by Alexandra Gilwit
My eyes were dry, but only because I was dehydrated. I wanted so badly to cry.
It had been several hours since the sun had fallen behind the large grouping of trees in the distance, opening the world up to the space out beyond our atmosphere. I thought of my sister as I traced out the imaginary lines of the constellations. Tonight was especially clear, with the trail of the Milky Way snaking across the edge of Earth in a ribbon of star and cosmic dust.
This view was the only thing that hadn’t changed in the thousands of years of humanity. I needed to remind myself of this whenever the world didn’t feel real. It didn’t feel real right now, but I wasn’t sure why.
Everything appeared as it should, each star having been assigned an arbitrary name and arc second that I once knew back in college when I thought I would be an astronomer. The stars were starting to calm my anxiety until a flickering light caught my attention. It was a star towards the eastern rim of the northern night sky that looked as if it was violently expanding and contracting. Fear surged through my body as I watched.
I looked back down and saw Michael grabbing at Rachel’s knee as she tried to make eye contact with me.
I looked at her, her eyes looked fearful, but mine felt more desperate. For a flash I thought I saw my sister in her gaze, something in the way she looked, in her fear. I turned away out of reflex. “I think I just saw a supernova.”
“What?” She responded, scooting closer-and-closer to me until I was dangling off the log like a loose tooth. Michael was nursing a mostly empty half-gallon of Southern Comfort, letting the bottle sit between his middle and pointer finger between swigs. I could see his eyes going in and out of focus as he edged towards Rachel.
“Up there, look! That star is getting bigger and smaller.”
Michael ignored this and offered us swigs of his whiskey instead, Rachel accepted which seemed to only encourage Michael. I refused. “I don’t drink.”
Michael got up and stirred the pot we had been cooking while Rachel grabbed for my hand. “I think we are going to go to sleep now.” I said, and Michael followed us to our tent.
I unzipped the door and ushered my friend in, then followed after. Michael’s leg caught in the zipper as I closed the tent. “Ow!” He groaned loudly, loud enough to encourage an owl a few feet away to hoot back.
“I’m sorry!” I pushed Michael out and continued to zip up the door. “We’re going to sleep now.” I yelled through the nylon wall.
Michael almost fell onto the tent as he stumbled off. The shape of his body impacting and then sliding off the side causing a shadow cast from our dying fire to contort into a distinct and loathsome face. I could hear him hit the ground not far off from us.
I settled on my back in the tent, trying my best to ignore the chill night air creeping into my sleeping bag on this otherwise warm summer night. My eyes followed every star that was still in view through the mesh roof of our tent. I was looking for that star from before, but it was out of view.
That night I fell asleep with my eyes open, more afraid of the possible explosion of a star than the drunk stranger we had met on yesterday’s hike, sleeping just a few feet away.
In the morning my eyes burned.
Rachel and I cleaned up our camp and packed our gear, both still dazed from the night before. Michael was long gone. He spelled out a note with stones he must have found near our camp. The message was simple and unapologetic, “Bye.”
Rachel looked at me but I refused to look back. “Thank you.”
I grabbed for her thermos strapped to her waist and took a small sip. “I’m out.”
That day we walked as north as we could, finally picking up the trail we had lost the day before.
Just before settling on the path, I hesitated, not ready to go back. Rachel sensed this and spoke, “We need water, Jaime.”
I nodded and we set out.
The trail danced in colors with the moving sun and with the speed of our step. Shapes took form and began to animate and follow us. They were faces, sad and happy faces, cackling at our worn shoes. The foliage on either side of the path was heavy enough to make the road seem like a wonderfully green tunnel and the air was fresh and cool, and filled with the scent of golden rod and wild mint.
I looked up just once to see if that star was still out there, hiding in the places where there were gaps in the canopy, but looking made me dizzy and so I looked back down at my feet in order to not fall over. Rachel grabbed for my hand, but I pulled away out of instinct. It annoyed me that she needed me so much, part of me just wanted to be alone.
I thought about that place out in Tennessee, the one I never want to visit again. This place was just as quiet, the trees just as contemplative. I felt naked, I even looked down to double check that I was wearing anything at all. My skin was crawling but there was nothing to do but walk.
Rachel was begging me to stop by late afternoon, so we walked down to the creek to sit and eat.
