The crunch of leaves beneath my feet become the soundtrack to my escape.
When I first stepped into the forest, that Taylor Swift song came to mind. Something about autumn leaves falling into place and on some level, I think that’s what this is. Me, walking away, is exactly the last piece falling into place.
I didn’t wake up and think about how I wasn’t going to come home after work. I just parked my car by the side of the road and walked into the woods because I couldn’t take another goddamn day, fighting to save shells of who my patients once were. The uncertainty was killing me. No one knew when it was going to end or if it was going to end. No one knew whether you were next.
So I left before it could take me.
I don’t know where I’m going. I stopped on the side of a backroad, flanked by farms and trees. Research suggested that the further you were away from civilization, the better off you’d be. And it took this long, but I’m finally following that advice. Regardless of the fact that there is no path to follow. Just an oppressive canopy of trees, only broken up by the reds and oranges that have already fallen.
I pull my phone out of my back pocket, one of two items I decided to take with me. The other is a blanket. I have no service out here, but it’s been spotty ever since they appeared.
“Wren!” a voice calls and I freeze. A chill works its way through my body as I turn to face my fiancé. “Why are you doing this without me?”
“How did you find me? Where have you been?” I demand.
Alex shrugs. I squint at him in the waning light. I don’t trust him. It’s possible that all trust was thrown out the window when he didn’t return home from work six months ago. It’s possible that all of my apprehension stems back to when he called the morning of his disappearance, asking if I knew anything about his ex-girlfriend being admitted to the hospital after showing signs of anxiety, greying eyes, and decaying bones.
“Alex, where the fuck have you been?”
“I had to know,” he says. “I had to see for myself.”
I swallow the shriek of anger that threatens. “My horror stories weren’t enough for you? What I lived day in and day out with those... those things, having to wear sunglasses constantly so I wouldn’t see them, walking into work while people held signs saying that the ghosts weren’t real... None of that was enough? My suffering wasn’t enough for you?”
He takes a step toward me and I step back. Though my heart aches to touch him, to embrace him and pretend like the last year hasn’t happened, like his betrayal never happened. I can’t.
“What are you sorry for?” I ask, darling him to answer. I fold my arms across my chest as he stands before me and struggles to find the words.
“I’m sorry I didn’t believe you.”
The words are simple, but they hit me like a punch to the gut. There was never an ounce of belief in that man, no matter how much I tried to make him understand. He proposed to me to win me over when my weary and work-weathered bones told me I should run. And now that I’m finally running, it doesn’t matter. He found me.
“It’s too late now, Al,” I say, voice breaking.
I turn away and continue into the forest. My mind swirls as I paw through brittle branches and muddy underbrush. The wood darkens around me and I curse myself for not making a plan. It’s too late to turn back now. I don’t know how long I’ve been walking. I don’t know if I’ve been walking in circles. All I know is that Alex left me six months ago and died last week. And now he’s here in the forest, making no noise as he follows me.
In my attempt to avoid the illness once and for all, I brought it right to me.
The Spirit Plague began simple enough. People around the globe began seeing their loved ones who had died. Early reports said this was a good thing; it brought comfort to the living. But when the living who had seen these spirits began coming down with severe anxiety, so paralyzing that they struggled to leave their houses without the dead right at their side, public opinion started to change. The anxiety was then followed by large, dark circles that formed beneath the eyes of the afflicted, and once those reached a deep black hue, their eyes began to turn grey. Once this happened, there was little we could do to stop the next phase. An afflicted person’s skin would soon turn translucent and beneath that, bones began to decay. It quickly became apparent that that living, breathing body would soon join the rest of the floating dead.
We learned little from the illness’s waves. The spirits could not gain enough energy if the afflicted stayed at home. We thought we’d solved it, but isolation can only do so much, especially in densely populated cities. People stopped listening. They went out, gathered with family and friends, and where they went, the spirits followed. As the third wave crested, researchers discovered that specifically treated glass could keep a healthy person from seeing the spirits. We began wearing sunglasses all hours of the day like it was our religion. But the spirits spread amongst those that refused to wear the glasses. Then, given the chance, mutated while we slept, waiting for that brief moment in the morning before the glasses came on.
I couldn’t do it anymore.
“Wren, please, listen to me,” Alex cries. I don’t turn, but he continues. “I should have listened to you. I shouldn’t have argued. I shouldn’t have gone to see Deirdre. They didn’t let me in to see her, but I got there anyway. And then... I knew you were right.”
He’s crying now and it shocks me to realize I am too. I let the tears track down my face and blur what little of the forest I can see in front of me.
“I’m sorry I didn’t listen, Wren,” he says with such a broken sob, I nearly turn to him again. “I’m so sorry for what comes next.”
My blood runs cold. I stop walking, punctuated by the crunch of a decaying leaf under my foot. I take a shuddering breath and stare at the scarred bark of the tree directly in front of me.
“Wren,” he says next to my ear and I flinch as his hand clamps over my shoulder and sends a violent chill through my body. “I’m so sorry I found you. Why did you let me find you?”
“Because I can’t keep fighting,” I admit, voice barely above a whisper.
I turn and stare into the now grey eyes of my former lover. From this close, I can see through him. I can confirm to myself that the illness took him last week.
“What now?” I whisper.
The tears won’t stop now. I’m so tired that my fight has been completely erased. I can’t fight this. No one can.
“Wren, I know you. You argued with me for months about this. I have to help you. I know what I’m supposed to do. I know I’m supposed to kiss you and let it spread... But I can’t.”
“Is that — Is that how it works?”
“We’re not supposed to be able to fight it. Once you’re a spirit, your will is supposed to be overruled. They’ll do some weird kiss of death and that’s it. It doesn’t have to be someone you know, but you have more of a chance of beating it if you don’t know them.”
“What about Deidre?”
He laughs. “She did it because of how much she hates me. She haunted me for months before she made the final blow.”
I furiously wipe at my tears. “What do you want me to do?”
“Keep running. Put on your sunglasses and get out of here.”
“And then what?”
“Don’t ever think of me again.”
I unroll the blanket and pull the sunglasses from its folds. I play with them between my fingers, then look up at Alex. His eyes plead with me to put on the glasses.
“And then what?” I ask again, hands trembling as I raise the glasses.
He pushes the glasses onto the bridge of my nose. “And then you’ll see.”
I gasp as my vision adjusts to sepia tones. To my surprise and horror, Alex stays in front of me, a wicked grin distorting his features. Lining the forest around him, surrounding me, is every patient I couldn’t save from the Spirit Plague.
And now I see.
I can’t save myself either.
get on the list!
and we'll let you know when the winners and our next contest is announced!