The wind rustled the leaves outside. Large trees blocked most of the midday sun struggling to reach the worn-down structure I lived in. Birds chirped, and cicadas sang. On an average day, if I listened closely, I could hear the river flowing downstream, serving as a calm bass among the higher-pitched noises of the forest.
Amid this serenity, I dropped a pan inside my kitchen with a disastrous clatter. Even though it narrowly avoided my foot, I cursed all the same. Things were never really as quiet in my immediate surroundings as they were outside.
I examined my mercifully intact cooking pan, but the eggs I were preparing lay in a heap on the dirty concrete floor. So much for lunch—I’d have to go check the chickens again to see if any more eggs were ready.
With a dramatic sigh, for no one’s ears but my own, I cleaned up my mess. If something had to be done, I was the one who needed to do it. After all, if I didn’t do it, no one would.
My original plan for the day was to go hunting for meat, hopefully around the time when most of the animals would be resting. Deer were still pretty common—despite that saying about rabbits multiplying, I’ve always seen far more deer—and it was pretty rare for me to find something bigger. Birds were, of course, all throughout the trees, but I really enjoyed their chirping throughout the day, so I felt bad about killing them. If I ever needed to, I would, but I preferred to put that out of my mind for as long as I could. Thank goodness for all the deer.
I could still search for game today, but I quickly checked the chicken’s coop first. Once I grabbed a few eggs and hurriedly boiled them over the fire, I had lunch and set out through the woodlands.
This was how it had been for as long as I could remember. There must have been other people at some point, yet I couldn’t recall a time when that had been true.
But I was comfortable. Each day was relatively predictable; I was fortunate that I found shelter in a low-risk area. I hadn’t come across any predators, and I certainly hadn’t come across anyone else. I wouldn’t know what to do in that sort of situation… Defend myself, right?
I felt the crunch of the uneven dirt beneath my soles and remembered I needed to make a new pair of boots soon. That was a task for another day.
Moving silently through the woods was key. I was terrible at this years ago—how many years, I wasn’t sure, since I didn’t have a great concept of time past a couple of weeks—but now I could move quietly enough not to disturb my prey. Sure enough, I saw a midsize deer in a clearing. I already had a nocked arrow in my bow.
Carefully making my way around tree roots and fallen branches, I slowly drew closer to the deer. Ideally, I needed to hit it in one clean shot through the heart. Striking it anywhere else would make cleaning it more difficult—if I could even reach the deer when it ran off, injured.
I moved as close as I dared. The deer was drinking water from the river, either unaware of my presence or unafraid of me. With a few slow deep breaths, I lifted the bow and steadily pulled back on the drawstring. One clean hit. That’s all I needed.
Suddenly, the deer noticed a bottle flowing downstream and turned away from me so that I no longer had a good shot. I was just as perturbed as it was.
The bottle drifted downstream until it got caught on a branch in the water, stuck in place. Uninterested, the deer strode away. In my frustration, I hastily crept toward it in pursuit and tripped over a tree root. The deer took off.
I grumbled and rubbed my bruised knee. Well, that was a waste.
It was that damn bottle’s fault. I strode over to it and plucked it out of the water. Why in the world would this be here? It was possible the storm from a few days ago had washed it from somewhere, but I had my doubts about that.
As I looked closer, I saw a folded piece of paper inside. My stomach tightened. I told myself there was no need to feel anxious; it was probably nothing, after all.
Yeah, probably nothing at all. I tossed it back into the river, past the dragging branch, and let it continue to float downstream, away from me.
With time, I pushed the bottle out of my mind. Life returned to normal, and I kept living life, one day at a time. I was content with no large developments. Watching the minor changes in my surroundings was enough for me.
Unfortunately, the drifting bottle was not a lone incident.
One day, I was out hunting again when I discovered a piece of cloth tacked to the side of a tree. It grabbed my attention immediately; it was a bright red piece of cotton, and it looked quite a lot like a handkerchief I had lost a while ago. I had no way of knowing whether it was the same handkerchief, but it still struck me. Although, this one was ratty and dirty, and it was torn.
I saw another piece on a tree a few feet away, and then a third, and a fourth piece, each one getting smaller as I went. With the fourth piece was a bottle at the foot of the tree.
The same bottle from before, with what looked like the same piece of paper inside.
I wanted to toss it away again, but I had a feeling that it would keep finding its way back to me. How did it get there? Why were pieces of a red handkerchief hanging around?
