The Forest

The Forest

Chapter 19


The dreams were getting worse. They came in low and hot over the trees and through my bedroom window at night. In the mornings a shadow of myself was sweated into the sheets, leaving a faint, salty silhouette even when the fabric dried. I started switching them out twice a week.

One day at the grocery store, hand-length centipedes writhed among the oranges. I had to step around a pool of blood beside a yellow “Wet Floor” sign in Aisle Six. I ignored the hallucinations and went to check out. At first the cashier seemed normal enough, but when she turned to grab my receipt, her cheek had a ragged hole. Clean white teeth showed through like rows of gum pellets.

I never called my dad back, but I didn’t delete his voicemail, either.

The night before the flight to Hawaii, I sat in bed watching shapes glide across the walls. Sometimes I could tell that they were shadows, chased by headlights passing on the street. Other times they were driven by no light source I could detect. If I stared straight at them, the shapes froze, pretending to be natural. It was only out of the corner of my eye that I could catch them moving.

According to policy, rangers were supposed to report for psychological evaluation at the first sign of mental instability. I had a feeling I was way past that point, but there was no way I was turning myself in. Not now, one expedition away from ten million dollars. I could buy an awful lot of top-notch psychiatric care with ten million dollars. I wanted the money so bad that I’d started to come up with worst-case scenarios, to prepare for the potential disappointment. Maybe Cooper would turn out to be a lying sack of shit. Maybe Congress would cut funding for whatever agency Cooper belonged to. Maybe nuclear war would break out. But mostly I constructed lists of all the things I’d buy when the check came through. A midnight-silver electric sports car. A lifelong subscription to every magazine in America. Even when I totaled up everything I could imagine, it didn’t come close to denting ten million dollars.

I wanted to tell Li. I wanted to come clean and tell her about the time I saw Junior on the plane, about the centipedes and the cashier’s cheek-hole and the insomnia and the night sweats and everything. But as hard as it had been to convince her to come along, I couldn’t give her any excuse to back out.

And yet…

I had a sneaking suspicion that I was putting her life in danger. That I was going to get all three of us killed. Because the psychological instability rules existed for a reason, and the reason was that crazy people tended to last approximately as long as a strawberry Popsicle in the forest.

But this was ten million dollars we were talking about. So when I lugged my duffel onto the plane and plopped into the seat beside Li, and she asked what was wrong with my eyes, I told her not to worry about it.

Soon we were soaring over the Pacific and I was slumped against the window catching up on sleep.

Hours later I woke to find Li deep in the thickest book I’d ever seen.

“What’s that?” I asked.

She licked a finger and turned the page. “What were you doing instead of sleeping last night?”

“Watching Seinfeld reruns. That a crime?”

Li slowly shook her head. “It’s Infinite Jest.”


“The book, dumbass.”

I looked at it. It was twice as thick as the Bible.

“What’s it about?”


“That whole thing’s about tennis?”

“There’s other stuff, too.”

“I didn’t know you liked to read.”

“Nothing else to do.”

I smacked my lips and swallowed, trying to clear the sour crust of saliva from the roof of my mouth.

“How long was I out?”

Li checked her watch. “Five hours.”

I sidled past her to stretch my legs in the aisle. We were the only passengers except for a few people I didn’t recognize up in the front. The empty seats creeped me out. I was used to planes that buzzed with tangled conversation and the rustling of magazines. Except for the thrum of the engines, this plane was silent.

I noticed Sergeant Rivers a few rows behind us. His single eye was focused downward, perhaps at a book of his own.

“Hey,” I said, “I didn’t know Rivers was coming.”

Li tapped her bookmark against the page and raised an eyebrow.

“Rivers,” I said, and went to point. Then I saw that his face was sloughing off, sliding into his lap, the eye-holes and mouth elongating like putty as the skin pulled loose from his red-slicked skull, and I had to grab a seat and close my eyes to stop the flood of nausea.

When it passed, I straightened and tried to pretend that nothing had happened. Li gave me a positively eviscerating glare.

“Alright,” she said, “I’ve had enough. What is wrong with you today?”

“Stupid joke,” I grunted. I was having a hard time concentrating over the ringing in my right ear. I fought the urge to stick a finger in there and silence it.

