Tatum sees two young adults walking towards her their faces a mix of concern and suspicion. The young man says something to her, but she can’t hear what he’s saying. All that matters is she has finally found her way back to civilization. After spending weeks wandering through an unknown forest, seeing the two people standing before her is like looking at two miracles. To
She can remember parts of the journey. They came in flashbacks; fragments from a damaged and broken memory. Why she had returned to civilization and Adelynn had not, was the fuzziest part for Tatum. It was as if her mind was trying to unlock a grove of memories with the wrong key.
Aside from the fact that Adelynn--Tatum’s closest friend isn’t with her--living with Rylie and Karla isn’t totally awful. After finding her, they decided that it would be best if Tatum came and lived with them. She learned that both of them are recent college graduates and have been friends since elementary school. Rylie, the young man, has theories on just about anything, but is on the quiet side, not really bothering to share his theories with people he doesn’t know. Karla on the other hand is very outspoken, and often causes trouble for speaking her mind. Tatum has been living with them ever since stumbling out of the forest two months ago, and they treat her as anyone would want to be treated.
But life isn’t the same. It never will be. Adelynn is gone, and Tatum doesn’t know why.
Tatum’s earliest memory of what was supposed to be three weeks of life changing status validation with Adelynn, was the very first day of their journey.
There is a river, not narrow enough to jump over, but easy to cross. The water itself is gentle, cool to the touch, and refreshingly sweet to taste. Small, smooth stones in varying tones of gray cover the bottom of the river in a mosaic pattern. Adelynn is walking along the edge of the river, placidly dragging her feet through the water. Her hair has been carelessly piled on the crown of her head, and she’s carrying her boots in the crook of her left arm. Ever so often the fingers of her right hand reach upward and caress the flowers of the blossoming cherry trees that line the river. Tatum is walking alongside Adelynn, keeping to the patches of soft, dry grass scattered throughout the cherry trees. Neither of them say a word, as both are people who appreciate moments for contemplation.
Tatum isn’t taking her usual thought route. Instead, the words of one of her professors back home cloud her mind. Professor Klaney had told her that, “drawing one’s self away from the repetition of one’s life is when you truly find deep sense of being and of importance.” Professor Klaney was the person who had told Tatum go on the journey with Adelynn. So while neither of them were experienced survivalists, both set out with the intent to fulfill their professor’s instructions . Two seventeen year old girls were not typically found wandering the banks of the Corn River on their way to the Lake, but here they were. They can’t turn back now. The entire town had sent them off. Professor Klany was the one who had deemed Tatum and Adelynn ready to travel to Teardrop Lake. Every honorable scholar from the town of Peakwood made the journey to the Lake when their Professor thought it appropriate for them to do so. Before becoming true Peakwood scholars, each student must make this life defining journey. Tatum’s town isn’t like most. They don’t have schools or universities, but rather different ranks. Before becoming an honorable scholar, that is, before a student turns eighteen, he or she must travel to Teardrop Lake. The trek to the monumental lake and back is unpredictable. It cannot be mapped, for it is as if the land itself changes with each journey made.
Tatum and Adelynn had been the 100th pair of students to embark on the journey to Teardrop Lake. Their expected return had been months ago, but Tatum didn’t know how to find her way back to Peakwood, her hometown. And, even if she did, Adelynn wouldn’t be with her, making every second back home miserable and worthless.
Already Tatum can feel her mind pushing Adelynn away; away to the parts of her mind that she never visits. It’s like her mind is thinking of Adelynn as a bad memory and is trying to erase any trace of her. Too soon, all memory of her beloved friend will be gone, leaving only a desperate girl in its wake.
It’s like Tatum isn’t the only one in her own body. Like there’s an animal inside her. She can feel it clawing at her, forcing her to actions that are not her own. An uncontrollable, repetitive feeling that cares for nothing but satisfaction. Ever since the beginning of the journey the animal had been ever present.
Tatum feels she is close to remembering what happened to Adelynn-why she didn’t return to civilization. The animal living inside of Tatum is urging her to run away from finding out the truth, but no matter what it tells her, she has to know what happened. Even if the reality of it is torturing to her.
The Corn River is a good two days behind them, and neither Tatum nor Adelynn has the strength to struggle back to it. They will have to find water elsewhere. They are ten days into their journey to Teardrop Lake, and are already lost. Adelynn had the smarts to check and see if they remembered to pack a compass at Professor Klaney’s instruction, but of course, they had not. Now they are walking through a forest thick with trees, hoping to find any source of both food and water. Round tree trunks, both fat and skinny, sit in large clusters all around them. Tiny gaps in between the clusters make walking a bit easier, but only slightly. Far above their heads is a dense tree canopy, the light of the sun barely showing through the leafy roof.
Tatum doesn’t have a plan for what she and Adelynn are going to do next, and their strength is slowly waning. A few of the surviving honor scholars had put together a book listing all the known edible plants, but instead of bringing it with her, Tatum had chosen to memorize it. Though she had not thought of the possibility of her forgetting what she had memorized. The resources they have are extremely limited, as both of them were told by Professor Klaney to pack light for the journey. Adelynn has a backpack with survival blankets, a water purifier, extra clothes, and some money. Tatum is in charge of first aid and the weapons. Her backpack holds bandages and ointments, as well as an assortment of knives. At the moment, the only useful resource they have are the knives. The problem is, even though they are walking through a forest, there are no animals to be seen.