Rachel had the food, stale bread and anchovies. She wouldn’t believe that I wasn’t hungry so I gnawed on the bread to appease her. We both stared at the stream. “We’re out.” She sounded hopeless as she shook her canteen. I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything, I was never much for words, they seemed fruitless, like they were meant to help us forget the silence that was always surrounding us. Instead I gathered some pebbles near me and threw them off into the water, trying my best to ignore my thirsty gums as they kneaded at the insides of my mouth.
Rachel watched where my stones splashed then leaned forward and filled her bottle. “No!” I grabbed for her hands. “We’re out of iodine tablets!”
She pulled away from me and looked wild, protesting, “I don’t care!” She gulped down the water, letting it drizzle down the sides of her face. It took everything in me not to join her.
That night we set up camp on the path. Rachel was sick. She was sweating and throwing up. I used the water from the creek to wipe her face as she looked through me and the roof of the tent, up at the sky above. “Don’t leave me.” I whispered to her as she fell asleep on my lap. I brushed her blonde hair out of her eyes and hummed a song I had made up with my sister when we were little.
Two days before I was sure that I hated Rachel.
Our tent smelled like anchovies and vomit in the morning. I had slept sitting up, cradling Rachel’s head. She was weak. She used all of her limbs to get upright, her head falling forward as spit and vomit still dribbled from her lips. I helped her up and laid her on the path and packed up our gear.
“I love you, Jaime.” My mouth was too dry to smile but I wanted to.
“But we hardly know each other.”
“You make me feel safe.” She looked up at me with two eyes too blue to be real. People usually seemed afraid of me, I always guessed that it was because I was so quiet. But Rachel wasn’t afraid of me, as if she really understood me, which felt weird because we were so different. I got her to her feet, letting my hand brush her face as she studied mine. “Are you still sad?”
This time I laughed. “We need to make it to the road before sundown.”
She laughed too. She laughed so hard she started to cough. “Was that really a supernova back there?”
“It couldn’t be. That kind of thing doesn’t just happen.”
“What is a supernova?”
Rachel didn’t notice that we were leaving her bag behind, that or she didn’t mind. She leaned her arm across my shoulder as I gripped her waist to keep her upright. “A supernova is like everything being turned upside down and inside out.”
“What does it matter?”
“Don’t think that way!” She objected. It caught me by surprise.
“Throughout a star’s life it is converting hydrogen into helium. When there is no more hydrogen to be converted the helium causes the star to expand and contract. Sometimes the star is big enough that it expands and contracts so much that it rips gravity apart and becomes a black hole.”
“Do you think that is what we saw?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have any other explanation.”
“Did you see the star last night?”
“I didn’t look.” I looked up at the trees again and felt their hateful laughter. I looked back down at the path, trying to ignore my nerves.
I gave Rachel the rest of the bread, she couldn’t stand the smell of the anchovies so I ate them. We both looked at each other, and I was sure that if we weren’t so thirsty we would have been sobbing uncontrollably.
“Do you think that asshole took anything when he left?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” I could tell Rachel didn’t want to talk about Michael so I dropped it.
We were both silent for a while as we made our way back down the path. Rachel broke the silence. “Do you think we’re going to die?”
I didn’t answer because I didn’t see the point. Instead I told her a story I had heard on the radio once about a whale that got caught in a fishing net. “The whale was so badly tangled that at a certain point it just gave up and floated lifelessly at the surface.”
“I love whales.” Rachel interrupted, her voice sounding resolute but childlike.
“Me too. Some fishermen went out there and spent all day cutting the whale out.”
“Yeah, the best part is that when it was finally free the – “ I choked up, I always choked up at this part. “The whale actually went up to every person and looked deeply into their eyes, like – like – like it was thanking them! Like it knew what was happening, every moment of it.”
“Of course it did.”
“Yes, but like, it – I don’t know how to say it.”
“It was grateful, that’s it.”
“But that’s not it!” This is why I hated Rachel.
“What do you mean that’s not it?” She was getting angry, too.
“What I’m saying is, the whale had known that we were smart, that it was smart, that we were all here on this world, you know?”
“I don’t know.” I let go of Rachel, momentarily forgetting that she was weak, and watched in horror as she dropped to the ground.
“I’m sorry!” I grabbed her back up and brushed off the dirt from her knees.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to say.”
“I don’t either. But it feels significant, right?”
