By Mark Towse

(From Issue #5 November 2020)

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“We’re lost, Ryan, admit it for Christ’s sake!” Isla accuses.

He turns around slowly with his hands proudly on his hips and the widest smile across his face. “Have faith, people. When have I ever let you down?” he says.

He never has, but there is something in his eyes right now that suggests this might be the first time.

“The river is just up here, can’t you smell it?” he says, before resuming his role as leader of the group and marching ahead. Even with the huge backpack strapped around his shoulders, he still manages to walk with a swagger. Always has been a cocky bugger, and it’s hard not to trust someone that is so self-assured.

“He’s such a prick,” Loren whispers across to me.

“Ah, yes, but he’s a lovable prick, isn’t he?”

“How are you feeling after last night?” she asks.

“Weird,” I reply. “I don’t remember much—that was powerful stuff.”

“Ah, come on—you must remember some of it. You were an animal!”

“Grr!” I reply.

“It’s the first time I have done drugs. Ryan used to try, but it only felt right with you,” she says, smiling.

In truth, I do remember, but it all feels very surreal and slightly embarrassing. I recall the bar—Ryan throwing wads of cash around, and the overfamiliar locals that kept sticking notes into Isla’s pants. Some of them even tried to get Loren on the table. Endless shot of vile green liquid that resembled radioactive waste, and copious amounts of that powder—whatever the fuck that was. And the hotel room afterwards. Yes, we were both like animals.

Loren grabs my hand and gives me a wry smile as if sensing my discomfort.

“Isla, last night—dancing on the tables—hysterical,” she giggles.

“I know. Drug-free before she met Ryan; he’s such a good influence,” I reply.

I have been looking forward to this for a while, and I know Loren has, too. She’s just made partner at the law firm, but all that means to me is that I get to see her less. Even when we are together, she struggles to switch off these days. This trip has come at the right time. Besides, I need some inspiration—away from the city. I’ve only sold a handful of paintings this year, and I don’t want the mother-in-law to think of me as being a bum forever, especially now that Loren has made partner.

With the sun directly above, casting a giant bony tapestry on the ground below, we continue trampling across the forest floor, stepping over the large twisted roots of trees that rise from the ground like fossilised serpents.

Deep in the heart of it now, we are looking for a river that is supposed to split the forest in two; that’s according to the locals we met last night that said they live in a village on the other side of the water. They told us that tied up along the banks are communal boats they used to travel in and out of the main cities.

And that is the extent of our travel itinerary.

When we first started walking, the forest was abundant with lush greens, yet the canopy above is now devoid of any new growth, only lifeless skeletal forms loom above us.

The hairs on the back of my neck bristle in response.

“Can you smell it—the river?” I say to her.

“The only thing I can smell is Ryan’s bullshit,” she smiles, but with a tinge of concern in her voice.

“Oh, wow!” Isla exclaims suddenly. “Look at that!”

We all turn to look to where she is pointing and stop dead in our tracks, mesmerised by what lies ahead.

The majestic flower sprouts proudly from a random patch of brown soil. It’s a magical display of rebellion in an otherwise lifeless area that is simply jaw-dropping. Half a dozen pods surround it, indicating it is already past its prime, but contrarily the flower itself suggests perfection.

I can’t speak for the others, but I have never seen anything like it before—a myriad of tentacles—deep reds and bright yellows that explode from the centre like an atomic bomb, circled by ten stark white petals that emphasise the flower’s radiant beauty.

I want to paint it right now; to capture the absurdity of nature and the alien-like form of the flower.

Docilely hovering over its centre is what looks to be a wasp; it’s nearly two inches long and adorned with stunning red and green pearlescent stripes.

Isla breaks the silence as she begins her approach, “Is it a passionflower?”

Whatever it is, brings me relief—makes me think we are on the right track. “I don’t think so,” I remark. “But it’s going to seed—dying.”

“That smell!” Isla announces as she draws close to it.

“I can smell it, too,” Ryan announces as he follows Isla in. “It’s fucking beautiful!”

I watch as Isla crouches, leaning in towards the flower expectantly with eyes closed. The buzzing of the wasp intensifies, and it moves back a couple of inches as if to observe. A huge smile stretches across her face as she inhales deeply.

“Guys, you have to smell this!” she exhales but shows no signs of making room for anyone else. As she takes in another lungful of the flower’s scent, a peacefulness washes over her face—her eyes appear to glaze over, and a strangle garbled noise leaves her lips.

