The scenery changes from the urban area to the suburban and slowly the trees grow denser. I realise we’re approaching the forest again and my eyes slowly trail upward to check the sky. Luckily, the sun is still out with no sign of hiding away.
I’m hoping silently in my heart for it to remain this way for the whole day. I don’t need another bad memory here. I glance at Ryan to see his healthy skin glows under the sunlight and let out a soft reassured sigh.
The further we go in, the road slowly changes to a dirt road. Surprisingly, the GPS is still working properly. The road doesn’t have anything blocking our way so the car is able to continue forward unhindered.
My eyes stare into the depth of the forest with a weird sense of familiarity. My heart is slowly speeding up as I start to feel anxious. My hand is shaking but it’s not to the point it’s visible to the naked eye.
I hide it by clenching both my hands together and continue staring at the woods.
Every forest appears the same to me yet this path we’re taking is making me scared. I have to hold myself back from telling Ryan that I want to go home.
“Is something wrong?” Ryan asks as he slowly drives the car forward, clearly noticing my discomfort.
I turn to look at him while failing at adjusting my emotions. “I- I don’t know.”
“Are you okay?” He lowers his voice and speaks calmly which in turn makes me feel less pressured to answer.
I try to nod my head but find it hard to do it so I end up shaking them instead. “I don’t know why but I’m scared.” I don’t want to hide it from him because my anxiety keeps growing bigger by the minute.
The sense of trepidation is slowly overcoming me.
“We can turn back if you don’t want to go,” Ryan’s calm voice soothes me a little. He places his hand on mine and clenches it.
I don’t really want to turn back but I do know that I’m scared. I take a sharp breath but in the end, I still reject his offer. I have a feeling that there is something there that I need to know but my fear is evergrowing.
“I’m really scared,” I whisper.
“I’ll be with you every step of the way,” Ryan promises.
Our eyes meet and through it, I can see his determination to follow through. I close my eyes and take a slow deep breath. I nod and say, “It’s okay. Let’s go.”
Ryan continues to drive deeper into the forest but his hand doesn’t let go of mine until we finally reach the forest clearing. There’s nothing but trees around us. The sight manages to turn my anxiety into confusion.
“Are you sure it’s here?” I ask Ryan as the GPS says we have arrived at our destination.
“Yes,” he says as he turns off the car engine and steps out.
I follow him and exit the car. I look around us but there is nothing but the sound of the happily chirping birds. The wind blows lightly against my hair and ruffles it. I try to stop it from moving my hair but fail miserably.
“What time is it?” I ask Ryan since we promised to meet Zander at noon but I don’t see any sign of his presence anywhere near us.
“Don’t worry. He’ll be here soon.” Ryan replies confidently.
“How do you know?” I start to wonder if Zander would even come.
Ryan only smirks at me and a loud rustling sound from one of the bushes ahead of us catches our attention. I start to feel like a Deja Vu moment. I’m sure this has happened before.
“Hey Zander,” Ryan greets the emerging Zander who is brushing away some leaves off his hair as he steps out to walk closer to us.
“You’re here,” Zander blatantly ignores Ryan’s greeting and directs his words to me which in turn make Ryan roll his eyes at him.
“Yes. Is there something you want to show me here?” I ask him directly.
He nods and says, “Follow me.” before walking away from us in a certain direction.
I glance at Ryan while he returns the gaze before gesturing for me to follow Zander. The two of us walk behind Zander closely as he isn’t using any road to walk further into the forest.
My mind starts to wonder where Zander is trying to take us. At some point, I worry that he’s taking us further into the woods so that he can kill us and dispose of our bodies easily. Then again, it won’t be a smart move because I have told people that I’m meeting him today.
I almost crash into Zander’s back but Ryan stops me by hugging my waist. I raise my confused face to look at Zander but something else catches my attention. My body unconsciously steps forward.
I can feel goosebumps rising almost instantly as I stare at the dilapidated building in front of me. Half of the sign is broken but I can still read it.
My past memory emerges alongside the emptiness of the building. I can see us lining up for food and working hard at sewing some clothes. Some are beaten while the new ones cry at the corner. Most of us are void of emotions.
“Evan!!!” Ryan’s voice awakened me from my trance.
I only realise that I’m crying when Ryan reaches to wipe away my tears. Seeing him makes me break down so I dive into his embrace to hide my face. I can feel Ryan freezing for a moment before his hand rubs my back slowly.
He whispers comforting words into my ears, “I’m here.”
“What’s going on? What is this place?!” Ryan’s question is directed to Zander that stands not too far away from us.