We walked for hours, I couldn’t say how many, but eventually I couldn’t carry Rachel any longer and she was forced to try and walk on her own.
“We are all connected, I think is what I was trying to say.”
“All of us on earth have an unspoken language.” After I said this I became briefly aware that I had been avoiding looking into the brush, as if doing so would suck me into this place, deep into the belly of a camouflaged beast.
“Oh ok.” She looked at me and I couldn’t help but smile and briefly forget my fear.
We continued to walk the rest of the day but there was no road by sundown. We both panicked, as the low hanging vines from the forest transformed into a million nooses. My stomach was churning.
Rachel was too weak to help with the tent. She laid in it with her legs dangling out, looking through the roof, probably for our star. I walked around a little, hoping to find something for us. I wasn’t far from our tent when the sky opened up. By the time I was back Rachel was standing in the rain, she was sobbing. I was sobbing, too. We pulled out every container we could possibly find and let them gather water.
Rachel and I sobbed the entire time. Her hair was plastered against her cheeks as she cried, mine was tied up. We hugged and screamed and I’m sure we both felt like we were going to fall down forever if either of our knees had buckled. Our existence was hanging onto a thread out here.
She pulled back and kissed me and I let her.
We laid our tarp over the tent and spent that night watching the lines of rainwater angle down the sides of our shelter, like little worms.
In the morning we were both weak from hunger. Rachel packed up our tent as I searched around for some berries. I knew that I had to go into the bushes but my body wouldn’t let me go very deep, nor would it let me look out into the infinity of trees. It felt strange that before this trail I had none of these feelings. There was something haunting about this particular place that had distorted the forest. Whatever it was it felt evil. I looked up to see if that star was still out there but the canopy overwhelmed the sky. I retreated, favoring safety over hunger. I didn’t tell Rachel any of this when we started walking again.
When both of us needed a break we sat by the stream. I found a stick and used it to draw out “8’s” in the dirt.
“I almost died once.” Rachel’s eyes followed the stream as she spoke. I looked up at her. “I tried to kill myself.” She looked at me and saw that I wasn’t surprised. “You knew?”
I stopped drawing the 8’s in the dirt and used the stick to point at the fading scar that marched down her left wrist. She folded her arms out of embarrassment. “How long did you know?”
“First or second time we met.”
“Oh.” She looked defeated.
“It’s not like you are bad at hiding it or anything. I just notice that kind of stuff.”
Rachel and I fell silent, letting the running water beside us continue our conversation for us.
After a time I spoke. “My sister killed herself.” I tried to make it sound as natural as I could, but when I said it I realized I had never actually said those words before, at least not in that order.
Rachel’s breathing got tense. “What? You have a sister? I mean had. I mean, How?”
“She hung herself.”
“Why?” Rachel hesitated as she unconsciously covered her scar with her right hand. “Sorry, that was a stupid question.”
I suddenly felt angry without being conscious of why. “Why’d you want to die?”
“I don’t want to die.”
“Yeah, anymore. But you did once!”
“That’s not fair!”
“Then why the fuck did you do it?” I couldn’t look at Rachel at this point, my eyes focused intently on the 8’s that I had sketched into the wet dirt. In my periphery I could see her wiping at the corners of her eyes. Another twenty minutes passed before I spoke again. “She did it out in a cabin in Tennessee that we were renovating. I was out in town, getting groceries and she had been drinking. I found the body.” I closed my eyes tight, as if this was the only way to forget the image of my sister’s pale face, her slacked jaw, and those cold, stiff hands.
Our silence returned, letting the predictable and soulful cadence of the trickling stream reach into, and briefly fill up, our hungry stomachs.
“Are you ok?” Rachel finally spoke.
I looked at her, deep into those beautiful eyes and got lost for a moment. “Wanna know something crazy?”
“I feel like the trees made her do it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never actually said this before but there was a heaviness in the trees out there.” Rachel looked at me with intent. “There was a loneliness to that place. Which was strange to me because I had always loved my alone time. But there, out in the middle of no where, you really were absolutely alone, there was no one, just you and your fucking thoughts.”
“Oh.” I could tell she wasn’t sure what to say, and I didn’t need her to say anything more.
We got back on the path and walked with a little bit more desperation. Rachel grabbed for my hand and this time I fought the urge to pull away. Her hand felt soft but cold.