“My turn!” Ryan says as he gently puts his hands on her shoulders and leans her away. He ducks in and snorts so loudly that it prompts a laugh from Loren. “Be careful, Ryan. You’ll suck the leaves off with that thing!” she shouts.

He lets out a large sigh, and the same vacant expression draws across his face. Leaning in again, he gets even closer to the pistil, but before he even has a chance to inhale, the wasp is in his eye.

“Ow, fucking ow!” he squeals and thrusts himself up. Hopping around manically, he waves his hands frantically in front of his face, but the wasp shows no signs of moving as though it is attached. He reaches behind into his backpack and brings out the large knife he’s been boasting about for the last few weeks—top of the line and ridiculously expensive.

“Jesus Christ, Ryan. What the hell are you going to do with that?” I say.

“I don’t know—just get it off!” he squeals.

Loren quickly moves in and throws the contents of her water bottle into Ryan’s face, but the stubborn little fucker doesn’t budge.

Isla is sprawled on the floor, rolling around in stitches.

“Stay still, Ryan!” Loren shouts and reaches towards his eye. “Please get it off,” he whimpers, forcing himself to be still. I watch as Loren carefully pinches the wings between her fingers, and lets it fall to the floor. The strange insect gives a few final kicks at the air before death mercifully takes it.

“Keep still, Ryan. It’s left it’s stinger in there,” Loren says as she delicately removes the half-inch spike from his eyelid. She holds it out for Ryan to see with his good eye.

“I fucking hate wasps!” he spits.

“It might have been a bee,” Loren says softly, but that appears to provide no consolation to Ryan.

“Thanks for your help, Tom!” he says, giving me his good eye.

“Hey, man. It was just a wasp—not a bloody pterodactyl,” I reply. “Besides, I didn’t want to get near you while you waved that monstrosity about. Are you trying to make up for something with that thing?”

“Your eye!” Isla says, looking up from the ground towards Ryan. And then she bursts into another fit of laughter.

“Fuck you, darling!” he replies.

The lid of his right eye is already turning a very bright red, and the entire area is beginning to swell.

“It looks sore,” Loren says.

“Can you see out of it?” I ask.

“No,” he replies, wincing as he gently surveys the damage with his fingers.

“It’s a good job you can smell the river!” Isla shouts, between fits of giggles.

“Come on,” Ryan says. “Let’s get out of here.”

Isla rolls across to the flower and takes a few urgent gulps of the surrounding air. Impatiently, Ryan coils his arms around her shoulders and hoists her up. “Hey!” she protests, but reluctantly falls back in line, as do we all—Ryan at the front and me trailing the rear.

On the way past, Loren bends and rips off the head of the flower; she breathes it in deeply, and then slips it behind her right ear, letting out a little giggle as she skips ahead.

I rip off one of the pods and slip it into my pocket. I’ll give it to Barbara when we get back—she will surely have some idea of its species. Sometimes I visit her nursery for ideas but can adamantly say I’ve never seen anything close to this—got to be worth a shot, though.

We continue marching forward, on the hunt for this promised river.

The abundance of knotted roots that snake their way across the forest floor is making the ground more difficult to navigate, as are the low hanging branches from their respective trees. The blackened limbs coil around each other and twist back into themselves as if trying to return to the trunk for comfort, and it all makes for hard going as we crouch down between them to protect our backpacks.

It is stark in this part of this forest, and it’s getting chilly, too.

As if Ryan senses the despondency, “It’s not much further!” he shouts from the front.

Loren turns to me and smiles. “Wait for it,” she says.

“I can definitely smell it!” Ryan shouts again.

And we both let out a little snigger.

We pass a carcass on our right; looks to be a rabbit—been dead a while by the looks of it. The writhing maggots inside have nearly eradicated all the flesh.

“Anyone hungry?” Ryan jokes.

“Only for this!” Loren shouts as she removes the flower and inhales once more.

The sun is starting to dip, and I guess we have less than two hours before we will need to pitch up. “We’ll be there before lunchtime,” Ryan had stated confidently yesterday. His eternal optimism can often be as annoying as it is endearing.

“There’s another one of those flowers!” Isla shouts.

Unable to help myself, “Bzzzzz.”

Without even turning around, Ryan flips me the bird.

“There are more of them over there, too,” Loren says, pointing to a small clearing that is alive with colour—not just reds and yellows, but greens, blues, purples, and everything in between. It’s a surreal and welcome sight to see so much life when everything else around seems so dead.

“They’re beautiful,” I say out loud.