I wipe my tears and turn to Zander. He has his hands in his pocket while his eyes are gazing quietly at the building. Then, he moves his head to look at me without any revealing emotions.
“Ryan. Go away for a bit.” Zander gestures with his head to tell Ryan to walk away from us.
I can tell he wants to refuse as his mouth opens but he pauses and turns to me. He calms down and asks me for confirmation, “Should I?”
I stare into his eyes for a moment before glancing at Zander and then at the building. I end up nodding my head because I want to know what Zander has to tell me in private. There is no way he knows that I’m related to this place without someone telling him.
No one knew. Not even Ryan.
Ryan grumbles bad words about Zander as he walks around the building and off to the back. As his figure disappears, Zander approaches me.
“He said you would like to know what happened here,” Zander opens with a vague message.
“Who?” My eyes are staring straight into his without any intention of turning away.
“I think you know who I am talking about. He wants me to let you know that everyone who used to be here is fine. They’ve been sent to a proper institution.” Zander’s eyes trails at the broken windows and door.
“How did he know I was from here?” My mind recalls back to the first time I met Zander. I can remember it clearly that it was during the day of the funeral and before the unsuccessful attempt at kidnapping me. I was no longer the old me.
“He said you smell like the past. I asked around and someone told me that you’re the same person as he speaks of,” Zander returns my gaze to show that he’s not trying to deceive me.
My eyes well up as I remember the conversation I have at the park’s swing set.
“Is he… okay?” I ask as I turn away to look at the dilapidated building while the memory of a small boy covering for his bloodied partner flashes in my mind.
“Yes. Both of them are happy now.”
I break down in tears as I ask, “Both of them?”
I glance at the mess in front of me before turning to Zander. “What happened here?”
“We raided it. We didn’t know they were operating illegal child labour and…” Zander clenches his jaw and I know exactly what he’s trying to say.
Some of us do end up getting ‘adopted’ but it’s not that we’ll be off to a new family. I know that the truth is far more gruesome than that. The ones that have been there for a long time end up figuring out the truth while the new one gets swayed by their promises. I remember being chosen but the distraction of those two allowed my escape.
I’m indebted to them but I know that Zander is as close as I’ll ever get to them. I can tell he doesn’t want us to be involved with each other as we would only remind ourselves about our past. I don’t think I can handle having my past constantly staring back at me either.
I lightly bow my head to Zander and say, “Tell them, thank you.”
“Sure.” He pauses as he stares at the building before turning to tell me, “Take your time here. Call my name when you’re ready to go back.” Zander walks away and disappears behind the bush.
He appears to be comfortable with the forest. It makes sense that he does since Ryan mentioned previously that this man grew up in the forest.
I walk around the building to find Ryan laying on the grass while chewing on a stalk as he stares up at the clear blue sky. I walk to him and decide to join him by laying next to him.
“You’re done talking?” He asks.
I nod and reply to him, “Yeah. Zander said if we want to leave, just call his name.”
Ryan tosses away the stalk of grass he’s chewing on and rises to hover above me. His face starts to wrinkle with worry.
“Can you tell me what this place means to you?” He moves away to sit up and I do the same.
“Sure,” I say as I stand up and start walking up to the building.
The remains of broken furniture are scattered all around it. I enter through the back door that has been broken in half. I start telling him my past. Everything that would happen at each checkpoint of the building.
The kitchen. The dining room. The community bathroom. The workroom...
“This is where we used to sleep. We would huddle up with each other on the floor for warmth.” I say as we enter a large room.
The wind quietly howls as if answering me.
Sometimes I hate the cold as it reminds me of such night. Some of us would even die from the cold. It’s scary to wake up next to someone whose body has already become stiff. Some days I’ll be afraid that I will suffer the same fate.
I wonder if I deserved to still be alive.
“You do.” I turn to Ryan who spoke suddenly.
His eyes are deep and his brows are wrinkled. He approaches me and says, “I’m happy you’re here in front of me. I’m grateful that you’re alive and I get to meet you.”
I can see he truly means it but at this moment, I can only give him a wry smile before continuing my journey.
I don’t even look at Ryan’s face before heading deeper into the building. Ryan grabs my hand to stop me and I can see his solemn expression as he says, “You don’t have to continue if you don’t want to.”
I stare at the broken iron door before turning back to him. I pat his hand that is currently holding me as my way of telling him that I want to continue. Ryan appears reluctant but he still let go of his hold on me.
With a blank face, I push the iron door for it to widen enough for me to enter.
This is the room that each of us would be familiar with as we will visit it every time we do the slightest bit of mistake. They would even put us in there if they don’t like how we looked at them. This is… the punishment room.
