The next day, when Samantha awoke, all the other clan people were already up and ready, backpacks filled, gear on. Ji wore a black and grey bandanna on his head, and held his walking stick to his side. Grandpa was lacing up his boots. Harr sat on his cot with his hand on his head, thinking.
The others had prepared a little backpack for Samantha, filled with a few essential items — some dried fruit, water bottle, a notebook, a compass, and a hat, resting on top the backpack.
“Well then, I see you’re all up and ready. Let’s go,” Samantha said. Samantha removed the hat and put it on her head. It was a round-brimmed hat, perfect for keeping the sun out.
As she led out from the camp, the entire clan gathered to see them off. There were nearly 75 of these green clans men, observing the departing party with awe. Hardly any of them spoke. Samantha wondered what they thought of her — perhaps they felt spite, since she was taking their leader. Or perhaps she was a kind of savior, one who could find these lost people. Either way, she was eager to get out of the camp.
Samantha walked in the lead down the departing trail, with Grandpa directly behind her, and then Harr, Ji, Knife, and Philos. Samantha led out as if she knew where to go, although really she didn’t have a plan. At any rate, Samantha thought it was good to show confidence, to establish that she was the leader on this expedition.
As she walked, she thought of the voices she heard the night before, the distrust she felt with Ji. She had to keep a close eye on him, but at this point, she had nothing to fear with Ji. He was dependent on her leading him to the lost people, and until she did, there wasn’t anything to fear.
“Did you get enough sleep last night, Ji?” Samantha asked.
Ji paused. He had been up much of the light planning with his companions. “Plenty, dear. And you?”
Samantha didn’t answer for a bit. “The accommodations were … very thoughtful,” she said.
They walked on, mostly in silence, for several hours. The trails zig-zagged all over the forest, and although she didn’t know where she was going, she knew that Harr and the others knew the forest trails intimately. They wouldn’t be lost — not until they cleared out of the Wabash section of the forest. Until they did get lost, she would still be in their advantage.
Grandpa was lagging a little bit behind, and had slipped to the back of the line at his insistence that the others move ahead. Seeing Grandpa breathing heavily, she decided to stop and rest. They found a downed log and used it as a bench. Some of them opened up water bottles and began to drink.
“Can I ask, Samantha, what your plan is for finding this people?” Ji asked.
Samantha reached into her bag, as if situating things. She didn’t respond. She wondered if the song would return, and if it did, would it somehow guide her? What if the song wasn’t connected with the lost people at all? What if there really weren’t lost people? What if this were an elaborate scheme Ji and Harr concocted as a trap?
“First we need to get out of the Wabash forest,” Samantha said. She wanted to consult with Harr, but she didn’t want Ji or the others to hear. This was a tricky expedition, because Ji was always there. They sat quietly, each drinking from water bottles and wiping sweat from their brows.
When a few were ready to begin again, Samantha said, “I want to confer with Harr about a few things related to navigation,” Samantha explained. “You go on ahead and follow this trail. We’ll catch up.”
The others shrugged. Grandpa lowered his eyebrows in suspicion at the brief separation but ultimately shrugged as well.
Harr looked at Samantha with soft eyes, as if looking for understanding.
“Harr,” Samantha said. “Do you trust Ji?”
“Uh, I guess so,” said Harr.
“I heard them talking the night before the trip. They were conspiring about something. I am not sure there are actually ‘lost people.’” Samantha said.
“What do you mean?” Harr said. “What about the map? The records? This is what we’ve always been taught.”
“Taught by whom”? Samantha said. “By Ji? What if this is what he wants you to believe.”
“But what about the music of the map. It matched your song,” Harr said.
“I haven’t exactly figured that out yet,” Samantha said. “But I don’t trust Ji. He knows a lot more about these people than he’s letting on. I almost fear that maybe we’re hunting them, rather than trying to find them.”
Just then Ji appeared back at the trail. “Do you have the navigation sorted out yet?” Ji said. Harr looked up, and Ji could see distrust in his eyes. Harr looked at Ji suspiciously.
Harr and Samantha got up and followed Ji and the others. They didn’t say anything to Ji for a while, and Samantha started to think Ji might know they were onto his plans, so she made up some smalltalk.