I watch as the three of them urgently make their way to the clearing. They ease themselves to the ground and simply lay there as if not a care in the world, each of them smiling and occasionally giggling as they take deep and frequent breaths of the surrounding air.

“Come on, guys, let’s go,” I say.

But they continue to bask, lethargically lounging in the small bed of discordant flowers.

“Just a few minutes,” Loren says. “Come over and join us.”

“I think we should be cracking on. It’s going to be dark soon,” I say sternly.

“I think we should be cracking on. I’m going to bark soon,” Isla mimics. They all launch into raucous laughter—hysterical and uncontrollable guffawing. And it’s beginning to piss me off. I turn my attention away from them and walk a few feet ahead. There is still no sign of any river, just more of those trees. Blacker. Deader.

I hear something—a gentle grunting from somewhere in the distance. Squinting my eyes against the light, and scanning the ground between the nestled trees, I see something moving. It’s a rabbit—or perhaps a hare—tall and standing on high alert, ears vertical. The laughing continues from behind me, but the rabbit seems unperturbed as it returns to its meal. I freeze, mouth wide open, as it continues its cannibalistic feast of the carcass beneath it.

“Guys,” I whisper, but I know they won’t hear me.

As I begin to move away from my hiding spot to tell the group, a massive “CAW” explodes from a tree somewhere to my right. Startled, I jump and turn to see the huge black crow perched on a branch, head cocked, and eyeing me as though I am a trespasser on its land.

“CAW!” it screams again as if demanding an answer. It’s gigantic—sleek, glossy, and the size of an eagle. It struts forward on the branch towards me as if looking for a fight.

What the hell is wrong with this place?

As I continue my retreat towards the group, keeping my eyes fixed firmly on the bird, the raucous laughter begins to subside, giving way to a gentler giggle.

“Guys!” I rasp.

A single groan emerges from behind me.

“Guys—what the hell,” I call out again.

And now only moans from behind me—unmistakable exclamations of pleasure that finally prompts me to take my eyes off the crow, and—

“What the fuck are you doing!” I scream.

Shirts are half-open, and pants are pulled down, bodies writhing against each other. Ryan has one hand on Loren’s crotch and the other on Isla’s breast while his tongue hungrily searches for any flesh on offer. Loren has Ryan’s dick firmly in hand, and her lips wrapped around Isla’s left nipple.

“Caw!” the crow squawks once more.

I reach for Loren’s hand to pull it away, but she tries to fight me off, hissing and spitting and clawing at my face with her other hand. “Get off him!” I scream, and this time, bring an open palm angrily against the side of her face. The connection makes me wince, and I’m immediately remorseful, but at least she releases her grip on Ryan. Taking advantage, I begin to drag her away from the orgy; she kicks and screams in protest, maniacally biting at my wrists as though possessed. Finally, with one final heave, she is out of the clearing, and her thrashing begins to slow down. She looks up at me, face wrinkled in confusion, but the watery eyes suggest some semblance of rationality.

“I—I—what happened,” she asks and begins to sob.

“Loren, what the fuck is going on?”

“I—I don’t know. I can’t—”

I look to the others as they continue their debauchery, some blood is smeared over Isla’s right breast, and there is a gaping wound in Ryan’s neck.

“Help me!” I demand.

I grab hold of Ryan’s shoulders while Loren stands, eyes glazed, in a trance-like state.

“Help me!” I scream again.

Finally, she grabs hold of his legs, and we begin to heave him away from the patch of flowers. He spits and struggles against us. “Get the fuck off me!” he screams. Isla clasps at him, refusing to let him go, and I momentarily release my grip to pry her hands away. We are making progress—he is halfway out. But Isla throws herself forward, latching onto his legs. Once again, I reach for her hands, and almost immediately, her teeth are sinking into my wrist. A bolt of pain shoots up my right arm that instinctively prompts me to kick her in the chest. She stumbles onto her back, seemingly unconcerned, and begins to pleasure herself amongst the flowers.

“What’s going on?” Ryan asks as we finally get him away from the clearing.

“It’s the flowers,” I say. “There is something in the flowers.”

“What are you talking about, Tom?” Loren asks.

“Loren, a moment ago, you had your hand wrapped about my best friends dick. What’s your fucking theory?”

Cheeks flushing, and without explanation, she turns away—and I watch as the drop of blood makes its way to the forest floor. And then another.

“Loren, your nose—”

“Isla!” Ryan screams. “Isla, stop it!”

