I trudged along behind the two of them, my feet crunching the dry leaves underneath as I walked. The woods looked cheerful, with sunlight slipping in through the cracks in the overhead canopy. It smelled of dew and freshly mowed lawn. I could hear rustling in the leaves, as birds flew in and around, chirping shrilly. Matt and Janet were walking a little way ahead, as I went slowly, taking in my surroundings.
I had always loved the woods for as long as I could remember. The sheer uncertainty of what could be lurking just behind a leaf in front of you thrilled me, and the vastness of the trees never failed to take away my breath. It was an odd feeling, something I was attached to since I was a kid. I had early memories of my dad taking me to the park in the middle of the town, which was surrounded by the dense forests. The park in itself was very ordinary, and I would always find myself evading my dad’s eyes to go venture out in the woods. It so happened one day that I actually succeeded in doing so, while my father stayed behind reading a newspaper on the park bench. My four-year-old mind was absolutely mesmerised to see the greenery and the inexplicable sounds that called me from its depths. I found a trail covered in leaves, and I was about to follow it when I was scooped up by my dad from behind. I remember throwing a tantrum after that, about how much I wanted to go along that trail. I was told it was an abandoned road, and nobody was allowed to go in there.
Precisely because it was forbidden, I desperately wanted to go there. One morning I was out biking with my friends, and I drove straight inside before they could say anything. I found the trail, and biked along it, feeling the chilly wind in my face. Out of nowhere, my ears popped so hard I felt tears in my eyes. There was a high-pitched ringing around me, as I stopped in the middle of the forest. I hadn’t realised how far I had come, but something felt off. A blanket of cold air wrapped around me, and just as soon as it did, it vanished. I remember the hammering in my head, as I passed out soon after. I was found by my parents and two police constables a few hours later. My head was still pounding, as I was carried back to my house. I had no idea what had taken place inside the forest, but I knew it had messed with my head enough to have my perception on reality morphed. I noticed how my bike wasn’t purple anymore, but a sick shade of green, and how my dad didn’t wear his glasses. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw my dad walking without them. I overheard my parents saying how my hair had grown in a matter of hours, from the last time they saw me leaving with my bike.
After that, the more I started noticing the subtle changes around me, the more it drove me insane. I could have sworn Janet was a blond, and not a red-head. I had always had a Persian cat, and not a Siamese. It was as if everything was the exact same, but oddly different. I tried telling my parents, and they chalked it up to my hyper imagination. With time, however, I settled in. I accepted that we never had a ‘Mrs. Tee’ at school, and our class teacher was a young man named Mr. Tim. I learnt to nod every time my parents brought up an incident involving my antics that I had no memory of, lest they thought I was losing it. It was a lot of thinking for a kid, but I managed. Soon, things became normal, as I got used to the changes. Whatever happened in that forest was gradually forgotten, and I moved on with my life.
I grew up with Matt and Janet. After high school, the three of us moved to the other side of the town for college. It was comfortable and pleasant, being with some familiarity, and we were doing great. There was a hitchhike trail not far from our dorms, and we often packed up and went for long walks on weekends. There was nothing inherently wrong with my life, except for the first five years. I never quite got around to analyse everything that happened, and the topic itself was something that was never brought up. I had assumed it was the fall that had messed with my consciousness, or maybe I was just forgetful.
One of the few things that remained constant was my love for forests. The first time I went camping with my parents and my cousin, I had felt unprecedented happiness. I never got tired of the thrill it brought with it, and soon it turned into a habit. I would take mostly Janet and Matt for impromptu camping trips, even after we went to college. It was a fun activity, and somehow made me feel like everything was okay.
Today, we packed everything up and took Matt’s truck for a three-day camping trip. It was the in middle of June, and all three of us were sweating profusely. We parked the truck at the entrance, and had been walking for the last one hour along the trail that took us to the camping grounds. We didn’t meet anyone except for a burly middle-aged man, who was coming down the trail and passed us without a wave. It was a trail we hadn’t taken before, and was allegedly an abandoned one. I had a map with me which gave us a general idea about the direction we were going to, and honestly wasn’t that helpful.
“How much longer do we need to walk?” Janet huffed, positioning the strap of her rucksack on her shoulder.
“Shouldn’t be long,” I replied, trusting my memory. “Another half an hour maybe?”
We walked in silence for the next few minutes, feeling the grasp of nature around us. It was eleven in the morning, and the sun was almost directly overhead. I spotted a woodpecker on the trunk of a huge tree, its little head bobbing up and down as it pecked the wood.