“You were making a joke? And then you keeled over, I assume because of how awful your joke was?”

I tried to smile and managed at least to bare my teeth.

“Airsick,” I offered. I forced myself to glance back at the place where I’d seen Rivers. The seat was as empty as the rest of the plane.

I wondered what I’d see next. A headless Zip hang-gliding across the sky? Hollywood swinging like Tarzan through the forest?

“I don’t understand why you’re lying,” said Li.

“I tried to make a joke and got airsick right at the punchline. Arrest me.”

“Fine. Don’t tell me. Jeez.”

I felt guilty, but the guilt was nothing compared to the relief of escaping detection. Wiping sweat from my forehead—why was I sweating? The cabin was freezing—I went to the back of the plane to relieve myself. I stayed in the bathroom a long time, staring into the vibrating mirror.

When we stepped onto the sprawling black runway in Hawaii, Dr. Alvarez and Cooper were waiting for us.

“Welcome to paradise,” said Cooper.

Tropical trees, draped with vines and moss, encircled the airstrip. In the distance, guard towers rose above the jungle. Beyond that reared the spine of a green-black mountain, curving away to the south.

It was hot on the tarmac. I shouldered the duffel, waiting for them to lead the way, but Cooper stayed put.

“How was the flight?” he asked.

“It was fine,” said Li.

“Yes,” I said briskly. “It was fine.”

Dr. Alvarez squeezed her lips in a way that said I don’t believe you, but I am not about to pry. Cooper seemed oblivious.

“Great! Come on, I’ll give you ‘El Grande Tourino,’ as they say!”

He took us to a dull gray Jeep, babbling all the while. As we drove, Dr. Alvarez delivered another unprompted lecture.

“It’s likely that islands like these would have been tourist hotspots in a world with oceans,” she said. “The edges would be covered in sand. Like a lake shore, but much finer and softer material, eroded by the water and deposited on the coast over millions of years.”

I watched the foliage zip by. Every once in a while there was a burst of color as a tropical bird, startled by our passage, took flight.

“What would it look like?” I asked. “All that water?”

“There would be waves,” said Dr. Alvarez. “You’ve probably seen waves on lakes. But ocean waves would be different. Much more powerful. When they hit the shore, the tallest ones would crest, curling up and tumbling down.”

I’d imagined a flat plain of water, still and placid and boundless. The way Dr. Alvarez described it, oceans sounded as violent and chaotic as the forest.

The military base was encircled by a seventy-foot buffer of bare dirt. The trees were gone, but no one had bothered to clear the stumps, which dotted the no-man’s-land like pimples. As we pulled through a gate into the complex, we passed scaffolding that bridged a gaping hole in the wall. A crane worked to clear debris.

“What happened there?” asked Li.

“Oh, we had a little incident,” said Cooper. “Nothing to worry about.”

“Whatever it was took a big chunk out of your base,” said Li. Piles of rubble indicated places where buildings close to the wall had been flattened.

“Nothing duct tape and elbow grease can’t fix.”

I tried to guess at the size of the creature in question. “Subway snake?”

“Bingo,” said Cooper. “Have no fear. The beast was brought low by good old-fashioned American grit and ingenuity.”

“Sure,” said Li, eying the high-caliber weaponry mounted on the parapet.

“I’ll admit: the forest doesn’t want us here,” said Cooper. “It keeps sending eviction notices, but we are some persistent squatters indeed.”

His voice oozed confidence, but his Adam’s apple bobbed when he glanced at the wall. I had a feeling he couldn’t wait to head back to the mainland. His fear soothed my nerves. I might be losing my mind, but at least I wasn’t a coward.

“How far is the shore?” I asked.

“Five miles,” said Dr. Alvarez.

Li wiped sweat off the tip of her nose. “You’ve got subway snakes coming five miles up the coast to screw with you?”

Cooper tried to fix his tie. The hot, soggy air had rendered the fabric hopelessly flaccid. I would have bet serious money that his suit jacket concealed sweat stains the size of Rhode Island.

“Guess we do,” he said. “Maybe you can help us figure out why.”

Justin Groot