The Forest

The Forest

Chapter 2


If rangers tend to be a little odd, it’s because they have a job no truly sane person would want. A ranger’s career is extremely lucrative, of course, since the television programs they film pull better ratings than anything except the Super Bowl, but their average lifespan clocks in at a meager four years. Not a lot of time to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. If there’s a more dangerous career, we haven’t found it yet. 

- Roy LaMonte: Against All Odds, Theodore Hunker, Salvador Press 2018


The first time I saw Lindsey Li, at six a.m. on the first day of training, she was blocking the entrance to the sleeping quarters, doing pull-ups on the doorframe. She didn’t let me through until she’d finished the set.

“You’re early,” she said when she dropped to the floor. I’d never seen such potent disinterest on someone’s face. Later, when I learned the number of other recruits, and the number who would wash out before the final cut, I understood why.

I found my cot and sat down. All five pounds of my worldly possessions had been surrendered at registration, and I felt the missing weight like an amputated limb. I fluffed the flimsy pillow and examined the RangerCorp logo on the sheets. The shoes I’d been issued were too tight.

“Where are you from?” I asked. Li ignored me and went back to pull-ups. I watched the complex movement of muscles in her tank-topped back. Her exhalations were curt and precise. I reclined on my cot and studied the ceiling.

By eight a.m. the room was packed, awash in nervous chatter and the squee of rusty bedsprings. Sergeant Rivers’ arrival shut everybody up. He took us outside and set us running. By the end of that first hellish day, he’d ejected thirty recruits. The month of conditioning that followed winnowed us down from two hundred and fifty to seventy-five. I barely survived, but nothing Rivers did could faze Li. Running, climbing, weightlifting, lugging sacks of grain up steep hills . . . she crushed it all.

She’d been training since she was six years old. She was world-class fast, strong, and quick-thinking. I was world-class at nothing. Same with Zip, except when he was on a climbing wall. The two of us outlasted countless stronger, faster, and quicker-thinking recruits because we were simply more stubborn. More desperate. Li continued to ignore us and everyone else until the number of recruits had dwindled to thirty. At that point it was twenty-eight indefatigable freaks of nature, Zip, and me. Then Li started sitting with us in the mess hall.

Up until then she’d invariably sat in the corner by herself. To say that we were unsure how to respond when she plopped down next to Zip would be a stupefying understatement. For a while we kind of just watched her chew. Conversation at the surrounding tables ceased.

“Trade you for your broccoli,” she said, offering an apple. Zip wordlessly obliged.

Except for economical movements of her fork, she was motionless as a tight-packed spring. Zip and I exchanged a worried glance and went back to eating.

“I’ve seen you two up on the roof after curfew,” she said after a while.

I blanched. “You’re not going to tell anybody, are you?”

“Can I join?”

There was one other thing to mention about Li: it was absolutely impossible to imagine her screaming. She was the type to go teeth-gritting and defiant to the grisliest grave. So even though she was the only woman among the recruits, soon to be the only woman among the active rangers, and therefore the only woman who could conceivably be out here, two days from the coast, where distinctly feminine screams were echoing through the trees—I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that they were coming from her.

Justin Groot