We decided to take a break when the heat got unbearable. We unrolled the mat Janet had and sat down in the shade of a tree. I took a sip from the water bottle I was carrying and looked around. There was a steady line of ants carrying a dried dead body of a wasp on their back, marching to the hole up ahead. I chuckled a little when I remembered an incident from when I was younger.
“What?” Matt asked, raising an eyebrow.
I smiled. “Remember how you tried to climb up that tree in your backyard and wanted to break the wasp’s nest? I’m so glad you fell down before you could reach it.”
Matt blinked at me. “Huh? When?” He looked like he had no clue.
“I think we were maybe four? You had a huge gash on your forehead after that,” I said, and realised what was happening. It was one of those memories which were exclusively mine, even though I shared them with others. In reality, they didn’t take place. I shook my head and sighed. “Never mind.”
Janet laughed softly. “Zeke, how do you come up with these stories? I remember when you asked me why my mom had allowed me to dye my entire hair red when we were, like, five. It’s almost as if you have a different reality in your mind.”
“Maybe,” I mumbled, quietly enough for them to not catch it. I put my hand inside my pocket and pulled out my phone. I flipped the camera to the front and held it in front of us. All of us scooted closer and smiled, as I pressed the button. We looked at the photo and laughed. Matt’s face was crunched up like it usually was every time we clicked a photo.
Before we got up again, I decided to take a leak. I excused myself, took my phone and walked away from the two of them into the bushes. I found a particularly dense area and relieved myself there. I looked around, trying to spot any kind of flowers to click a picture of. I wandered in deeper, stomping over dried twigs and loose branches. I would’ve almost missed it had it not have been for the pink flower I stooped close to examine.
I realised there was an opening behind it. I cautiously stepped forward, swatting away the wild branches smacking me in my face. A fleeting thought of texting Matt about my whereabouts crossed my mind, but I figured they were probably enjoying there time alone, and could wait for me a while longer.
It turned out to be a wide leaf-ridden road, almost invisible behind the shrubs, like it wasn’t meant to be discovered. Naturally, it piqued my interest, and I surged forward. It looked like any other trail, but I could see how unused it was. There was a thick bed of moss on the sides, and no visible foot-lines. I walked ahead cautiously, feeling the subtle cacophony of chirps in the air. It felt detached from the rest of the world, as I made my way through the shrubs that came up to my knees.
After a few minutes of walking, I emerged into a small clearing. I had a strong sense of déjà vu wash over me as I looked around. I felt like I had been there before, which shouldn’t be possible. I heard a low rustling sound, slowly getting louder, coming from all around me. I sucked in a breath as I felt the cold air seep down on me, and my ears popped. It got unbelievably cold for a minute, and with an almost audible woosh, it was normal again. I was panting heavily, trying to make sense of what just happened. Pictures of me standing in the middle of the woods, crying, from when I was four, surfaced in my mind. I had just replayed the exact moment that distorted my grasp on reality as a child.
I really wanted to turn back, but something told me I had to move forward. I walked a few steps, and then I heard voices. Children laughing, and adults talking. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach as I noticed the park in front of me. I realised I was at the edge of the forest, and I stumbled out. The park looked strikingly familiar, and it didn’t take me long to remember. It was the same park I used to come to as a kid. But it was impossible, that I would be here. I was practically at the other end of the town, from where we were hiking. There was no way in hell I would be here in such a short amount of time.
I walked through the park, feeling the eyes of the people on my back. The voices hushed down as they all looked at me curiously. I grew up in this town, of course they’d have known me. But all the mumbled voices made me think that something different altogether was going on.
Instinctively, I started walking towards my house. I tried smiling at people who looked at me dumbfounded, and I wondered if something was stuck in my hair. I noticed that the streets had changed – no doubt they took to renovating the old town after I left – but I got a weird gut feeling. The change somehow looked…normal. Like I had seen the town like this before, with the lampposts drooping over the top instead of the long straight poles I grew up seeing. The stores to my right were lined up in the exact order I had expected them to be in, even though they weren’t like this when I had left. It felt surreal, like I had seen this entire thing before it took place.
I reached my house and rang the doorbell. The garden was unkempt, which was very unnatural for my parents. They loved gardening and kept the place neatly trimmed. A small woman stood in front of me as the door opened a minute later. She was frail and old, and looked so fragile I wanted to hold her in my arms. I felt my jaw dropping in shock as I realised it was my mother. I saw her expression change from utter sadness to confusion to ecstasy. Without a warning she wrapped her arms around me and started weeping on my shoulder, her body racking with sobs.
