An entomologist and her assistant venture into the heart of darkness
|Snatching up the beacon, I pursued him into that green abyss without a second thought. If Mallory left me alone I would have no reason to hold back that caged anxiety, rattling the bars of my mind. Run, Adrienne. Run or you won't ever find him again.
I glimpsed his red hoodie before losing sight of it and spotting it once more as I barreled between the trees. "Mallory! Wait up!" My flashlight bounced around as I ran, slashing the darkness. Although I could follow his progress as he crashed through the underbrush, the clamor was fading fast. I was losing him.
Spurring myself to go faster, I winced as stinging branches whipped my face. Thorns clawed my arms, but I didn't care. I couldn't let Mallory out of earshot, to get lost in these unforgiving woods. He needed me as much as I needed him.
"Mallory, please! Don't leave me out here!" I pleaded, hoping it would get him to stop moving. Even if it was just for a second, giving me a chance to catch up and grab that damned fool. But my words fell on deaf ears. I could no longer hear boots trampling or any kind of commotion, nothing to give me his position. Mallory was gone.
I shouted his name, screaming until my throat was raw. Not even a single echo greeted my efforts. The forest soaked up my anguish with silent glee, trapping me in a bubble of isolation. It was no use.
Sinking to the ground, I was helpless as murky waves drowned me in despair.
What was I to do now? Even if I managed to find my way back to the tent, it would bring me no solace. Who could sleep beneath that malevolent tree? If I was going to die out here, this was as good a place as any.
Curling into a ball, I hugged myself and thought about my parents, my friends, everyone I was going to leave behind. Would they know my last thoughts were with them? What would they think about me vanishing from their lives? I wished I had the chance to say goodbye.
A chilling scream cut through the night, snapping me out of morose thoughts.
"Mallory," I breathed, scrambling to my feet. "Stay there, I'm coming!" Was he hurt? Did he stumble across some horrible creature lurking in the darkness? Expecting the worst, I sprang over fallen logs and winding roots in my urgency. Whatever the case, I wasn't leaving his side again.
There was a figure in the distance, sagging against a leafy hemlock. My heart leaped to my throat. He wasn't moving.
I tripped over a rock, sending me sprawling into the dirt. The flashlight bounced from my hand and rolled near where Mallory was sitting, pointing towards me. I squinted into that blinding glow, eyes watering. "Mal, are you okay?" He didn't reply. Maybe he passed out from exhaustion or fright.
I reached down for the flashlight and cast the beam towards him. Shrinking back in revulsion, I put a hand to my mouth. It wasn't Mallory at all.
Moldy teeth grinned below a hanging veil of desiccated flesh, facial features that rotted and sloughed off in the summer heat. It had been a man once. Middle-aged, with a balding scalp that was now peeling away to reveal the skull beneath. His withered hands lay folded in his ragged lap. Empty pill bottles and beer cans lay scattered by his feet, telling a story of his last moments.
Something moved inside his threadbare shirt, rustling faintly. I leaned closer, shining the light on his sunken chest.
A ghost-white arachnid with four black spots clambered up the corpse's neck. My eyes widened as I inhaled sharply. It was what I had been searching for all this time, the elusive ashen wraith spider. And now it was finally before me.
I didn't dare move a muscle. The creature crawled over the melted face, long limbs slowly stretching as it leisurely climbed. If I had to estimate the leg span I would say it was nearly ten inches, quite large for an orb weaver. In terms of the body, it possessed a rounded abdomen that made the four dark markings look like the eyes and nostrils of a skull.
Everything about it screamed danger. But I wondered if it truly was, unable to get a look at the venom sacs around its fangs. Where they located in the chelicerae or under the carapace? I frowned, narrowing my eyes.
The corpse shifted slightly, making the spider skitter up the hemlock and into the night. I cursed, shining the light after it. So much for a close examination.
When I looked down, the body had changed position. Now the decaying arms were splayed open as if to lock me in an eternal embrace. I took a tentative step back, eyeing the carcass nervously. Its head twitched, maggots spilling from the eyes. The jaw cracked open and unleashed a horrible piercing shriek. I clapped my hands to my ears as the rotting head fell from the remains and rolled toward me, still screeching.
My own screams were lost in that hideous cacophony as I escaped from the living nightmare. There were no thoughts, only movement. I dashed under branches, legs pumping, feet flying over treacherous terrain. My lungs heaved, heart threatening to burst.
Daring a look over my shoulder, I saw there was no disembodied head giving chase. Wheezing for breath, I let my fluttering chest subside. But there was a new sound floating on the breeze.
A forlorn voice, calling my name. Mallory.
I started to follow it and paused. Perhaps this was another trick, some new way for the yurei to lure me deeper into the woods. Who knew what fresh hell was waiting for me in the darkness?