Loren puts her hand to her nose and brings it away to assess. “I’ve never had a nosebleed in my life,” she says, tilting her head back. “No, don’t tilt it. Here, sit down, and I’ll get some tissues,” I say, reaching into the backpack and fumbling around until I find them.

“We have to get out of here, Ryan,” I say firmly. “This place is fucked.”

“I know, Tom. But we are lost,” he finally admits as he makes his way towards Isla.

“Here,” I say to Loren, gently dabbing at the streams that now run from both nostrils. With my other hand, I go to remove the flower tucked behind her ear, but she aggressively snaps her fingers around my wrist and furrows her brow. She stares at me intently for a second and then releases her grip. “I want to go home,” she whispers. As I pluck the flower from behind her hair, she snaps her head back and inhales. I crush it and sprinkle it to the floor.

“It’s the goddamn flowers, Loren. They fuck with your head.”

Isla launches her assault on Ryan as he attempts to drag her away—limbs everywhere and head jerking erratically in all directions, teeth snapping at his flesh. Desperately, she brings a nail down his arm that instantly makes him recoil, but he angrily retaliates by grabbing a handful of her hair and yanking her away from the ring of colour. Eventually, she flops back onto the ground, all fight gone, and taking in huge mouthfuls of air. “Fucking arsehole!” she gasps.

“We have to get out of here. This place isn’t right,” I say. “Either back the way we came or to the river.”

Sunlight is fading quickly, and the developing coolness of the breeze instinctively makes me shudder. I look to Ryan and catch him staring back towards the patch of flowers.

“Ryan!” I scream, but his gaze remains fixed.

“Up there,” Loren says. “If we climb that tree—the tallest, we should be able to see which way.”

“You don’t know shit!” Isla hisses and then begins sniffing aggressively at the surrounding air.

Loren looks to me expectantly. It seems by the word, “we,” she means me. Admittedly, this is where I excel—there are very few things I cannot scale, and any tree is child’s play. I take off my shoes and socks and begin to search for the first indentation in the tree. Toes firmly in place, I hoist myself up to the first branch.

“Be careful,” Loren says.

But I am away—branch after branch, quickly scanning where my next foothold will be. I look down, and already, I must be twenty foot high. To my right, and perhaps four feet higher, I notice a nest wedged between a network of smaller branches, and I see an adjoining clear path to the top of the tree. I begin to make my way towards it. Still, I cannot see clearly over the top of the canopy, but I’m getting close now.

“I need them!” I hear Isla shout below, like a spoilt child.

Testing the branches in front of me by allowing some of my weight onto them, I finally begin edging myself towards the nest, holding the thicker offshoots for balance. Step by step, I make solid progress, only pausing when the wind gently blows through. So close now. But just as I grab onto the next support, it breaks off in my hand, and I topple forward. My right foot comes down hard on a neighbouring branch, and there is a long foreboding creak. I freeze, heart in mouth, and pulse-pounding, holding my breath as if it will help make me weightless. Another crack—and then my worst fear—the branch beneath me snaps, and we both begin our descent.

“Tom!” Loren screams

Out of sheer desperation, I reach out my arms, and as they coil around a saving branch, immediate and intense pain explodes through them. Violently I swing, arms singing in pain, and countless feet above the ground—praying that this one holds my weight.

Eyes closed, swaying from a branch of the dead tree, I kick my legs to try and find something for leverage, and finally, I manage to wedge my foot between the trunk and another branch. Slowly, I begin heaving myself up.

“CAW!” the big black bird screams, scaring the shit out of me as it comes to rest only inches from my face. In its beak is what looks to be a tooth; human. It drops it into the nest and flies off again.

This fucking place.

The light is fading quickly now, and the cool breeze rattles through the bare branches. I am finally stable again, wedged in between two of the thicker branches of the tree. Balancing on one leg, I crane my neck toward the nest and peer into its contents. Nestled between the shells and half-eaten carcasses of offspring, is a pile of human teeth—all shapes and sizes—some stained with blood and some still adorned with flesh.

There is an immediate tightening across my chest and an accompanying wave of nausea. My grip on the branches instinctively becomes tighter, and suddenly, I can’t move—disoriented, and all bravery gone. I look down towards the others, and—

“Ryan!” I scream.

But it’s too late—the knife is plunged into the side of his neck.

I hear Loren scream, and watch helplessly as she slowly begins to back away. Ryan drops to his knees, instinctively trying to plug the stream of crimson that is now leaking across his clothes. Behind him stands Isla—bloody knife in hand. I could swear she is smiling.

