This week's [Fiction] Friday prompt: Lonely in Paradise
“Isn’t there somewhere you’re supposed to be?”
Gabe heard the voice again. He looked around. He couldn’t think of anywhere he was supposed to be. He couldn’t think of much at all. He was captivated by what he saw around him. To his left, a field of blood-red poppies spilled from the forest. Above him the gold-orange blooms of crossvine clutched at the branches of a mesquite, its clawlike tendrils gripping the rugged bark. Trying to focus, he started recalling the names of the trees around him: bayberry, silver leaf maple, loblolly, witchhazel, black cherry . . .
Gabe plucked a leaf from the cherry. He examined it closely. It was elliptical in shape, with very fine teeth; glossy and dark green above, pale green beneath, with tufts of brown hairs along the center ribbing. He was certain it was a cherry, but he’d never seen one grow quite so tall. He folded the leaf in half and pulled the two sides apart. A nervous action. He let the pieces fall to the moss-covered ground.
He turned to look back across the rolling field of poppies. Across the field a range of snow-topped mountains jutted up against the horizon. The white tips glared in the bright light. Gabe guessed it must be close to noon, although he couldn’t find the sun beneath the forest canopy. He was tempted to stroll into the field and get a better view of the cloudless blue sky, but he opted instead for the shade of the trees and what looked like a footpath that led deeper into the woods.
As Gabe followed the trail he tried to remember how he had managed to find this place. How did he end up in these woods? Where had he been going? And where was it he was supposed to be? It was useless. There was only this place. Nothing before. Nothing after. Finding the stress of memory too overwhelming, he focused on the trees again. A massive pecan stood before him, the oval nuts littering the grass at his feet. He marveled that its branches seemed to disappear into the sky. The path veered left around its wide trunk.
As he ventured further into the forest, Gabe noticed the diminishing light. The canopy was blocking out the day, creating a dim cavern of greens and browns. Only the infrequent ray of light managed to pierce the darkening woodland. Gabe watched as one of these points widened. It was a little over a hundred yards off the trail to his right. He watched, mesmerized by the glinting specks of dust and the floating pollen as they hovered in the growing ray.
As the light spread, he saw a figure. It seemed to congeal out of nothingness. A woman. She was standing, surrounded by the glow. A gust of wind came up behind him, catching the white blooms of a pear tree, swirling them around him before carrying them across the undergrowth to where the woman stood. Her long, blonde hair flowed out behind her as the blooms took up a playful dance in the sunbeam.
Compelled, Gabe followed the path of the pear blooms, stumbling through a patch of overgrown hawthorns. He hurried through the undergrowth, pushing back branches with his bare hands, smashing down the switch grass that managed to grow beneath the thick cover. He felt desperate. Gabe sped to a jogging pace. It was all he could manage over the terrain. He noticed a sharp rock jutting up from the soil and leapt just in time narrowly avoiding a fall. He pushed his way through a growth of blackberries, letting the vines scrape against his jeans, holding his arms up to avoid the thorns.
He was only a few feet from the woman. Close enough, he thought, to reach into the expanding light. As he stepped out of the copse of vines a creeper shot out, wrapping its thorny branch around his ankle. His leg caught up in the tangle, Gabe stumbled. He threw his hands out in front of him and came crashing to the forest floor only inches from the light, which now seemed to be shrinking. The woman stood, blank-faced with wide empty eyes.
Gabe scrambled to free himself from the grip of the vine. He pulled at the snaking branch, oblivious to the thorns as they tore into his fingertips. He yanked at the green tendrils, too vibrant to snap. Realizing the vine’s grip was impossible to break he quickly slid off his shoe and sock. He gripped the vine and slowly worked it over his heel and down the length of his foot until he was free.
His skin was covered in the purple stain of blackberry juice mixed with the crimson of his own blood. Long scrapes trailed across his ankle and down his foot, dark red creases lined with raised white ridges. Gabe heard a shot ring out through the forest. He closed his eyes and when he opened them the forest was gone. He was alone in the dark. A light flashed across him and he looked down at his hands to find them covered in thick, sticky blood. The darkness closed in again and he felt a searing pain in his chest. He brought his hands up to slake the pain. Another flash showed him his chest. His hands rested on an exposed rib, surrounded by torn, raw flesh. He opened his mouth to scream, but the sound was muffled by a gooey liquid pouring from his throat. As the light passed, he closed his eyes again and fell to his knees.
Gabe slowly opened his eyes. The forest had returned. He looked down to where his hands clutched at his chest. There was nothing there. No scrapes from the thorns. No purple stains. No blood. Gabe remembered the woman in the light. He climbed to his feet and spun around. The large ray had shrunk to a slender pinpoint. The woman stood, her back turned to Gabe. He was close enough now to reach her.
Gabe put his hand on the woman’s shoulder. She slowly turned around. Her clear complexion giving off its own light in the darkened forest. As she turned Gabe saw the other half of her face. It was a mangled twisting of blood and flesh. Parts of her skull were visible and an eye hung loose from its socket. The long, blonde hair was matted with the sticky blood and chunks of brain matter dangled from the strands.
“Help me,” the woman said. Her voice was a raspy whisper.
Gabe watched, paralyzed, as the pinprick of light went out. The woman reached out her arms as her body dissipated into the blackness of the forest.
“Isn’t there somewhere you’re supposed to be?”
Gabe heard the voice again. He looked around. He realized he was in a thick, dark forest. He could see the faint glow of sunlight in the distance, shining down on a footpath. Gabe began to make his way through the undergrowth, desperately trying to remember where it was he should be. The strain of it soon became too much. Instead he concentrated on the foliage. There was a growth of hawthorns at his feet that led up to a large mesquite. He picked up a fallen leaf and examined it. Redbud, he thought. A break in the canopy cast a brilliant white light on the forest floor. Gabe looked around him for the redbud tree, knowing it must be close.