I hugged her back, confused out of my mind. She was healthy and cheerful when I left her two months ago. What happened to her? And why was she crying?
“Mom? Hey, I’m here, it’s okay. Let’s go inside,” I said softly, stroking her back.
Her cries turned to howling as she continued crying. “Oh, my Zeke, you’re back, you’re-“
I was scared of creating a scene, so I gently ushered her inside, clutching tightly to her waist as she went on wailing. I sat her down in the living room sofa, which had a different wallpaper from what I last saw, but I couldn’t care less about that. I held her as she gradually calmed down, stroking the back of her head gently. I was almost scared I was going to crush her, she looked so fragile.
After sometime, she sat back up, wiped her face and looked at me. Her face broke into a smile as she took me in. “You’re okay, thank the gods you’re okay,” she mumbled under her breath.
I chuckled dryly. “Mom, I was just gone for a few months. What went down? What are you so upset about?”
She looked blankly at me. “Honey, you’ve been gone for fifteen years. I thought I lost you!”
I pinched the bridge of my nose with my fingers. I didn’t realise my mom would be losing her sanity this early; she wasn’t even that old. I held her arms, trying to sound rational and said softly, “Mom, I was always here. I’m your son, I never left you.”
“No, no! You don’t remember? After that night you got lost in the woods, nobody could find you! The entire town was looking for you, but you never turned up? Don’t you remember anything? Baby?”
I took a deep breath. I realised this was harder than I had realised. “Mom, where’s dad?”
She was still weeping softly, and looked down when I said that. “He’s in his room, sleeping. Hasn’t been doing well since we lost you.”
I felt something forming in my gut. Was she serious? I got up and started pacing around the room, trying to make sense of whatever was happening. I tried to play along whatever mom was talking about.
“Okay, so, I was lost? The day I went into the woods? What happened after that? I don’t remember anything.”
“We tried searching for you, and after we couldn’t, we called the police,” she said. “They swept the entire town and well into the forest. All the neighbours and friends were involved in the search. Nothing came up, and-“ she scrambled around for something on the table in front of her, and produced a wrinkled paper from underneath the table-mats. “We stuck these everywhere, and did whatever we could but…” she stopped and took a deep breath, handing the paper to me.
It was a photo of a kid, who looked like me. “Zeke Wilson, 4 years old, last seen on 5th November 2004, around the Jackson Memorial Park…” It was a missing-child poster, and the missing person was me. It was my photo, smiling, with a tooth missing. I felt my head spin a little as I handed it back to mom.
“Mom, you don’t understand, I was never missing! I was found by you two and stayed with you and went to school and left for college…” I tried searching for words. It was definitely a prank.
“What’s all this noise? And who’s this-“ a voice spoke to my right. I looked to see my father standing at the threshold of his room, looking straight at me. “Zeke?”
I went up to him and hugged him; I was almost scared if I didn’t do that he would disintegrate. He looked just like my mom, if not worse – frail and weak. His glasses made his eyes look huge.
“Hey, dad,” I muttered, not sure what else to say.
He sat down beside my mom on the sofa and looked down at his hands, tears uncontrollably trickling down his face. “Zeke, you’re back, you’re here, oh my god.”
I gave my parents a minute to compose themselves. I told them everything, how I wasn’t actually lost, how I came back to them after I got lost. I told them about my entire life, up till the hike I was supposed to be at when I discovered the trail that led me to here. The same trail where I had gotten lost fifteen years earlier. They listened to me in disbelief, trying their best to understand what I was saying. After I was done, my dad got up and walked up to the chest of drawers in the corner of the room. He opened one and pulled out a small box. He gave it to me before sitting back down on the sofa.
I opened the lid and fished out a bunch of papers. They were newspaper clippings, dating back to the time of my ‘disappearance’ in 2004. They talked about the search going on for the local boy named Zeke Wilson, and how devastated the entire town was with the unfortunate incident. I went through them quickly, put them back in and placed the box on the table. This wasn’t real, I told myself.
“It seemed like you had vanished into thin air. We couldn’t find a trace of you,” said dad, removing the glasses and wiping his eyes. “Evidently, we didn’t take your loss well. It killed us,” his eyes began welling up with tears again.
I tried to arrange everything in my mind. Assuming whatever my parents were saying was true and the newspaper clippings and the missing poster was real, I wasn’t supposed to be here. I disappeared from this town when I was four, the exact year when I experienced the subtle changed which unsettled me. In hindsight, I should’ve realised my father was wearing glasses which he never did, but I had memories of him wiping them when I was a kid.
