It was still damp and the scent of death still lingered in the air. The ground was covered with shattered tree branches; the air was dyed a deep black, almost like the color of a raven, and it was as poisonous as the thoughts that raced through their heads. As they continued walking, the sticks beneath their feet snapped and hissed at them and they hissed back at the sticks as they walked quietly and whispered amongst themselves. Anyone who hadn't been here for the past three days would have thought they were insane. They were three teenaged children, all of different backgrounds, who had met three days earlier. These three teenagers marched solemnly like soldiers through the dampness and vast darkness around them. The trees blocked the light from reaching them and above the treetops the world was a bright turquoise. In this forest, however, everything was a dark black except for the patches of light that filtered in along their path.
The group consisted of an American boy named Justin, a Spanish girl named Angie, and an Indian boy named Khani. Angie was the oldest; she was seventeen years old and all she carried was half a bag of sticks, leaves, and shrubs. Her slender body wasn't ideal for supporting much weight so she was given the task of carrying the lightest of the piles. Her opposite was Justin, who was tall and athletic. He carried a first aid kit, ropes, homemade knives, water bottles, stones, and a slingshot in a bright orange backpack. The slingshot was made from sticks from Angie's hand-me-down bag and was smoothed with two of Khani's homemade knives. Khani was the smartest of the group mostly because he could think quickly on his feet; the others elected him as their humble leader. Khani was light brown with beautiful hazel eyes; he was tall like Justin but not as athletic as he was. He was the youngest of the group, but he carried the heaviest pile. With each step he took, Khani felt the weight of his bag on his back and he felt the raw materials in his bundle stabbing his back. Despite the fact that each step carried a significant amount of atrocity and agony, Khani bared the weight and continued walking ahead of his colleagues.
Angie, Justin, and Khani were trying to escape their past, but no matter how far away from home they walked, it still lingered with them. The very air reminded them of what happened and there was no way of escaping it. Their brave spirits and determination were met with the crisis of survival and the choice to keep walking towards an uncertain future or to stay and die with everyone else they once knew. They decided to keep going towards an uncertain future carrying less than the most essential items. If anyone were out here and demanded them to hand something over all they would have to give would be sticks, rocks, and homemade knives. However, if they truly looked deeper in the contents of their bags, they'd see a piece of themselves in the bag. At the bottom of Justin's bag was a varsity letter from the weightlifting team of his school; Angie had pills in a side pocket of her bag. Humble Khani had paper and colored pencils in a folder buried underneath all the raw materials. Unbeknownst to this group, they all carried a portion of their earlier selves and a reminder of the burden that they now carry. Khani might have said that they kept themselves hidden so that they wouldn't be spotted by the monsters that constantly surrounded them, but those are the things they carried. Themselves.
After a while of walking in a perfectly linear path, Angie finally gave in to the monster that stalked her. She fell down and the contents of her backpack spilled to the ground. The pile of sticks had fallen out of her bag, which flew over her head as she tumbled to the ground. She had fallen behind Justin and Khani, but Justin heard something fall and turned around and saw Angie lying among the flowers. If he didn't know any better, Justin would have thought that she was sleeping, but he knew that if she had just fallen asleep she would have gotten back up by now. Justin called Khani over and the first thing that Khani did was rummage through her bag. Leaves, sticks, shrubs, great things to make a fire with, but nothing helpful. However, he kept searching in hopes to find something more. More useful. More supportive. More revitalizing. More hopeful. Just something more.
His fingers kept poking through the holes of her bag until they finally reached the side pocket. His slender fingers wrapped around an alien object that felt like it was made of glass; it was smooth and cool to the touch. Running his fingers over the bottle again and again, Khani decided to pull it out the side pocket. When the object finally broke the surface of the bag and met Khani's eyes, he dropped it on the ground next to Angie. Justin looked on and stared at Khani with eyes wide open as if someone had just revealed all the secrets of the world to him. Justin's eyes were wet with tears; he closed his eyes and tried to blink the tears away, but the tears just started flowing. His lashes curled under the weight of the water and his handsomely carved face now carried a burden to it. His smile turned into a pair of quivering lips; his eyes were now dimmed, and his calm composure was now that of a crying baby looking for the comfort of his mother. Although they both knew that these things happened, nothing could have prepared them for this. They came out here to try to escape death and forget the pain, but no matter where they went those demons just seemed to follow them.