Tatum has heard the survival stories from the honor students back home in Peakwood. Though of course, if she wanted to hear from both students who had traveled in a pair together, her options were limited. There were only twelve pairs out of the ninety-nine, where both people in the pair were still alive. Most of the surviving graduates had returned home without their partner, unable to tell the town what had happened to their companion. There were plenty of theories as to why most of the students didn’t return. Run-ins with wild animals, drownings in Teardrop Lake, or that they just weren’t cut out for the journey. None of the stories Tatum had listened to could help her now. She was determined to make it back home, no matter what she had to do to get there.
“And that’s why no one believes me. I told them over, and over, and over again, but they all either think I’m lying or losing my mind. I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry for not being that much of a help, Tatum. I wish I could do more… Karla did you find anything?” Rylie looks at Tatum then Karla, uncertain of whether or not they’re listening to anything he’s saying.
Karla shakes her head no and rests her head on her hands in disappointment.
Tatum breaks away from the staring contest she was having with the carpet and looks at Rylie. She can tell he’s just come home from work because he still has a black apron wrapped around his waist, and his hair is neatly parted. “I’m sorry, I only heard the last part.” She says, unfolding her legs out from under her.
Rylie frowns.“I said that no one in town has ever heard of your hometown, Peakwood. It isn’t on any of our maps, and because of that, everyone thinks I’ve lost my mind.” Tatum frowns too, searching her scattered thoughts for why no one knows where her town is. Surely it couldn’t be that far away.
Adelynn hunches over and presses the heels of her hands into her eyes in an attempt to subdue her stabbing headache. Next to her, Tatum squeezes her eyes shut to block out the remaining light in another attempt at relief from her pounding head. Tatum can tell that they desperately need water, but there is none in sight. For the past half hour she has been telling herself that there will be water if she only walks twenty more steps, and so she tells herself it once again. One, two, three… Shes read books on dehydration and the effects on your body. Nine, ten, eleven… She sees Adelynn trip over a dead branch, snapping it in two. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen… the ground beneath Tatum’s feet gives way and the wet earth pulls the bottoms of her shoes down. She sees Adelynn trip again, this time falling and sending up a splash of water as she lands.
“They did mention one town... but I don’t think it’s where you’re from,” Rylie says.
“Why not?” Tatum looks inquiringly at him, silently urging him to spill what he knows.
Rylie looks down. “Well I don’t know. I guess the people in the town have strange traditions?”
“I don’t think that’s the place we’re looking for,” Karla says, shaking her head.
Tatum nods. “Yeah, my town doesn’t have strange traditions. That’s weird.”
Karla groans and folds her arms across her stomach.“I honestly can’t think of a reason as to why this is so hard. It shouldn’t be this difficult to find a place.”
Tatum sighs and walks from her spot on the couch over to the window, the imposing prospect of not being able to return home in her mind. She might never get the chance to apologize to Adelynn’s parents for failing to bring their daughter back to them.
It’s been two days since Adelynn tripped and fell into the pond, saving them from death by dehydration. Though Tatum still doesn’t know how to find food. She has the technique and tools to kill an animal, the problem is finding one. She and Adelynn take turns staying at the mini camp they had set up near their water source while the other walks in wide circles looking for game. There is an unnatural silence throughout the entire forest. The absence of the larger animals was to be expected, but no birds or squirrels? That was definitely unusual.
Tatum knows there are plenty of other more important issues that she should be thinking about, but her body is on strike. Nothing but finding food matters. All else can be thrown away.
Adelynn has been growing considerably weaker and weaker with each passing hour. Tatum can practically see the life being sucked out of her. The only thing they can do is hope and pray a solution to the problem will appear.
The animal inside Tatum is as restless as the storm outside. It is erratic, manipulative, and uncontainable, destroying and ruining everything. The lights in the house flicker on and off, sending the shadows dancing on the walls. Tatum is sitting alone in the living room watching the lightning flash across the sky through the window.
After countless days of waiting for food to battle the starvation, Tatum finally succeeded. It took just slitting her victim’s throat, as Adelynn was already weak and struggling to survive. She knew that consuming the meat raw could be as fatal as starvation, but the urge to eat was too strong.
Each strike of lighting is like a shock to Tatum’s brain, and each shock is another key to the puzzle. The realization of her actions hits her like the explosion of a bomb, stealing her breath. She remembers hiding the knife in the crook of her arm as she walked with Adelynn back to their campsite from the pond; sucking in her breath before the strike; and the cry of betrayal that terminated the peaceful silence as her beloved friend collapsed. Reawakened with that awful memory, the animal inside her, now a beast, threatens to claw itself out and run away with the sanity it took from her the night she ate Adelynn.
Tatum opens her eyes, the sun hitting her with a powerful glare. She looks down to her shaking hands, then to her left, where Adelynn is curled on the grass reading a book.
Her friend looks over at her, and smiles. “Welcome back to the real world, Tatum. It looks like you’ll be well rested for our big journey tomorrow.”
Tatum looks away slowly, eerily sensing the beast inside her preparing for the journey as well.