That morning, the sun rose for the fourth time. The vastness of the unfamiliar forest weighted down on her aching shoulders. An eerie silence enveloped the trees around her. There was not a single hint of any animal life; not even the hum of bugs. As far as she knew, she was the sole inhabitant. Other people might have been bothered by lack of human contact, yet for her, it was almost a breath of fresh air. At least that was what she told herself.
The girl noted that so far she had gotten neither hungry nor thirsty, and seemed to have no need to rest, even though she could still enter a dreamlike state at night. With nothing to do her only option was to keep on going in hopes of finding an exit. Her liking her solitude did not prevent her from wanting to return home, and she diligently kept exploring. If she ended up there there had to be some kind of way out, she thought. It was simply a matter of uncovering the exit.
Back at day one, she discovered that every path traced back to a fresh oak tree. It stood tall in the middle of a clearing, much like a beacon of some kind. This forest, dubbed the loop for her own amusement, seemed to prevent her from exploring further away from the tree. She figured it would be important, but had no clue as to if it actually meant something.
Another unsuccessful escape attempt later, the girl found herself back at this tree once more. With a sigh she rested her back against it. The air tasted somewhat of a sleepless summer night; hopeless and warm. It reminded her of a bleak memory, one washed out from being repeated so often. The same dreadful feeling as that time her mom took her grocery shopping and vanished. It was a feeling that stuck with her, rooted within her heart, rising to the surface again and again. The fact that she had only been alone for a minute did not dull the experience. You're on your own, is what she told herself these days. It'll be okay. Just gotta keep on going. There is no other way but ahead.
She looked up at the soft pink sky. Being alone with her thoughts lead her to pondering old decisions, even if she would rather do anything but that. Thinking revealed old wounds that she knew would open again once she nurtured them with her attention. Yet the nagging doubt in the back of her mind had grown larger over the past few days, like a weed sprouting between cracks in the pavement. Her brittle optimism dwindled back into its depths as a feeling of hopelessness washed over her, a gentle tide at first, followed by bellowing waves.
She clutched the fabric of her dress. Why even bother anymore? Was there even any point to trying to get out of here? Even if she did leave, what would there be to return to? She was supposed to be happy, to be successful. To be in love. None of those childish dreams had come true. Her future was crumbling under expectancies, her own more than anyone else's.
With a quivering breath she struggled to keep her emotions under control. To feel such sadness almost made her feel human again, but it was not enough. She gave her arm a firm pinch and got up. Sitting around at a tree all day wasn't going to help her, nor would crying. Yet there was a smoldering resentment inside her, one she knew was the result of years of swallowing the bitter pills of disappointment and anger. In fact, it was always there. She simply never let it grow hot enough to cause a fire, lest she upset someone. But right now, what would it matter? With no one around to hear, would it be okay to ignite?
To say that the world was unfair for not understanding her and for people excluding her were words that the girl wished she could yell at the world, had they been true. She knew deep inside that was only scratching the surface of the issue. Most of all, she was angry with herself. For letting herself believe that she wasn't and would never be worth it, and for being unable to let go of a trail of thoughts that she knew was ridiculous. She clenched her fists and outed a frustrated cry.
“Stupid brain! I don't want these thoughts and I don't want to be like this. What's the point of living if I don't feel alive?!”
Her last word echoed between the trees. A powerful gust of wind tussled the oak's long branches, sending translucent petals twirling through the air. It lifted her blonde hair and transformed it into a raveled mess. The wind got so intense that she had to close her eyes, her arms folded across her face in a protective manner. When the wind died down, she opened her eyes, only to be greeted by a young man that appeared from behind the tree. His white, flowing clothes were a bright contrast to his dark hair. He seemed to almost radiate a soft light. In shock at his sudden appearance, she staggered a few meters away from him.
He didn't approach her, eying her with interest instead. The fabric of his clothes swayed lightly in the wind.
“Who are you?” she asked. “Did you get sent here as well?”
He seemed to think for a moment, then showed her two open palms and shrugged.
It dawned upon her that the chances of them speaking the same language were slim. Her voice became drawn-out. “Can you understand me?”
It resulted in a quick nod, followed by zipping of the lips. Whoever he was, he was apparently unable to talk back to her. Few possibilities remained now. Possibly he was someone in the same position as she was, but he didn't look like it. The way his aura felt made her think of something more than human; something ethereal. If she were to trust her instincts, the logical conclusion would be that he was native to this place. In that case it was highly likely that he knew more. But had she offended him by yelling, even though he didn't seem upset? Her brain worked feverishly to find a solution.