The uncertainty gnawed me with indecision. What was to do? All I knew was that Mallory was out there somewhere and I needed to reach him somehow. I wasn't going to find him by sitting here. "Get yourself together, Adrienne." I muttered, sweeping the flashlight around in case there were more nasty surprises hiding behind the trees.
Pushing through some prickly bushes, I followed the cries as they gradually grew stronger. But I was suspicious, having been fooled once before. He sounded strange, slightly muffled. Was it really Mallory? Considering the awful outcome if I was to leave him, I forced myself onward.
But when I reached the origin, there was nothing there. Just more forest, more rocks and no boy with scruffy chestnut hair. Another trick, I thought miserably as my heart plummeted.
But then his voice echoed, coming from below.
I pointed the flashlight at the uneven ground, discovering a hole. Inside it, Mallory was squinting at me, putting up a hand against the blinding glare. "How'd you end up down here?" I gaped in bewilderment.
He rolled his eyes. "What do you think happened? I fell."
"Oh," I answered, feeling like an idiot. "Are you hurt?"
Shaking his head, Mallory held up some scraped palms. "Bumped my head pretty good but I'm alright I think." He turned, showing off a wicked bruise on the side of his face.
"That's what you get for running off like that. You made me worried sick, you jerk." I examined the hole, it wasn't a far drop. It looked like one of the caves that we saw on the way in. "Watch out, I'm coming in."
Tossing down the flashlight, I lowered myself into the crevice and plopped next to Mallory. He was gingerly rubbed his injured scalp.
Shining the beam around the cave, my eyes widened at the objects littering the walls and floor. There were rusted cans, the remains of a canvas tent, filthy backpacks, and pieces of dry wood lying about. "What is this place?" Mallory wondered.
I swallowed dryly, illuminating a collection of human bones. "I think you found the missing research team."
The scattered skeleton lay in the corner, picked clean by animals or insects. I felt queasy being near a body. We covered it with a scrap of canvas, an impropatu burial shroud.
Inside a dust encrusted backpack, we found a few musty smelling blankets, a functional lighter, a mostly working flashlight, and some freeze-dried rations. Searching another decrepit bag also rewarded us with a decrepit journal, a water bottle, and a questionable jar of olives. Mallory was very excited about the latter while I made a face.
"Olives are gross," I gagged. He scoffed and said there was no accounting for taste.
Mallory set about collecting wood to make a fire. Feeling restless, I decided to satisfy my curiosity about the final team of arachnologists. Opening the journal, I carefully turned the brittle pages.
Day 1: We have set out in high hopes of sighting the infamous animam comedentem. This team is comprised of the best in our respective fields. There is no way to be certain but we expect an extremely high chance of success.
Day 2: The forest is both dazzling and bewildering. We have no way to know which way we are going, our instruments are not cooperating. We have resorted to blazing a trail using traditional markings. Several members have reported hearing strange noises in the trees but I think the lack of sound is causing hallucinations.
Day 3: When we broke down the tents in the morning, we found that Ludwig was missing. Searching the nearby area, we spotted him standing before a curious web that seemed to have the same characteristics as the animam comedentem. The spiral pattern was exactly like the one the late Dr. Weber had sketched.
Ludwig was transfixed by the sight, unresponsive to our cues until we pulled him away. He exibited peculiar symptoms: sickly pallor, disoriented beheavior, time loss. He did not witness a spider. It is extremely odd but we have no understanding as to why this occured to him and not to us as we stood before the web.
Day 4: There is something in these woods. We all hear mysterious laughter and footsteps in the night. I cannot dissuade others from whispering about Aokigahara's haunted past. Though I struggle to keep my rational mind, I am beginning to think there is more to this forest than meets the eye.
Day 5: Ludwig has gone missing. We do not dare split up to look for him lest we get lost in our search. He was acting out of sorts ever since he came into contact with the web. I pray we find him soon. Morale is becoming low.
Day 6: Another man has been caught by the web's bizarre power. Harold went off to urinate and didn't return. We found another web before him. I feel as if the animam comedentem has a way of luring prey with the pattern it weaves. We will be keeping a close eye on Harold. Still no sign of the spider. More nightly terrors afflict us, keeping the men from sleeping. I think we will turn back in the morning.
Day 7: We have lost our path back. Lots of arguing over who was in charge of leaving markers. The fact remains, we are lost. Harold is acting strange, not thinking clearly. He has no regard for safety, becoming increasingly reckless. It is almost as if he has a death wish. The things that roam the forest are growing bolder each night. I fear this tent will not keep them out.
Day 8: I found a cave where we will camp for the time being. Perhaps we will manage to get some sleep in this new refuge. Harold lashed out at one of the men before running into the woods. His mental state has deteriorated quite rapidly. I think the animam comedentem lives up to its name, "mind eater".
Still no sleep. Screams, horrible screams in the night.
