I tried to leave the woods when I ran out of the Mother’s house. I ran behind her cabin and over the hill toward the entrance to the Circle where everyone parks, intending to leave without a plan. I must have gone two miles when I realized I should have already seen the entrance, but I ran on my rage for at least two more. When I saw the Mother’s cabin peeking through the trees in the distance I collapsed on my back, exhausted and sobbing. I had just run in a giant circle without a single sign of an exit. Tears accumulated in little pools in my ears as I stared up at the cloudy night sky, wondering if it was a copy, too.

Kala and I used to lay in the grass for hours watching for shooting stars, finding constellations and making up new ones while we waited. Since he’s been gone, the only time I even look up anymore is to see the crow that follows me like some homesick shadow. But that night, I couldn’t stop looking; I was mesmerized by the sky. The realization that I might be trapped in this copy alone forever must have made me want to see something that didn’t feel so closed off. I could barely see the stars and only caught fragments of the moon as the clouds shifted in the wind like a slow-moving collage. Every glimpse of the celestial fabric felt like a portal to hope.

I laid there all night, feeling glad I had no voice to speak to the Mother with earlier. What lies would I have spoken about myself, about what I thought was my own experience? What false history would I have foolishly referenced to the woman who wrote it herself? I can’t even say that I’ve never felt so completely stupid. I have no idea what I’ve never felt. I have no idea who I am, or who the boy beneath the ground is. I rummaged through my mind for memories, real or not, searching for even the faintest sense of myself. There was nothing before Kala.

Dreams, nightmares, and memories tangled in the air around me through a restless sleep. Kala danced in the woods to music that leaked from every tiny mushroom. I laid beside him on his favorite rock, my feet skimming the water of his favorite river as he drew out plans for things he wanted to build in his notebook. A crow with a paintbrush in its beak flew back and forth like a pendulum above me, painting a rainbow in the night sky. When I trembled in my sleep, a beautiful ghostly woman gently lifted the moon from behind the clouds, placing it closer to me like a night-light.

The last dream of the night placed me inside a cage, intricately woven with thin branches, suspended about twelve feet off the ground from a tree in the center of the woods. A black snake coiled and writhed in agony on the ground beneath me for what felt like hours before shooting straight up in the air, striking at me. I woke up in a pool of sweat and sat up, dazed.

. . .

Despite the nightmares that followed my stargazing, I’ve spent every night since looking up at the sky, trying to remember until I fall asleep. This evening, as I carve line one hundred and ninety-six in Kala’s rock, I see the tail of a black snake disappear under the leaves about ten feet away from me and I instinctively shudder. If I can only have what at least feels like one real childhood memory, I wish it were anything but that.

I’m frozen, watching for the snake in the leaves just ahead when I hear twigs cracking under heavy footsteps in the distance. It’s only been a week since I ran from the Mother’s, but I’ve already come to expect these visits, and I’m already tired of them. At least twice a day, someone wanders through the woods, pleading with me to come back and talk to the Mother. She must be sending them out in shifts. Sometimes they seem so sincere and so desperate for me to come back, and others just walk, barely speaking. If they come close enough to me, I can see it in their eyes that most of them doubt that I can even hear them. The first few times someone visited, I hid when I saw them coming, even though I knew they couldn’t see me. Now I barely acknowledge them except to occasionally satisfy curiosity by throwing something or walking right through them. For the most part, I feel nothing when I see these people who used to feel like my family.

I completely forget the approaching visitor when a rabbit just a few yards ahead of me immediately triggers a deep growl in the pit of my stomach. In one slow, fluid motion, I squat down behind a tree trunk and load an arrow into my bow, steadying it with one hand as I pull Wolf down over my forehead with the other, adjusting him until the rabbit is centered between his massive fangs. I draw back the bow and see the snake in the corner of my eye, inching toward my dinner. I am trying to decide where to aim when a faint voice behind me raises every hair on my neck.

I stand and turn around, bow drawn and heart pounding in my neck. The blurry owner of the voice is walking toward me, shouting my name every few steps. I stand frozen in silence, barely breathing as the figure moves out of the cool shadows of the trees and slowly comes into focus. When I see his face, my heartbeat becomes deafening and a surge of electricity shoots from my crown to my feet, setting my insides on fire. I see the arrow paused in mid-air between us before I even realize I’ve let it go. The forest becomes sickeningly quiet as time stalls with my heart.

The thud of the arrow piercing through Tok’s chest echoes off the mountains, perforating his fading last words like a ghostly drum.

“I opened the portal…please come home…”