“Run, Loren!” I scream, but she continues to back away slowly in obvious disbelief.

Isla brings the knife down again into Ryan’s neck. And again, and again, chopping relentlessly while holding his head in place with a tuft of his hair.

“Run!” I scream again.

She looks up towards me and then finally takes off.

As I urgently begin to scale the rest of the tree, my heart drums relentlessly as though trying to break out of my chest. Precaution out the window, I quickly move from one branch to the next, hoping that each will hold.

Climbing another five feet; I guess I’m about three-quarters up now, but there’s no need to go any further. In the distance, I can see the village—just a few hundred metres ahead. The river and the boats must be close. Sheer luck that Loren ran North. Everywhere I look, though, there are more of those flowers—a shit load between here and the water.

As I begin the descent, I realise how quickly darkness has consumed the forest.

Beneath me, and between heavy pants, Isla appears to be talking in tongues—a frantic and garbled explosion of nonsense—accompanied by the frequent sound of the blade sloshing against whatever is left of my friend. Fighting the instinctive urge for haste, I try to recall each branch I used for the climb. I slow it down—trying to ignore the carnage below—deep breaths and with complete focus on every move.

I pause, just to get my bearings—only ten feet to go. Isla is still slashing away, covered head to toe in my friend’s blood. Warily I keep my eye on her as best I can while slowly navigating the side of the trunk, using its imperfections to lower myself towards the ground. The last branch and I can jump from here. She’s on the move.

I watch as Isla makes her way back to the flower-rich clearing. She lays down on her back and raises my best friend’s head above her like a trophy, sprinkling the falling drops of blood across her breasts. Howling into the night, she then brings the head down between her legs and lets out a repugnant moan that fills me with fear and disgust.

Sick bitch.

Caws from all directions suddenly fill the air, and the surrounding trees begin to fill with over-sized crows—no doubt hopeful of getting a share of the fresh meat on offer. In response, Isla brings Ryan’s head close to her chest in an obvious claim of possession, snarling her warning toward the birds.

I take my chance and jump down, feeling my ankle give way as my foot lands awkwardly on a protruding root. Biting my tongue, I hold my breath and keep cover behind the trunk. And then I make a run for it—clumsily darting between the trees towards the safety of the river.

Heart pounding, ankle singing with pain, it is slow going, but its hope that keeps me moving. If I make it to the village, I can get help, and we can come back for Loren. Perhaps she is already there—on one of the boats even.

Darkness is bringing even more menace to this place, and I can only see a few yards ahead of me now. On the ground, I see carcasses of rabbits and birds—so many of them. Moonlight has replaced sunlight, and the shadows it casts are even eerier. Every creak of wood and each gust of wind fills me with trepidation, and I swear I see movement between the trees. Something in the distance—was that a howl? Human? Animal? God only knows. I just want out now.

And then I stop dead. I can only just hear it—the river. I can fucking hear it!

But lying ahead of me like a luminous barrier are dozens of clusters of those flowers; everywhere I look and every colour you can imagine. The wind howls its ever-increasing presence, and the moon spotlights the small puffs of powder leaving the pistil, swirling above in a small tornado, before simply dispersing into the night air.

Shit.

There’s another howl behind me—closer this time.

And I run, trying to ignore the abundant carrion—high on adrenaline and impervious to the pressure on my ankle. Only a few feet away, I make out the water, and the sound of its gentle flow sparks further urgency. I’m going to make it. The wind howls around me again, but I’m no longer scared—I’m—

A gunshot rings out, echoing across the forest, and the accompanying bolt of pain explodes across my left shoulder. The force sends me sprawling to the ground, and unbearable pain vibrates down my entire left-hand side as I collapse in a heap. There are whistles and voices from somewhere behind the veil of darkness. I lie there, frozen to the ground, clenching my teeth to stifle the agony and afraid to breathe in case the wisp of breath gives away my location. The voices are drawing closer. But what is that? Something else is carrying on the breeze—a distant humming. It’s—beguiling—an angelic chorus that lifts me towards the moon and causes my body to tingle with excitement.

It feels wrong, but so right.

My mind is suddenly filled with imagery; the hotel room from last night; all my previous sexual encounters; every lustful thought I’ve ever had—all merging into a single erotic montage that is seemingly manifesting itself across my body. It’s as though I can feel every touch, and each breath wraps around me to form a cocoon of warmth. The throbbing pain is fading and being replaced with waves of euphoria that I want never to end. The flowers themselves dance around me, and I bask in their glow—a light show of vast proportions against the night sky. Above the hypnotic music, I hear the tranquil sound of running water and suddenly remember—the river; that’s where I was supposed to be going. But that can wait now; this is where I want to be.

