The Forest

The Forest

Chapter 1

Date: Tue, 29 Mar 2017 15:11:45 -0800 (PST)
From: L. Alvarez
Subject: Re: More preposterous claims emanating from your department
To: T. Porter
Since giving the Senator another geology lesson strikes this public servant as an egregious misuse of time and tax dollars, she would kindly direct the Senator to an informative video, available on various streaming services, wherein Neil deGrasse Tyson traipses across a tremendous calendar, pontificating at tedious length on what humanity’s twelve thousand years amount to, on a geologic scale, which (spoiler) is nothing. Should the Senator continue, after watching this video, to feel the need to harass this public servant with his laughable belief that things on Earth have always been precisely as they exist today—let alone to continue addressing her as “young lady”—he is kindly invited to fuck a lawn mower.

After nine months, Sergeant Rivers decided it was time for our first expedition. He split us into trios. I expected him to group me with Zip and Lindsey Li, since the three of us spent most of our time together, but instead I wound up with Sam Vazquez Jr. and Hollywood.

I didn't mind Junior. Hollywood was another matter.

“Put me in Li’s group,” I said.

Sergeant Rivers was seven feet tall, and he moved with the slow precision of someone who’d spent a lifetime accidentally smashing objects in his vicinity.

“Excuse me?” he said.

“Look, Tetris,” said Hollywood, “we know you’ll miss your little girlfriend out there, but if you really can’t go four days without a blow job, I’m sure Junior will fill in.”

I took a step. Zip grabbed my shoulder, but it wasn’t me Hollywood needed to worry about. Li’s current expression typically preceded somebody’s nose being broken by about fifteen seconds.

“Next recruit to dispute an order packs their bags,” roared Rivers. “I’ve got nipple hairs that mean more to me than you do.”

He directed a cycloptic glare at each of us, the mess of interlocking scar tissue in his empty left eye socket crumpling horribly.

“As for you,” he said, turning to Hollywood, “keep your god damn mouth shut.”

I was pissed all day. So was Li.

“I don’t know what you’ve been telling people, Tetris,” she said, right before we turned in for the night, “but we’re just friends. I’d never date you in a million years.”

Hollywood, three bunks over, let out a hoot.

So then I couldn't even fall asleep. Not that I was into Li. I was just trying to figure out what was so wrong with me, that she’d say something like that.

When I woke up, it felt like someone had crammed cotton balls into the space behind my eyes. The hour-long ride to the coast passed in a hazy blur. Each time I slipped into sleep, my head tipped forward, waking me up again.

At the Coast Guard checkpoint, a bleary-eyed guardsman lifted himself out of his chair and came to check our credentials. A helicopter puttered overhead, following a row of concrete towers that receded down the coast like pylons of some long-crumbled bridge. Rivers expelled us at the forest’s edge and drove away without a word.

It was cool enough that I didn’t want to stand still, so I shuffled my feet on the dewy grass. The sun sat fat and low behind us, sending rays of light that pelted into the forest and scattered. Trees like cathedral columns stretched into dim infinity. Their bases were obscured by plants that clawed over one another, battling for whatever scraps of sunlight made it through. Tapestries of moss hung from low branches and rugged contours of bark.

A distant creature made a sound like water drops in a deep bucket. Others crooned and squealed and sang. We waited for a while, but nothing showed itself. Only the canopy moved, shifting veils of brilliant green.

Hollywood rocked on his heels, drawing air through flared nostrils. He tended to keep his blond hair just short of the insubordinate length at which Rivers would order it all shaved off.

“Finally,” he said, and headed down the slope.

Rangers only brought one assault rifle on expeditions, typically a SCAR-17, since it was more important to pack light than to be heavily armed. Naturally, Hollywood had demanded to carry our rifle. He led the way through the forest with springy, cheerful steps. Junior and I grimaced behind him. At least this wouldn’t take very long. Two days in and two days back: a fraction the length of a normal expedition. 

My personal mission was to grit my teeth and avoid getting in a fight. Maybe, if this went well, Rivers would put me in a different group next time. The whole thing was probably an attempt to teach me a lesson about working with people I didn’t like, which, frankly, was a lesson Rivers could stuff right between his sickeningly well-defined glutes.

For a long while it was silent and still. A few hours passed. We kept our eyes on the ground, avoiding colorful plants and scum-rimmed puddles, as we worked our way between the enormous trees. Right when I’d begun to wonder if the entire day would pass uneventfully, branches just out of sight began to snap like gunshots, and we took cover in a bank of ferns. Something went crunching by, obscured by a tangle of vines and foliage. Red-brown bulk and rippling muscle showed through the gaps. Whatever it was, it was big, especially for this close to shore. Blood thumped in my ears. The gear I’d grown used to carrying in training—backpack, sidearm, grapple gun, body cameras—suddenly felt unwieldy and conspicuous. I held my breath and glanced at the others.