With a quivering hand, I gingerly grasped the bottle, wavering as I stumbled to pull out the cork. It sort of looked like a glass container from one of those vintage movies I had only vague memories of watching. The cork made a popping sound as I extracted it, and I absentmindedly dropped it on the ground as I directed my attention to the piece of paper.
That’s all it said.
It was written in small, messy letters in slightly faded black ink. The paper didn’t seem to have signs of aging, so I didn’t think it was a relic of the past. However, I also wasn’t sure how recently this was written.
I pocketed the note and retrieved the pieces of the red handkerchief. I had no way to prove this, but I just had a feeling that this was the one I had lost a while ago. There was nothing special that marked it, so I couldn’t be completely sure of that, but a part of me just knew.
I ran back home, abandoning my hunt for the day.
* * *
Despite my initial shock over the note and the handkerchief, I fell back into routine soon after. Both items now sat on a table in the corner of the room, not quite out of sight, but in a location where I didn’t see them unless I wanted to.
I stole the occasional glance toward the corner at night when things felt too quiet and I got twitchy. Otherwise, I kept myself busy outside and turned my back to it in my sleep. With each uneventful day, I felt less worried.
But no matter how relaxed I pretended I was, that handkerchief kept nagging me, lurking in the corner of my mind. I no longer felt completely focused when hunting, cooking, or reading any of the old books from the bookshelf of my home.
Then I did something I had never thought of doing for who knows how long.
There was an old radio, a communication device for receiving signals. I vaguely remembered hearing various sounds coming from it; they were rhythmic, though sometimes they could be soft and mellow, and other times they were rough and loud. And sometimes there was a person talking.
I don’t know why I got the idea of popping in some spare batteries—I only had a few remaining, so I had to be sparing with them—and turning on the radio. I turned a knob with numbers printed on it. The stations in the 90’s range only had static, so I continued onward, slowly going through 100, 101, 102, and further, but still—there was only static.
What exactly was I expecting? I couldn’t remember the last time I heard anyone or anything on that thing.
With a sigh, I left the radio where it was and decided to do something productive. I took a bowl of picked berries outside to the river to wash. The forest seemed quiet. The bugs weren’t making much noise, and even though I knew that was because winter was coming, it still made me feel uneasy. My eyes darted up from the river and the berries whenever I heard a snap of a twig in the distance or rustling through the grass.
What was I so on edge about? I was alone. Nothing had changed. Nothing would change. If things had been like this for so long, why would tomorrow be any different?
Just when I had gotten myself under control, I returned home. I turned my attention away from that damn note and handkerchief and instead stopped to watch the sunlight filter through the leaves of the trees. It was so pretty that I wish I’d had a way to capture that view, that moment, and preserve it. But I had no way of doing that except through my memories, which weren’t reliable in the long run.
As I neared the front door, I could hear the static of the radio. Right, I had forgotten to turn it off and take out the batteries. When my hand touched the doorknob, I stopped dead in my tracks.
I almost doubted my ears, assuming my mind was playing tricks on me. It must be myself imagining something through the static. Even so, I waited directly outside, curious to hear more but also too afraid to hear any more.
However, only static cut through the air.
The sky was turning orange. It would be late soon, and I needed to eat something before I lost all light.
I opened the door, and sure enough, there was only static on the radio. I plopped the bowl of berries on a table next to me before I strode over to the radio and swiftly took out the batteries, wishing to forget what I had just—maybe—heard.
I ate a boiled egg and some berries and promptly went to bed, wrapping a blanket around myself, as if that would protect me from my wildly roaming thoughts.
* * *
An unyielding darkness threatening to swallow me whole.
I see someone in the distance, just barely visible. They seem familiar, and I’m not sure from where or when. Dark hair. Dark nails. Dark skin.
They walk toward me, and while the details are fuzzy and nondescript, I get the feeling the figure is a woman. She extends a hand to me, and I take it. Her hand is warm. I have a hard time reading her facial expression, but I can see the corners of her mouth turning upward. She hands me a red piece of cloth.
The darkness fades away, and I see a field of flowers. We’re frolicking through them. She says something to me, but I either can’t hear her or immediately forget what she just said.
We’re at home, and a fire is crackling inside the house, safely kept behind a grate. She wraps an arm around me, and I realize we’re sitting on a couch together. She moves closer. She brushes her fingertips against my face, and—
* * *
I shot out of bed.