“We were trying to figure out the shortest path out of the Wabash,” Samantha said. “We considered the traditional paths but thought it might be better to take a few shortcuts.”
“Hmmm,” Ji said. “And as a map maker, I thought Harr would already be familiar with the best routes for us.”
“The best routes?” Samantha asked. “This would assume you know where we’re going.”
Ji didn’t respond for a bit. “My fault. Of course.”
They soon caught up with the others and continued hiking all that day. They passed through the heart of the Wabash, twisting and turning through a canyon trail that seemed to extend forever. While they walked, Grandpa often told them about astronomy theories, and would often ramble so incessantly that he was talking to himself.
“That’s when I first learned about solar flares,” he was saying. “When I was younger we had a telescope and I tried looking at the sun but even glancing at it I knew I’d hurt my eyes, so I tried to redirect the lens and passing it through a filter. And when we did see the flares, we wondered what happens to all that energy? to that release of solar energy? Does it dissipate forever into space, or does the gravity of the object pull it back and force another flare? Well my colleagues and I spent months studying this effect until another phenomenon caught our attention — red dwarfs….”
“Sir,” Ji said. “It appears your knowledge of astronomy is extensive, but in the daylight now, is it really of use?”
Grandpa mumbled something and then eventually turned quiet. After a few minutes of silence, he started up again. “Ji, just how long ago did these people get lost?”
“About 100 years ago,” Ji said. “My grandfather was a teenage boy then. His father was leader. My father says they were kind of a rebellious group before they left. They never quite fit in with the others.”
They had hiked about 15 miles so far — more distance than Samantha or Grandpa had been accustomed to covering in a day. The Wabash forest had about a 20 mile diameter. They would need to keep hiking all the next day if they were going to clear the forest. But even if they left the Wabash, what chance would they have of actually coming into contact with the lost people, especially if there didn’t want to be found?
Samantha mentioned their need to rest, and suggested they find a place to camp for the night. Ji wanted to keep moving but understood that Grandpa didn’t have the endurance, so he reluctantly agreed. His two companions unpacked two pitch tents and set them up. The tents accommodated 3 people each, and mostly consisted of a center pole with a canvas overlay staked down around the sides.
As night fell, Grandpa, Samantha, and Harr climbed into one tent, while Ji and others slept in the other tent.
Grandpa removed his shoes and filled the tent with a smelly sock stink. Not ten minutes after Grandpa climbed into his sleeping bag, he was already snoring. He even farted a couple of times in his sleep.
Samantha lay quietly, trying to sleep but struggling to make sense of the thoughts racing through her head.
“Harr,” Samantha said. “What do you think we should do?”
“I don’t know,” he said. Tomorrow we will leave the edge of the forest, and I won’t know where we are anymore. It could potentially be dangerous, to become lost in a remote wilderness area. Anything could happen.”
Samantha thought about what to do. She didn’t have any comforting words for Harr. Harr made some notes in his notebook about the routes they had traveled that day, and then he eventually laid his head on his pillow.
As Samantha lay in her sleeping bag, she tried to hear any conversation that might be taking place in Ji’s tent. She could hear whispers but couldn’t make out voices.
After a while, the whispers stopped, and all was dark. Samantha started to drift off, and then she heard it. Faintly at first, the music swirled. She unzipped her sleeping bag and moved outside the tent. She wanted to move toward the music, as if it were in the distance.
The moonlight lit up the landscape with an eerie off-color light. Otherwise everything was dark. She walked into the dark, and the music increased. She stumbled more quickly toward it, and the music grew louder. But it wasn’t coming from any particular direction. It was inside her head, equally loud in all directions. She closed her eyes and listened to it — the swirling and pounding and melodic intensities. She focused on the rhythms. What was it telling her?
She walked on the dark, trying to interpret the music she was hearing. Behind the music, almost as an echoing whisper, she could make out a voice. It was whispering something: “Go,” it said. “Go.”
Although Samantha concentrated more on the sounds, the music soon faded and everything was silent again. She stood still in the darkness for a minute, keeping her eyes closed. Now that the music was quiet, she opened her eyes and turned to go back towards the tent. As she turned and started to go, she jumped back, startled. There was a figure about ten yards behind her — a dark, towering, skinny figure, Ji.