It feels as if I can still hear my voice screaming in pain as they whipped me. “I was a frequent visitor to this room.” I quietly speak as the wind passes through the broken window.
Ryan is leaning by the door frame. His brows furrow deeper and his hand is clenched tightly. He wants to approach me but I shake my head at him before heading back out to the corridor. I glance at all the debris and wood that block some passage. I choose to thread through them and finally stop at this one particular door that used to be the best one of them all.
This is the ‘Dean’s office’ and I do remember clearly the day I got ‘adopted’. I remember getting beaten so badly but then, I heard someone stopping them. I heard the same voice saying that he ‘chose me’.
Afterwards, they brought me to this office and makes a bunch of promises. I only agreed that day because they claim I would be fed properly and for a change, I get to sleep with a full stomach. I was giving up on trying to survive for a brief comfort.
They did treat me well for one full month but the day I was to be taken away… It became chaotic to the point where the people that were about to take me away had to get involved with the mess. I saw that as a chance to run away so I took off. I didn’t bother to look back,
Even though I escaped, I didn’t manage to escape my bad life...
Ryan pulls me into his embrace and tells me to stop. My tears wet his shirt but he doesn’t care. He refuses to let go even though I try to wiggle my way out of his embrace.
“Thank you for staying alive. Thank you for not giving up. Thank you for staying healthy,” Ryan says as his hand rubs my back.
When the silence return, I speak out my thoughts, “Sometimes I felt bad that I’m-”
“Don’t. You don’t have to feel that way. You deserve this. After everything you’ve been through, you deserve this second chance.” Ryan tightens his embrace as he says every word with conviction.
I close my eyes and take in his scent.
He’s right… I’ve been given a second chance. I want to cherish this life and everyone around me. I don’t want to lose it. This has become my past but I still have my future.
I take a deep breath before exhaling.
I stay in Ryan’s embrace until my trembling stops then, I pat him to let me go.
He slowly releases his hold on me and though his face shows reluctance, he doesn’t say anything.
The two of us walk out of the dilapidated building. I stare at it blankly until I feel Ryan’s hand wrap around mine. I turn to him and his soft gaze gives me comfort. I squeeze his hand and let out a weak smile.
I make sure to take in the view for one last time and take a deep breath. I tell myself that this is goodbye as I exhale.
“Let’s go home,” I tell Ryan and he nods with a warm smile.
He doesn’t let go of my hand as we walk closer to the bushes. He calls out Zander’s name a few times but nothing happens.
“Can he hear us?” I ask because I just realised that it should be hard to hear someone call out your name when you’re deep in the woods.
“He will.” Ryan has this weird confidence toward Zander which makes me believe him.
Zander emerges out of the woods once more and asks, “Ready to go back?”
I nod at him.
“This will be the last time you see it. Have you gotten your closure?” He asks for reassurance.
“Yes, I have.” I glance at it and now, all I see now is a broken old building. A soft smile hangs on my lips.
This time Zander nods and starts to guide us back to the car. The walk back doesn’t feel as long as when we first arrive. Probably because it feels more familiar despite everything looking about the same.
“Thank you,” I say to Zander when we reach the car.
“You're welcome. Drive safe.” His last sentence is directed to the ignored Ryan.
“Yeah, whatever.” Ryan probably grow tired of being ignored and only received a nagging reminder from Zander.
Zander doesn’t care and walks away waving to us before disappearing into the bushes.
We enter the car and Ryan immediately starts the engine. There is no point in delaying our journey back home.
“Why does Zander always disappear into the woods?” I ask while my eyes stare into the place Zander disappears as Ryan drives away from the scene.
“He lives there,” Ryan replies nonchalantly as he checks both sides of the car while driving out of the woods.
“Live there?!” I exclaim in shock.
“Yes. His family owns the forest.”
“The whole forest?” My brows furrow because I’m almost speechless.
“Yep,” and Ryan’s nonchalant attitude is not helping my exasperation.
My eyes stare blankly as the view constantly changes because I can barely process this new information. I only snap out of it when we arrive home.
“You’re home,” He says. “Get some rest.”
I nod agreeing before pausing at the door.
“Is something wrong?” Ryan asks as I turn to him.
“It’s a good thing I remember.” I rummage through my bag and pull out two invitation cards, “One for you and another for Aiden. I’d like the two of you to come to my birthday celebration. Is that okay?”
“Of course it’s okay. Aiden and I would love to be there. Thank you,” Ryan stares fondly at the cards before reaching to brush my hair.
He catches a twig that’s stuck between my hair and shows it to me before saying, “Go. Rest well.”
I nod again and say, “Drive home safe.”
Before I close the door I hear him say, “Goodbye sayang.”