Justin was broken- emotionally, physically, mentally- and nothing Khani said could help him. After five minutes of silence, Khani and Justin sat down next to Angie and apologized for letting her down. They spent the night in that spot; they slept next to Angie and when a breeze would whip past them, they would spread out a rough cloth across Khani, atop Angie, and over to Justin. Both Justin and Khani knew that if they gave up, they would end up just like Angie and all of their hard work would perish with them. They knew that the past three days would just prove everyone right, but they couldn't let that happen. They'd sleep tonight and get some rest and then in the morning, they'll look for some type of food and keep going.
However, morning came all too quickly for Justin, who spent half of the night crying over Angie. Over the fact that he'll never get his past, family, or friends back. Over the uncertainty of his future. Over the thoughts that ran wild in his head. Over the tension and fatiguing anxiety of trying to find inhabited land. Over everything. After Justin had fallen asleep, Khani was up screaming at the trees. At the blackened air. At himself. At Justin. At Angie. At God. At his family. He never wanted to come here in the first place, but no one listened to him. His parents dragged him here for a vacation and now look what happened. His parents were dead and he was barely surviving. Every minute that Khani was alive was another minute that he was closer to death. Khani was living to die. Every breath that he took in was 56% tar, 30% smoke, and 14% oxygen; his lungs were burning and in dire need of clean air. Going back wasn't an option because it was certain death. If the atmosphere didn't kill him immediately, then the guards would. They were always ready to perform at a minute's notice. The high ranking soldiers carried big guns in a holster and had a sword on their horses. The lower ranked soldiers had pistols and other hand-held guns and heavy bags full of water, knives, and other simple items. That's all that Khani could remember about the soldiers. He could never forget the terrifying feeling he got when he ran into one of them while trying to escape. Looking into their eyes was like looking into the eyes of any hopeless person except that these soldiers had a burning passion in their eyes to kill and destroy everything and everyone in sight.
After screaming to exhaustion, Khani couldn't take it anymore. He picked up his bag and bundle, Justin's bright orange backpack, and Angie's hand-me-down bag and ran away. He now carried all of the burden and supplies. He had Justin's athleticism and his own creativity and quick-thinking. What else did he need to survive? Khani didn't know where he was going, but his legs kept running and his mind kept going with it. After about an hour, his body got worn out from all the bags and materials he was carrying. He was breathless and not enough oxygen was going to his lungs. His blood was thickening and everything became a bright white light. Colors popped in and out of the bottom of the white screen that Khani was seeing, but he felt like a truck just dropped on his chest. Khani knew that he was going to die like this and leave Justin alone next to Angie with absolutely nothing to survive. Khani took the bags in his arms and gave freedom one more shot. He gathered all the strength left in him and started running. By the time that Khani had gotten anywhere, Justin had died next to Angie.
The bags that Khani carried seemed to get heavier with each stride he made. Everything became blurry; the trees became dark green moving snakes and the tree tops were bushes of overgrown moss. He closed his eyes and opened them several times, but everything around him kept changing. The trees were now a bright orange and the holes had turned into scars as if some unearthly, powerful beast had dragged its claws into the tree and ripped the bark off the tree trunk. Hills sprung up from the ground and were covered in human eyes that never blinked. The pupils of the eyes were darker than the forest, but the irises were blood red and reminded Khani of the time that he cut himself while walking through a garden. He was walking to get to his mother when he felt a sharp pain in his side and then the cool feeling of something running over it almost like water washing away caked dirt on a child's face. His skin grew warm and got irritated; each time that his body rose to take in oxygen, tiny pins jabbed into a hole running down his side. Each time the pins went into the hole, blood gushed out and soaked through Khani's cotton shirt. After a while, the blood stopped flowing and just formed a thick, dark jelly just like the irises that he saw staring at him.