In the few seconds it took her to assess the situation, the boy remained still. With a tranquil look on his face he waited for her to start talking again.
“Listen, I'm very sorry if I disturbed you with my yelling, but I have a request. Could you give me directions or perhaps show me the way out? I know I shouldn't be asking, but you're the only person I've encountered so far. I swear I'll keep quiet from now on.” Difficult as it was for her, she looked him straight in the eye. “Please.”
He shook his head with a sad look on his face, as if to say he was sorry, and repeated the shrug from before.
“I see, you don't know either. Thanks for trying anyway. I'm just gonna go and keep walking now.”
Half of her body was telling her not to tread away from him as she struggled to turn around. The other half wanted to run as fast as she could. He made her feel at ease and that, in turn, led to her actually experiencing unease. He had an air of familiarity around him that she was unable to comprehend or place. All she truly understood that whatever he was, it was the opposite of her being.
Then, he did what part of her had wished for – he started to follow her. Before long their footsteps were synchronized, breaking the silence with their rhythmic pace. At one point the double footsteps stopped. The girl glanced over her shoulder to see what happened. She was greeted by the sight of the boy floating a few centimeters above the ground. She lifted an eyebrow but kept quiet about it, as she guessed he would probably not explain this either.
Days passed by and the girl got increasingly more confused by the situation. On top of that, the silent boy had been following her all the while. Sometimes he disappeared from sight, but he returned every time. The only thing that eased her mind was knowing that he was still there to help her keep her sanity, even if neither of them spoke. In fact she had developed quite a liking for him and his almost childlike curiosity with which he seemed to view the world.
She practiced interpreting his attempts to communicate with signs as to save both of them some trouble. Once she got the hang of it, he was surprisingly easy to read. Bit by bit she began to feel comfortable being around him, which soon led her to think of something to call him. The first thing that came to mind was Chi, as this whole situation was strangely spiritual to her. She felt a bit nervous about whether he would be okay with it or not. What if he already had a name and she blatantly stated she wanted to call him something else?
None of that happened. Chi informed her he was unsure whether he had a name at all, and expressed his liking to his new one. Even though he failed to vocally repeat his own name, he responded by showing up at her side whenever she called for him.
His face was graced by a perpetual smile after receiving his new name. She admired his ability to be blissful but, deep inside of her, jealousy tried to gain the upper hand. It took conscious and constant effort not to let herself get overruled by it. Being unable to be truly happy for someone else without any nagging feelings made her despise herself. It was something that happened too often for her to ignore. Despite all that she had a firm desire to try to be a better person, for herself but also for Chi's sake. When she was with him, she was filled with warmth. She hesitated to call it 'love' as that was not quite what it felt like. Everything simply clicked into place with him, as if he was her missing half.
There came a point where her mind refused to command her body to take another step. With Chi at her side, she pointed at a fallen tree trunk. “I'm tired of walking. Let's rest here, okay?”
She sat down and rubbed her eyes. Of course she wasn't physically tired – she figured by now that that was impossible. Rather, it was the never-ending search for an exit that mentally exhausted her.
“Chi, what should I do? If I don't figure something out soon, I don't think I'm getting out of here.”
Chi slowly inched closer until he sat right besides her. He performed a hand motion close to his mouth that she assumed meant 'talk.'
“Yeah, that's probably a bad idea. I wouldn't want to bother you.” She gave him a tired smile. “You know, it'd be a lot easier if you could talk back.”
Can now. The words echoed in her mind in a voice that was not her own. His tone was as gentle as the look in his eyes. It fit him well.
She looked at Chi in shock. His intonation was slightly off, but understandable. “You can speak my language? Why didn't you?”
You let me. But difficult, came the reply. Need much energy.
“Then don't. You don't have to talk if it makes you tired. What do you mean I 'let you' though? Wait.” She grunted. “I'm an idiot. First I tell you that you don't need to talk, then I start firing questions at you.”
He chuckled – a light and cheerful laugh. Yes. But you are not idiot.
“I appreciate it.” She lowered her head ever so slightly as the burden of keeping the facade grew larger. Over the course of the days spent together, the girl had found herself wanting to talk to Chi. Yet she was unsure on how to approach him with the subjects that haunted her. She told him a few every-day things, but kept silent about her troubles in fear of scaring him away.
Chi gave her shoulder a soft nudge. His blue eyes displayed concern. Talk to me?
“Okay, okay... promise you won't make fun of me?”
Chi stuck out his pinky and wrapped it around hers. Pro-mise.
As hesitant as she was, this was what she had been waiting for. Someone who would listen. There was no way she could pass it up, so she started talking.