The voices are closing in; and laughter. I begin to laugh with them, poking at the myriad of colours that dance in front of my eyes. There are faces above me now, smiling with crooked teeth and eyes that reflect the rhythmic movement of the flowers.

“Fucking tourists,” the voice swims across—dreamlike—deep and in slow motion.

“Can’t handle it, Jake. Too much for them,” the other one says.

“Throwing their fucking money around like kings and fucking queens!”

“Slice him, Jake. Slice and dice!”

The man called Jake crouches down and lets out a long sigh. “Nature can be an evil mistress, my friend—beautiful but lethal. She draws you in with her irresistible perfume and then works her dark magic. And soon, you can never get enough.”

I watch as he crushes one of the flowers into the half-filled rolling paper, licks the edge, and then ignites the end with the familiar cigarette lighter. RJ etched on its front—Ryan Jacobs.

“Moderation, my friend,” he says.

Momentarily I picture my best friend’s decapitated head with the joint hanging from the side of his mouth, and an uncontrollable fit of hysterics washes over me—laughter so raw and explosive that it hurts my throat. Even as Jake rests the cold metal against my throat, I can’t stop cackling.

“Where are the others?” he asks.

And out of my peripheral vision, I see something rolling towards me from the darkness. I twist my neck slightly to see Isla’s head come to rest only inches from my face, still drawn in that maniacal way.

“Strike!” I scream.

Jake’s mouth opens, but before anything comes out, he is on top of me; the point of the exposed blade poking through his neck almost impales me in the eye. I feel the warmth of his blood trickling down the side of my face. Above, I hear snarls and screams and panting—male and female—and the tearing of flesh. Another gunshot crackles in the air and is accompanied by a piercing and agony-filled cry. More commotion follows and then—silence.

The wind rushes pleasantly across my face, and I inhale its sweetness, watching as more of the powder spirals into the night air and as the luminous flowers hypnotically sway above me. This time, a wave of utter tranquillity washes over me, and all my anxiety and guilt give way to a comforting peace that makes me feel as though I am the only person in the universe. My vision fills with a kaleidoscope of warm colours that swim between the skeletal branches of the trees.

Am I in heaven?

But someone has my hand—pulling—no, I don’t want to leave. Suddenly, the calm has gone, and I feel such intense anger coursing through my body. How dare they. “Fuck off!” I scream, kicking my legs and flailing my arms in front of me. The colours are beginning to fade, as is the enchanting scent that I know I’m becoming enslaved to.

“I’ll fucking kill you!” I spit.

I hear crying above—female.

My leg connects with something, and once again, I am free. I just need this—nothing else matters. The world can get fucked. But just as I begin to approach that wonderful limbo once again, someone grabs my leg.

“Leave me the fuck alone!” I scream, continuing to lash out with overflowing rage.

There are more sounds above—a low whimpering as though from an injured animal, and from further out, more voices. I lash out again, and my right leg finds something. There is another cry of pain followed by a roar and—

                                                                                      #

“Fuck.”

Tenderly, I circle my fingers around the brutal stinging across the right side of my face. I feel the swelling and the accompanying heat that it’s giving off.

As I open my eyes and raise myself, I can only just make out the riverbank that passes by to my right. Suddenly, everything comes flooding back. Blood pumping and stomach lurching, I turn in panic, only to exhale a huge sigh of relief when I see the village some distance behind.

A gunshot suddenly echoes from somewhere far away. And then another, followed by the faint sound of cheers and laughter.

The tears come then, overwhelming grief and guilt for the people I have lost—for Loren, Ryan, and Isla.

Exhausted, I can hardly keep my eyes open, and slowly, I ease myself down again, praying that nobody follows. The stars above slowly pass, but it’s the morning I long for now. I’ve had enough of the darkness.

                                                                        #

Squinting into the early morning sun, I pull myself up and begin to cry when I see no sign of the village behind. In the distance, I can just make out the silhouette of a skyline.

I know Loren saved me—even in her drug-induced state, bleeding and fighting temptation, she somehow managed to drag me onto this boat and set me free.

How am I supposed to tell their families? How many other tourists have perished in that forest at the mercy of the locals?

How am I supposed to get through this?

At first, I can’t find it, but as I stretch my fingers deeper into my pockets, they brush against the smoothness of the pod.

Just in moderation. Just enough to get me through.

End.

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