It took several hours but Maiv eventually gathered enough stones to build a cairn. It would protect his body from scavengers until she could make other arrangements. She set the last stone, muscles groaning from the strain, and sat down heavily. The forest was still. Lavender streaked the evening sky. The mist was heavy with the perfume of decay; rotting leaves, fungus, and molds. Maiv’s eyes came to rest on the collection of odds and ends she’d gathered from Marco’s last moments. Cigarette butts, a yellow plastic lighter, seeds from yesterday’s planting, his toolbelt, a cracked hologram cube. It flickered in the fading light. Maiv picked it up and turned it on.
A Chinese girl crouched, fierce and defiant, clutching something red in her hand. She wore a brown tunic and pants made from sturdy fabric favored by laborers everywhere. Red blood blossomed on her chest. She slumped over, eyes wide and mouth forming an ‘O’ of surprise. A red bouncy ball, perhaps a remnant of a too brief childhood, rolled out of her hand. The image flickered then looped back to the beginning.
Maiv froze the image and stared into eyes as dark as her own. Marco’s only explanation for the cube had been a terse, “It’s a souvenir from the war.” He had owned only nine items when she’d met him. One change of clothes, a yellow lighter, a set of antique dog tags that had been handed down in his family for several generations, a comb, a toothbrush, a shaving kit, one bottle of cheap soap he also used for shampoo, a faux-leather wallet, and this cube.
Maiv pocketed the cube and dug through the wet leaf litter. Her fingers closed on metal rectangles. She picked the tags up and brushed dirt off them, polishing them with a weary tear.
Lt Marco Penzan, US 5th Calvary, Catholic. The name was passed down along with the tags. A series of numbers identified the specific ancestor who had first worn them. She wondered if he’d had her Marco’s dark curls, hazel eyes, his crooked smile. She pulled the chain over her head and the tags fell heavy against her breastbone.
A sense of dread filled Maiv and her guts twisted and spasmed as an indistinct susurrus filled the air around her. Maiv froze, held her breath, and listened. She turned her head slightly, trying to identify the source of the whispers. The forest was silent. No wind, no birdsong, no insect buzz to disturb the mournful quiet. She shivered as she stood and picked up a dead branch. She crouched and circled, wondering if it was possible to hit a ghost.
The whispers seemed louder on her left. Maiv took a tentative step deeper into the woods. “Show yourself.”
Maiv didn’t know how long she’d been wandering through the forest. The afternoon sun was lost behind gray clouds and thick foliage. The whispers darted ahead and around her. Maiv leaned against a tree to catch her breath and her bearings. The undergrowth was sparse here where the tall trees blocked out much of the sun. A glint of metal on the ground near her caught her eye. She bent to pick up the coin then recoiled as her fingers brushed against bone. She backed away from the leaf-covered skeleton. The whispers laughed and swirled onward. The branch fell from her hand as she turned to follow.
As evening gloom descended, Maiv saw a glimmer of light ahead. She pushed through a grove of pines and stepped into a pink glow emanating from a bulb above a steel door. The low rectangular building was camouflaged in ivy and brambles. A black oak sapling balanced precariously on the edge of the roof, its sprawling roots seeking purchase down the wall and around a drain pipe. Drifts of leaves piled high against the wall and door, undisturbed for several seasons.
The bio-lock panel next to the door was dormant. Maiv pressed her hand to it, tapped it, then pounded her hand against the side of it to no avail. She pounded on the door. There was no response. She heard nothing when she pressed her ear against it. She tried the latch. The door gave a few inches before stiff hinges froze after years of disuse. Maiv put her shoulder to it and heaved. Automated lights flickered on as the door gave way with shrieking protest. Dust swirled in her wake as she explored – a small bunk room with wool blankets tattered and moth-eaten, a closet stocked with emergency supplies, a kitchenette with expired rations, a work area with a green LED blinking on a monitor.
Maiv pressed the green light. Log files scrolled across the screen. She sat down, vaguely puzzled by the interface, and touched a file name at random. A security log dated 23 April 2309 reported three squirrels, four deer, and a family of raccoons had set off perimeter alarms. The report closed with a request to upgrade the systems so only human intrusions would trigger alarms.
Maiv muttered, “That was over a hundred years ago.”
She read more reports. There were similar complaints about the wildlife, some incident involving squirrels nesting in the ventilation shaft, re-supply reports with requests for better food. She found possible references to ghostly voices, complaints of which were reprimanded with offers of transfer to a desert facility. The suicides were reported and the staff were reprimanded for not being more diligent about monitoring the perimeter. One report claimed no security footage existed of the person entering the forest but this was discounted. The final log entry noted temporary shutdown of this security point in the winter of 2314. A little more searching found it had been opened in the summer of 2106 when the nature preserve had been created by Hamberton Industries. A census of existing trees, numbers and types of additional trees planted, long term growth management plans, reference to a research station at the heart of the forest were listed.
Maiv yawned, realizing the half-moon was rising. She secured the door by pushing what furniture she could find in front of it, reckoning the noise would wake her if anyone tried to enter. Collapsing on a bunk, she fell into an uneasy sleep and dreamt of flying squirrels and talking trees.
Copyright 2014, Kimberley Long-Ewing, all rights reserved