Hollywood was smiling. I wanted to elbow him in his bright white teeth.

When we could no longer hear the creature’s passage through the reeds, we continued on our way. By noon we were further into the forest than I’d ever been. Green-gold motes of pollen or dust drifted in the air, glittering when they crossed columns of sunlight. The trees here made the ones by the coast look like saplings. We’d passed the edge of the continental shelf, where the earth sloped sharply downward and the forest rose to take its place. Everywhere around us, there were cave-ins, green ravines leading into darkness. Five hundred feet down, you’d find the loamy remains of trees that predated the pyramids.

My head began to throb. A thumb-sized horsefly landed on my arm and popped like a grape when I swatted it.

Ninety-eight percent of the sun’s light is blocked by the canopy. Because there’s hardly any light to work with, shadows are hard to spot. If I hadn't happened to glance up at the right moment, I wouldn’t have noticed the carpet snake gliding down on its broad, wing-like rib cage until it was far too late.

“Incoming,” I shouted, drawing my pistol. The creature’s twenty-foot wingspan billowed at the edges. I opened fire. Each hit created an sputtering fountain of black blood. The crescent mouth gaped stupidly. Fangs shone white and sharp inside.

As the carpet snake crumpled and fell, its tender underbelly ruptured, I slammed a new magazine into the pistol. Hollywood and Junior were already arming their grapple guns. Gunshots drew attention. We’d have to lie low for a while.

“Nice eye,” said Junior when we were safe on a branch high above.

I didn’t trust my shivering lips to respond.

When the forest seemed to have forgotten we were there, we rappelled down and went to look at the creature’s body. It was gone. Something had dragged it into a nearby ravine, leaving a trail of squashed vegetation the width of a snow plow.

“How much you think that thing weighed?” asked Junior.

“Five hundred pounds, easy,” said Hollywood. He blew a bright pink bubble.

I squinted at him. “You brought gum out here?”

The bubble, baseball-sized, popped. “Got a problem?”

I shrugged.

We took it slow. Thickets of curled pink flowers lined our path. The flowers gave off an odor of rotting flesh, drawing clouds of curious flies.

In some places the trees grew so thick together that they became a maze with towering bark-lined walls. Most of the time, there was a moist, earthy aroma, like the smell in the woods back home after it rained. But then there were spots that smelled even worse than the pink flowers. When you came across one of those, you hustled through. You hoped the odor originated from a rotting carcass, because the living things that smelled like that were uniformly horrifying.

We’d just exited one of those awful-smelling areas when we called it a day. Darkness would be falling soon, and we wanted to be up in the branches before then, tucked away in our camouflaged sleeping bags.

I only managed two hours of sleep that first night. Nothing had prepared me for the barrage of sounds. I held my breath after every rustle and screech. My eyes strained to pierce the sludge at the aperture of the sleeping bag, but as hard as I pushed against it, the darkness pushed back harder.

Surely the monsters could hear me breathing from the forest floor. When the jaws closed around my skull, would I have time to feel the pain, or would my death come quicker than my nerves could sense it? I braced myself and hoped for the latter.

In the morning, purple bags lurked below Junior’s bloodshot eyes. I must have had those too. My muscles and tendons were gritty with sleep deprivation, and my head pounded. Thinking about the length of the day ahead made me physically ill.

Hollywood looked like he’d scored ten hours on a fluffy king bed. He chattered all through breakfast. As we lowered ourselves to the forest floor, I actually heard him whistling—whistling!—until something out of sight unleashed a mucousy roar. That shut him up.

A few hours of walking later, I ducked behind a tree to relieve myself and came face-to-face with an enormous brown insect, its mouth yawning in a toothless grin. I leapt back, but the bug didn’t move. After a moment I realized the eye sockets were empty. It was a gigantic version of the exoskeletons that dotted the trees in my back yard every fall.

I must have yelled, because Junior poked his head around the corner.

“Well, that’s horrifying,” he said.

I prodded the husk with a finger. It was thicker than I’d thought, and tough, like fiberglass.

“In Baltimore we get a big cicada swarm every seventeen years,” said Junior. “Last one was in 2013. Sky turned black. You’d step on them everywhere. The smell was awful.”

Hollywood came to have a look.

“Neat,” he said. He leveled the SCAR at the exoskeleton and fired off a burst.

The gunfire was impossibly loud. Junior’s nostrils doubled in size. He picked Hollywood up by his pack straps. “Are you insane?”

Junior was almost as big as Rivers. Definitely not a guy you wanted to fuck with. Two months ago, when Scott Brown decided he’d had enough and tried to stab Hollywood with a knife from the kitchen, it had been Junior who stepped in and hurled the would-be-assassin through a wall.