“I should be happy. I don't know why I'm not. My body works like it's supposed to and I'm not sick whatsoever. I still have both of my parents, my family is healthy and I'm in university to get a degree in something I love. But these past few years, I just haven't been able to truly be myself... sometimes I don't even know who the real me is anymore.” She looked up at Chi, who looked at her intently. “Ah, why am I even telling you this? You probably think I'm stupid for being upset about nothing.”
His pale hand touched her shoulder, sending a wave of warmth into her skin. It felt nice, even if she was reluctant to admit it. Whenever someone crossed the line of her (admittedly) huge personal space her first reaction was to turn her head away in anxiety. Letting someone get that close was difficult for her, though she tried every day.
“I'm afraid,” she said in a soft voice. “I'm really scared of the future. If I always feel like this, then I'm not sure I want to keep on going. I try to be strong for everyone, but on the inside I feel like I'm wasting away. Being alone in this is too hard for me... Chi, I need to ask you something. Do you think you could tell me why I'm here? It's got to have a purpose, right?”
He kept quiet as his hand remained on her shoulder. The grip tightened somewhat but was brushed off by her without effort.
“You can't tell me, right? Just like nobody ever tells me what I should do. Not even you. I really thought I found someone that could help me, but as per usual, I'm dealing with everything alone.” Something inside her snapped as she rose to her feet. “You know what – fine! Don't help me. Just leave me alone and stop following me around.”
She pushed Chi to the side, holding back her tears. “I don't need help. I don't need anyone. This world runs on selfishness and it always has. If I start needing people, they'll just abandon me again like before... like always...”
Chi leapt up. He took her by the wrist and pulled her in, embracing her. At first she struggled to break free. Her feelings of frustration and grief fused into a block of hurt that made breathing difficult. She didn't want to want this. This was no time for weakness, no, she had to stay strong...
Chi's voice entered her brain once more. Forgive. I forgive you. You did good job, now give yourself break.
At that moment, she stopped resisting. Not just to his embrace, but to her emotions as well. She sobbed loudly, pressing her face into Chi's chest.
“I'm sorry,” she said with a choked voice. “I'm sorry.”
With every tear that rolled down her cheek, a piece of repressed sadness resurfaced. It hurt, yet she could not stop herself. There was something comforting about it, as if his arms were capable of easing all the hurt with a single touch. At that moment, she wanted nothing more than to be held forever. To feel the pain seep out of her body. It wasn't until then that she realized how cold she had truly been. Her skin tingled as the warmth of his body touched her.
He produced a whimper, an otherworldly sound that a human throat would not be capable of. It dawned on her that she was hurting him somehow. Even so, he held on. All the while the weight on her shoulders vanished, and she gasped for air.
When it seemed to be over, he touched her hair with soft strokes of his fingers. Chi did something she did not expect – he whispered a few words in her ear. It sounded like nonsense words to her that she could neither understand nor make sense of, but it felt as if she'd just heard the answer to all her questions. After that he finally released her, a blubbery and unstable mess, to stand on her own again.
Now one hundred percent convinced he was not an ordinary boy in any sense of the word, she wiped her eyes and repeated her initial question. “Who are you?”
Chi pointed at himself, then to her.
“You are... me?”
He nodded with vigor, seeming thrilled with her answer.
The girl smiled softly. “I still don't understand any of this, but... thank you. I never thought I would feel like this again.”
Chi took her hand and placed it so that she could feel her heartbeat underneath her sprawled fingers. Then, he pointed her hand at a clearing between the trees. A path that hadn't been there before emerged.
“What about you?” she said as she touched his chest. She noticed the white tint of his skin. He hadn't been tan before, but he definitely wasn't this pale. His heartbeat was slow, his skin cold under her now warm fingers.
He flashed her a half-hearted smile and removed her hand, nudging her to go towards the path. She took a step towards it, and, after an encouraging nod from him, took a few more until her feet touched the bare earth. She looked over her shoulder one last time. Chi lifted a hand, waving in synchrony with the swaying branches before he dissolved into nothing. Good... luck.
At least it was now clear that he wouldn't be accompanying her, and that hurt. A knot formed itself in her stomach. Thank you, she whispered, and started walking down the path.
For the first time, the scenery started to change. She could tell she had ventured into a new area by the soft but extant chirping of birds. So there really was a way out! Part of her was relieved, but as before, the other part wanted to turn back. That old dreadful feeling had returned ever since she'd started walking this path. There was something wrong. Perhaps with Chi. The girl stopped walking and stared ahead of her. The exit was up ahead. It had to be. But what she was doing right now – wasn't that what happened to her over and over again? People leaving her for their own profit? That wasn't what she wanted to happen to Chi, but most of all, she did not want to become the kind of person she dreaded.