Day 9: Ludwig has returned. We found his bloated corpse in the woods as we gathered firewood. The spiders were feasting on the maggots that squirmed in his flesh. I think I understand now.
We didn't dare collect a specimen. We just want to leave.
Day 10: We are never leaving this damnable forest. The spirits will make us mad with terror until the spiders eat away what little sanity we have left. Our numbers have dwindled. Two of us now remain in this wretched hovel. I fear we will be long dead before supplies run out.
Now we lie waiting, wondering what will consume us first. Will it be slow madness or the things that roam this endless forest?
We are little more than walking corpses.
The journal ended in a hasty scrawl, leaving the rest of the pages blank. I shuddered and closed the book.
Mallory was having trouble getting the fire started. I ripped out a few pages and handed them to him. "Anything interesting in there?" He asked as he lit the paper. "Not really," I lied and changed the subject. "Do you want dry beef or dry fruit? Tough choice, I know."
He sat back and admired the rising yellow flame as it licked at the dry wood. "I'm going to eat my nasty olives." The jar opened with a satisfying pop. But when he reached in for a tasty morsel, it turned to mush in his fingers. I couldn't help but laugh at his disappointment.
"Told you they were nasty. Want some slightly edible meat?" I offered him a piece. He sighed and nodded. We lay on the mildewed blankets and munched on our tasteless meal, saving the dried bananas and apple chips for dessert. It wasn't half-bad, considering.
The twigs crackled, writhing flames casting twisting shadows around the little cave. I leaned against Mallory as we quietly watched our makeshift fire.
"Why do you want to find this spider so badly?" He poked my leg. I pondered the question, asking myself why it was that I drove us out here in the first place. Hesitantly, I spoke.
"I was never able to convince my mother that I made the right choice, no matter what I did. I was reading the wrong books, going to the wrong school, putting my hopes on the wrong career... And I always wanted to make my father proud. He always supported me, no matter what. But I wanted to do something that made me feel like I really deserved it. So in a way, I wanted to show both of them that I finally made something of my life."
Mallory nodded, mulling over my response. "I think you've already done that. You're well respected among your peers, not to mention getting several papers published in a few journals."
I sighed, knowing he was right. "But it doesn't feel like it. To me, at least. I guess I want to claim a little glory, you know?"
He chuckled. "Don't we all."
Turning my head, I nudged his shoulder with my own. "What about you, loyal assistant? Why did you follow me out into these haunted woods?" Mallory smiled wanly. "Maybe we'd better try and sleep."
"Uh-uh. I bared my soul, it's only fair you do the same."
He groaned and put a hand over his eyes. "You'll laugh at me."
I shook my head. "I did plenty of that on the way here and look where it's gotten me. If I listened to you earlier, we wouldn't be in this mess." Mallory gave me a cheeky grin. "Better late than never I guess."
"Whatever, jerkface. Spill your guts! I promise I won't let out a single giggle."
Sliding down, he lay flat on his back and stared at the rocky ceiling. I played with his shaggy brown hair as I waited. "You remember when I showed up for the interview?"
How could I forget? He was a complete mess, dropping an unstapled resume and sending the loose papers flying everywhere, hastily babbling an apology as he collected them and stumbling over his words. I was amused, but far from convinced in his capabilities.
"God, you were such a dork. I wanted to really freak you out, that's why I picked up Blossom and asked you to hold her."
Blossom was what I called my Chilean Rose Tarantula. She was a sweet, docile thing and was easily handled by anyone. But her large size and the hairy body were enough to make most people run toward the door. Mallory surprised me by opening his hand and letting Blossom clamber in.
I then conducted the interview as she explored his body, taking note of Mallory's body language while the spider happily tickled his neck. He didn't even wince, calmly explaining his work history. It was like I was seeing a different person than the one who walked in.
"Honestly, I was afraid to touch that thing! But seeing how you held yourself and the way you fearlessly reached in and snatched her... I wanted to impress someone like that. So I pretended I wasn't holding anything and focused on you instead. And it worked, somehow."
I laughed. That clever little weasel had conned me, alright. He waited until leaving the room before having a panic attack.
"But that doesn't explain why you came out here?"
"Patience, I'm getting there. So after that, we started working together. For a long time, I was jealous. I couldn't help but envy your strength of will, and endless drive to keep moving forward. You really ran me ragged at times. But I stuck through it. I wanted to be like that, to become someone fierce and ambitious. You are someone I look up to and truly admire."
I felt my face flush with embarrassment, not knowing what to say. Of course, my stupid mouth took over. "If you keep sweet-talking me I might get the wrong idea about you, Casanova." I quipped, ruffling his shaggy brown hair.
He rolled over, facing away. "I knew you would say something smart."