I wanted to check out something, and I ran to the backyard. I found the empty shed and went inside. My old bike was standing against the wall, a little rusty, but I could make out the purple colour – like it used to be before I went into the woods. I came back to the living room, slightly swaying on my feet, as everything slowly registered in my brain.
A question blossomed in my mind, and I found myself asking my parents about Matt and Janet. They seemed to think for a minute before answering, like they weren’t sure who I was talking about.
“Matt and Janet? Oh, the kids you used to play with?” mom asked, “Sorry we never really kept touch with them after you disappeared.” I flinched every time they said the d-word.
“But I think Matt is still in town,” said dad. “Janet moved away with her family a few years ago.”
I sighed. I understood what the stares and whispers meant in the streets. The older people definitely recognized me, my eyes were unmistakably grey. I wanted to shout, wake up from this nightmare. Were the last fifteen years of my life just in my head, and didn’t really take place?
“I’m very uncomfortable right now,” I mumbled. “Do you mind if I excuse myself for a bit?”
Without waiting for a reply I stormed out of the house. I felt bad leaving them behind, but I wanted answers desperately. I walked down the streets, which looked eerily familiar in a way I couldn’t place. I remember the trees being in that exact place, but I knew they weren’t there when I left my house a few months ago. I went straight to Matt’s and pressed the doorbell. He opened it in an instant and I was engulfed in a bear hug. I was relieved to see him, honestly, but he looked different. Not the one I had left behind with Janet in the forest.
“I have no idea what’s going on right now, but I heard my neighbour talking about Zeke Wilson returning and I could kiss you right now. Where the hell were you?” he was practically screaming.
I tried to smile. I noticed a scar on his forehead and when he saw me looking at it, he laughed. “Wasp nest, remember? Or have you no memory of it at all?”
I was relieved and horrified at the same time. So all those memories I talked about that nobody understood were real, and it wasn’t my hyper active imagination. Horrified, because my life seemed to be falling apart.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I stayed at his place for a few hours before returning. I couldn’t make myself repeat my entire life again, so I just told him I had no memory of what went down in the past fifteen years. Things were extremely difficult after that. I tried going back to the forest, but I never found that trail again. I even took Matt along and he told me ‘it never existed’. My reality wasn’t making sense, and things which didn’t exist used to be part of my life. It felt like the way I felt when I was four, when things were oddly familiar, but slightly different.
The police visited my house frequently after that day. I told them everything I knew, and they looked equally confused. I knew it wasn’t something that could’ve been solved by anyone in this town. I found articles on the internet about the ‘Lost Boy Zeke’ and others of the same sort. It low-key felt good, everyone was so happy to see me, even though I was at a complete lost. I felt like I was robbed of my entire life. I spent hours researching about lost time and glitches in reality which sounded ridiculous. Surprisingly, most of the stories mirrored mine. I read about how people had ‘glitches in the matrix’ and ended up at places which shouldn’t exist. I spent days skimming through others’ records of similar experiences, and it started making sense. I read about parallel dimensions existing alongside ours, and how sometimes there were overlaps at certain places. I wondered if I had entirely lost my senses, every time I found myself considering these bizarre explanations.
There’s not certainty about it, but apparently, I had stumbled through an interdimensional portal on that trail. The idea of which is extremely unbelievable, but I had no other explanations. When I was five, I went through it to another dimension, where they found me and I lived my life as that dimension’s Zeke. Meanwhile, my original dimension lost it’s Zeke and I entirely disappeared from existence. The differences in the dimensions made sense now – all the things that were out of place were the little dimensional disparities. I got mentally drained as I tried putting two and two together, but I kept this abominable theory to myself.
I tried calling Janet’s number that was saved in my phone, but turned out it didn’t exist anymore. I wanted to find something, anything that would remind me of my last fifteen years, but it was always in my mind that we were dimensions apart. I needed to make a new life here, get used to the happenings here and update myself about whatever had happened while I was ‘gone’.
Sometimes, I felt like it was Alzheimer’s, and that my brain was shrouded by something I had no clue about. I tried to chalk everything up to a serious mental illness, like all my psychiatrists diagnosed me with. However, every time I opened my phone and came across that photo I took in the forest, everything fell apart. I clearly saw Matt’s scarless face and Janet’s red hair, reminding me of a life I left behind – a life I stumbled upon accidentally when I went down a forest trail that didn’t exist.