The one that was left but couldn't bear to leave, now stuck at the crossroads. She took a deep breath and spun around on her heels, sprinting back along the path as fast as she could. Her heart pounding, her breath accelerating and her muscles burning reminded her that she was, in fact, still alive. The birds' songs died out soon after. The closer she got to the core of the forest, the more all plants seemed to have withered and died. Horrible visions plagued her mind, and she could only hope nothing bad had happened, and even more so that none of it was her fault.
After re-entering the loop it was easy to find the oak tree. Only a few leafs remained on the withering branches. One of them broke free and fluttered down towards Chi's body. He sat slumped against one of the roots that had dared venture above earth, clutching his stomach. She hurried towards him.
“Chi! What happened?” she asked him, helping him sit up. Red blotches stained his shirt, as did a trickle of blood that ran down the corner of his mouth.
He groaned and his eyes fluttered. Bloodshot eyes greeted her – a stark contrast to their vibrant blue color. He was shivering and seemed to be in terrible pain. As soon as he had recollected himself, he started shaking his head and pointed a trembling hand to the direction she came from.
“I'm staying with you this time,” she said. “I did this, right? When you helped me earlier. Just give it back to me. I can take it.”
He was such a pure being, he didn't deserve to suffer. She was already battered; it couldn't get much worse than it had been. She grabbed his hand and wished that whatever he took from her would go back, but nothing happened. The feeling from before didn't return. Now starting to panic at Chi's state, she tried it one more time, to no avail.
Chi's breathing became a gargled wheeze that increased in short bursts. He gave her hand a weak squeeze.
“I'm staying,” she said with a shaking voice. “I'm staying right here. Don't be afraid, okay?”
But he had every reason to be afraid. As she held him up, she knew right there and then that the inevitable was going to happen. She couldn't care less about what she was supposed to learn or how to get out of that place anymore. More than anything else, she wanted Chi to stay with her.
“Come on, Chi! Please...”
His breathing fastened, then stopped after a final gasp of air. Whatever force he had been using to keep him from collapsing disappeared as he fell to the side. Two tears slid down his cheeks, and then, all movement died out.
She sat there motionless for what seemed like hours, unable to comprehend nor accept what had happened. Dark clouds hovered above their heads. Before long rain was pouring down in an endless stream of water that soaked her in a matter of seconds. The girl brushed Chi's wet hairs from his face. At last the painful look had disappeared. She found some comfort in knowing that his suffering was over, but it felt as if something inside her had broken that she knew could never be repaired.
Now that there was nothing for her to return to, she decided to fulfill Chi's wish – heading back to the path to find the exit. She had to get up and go if she wanted to stand a chance at finding her way back. She propped Chi against the bark of the barren oak and wiped the blood from his mouth. For those who'd give the scene a quick glance, it looked like a boy taking a peaceful nap against a tree.
The lone girl stood in silence as the thunder above them roared. The world around her seemed to have gotten much colder than before, perhaps even a bit bleak. Everything was wrong about this. She felt completely empty, void of feelings. Not even her tears would flow anymore.
Goodbye, she whispered. I won't forget this. With an aching heart she turned around and walked away.
Her feet barely touched the earth as she sped towards the path. She wanted to find it. She wanted to leave this place now, with all of her heart. She owed Chi at least that much. The more distance she covered, the sunnier it got. Before long the thunderclouds had stopped following her, hovering above the top of the oak tree, an ominous reminder of the truth.
The girl ran and ran, and there it was – a large iron gate. The gate was surrounded by walls that made it impossible to see what would lie behind it. Without hesitating she pushed the handle down. The door opened with a creaking noise. There was nothing but blank space inside of it. For a moment the girl was doubtful, yet she was sure that Chi hadn't lied to her. She took a deep breath and stepped through the door.
With a shock the girl sat upright in her bed. Both her cheeks and pillow were wet, and she was panting. She noticed her open diary on her pillow, the pages wrinkled and the ink smeared.
It took a few minutes to calm down. She knew it was more than a dream. It felt more realistic than life itself. Chi had been real – of that she was convinced. She realized she needed to record it if she wanted to make sure she'd remember everything.
Those words he'd said to her remained unclear, until her trembling hands started to write everything down.
She heard his voice, merely a whisper this time, but containing the same kindness.
You were on a road all along
it was covered in weeds, was all.