The eyes were staring at him and the ground underneath him formed a grin that changed into a devious smile. The sticks on the ground formed teeth that seemed to point at a 45 degree angle at him. If anyone were looking at the scene from above, they would have seen a pyramid of white sticks meeting at the point of Khani. These sticks were ready to devour him and the face on the ground was about to sink its sharp, calcium filled teeth in Khani's soft flesh. The jaws snapped shut and the teeth had lodged themselves perfectly into Khani's side where the thorn had stuck him. He immediately began to bleed, but once again the blood didn't gush or even flow; it simply formed into a thick, dark jelly. After trying to pull himself up by holding on to the scarred trees around him, Khani gave up and left the earth swallow him whole. He fell down a dark red pipe and landed in a puddle of water. All around him, he saw bones and skeletons of what once were people. He was the only thing alive in this dark hole and all he carried were two empty bags and the pills still in the side pocket of Angie's hand-me-down bag.
Khani reached over and felt the bags he had tucked under his arms and realized that he hadn't moved since he stopped running. Everything was back to normal; his head was no longer spinning and he saw trees and the dead air around him. Everything was in his head and now he had to face reality. Angie was dead and he left Justin behind with nothing to survive so he was probably dead as well. He was the only one left and he was slowly dying because of the radiation and the poison in the air. Khani knew that the air was a death trap and that there was no way to escape it. The air was stale and smelled of thousands of week old cigarettes that were left in empty beer bottles; it was humid and the temperature fluctuated almost as much as Angie's mood did. Angie never deserved this; none of them did but these things happen. That's the way life worked; people come and people go. Khani and his friends were no exception, but the part that hurt the most is that sometimes in order to survive you have to sacrifice the people you love the most. The only people Khani had were the ones that he killed so he might have a chance to escape everything. The bombings. The raids. The soldiers. The torture. The agony of living without his family. The thoughts. His mind. Just everything. He was tired of everything and just wanted it to change. It was either keep going or fall backwards and Khani chose to keep going even though every step forward meant two steps backwards.
Khani felt as if some mystical person were playing a sick game and he was just one of the unfortunate pieces that just get kicked down, knocked over, and brushed to the side. Nothing seemed to be going right; his supplies were wearing thin as well as his health and determination. Depression seemed to be gnawing at his soul and the ropes of his very existence were being tried and pulled in various directions. There was nothing that he could do; he was hopeless. He was locked in a deadly box with no way of escape, yet he kept trying to hopelessly escape. Khani though that the whole situation was like a rat trapped in a glass box except that he was the rat and the glass box was the city and now these woods. He slammed his fists into the ground and into the trees as if someone on the outside would have been able to hear him or even save him. His efforts were in vain, but he wouldn't admit that to himself. He desperately tried to find a way to escape the mess. The darkness. The hopelessness. The mistakes. The despair. The toxin. Nothing seemed to work so he picked up everything around him and ran with it. He picked up the very sticks and strands of grass along with his empty bags and carried them as he ran further away from what he had once known.
After three hours of running, Khani had finally made it out of the forest carrying two empty bags (Angie's and Justin's) and his own bag. His bag was now worn out and full of grass stains. The brilliant blue color that it originally was became faded and a dark green. Khani's light brown skin was stained with caked blood and dirt that combined to create a dusty bright red like the color of rust forming on iron. His beautiful hazel eyes were now dimming and a milky film covered his eyes. He was extremely dehydrated and exhausted; the bags under his eyes and the dark circles surrounding them made him look ten years older than he was. His sixteen year old body was a skeleton and he was on the verge of dying from starvation. Khani tried to hold himself together, but he completely broke and was completely broken. He laid on the ground and cried until his body had no water left in it. His throat ached from all the screaming that he did and each time he swallowed, he could taste the metallic paste of saliva and blood in his mouth. He coughed and all that came out was blood. He had escaped the forest and was breathing in fresh air, but he couldn't move. He was just laying on the ground trying to gasp the air he was breathing out, but he couldn't do it fast enough so he passed out. Khani closed his beautiful eyes.
After sleeping for 48 hours, Khani finally woke up in a clean bed with food and water surrounding him. His skin had been washed; his throat was fine (there was no blood in it and it wasn't aching). His physical needs were met by a kind stranger, who found him along a nature trail. This stranger took Khani to a hospital and the staff attended to him immediately. Khani woke up and his body jumped; he wasn't used to such cool temperatures. His body was shaking and the goosebumps on his arm multiplied by the second, but a nurse walked in with two extra blankets. Everything around Khani was white. The bed. The sheets. The gown he was in. The door. The lights. The floor. The bags next to him. The pills in the container. Everything was white and Khani knew that it was time to leave this place. He could hear the voices from the other side of the wall talking about how they'll use him as their experiment. The only reason why Khani was saved was to be experimented with; the soldiers and scientists can't experiment on a dead person.