Hollywood slithered out of the pack and danced away. “Was curious if these were bulletproof,” he said, sticking a finger through one of the neat round holes. “Looks like they’re not.”

“I’m going to murder you,” hissed Junior. He threw the pack at Hollywood, nearly knocking him down. I searched the canopy for movement. The forest crashed and rumbled, awakened from its slumber.

“Relax. We’ll hit the branches and wait it out.”

“Not an option,” I said, stomach flattening, as a tarantula the size of a bus broke through the leaves and skittered down a trunk toward us.

We ran. Hollywood, out front, hefted the SCAR in both hands and leapt a fallen branch. Junior and I could barely keep up. We tore through a dense patch of vegetation and across a porous section of forest floor, weaving between pits with hungry black gullets.

Up ahead, a flesh wasp hovered, swollen stinger twitching in the air. Hollywood led us left. The flesh wasp buzzed after us. The giant insect’s sting carried an overpowering paralytic venom, but the awful part was that it also injected a larva. After stinging you, the wasp would continue on its way, but your misery would only have begun: in the days that followed, the larva would devour you from the inside, assuming something didn’t find you lying there first.

Soon our path was blocked again, this time by a fleet of blimp-sized jellyfish. Filled with hydrogen gas, the jellyfish wobbled gently off of tree trunks and each other as they floated through the forest. Curtains of silvery tentacles draped beneath them, dredging for warm-blooded prey.

The jellyfish blocked every direction except the one we’d come from, and they were drifting steadily toward us.

I spun and found the tarantula clambering into view. Its legs were the diameter of telephone poles. The flesh wasp was nowhere to be seen.

“Junior,” I said, “you’ve got incendiary rounds, right?”

“Yeah,” said Junior.

“In your pistol?”


“Give it to me.”

He handed it over. The tarantula observed, frozen except for its fidgeting mouthparts, as the wall of tentacles rustled closer.

“When I fire,” I said, “run straight at the spider.”

Junior opened his mouth, but I held up a hand.

“Hollywood,” I said, “Hit it in the eyes.”

He popped a piece of bubble gum into his mouth. “Mh-hmm.”

The jellyfish were a few yards away, looming like purple storm clouds. I took aim with Junior’s pistol.

“ThreetwoONE,” I said, and fired.

The foremost jellyfish erupted into flames. It sagged out of the sky, a sudden sun in the perpetual dusk.

Hollywood ran toward the tarantula. The SCAR’s roar cut through the din. Bullets pinged worthlessly off hairy armor. For a moment I saw flames reflected in the huge black eyes. Then the tarantula wheeled and fled.

Behind us, a second jellyfish went up, a dull pop followed by a crackling boom. Then a third, and a fourth. We bolted back the way we’d come. The blaze wouldn’t spread far—forest trees were notoriously fire-retardant—but the amount of hydrogen we’d set alight would turn the rest of the vegetation into a whirling inferno.

A safe distance away, we grapple-gunned onto a branch. Fingers of smoke curled after us.

Jittery with adrenaline, I turned on Hollywood.

“You are actually the stupidest person alive,” I said.

Hollywood blew a bubble. “Chill.”

“You almost got us killed,” said Junior, rapping the body camera on Hollywood’s chest with gigantic knuckles.

“We were never in any real danger,” said Hollywood.

“You’re such a fucking idiot,” I said.

“Suck a dick.”

“Fuck you.”

I wanted to rip his throat out. I wanted it so bad for a second that my vision went red and I actually reached toward him, forgetting that we were sixty feet above the forest floor—

Junior smacked my hand down.

“That’s enough,” he said.

I decided to retie my boots.

“We’ve still got a few hours until dark,” said Junior. “Then two days to get home.”

Hollywood blew a bubble, popped it, and slurped it back in.

“If you do something like that again, I’ll kill you,” said Junior, grabbing Hollywood’s chin and forcing him to make eye contact.

“Real scary,” said Hollywood.

I slept much better that second night, and awoke refreshed, emboldened by the adventures of the previous day. This was why I’d left home with everything I owned in a ragged red duffel bag. The miserable months of training had served their purpose. I’d been a loser with no future; now I was a master of nature, a commando, a badass without peer. Yesterday I’d faced the worst the forest could throw at me and survived. Nothing could kill me now.

My feet had barely touched the ground when I heard the screams. Distant but unmistakable: a human female screaming, in agony or fear.

Junior and I froze, but Hollywood didn't waste a second. He clipped the grapple gun to his belt, cradled the SCAR like a football, and crashed off through the undergrowth.

Half a second later, Junior followed. My heart jumped up and down, terror clumping in my throat, but I didn't have a choice. I scrambled after them.

Justin Groot