Something just touched my face.
There’s no one else in the room.
But I’m sure something or someone just touched me.
I can’t remember the last time I felt someone against me.
A part of me instinctively feels that there used to be a lot of other people here. More than that, there used to be one specific person important to me. I couldn’t remember them anymore. I couldn’t remember what they looked like, what they smelled like, what they thought of me, or how we knew each other and then got separated.
Where were they now? Was I the only person left here?
Why had I never left this forest? There was something about it that made me feel secure. I wasn’t particularly adventurous. I had enough resources to survive, and I had enough books to read and reread to keep myself from feeling bored.
The voice came from outside.
It was quiet, but I heard it.
I shoved my feet into my boots, threw open the door wide, grabbed my bow and arrows, and ran.
Fear. Excitement. Panic. Joy.
I didn’t know what I should feel.
But I dashed through the woods, trying to locate the source of the voice nonetheless. I startled sleeping groups of deer, sent rabbits fleeing out of my path, and saw owls watching me from above in the treetops. I was no longer the silent hunter, gracefully tiptoeing among the trees; I was desperately seeking out this thing or this person who had put me on edge for days, maybe weeks—or months.
“Heeeellooooooo?” the voice called out, exaggerating the vowels, like the person was annoyed for being forced to wait so long.
I went to shout, but my voice just sort of croaked out something nonsensical. It had been a long time since I’d talked to anyone.
Something rustled in a bush ahead of me, and I whipped out my bow and, on instinct, nocked an arrow. I skidded to a stop and raised my bow up to eye level, swiftly pulling back the bowstring.
My heart was pounding in exhilaration. In terror. In trepidation. In glee.
“Hello?” the voice called.
My arms were shaking.
She pushed past the overgrown bush, and her eyes went wide when she saw the arrow pointing her way.
I nearly let go of the arrow in shock.
Dark hair and dark skin. Her nails were bare, but it just felt like she normally had a dark color on them.
I quickly pointed the arrow at the ground and carefully eased the tension of the bowstring.
“Hello,” she said, this time gently.
I didn’t have any words.
She beckoned me over with a hand. I dropped my bow and the previously nocked arrow. She jogged ahead and turned back to look at me. So I followed her lead.
As we cut through the forest, she remained in the lead but offered a hand to me. When I wavered in taking it—I hadn’t touched someone in so long; I didn’t know what to do—she let her arm drop to her sides and gave me a smile anyway.
“Do…” I started to say, my voice catching in my throat. I cleared my throat and restarted. “Do I know you?”
She nodded but said nothing.
Thoughts bubbled up through me, threatening to explode. I couldn’t keep up with the speed they raced by, but I couldn’t get myself to ask or say anything else to this strangely familiar woman. Her clothes looked a little worse for wear—mostly from faded colors—but she looked cleaner than I did.
“When’s the last time you had a haircut?” she chided—or was it a joke? I didn’t know how to tell the difference anymore.
I blanked at the question. Did I used to have short hair?
We walked and walked uphill until we reached a clearing…
And a grand view of a life I didn’t know.
Buildings—so many buildings. There were still trees and patches of green, but it was bursting with a different kind of life. I could just barely see people down below. There were other people! And clothes hung out to dry, young kids running around and laughing, an animal—a dog?—barking.
“Do you remember me?” the woman asked. Her eyes conveyed hardness. A sense of gravity accompanied her question.
Like I was trying to recall a dream, my memories were hazy. I remembered nights with someone on a couch. Pops and crackles on wood, something warm. I remembered happiness and lightness, but I also remembered raised voices—my own?—and anger. I definitely knew this person. Something had happened to us. Or between us.
“Yes,” I answered.
She gestured at the land past the hill. “Do you remember any of this?”
Nothing was rushing back to me in clarity, but I had always known life used to be different. It hadn’t always been just myself in a run-down shack in the woods, shooting deer with a bow and arrow.
I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply.
I wasn’t alone.
Even when I’d been convinced that I was on my own, there had been others out there. I had just been too scared to seek them out.
There was a wide expanse of the world I hadn’t known—and a person who cared about me. I weakly put out my hand, and she wrapped her hand around mine, squeezing tightly. With the warmth of her hand enveloping mine, I saw the bright blue sky above our heads and colorful buildings surrounded by patches of green below us.
Everything would be okay.
“Hello, world,” I breathed.