I scooted behind Mallory and clasped my arms around him. "Hey," I whispered in his ear. "I couldn't have found anyone better. There's not many that would do something this crazy for a jerk like me. I'm just glad that it was you."
He said nothing, placing a warm hand over mine and squeezing gently. We stayed like that, listening to the embers crackle as the night quietly stole us away from the waking world.
When the early rays of dawn trickled down into the cave, I awoke with a grumble. Mornings were spelled with a 'u' where I came from. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I yawned blearily. "Wakey wakey," I mumbled and reached for Mallory.
The blankets were empty.
I sat up, suddenly feeling very awake. "Mallory?" I called.
He should know better than to keep a girl waiting. Maybe he stepped out to take a leak, something I needed to do as well. I wriggled out of the musty covers and set off in search of a boy with messy hair and an easy grin. He was growing on me faster than a fungus.
Exiting the grotto, I stepped into the light with a grimace. My eyes burned, painfully throbbing at the sudden transition from shadow to radiance. Then my vision became all too clear.
He was lying on his side beneath a spiral web, clutching an empty olive jar. No, not empty. A white spider with four black dots scrabbled at the sides, trying to get out. I paid it no attention, rushing to Mallory's side. Before my fingers touched his colorless neck, I knew that I wouldn't find a pulse. "You damn fool," I whispered, as warm grief spilled down my cheeks.
His bronze eyes were closed, cold blue lips curled into a peaceful smile. I did it, that frozen expression seemed to say. I got you a piece of glory.
"It's meaningless without you there, you idiot." I sobbed, cradling his waxy face in my hands. Wake up, Mallory. Wake up and tell me that I'm ugly-crying. Say something already, I'm pouring my heart out for you. I would trade it all, just to hear your voice one more time.
The spider tapped against the glass jar. I glared at it, the last thing I wanted to see in this cursed forest. Pulling it out of his grasp, I saw a raised lesion on one hand. Mallory captured the very spider that sealed his doom. And all because I said I wanted it.
My knuckles whitened around the container as sorrowful rage swept through me. This was the great prize? Bringing back a creature that murdered my closest friend? He was the treasure I was looking for, not this wretched thing.
Raising the jar in the air, I flung it against a rock with untold fury. The glass shattered, sending the spider tumbling in the dirt. Before it could scurry away, I stomped on it. And slowly ground it into the earth for good measure.
I returned to the boy I had grown to cherish, the one who knew the secret to driving me crazy and making my day at the same time, the one I lost before I could tell him he was an essential part of my collection.
In the back of my mind, I heard that gurgling laugh again. "We were cursed," I bowed my head, obscuring my woe with a curtain of auburn hair. "We never had the chance we deserved."
I don't know how long I sat out there with him. I didn't care. There was no place for me to go if he wasn't there. I held my hand in his and squeezed it, wishing for a small impossibility. Wishing we were still in my office, arguing over things that didn't matter. If only this was a terrible dream I could wake up from, a cruel joke that would fade from memory once I sat up in bed.
Voices mumbled on the wind, syllables I didn't understand. The yurei had come back for me. They could do their worst. There was nothing else they could steal from me. And maybe... Maybe I would see him again.
Twigs crunched under boots. I turned my head to see a group of park workers approaching. Seeing me, they quickened their pace. Where did they come from? One of them helped me to my feet while the others inspected Mallory's body. A wool blanket was draped around my shoulders as I stood dazed.
A kind-faced man leading the team stepped forward, speaking in halting English. "Are you hurt? You in good health?" I nodded and wordlessly pointed to Mallory. "We will bring him with us, don't worry." It all seemed so surreal, the way they knew exactly what to do.
"How did you find me?" I asked hoarsely. The official paused to find the words before he spoke. "We were told there was an American girl who was lost in the forbidden zone, near some caves."
This just made me even more confused. "Who told you that?" He gave me a strange look. "It was a boy with brown hair and a red hoodie."
Ever since then, I've been unable to look at a single spider without remembering that fateful journey. Some nights I dream about the forbidden zone. I'm always following Mallory's voice as he calls for me, fighting through branches and trees as the yurei chase me. "Adrienne, help me!" He wails. I shout that I'm coming, I'll be there soon.
But I finally get there, his lifeless body is lying on the ground, covered in spiders. The gurgling laugh mocks me triumphantly and I wake up screaming.
Is it any surprise that I gave away all my pet creatures to good homes? I donated my dead specimens to several colleges and purged all of my research. "I'm thinking of a career change," I informed my colleagues. They nodded sympathetically but I knew that rumors of my trip were spreading like wildfire.
I didn't care. They could say whatever they wanted. I was done, tapping out, retiring from the field.
Now I live alone, hidden from the public eye. The nights are lonely and I could fill several books with all my regrets. But sometimes when I'm in bed, drifting in that wispy ether between dreaming and reality, I swear that I feel a familiar hand squeezing mine.