors and the enigmatic scenery, the feeling of an inevitable doomsday lurked in the back of my mind. I wasn’t supposed to be here.
I looked around and discovered a steep and rocky hill right behind me. It was as tall as an eight-story building and looked like a massive, resting giant. Honestly, it felt a bit intimidating.
It was like an exaggerated demonstration of Mother Nature showing how little and unsignificant I was, as if I didn’t already know.
Then I started to wonder. Maybe that’s where I had fallen down. If I had fallen down?
Because that had to be the reason I got the head injury, right? Maybe my answers to how I had gotten here were hidden at the top? That I only needed to climb up, and I’d find a way back to the place I came from.
Filled with newfound determination, I started climbing the first large rocks. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long until I felt so dizzy that I had to sit down to keep from falling.
I tried my best to press my hands against my forehead to ease some of my splitting headache. It didn’t help much. Nevertheless, I kept going, climbing a few feet, then sat down.
Then I climbed a few feet more, and I slowly reached higher and higher, until I found myself at the point right under an overhanging cliff at the top. Then I couldn’t go any farther.
“Fuck!” I cursed, like that would help, but instead it made me lose my balance and fall.
If it hadn’t been for a tiny bush that so conveniently grew on the shelf where I was standing, I would have fallen down for what probably was the second time.
Shaking and anxious, I slowly got back on my feet again and started searching for a way around the cliff.
At first, I didn’t find any, but then, after realizing how goddamn high up I was and the fact that if I tried to climb back down, I would most definitely fall, I decided to try the impossible: A narrow escape to the right.
It was slippery because of the rain, so I partially crawled, partially climbed my way up.
I even slipped a few times and dug my nails into the dirt and tiny cracks in the stones in panic until finally I managed to hoist myself up into safety. Then I sank down on the ground.
I felt utterly exhausted. Climbing up didn’t take more than half an hour, tops, but it still drove me dangerously near to a total collapse. Not to forget that my headache was worse than ever.
But thanks to the adrenaline that surged through my veins, I got up, threw my arms in the air, and did a little victory dance. I almost felt like I’d won the lottery.
…Until I turned around and saw nothing but an even denser forest.
I cursed again. I was so sure I would find a road or a path…anything that could give me an answer to how I got here.
Where in the world am I?
I tried to find clues to where I’d come from but didn’t have much luck, so I decided to follow the edge of the hill at a safe distance so I wouldn’t fall.
A gnawing hunger also hit me, and I tried to remember when I’d last eaten. I couldn’t tell.
And I didn’t really know how to find food at a place like this, either. It wasn’t like I could order a vegan pizza, without onion and pepper, and with sour cream dip on the side, huh?
I used to eat vegan pizza. Am I a vegetarian?
I jumped at the mousy, childlike voice that suddenly sounded behind me. And when I turned around, I saw the petite silhouette of what indeed was a child.
The girl had blonde, shoulder-length and slightly matted hair, and she had the bluest eyes I’d ever seen.
Her dress was also blue, but it looked so worn out that the color was more gray than blue, and I spotted a few loose threads in the seams.
Shyly, she picked up a dry straw and twirled it around her fingers while she gave me a tiny smile without really looking at me.
“Oh! Hi. You scared me,” I said and giggled.
“You need to be careful,” she said again, and the seriousness in her eyes made me frown.
“Yeah. Yes, of course. But…have you been following me? I don’t remember seeing you before. Are you here by yourself?”
She nodded silently.
“Where do you live? Where are your parents? I don’t mean to be nosy, but a little girl like you shouldn’t be here alone.”
“I’m not. You’re here.”
Her answer surprised me, and not in a way I liked. There was something odd about her.
“Me? Yeah, but I don’t want to be here. Do you know a way out of the forest? I need to get home to…”
I stopped when it occurred to me that I didn’t really know where I came from. Not even which state.
“Where are we?” I finally asked, and the girl finally looked at me.
Only, she didn’t just look, she stared intensely for several seconds until her eyes changed into an empty gaze. She didn’t even blink. An unpleasant chill crept down my spine and my mouth felt dry.
“Careful,” she whispered with a voice that sounded old and far away.
“I will, but can you…”
My words were stranded in my mouth, and my breath hitched in my throat when I noticed the contours of the little girl gradually fade into a transparent gray fog, until she disappeared in a cloud of dust right in front of me.
That…did not just happen!
I rubbed my face and turned away. Then I looked back at the place the girl had been standing and found nothing. There was absolutely no trace of her. I must have hit my head pretty hard earlier.
There was no other explanation. I chose to store the girl in the back of my mind as a hallucination and started to walk in the same direction as before she’d appeared out of nowhere.
A little girl, alone in the forest? How likely was that? Not likely at all. Besides, she vanished into thin air, which clearly meant that it was my imagination running wild.
But even though my mind tried to blame it all on the side-effects of a concussion, I knew well enough to know that that wasn’t the truth.
I really was lost, and I could only hope I was walking in the right direction and wouldn’t get even more lost in the depth of the woods than I already was.
What if I don’t survive?
I bit my tongue to distract myself from such a thought. Of course, I would survive! My family and friends were probably searching for me at this very moment, and then I would…
Wait. I did have family and friends, right? Or was that the reason I couldn’t remember them, because there weren’t any? Maybe something happened to them?
Or I was a lonely child with both parents dead, and no close relatives who would miss me if I disappeared. Maybe I wanted to disappear?
Gosh! What if I’d done something so terrible that I went into the forest to hide? No, no, no!
That’s not true, that much I could say for certain! But the more I thought about it, the more confused and frustrated I got. How could I not remember my own mom and dad?
A sudden, sharp wheeze made me snap out of my train of thought, and my eyes searched the terrain around me. Then there was a rattling sound that I thought I recognized.
I was still on my aimless path on the hill, but there were fewer trees here. Instead, there were stones that varied in size and shape, plus bushes and grass that had started to turn yellow because it obviously was autumn.
I didn’t see the source of the rattling, though, so I kept walking slowly while I searched for whatever it was that was threatening me.
And then, just as I was about to lean on a rock to climb down a little slope, my body instinctively froze as if it had been paralyzed by a sudden electric shock.
It was a snake. And the sound came from its tail. The pattern of greenish-brown mixed with black-and-white areas told me what I already knew.
A rattlesnake. And it was ready for attack.
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