The doctor standing on the other side of the door was carrying a black clipboard with a glossy finish and papers of different colors attached to it. He was around 6'3 with light blond hair and bright blue eyes that almost matched the color of the city sky. The doctor had a stethoscope around his neck and red gel ink pens in his white coat pocket. He spoke with a heavy accent and although his face was clean shaven, there was something rough about his personality and the way he addressed people. He was courteous, but very easily annoyed and was quick to display his annoyance with those around him. Khani tried his hardest to hear the conversation outside, but he was inside listening to the sounds of the air conditioning instead of the voices. He heard a knock on the door and a nurse with dark brown hair walked in the room and approached the stand next to his bed. The nurse was short and had olive skin; her small, slender fingers moved quickly just like her lips and the vibrations that came from them.
Khani noticed that the nurse was busy at the side table and she pulled out a silver tray with silver pointed metals on it. Khani couldn't tell what the objects were from the angle that he was laying down, but he decided not to move so that the nurse would think he's sleep. After the nurse had taken all of the metals out of their packages and put them on a white towel set on the tray, she put the tray on the cart next to Khani and walked outside. He knew he was going to die and he could almost see it play out right before him. All the doctors would come in the room and tell him his vitals and then they would try to get him to talk about his experiences of what happened before they found him lying face down in a pool of bloody dirt. He knew that they would make him feel comfortable before they rechecked his vitals to make sure he was fit for their experiments. He knew that they would inject him with the slim needle he was staring at and that would put him to sleep while they dissected him for fun. He knew that there was no way to escape this room because the guards, doctor, and nurse were all standing outside discussing his future.
Khani began to panic and reality started slipping him. His mind was busy trying to find a way to escape and his conscience was carrying Justin's and Angie's body from his brain, into his memory, straight through his heart, and out his toes. That's what his mother always told him; when something bad comes to mind, it exits your bod from your toes so that every step you take will remind you that you've treaded upon an innocent soul. She continued with, "Every step will remind you ten times because you have ten toes so never forget to make your wrongs right". Make your wrongs right- Khani was now at peace within himself as he reached over and found flowers in Justin's and Angie's bags. The flowers had a peculiar arrangement that captivated Khani's mind; they were arranged as a table and the leaves of dead flowers were a curtain above the table. The bright yellow petals and the soft glow of the blue petals contrasted the white walls surrounding Khani and the bright green stems reminded him of the leaves of the rose bushes in his mother's garden. The one that he'll never see again because he knew that he was about to die.
Khani had accepted the fact that he was a rat in a rat race and his sole purpose was to be used as a lab rat. He subjected his mind to the pain that his body will feel as the blond haired doctor would poke and move internal organs around his ribs as if creating a vortex that would erase his entire existence. This was his punishment for leaving Angie and Justin behind and everyday that he woke up and was led to the dark room in the back of the hospital he carried that on his toes. Each time that a needle was placed in his arm. Each time that he was examined throughly. Each time he was cut open. Each time he bled for the entertainment of those around him. Each time resulted in a series of flashbacks to the last three days in the city that he would never live to tell a random stranger on the street. He was just a piece in the soldiers' game; they were on to him from the start but they just wanted to see how far he would make it before they had to intercede. Everyone, including himself, saw him as a prisoner. A rat trapped in a glass box that couldn't escape no matter how hard it tried. No amount of screaming, fighting, kicking, or banging on walls and doors could save him at this point. His efforts were futile; no one saved him, wanted to save him, or even tried to.
Khani died three weeks after being admitted to the hospital and they put him in a glass coffin. He was never buried or even cremated; he was a display to all the visitors that came into the hospital. He was a reminder that life is an unfair game that can only be predicted by the game master, not the pieces. The nurse with the dark brown hair put the flowers from Justin and Angie's bag in and around the glass coffin to vitalize the lifeless scene. Nothing, however, could add life to this dead body.