By late afternoon I was sure that I could see a black spot punctuating the brown path. Fifteen more feet and I was sure that the spot was a back pack. I let go of Rachel and ran ahead, excited and confused. She called after me. “What is it?” Her glasses had shattered on a stone on the first day of our trip. Rachel couldn’t see 10 feet ahead of her.
When I reached the bag I started to get dizzy. The trees were definitely laughing now.
Rachel was close enough to understand. “That’s my bag.”
“Did we just back-track? How’d we get turned around?” I was yelling.
“I thought the stream was always on the left side?” Her voice sounded weak.
“So did I.”
“Look at the moss on the trees.” She was whispering now.
“I don’t understand. How did we go south?” I looked over at Rachel but she wasn’t looking at me anymore.
“They fucking did it!” Now she was yelling.
“Huh?” Rachel was pointing up at the trees, particularly at a cluster of low hanging vines, poised just over us like greedy fingers. “Let’s go.” Rachel didn’t move. Her hands were clenched.
“Where’s that star?”
“Rachel, calm down.”
“That fucking star wasn’t real! This fucking forest isn’t real! This is some fucked up game or something!” I grabbed her arms and shook her.
“It’s the fucking trees, Jaime! You’re right!”
“I’m not right! I’m just sad!”
Rachel ignored this. “When I look at this forest all I see are enemies! Look! The trees are quiet because they are watching us! They want us to die out here! They’re trying to trick us so that we die out here! Look! Jaime!” I pulled out my canteen and poured water on her upturned face as she pointed up. She coughed and got on her knees and spit up the water.
“We’re alive, Rachel.” I tightened my upper lip, holding back my tears. I was pleading.
Rachel continued to stare at the ground, I could tell by her breathing that she had calmed down. “I’ve never felt so alone in my life.”
I broke down. “I feel it too.” It felt familiar, but I didn’t need to tell Rachel that. I looked up at the trees that surrounded our path and started to get afraid. “We ARE alone.”
“Jaime.” Rachel looked up at me, her eyes watering. “Have you ever considered that maybe we are already dead and that this is purgatory?”
My skin was crawling as I nodded.
“When did you know?” She asked.
“That star. That’s when I knew. Supernova’s don’t just happen.”
We looked at each other, as the trees breathed quietly in and out with the evening breeze. Somewhere off in the distance a bird cawed and moved in the brush, but other than that there was only silence. It weighed heavy between our mutual gaze.
“Being alone is the most dangerous thing in the world.”
“Why did you try to kill yourself?”
Rachel was still on the ground, breathing through the anxiety that we both were feeling. “Do you really need to ask?” I didn’t.
She got up, wiped her eyes, and then grabbed my hand.
We walked in silence, holding each other’s hand, refusing to look in at the imposing landscape.
We found the road just before nightfall. We sobbed and hugged each other and kissed the asphalt. My lips scraped against the rough texture of the street but I didn’t care, I wiped off stray rocks and looked over at Rachel. She looked more beautiful now, her hands pressed together as if she was praying. I leaned in to kiss her but she hesitated. “Sorry. I’m just overwhelmed.”
“That’s ok.” I tried not to feel hurt.
We walked down the street in silence. I thought about how we weren’t dead, how this street felt like a strange second chance. I looked over to Rachel and wondered if similar thoughts were passing through her head. She was looking out over at the forest. Part of me wondered if she wanted to run back in and be dead.
We heard the sound of a car just as dusk settled into night and screamed with excitement when the dim outline of an old, red truck drifted into view.
When it stopped, Michael leaned out with a breath-full of beer and offered us a lift. He eyed Rachel. I wanted to jump in front of her and cover her body but I couldn’t.
I got in first, then Rachel. We both stared blankly out the windshield as Michael started up the car again.
“What happened to you guys out there?” We must have looked like we felt.
“We got lost.” I spoke.
“I warned you guys about those trails.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Oh? Well, I meant to.”
I wanted to grab Rachel’s hand but I was afraid she wouldn’t take it.
Eventually, I leaned forward against the dashboard to look for the star in the clear sky. Rachel leaned forward too.
“Where is it?” She whispered.
“I don’t think it’s there anymore.” I whispered back.
Rachel grabbed my hand and I squeezed it harder than I have ever squeezed anything in my life.
We both sat there hand-in-hand, hunched forward and watching the starry sky as we drove back to town.