A soothing breeze marked the end of this treacherous journey I’ve been on for the last three days. I’ve ridden Sheena for years through worse conditions but it hurts me to have her go on such expeditions in this age. For all she’s been through, she needs to laze around in a nice ranch in her final weeks. I could feel the delight in her bounce as we grew closer to our destination. Yet, this was not about finally making it to the place. There was something delightful about this town. Unlike the rest of the settlements in the west, this was the only place that felt alive. The scorching heat was now behind us and a unique warmth welcomed us inside.
The town was perfectly holed up in the valley of these dusty mountains while a spread of wild shrubbery masked the face of the town, making for a convenient camoflauge. It was unnerving to see such luscious greenery in the west, especially in the wild. There was a mile of road through the forest to go through. Judging by the parallel cavity tracks, caravans were the only ones to use the road. The fresh wind of the jungle revived Sheena’s gloomy old face. It had been years since we’ve ever been inside a jungle. Halfway through, I stopped in my tracks as soon as I heard a tiny squeak. I waited for a few seconds and heard two more. My eyes darted in the direction of the sound where I spotted two big brown squirrels.
‘Impossible’, I muttered and slowly got down from Sheena. With muffled footsteps, I walked in their direction to get a closer look. I questioned my conscience if it was worth to hunt the probably last pair of squirrels in the world even if it were to fetch me a full bag of gold. While I got closer, thier tails suddenly shot up and they darted inside the forest. They didn’t even notice me. They probably heard something inside. I decided to spend my good time on following these squirrels. Watchfully, I creeped through the place like a sharp reptile hoping to catch a glimpse of another extinct being.
The ground beneath me looked like a field of little lights from the rays being scattered across by the meshy trees overhead. Through the tiny crunches of dry leaves at every footstep, I could hear a faint orchestra of birds chirping. I was startled to see birds flock a young boy on his knees on the ground, tending to something. The two bluebirds on his shoulder flew away as I approached him slowly. He was holding an injured sparrow in his hands that was bleeding profusely from it’s leg. I stood there for a few seconds observing and he still didn’t seem to notice me even though I stood just behind him.
‘You need to tie it up before it’s too late’ I exclaimed clearly. He turned behind to face me. My sudden appearence didn’t seem to startle him one bit. The boy was young. Probably younger than 15. His jet black hair grew down to his shoulders and he had a slender build. His sad eyes oozed empathy which made me feel emptier inside. ‘My house is an hour away sire. I don’t think she has so much time’ I could smell his sadness in the air, a sadness so pure and true which would only result from a loss too personal.
‘Don’t worry lad. Let me fix her up for ya’ I drew a fresh rag out of my jacket. It was too large for a bandage so I cut a third of it. He handed me the bird and I wrapped the rag tightly around it’s leg. It quivered with pain but never made a single sound. ‘Well, that should keep her alive for now. She’s fully grown so she’ll recover soon as long as she gets enough to eat. I’m sure you can take care of that.’ I handed him back his bird and a bright smile tore up on his face. Again, joy. As pure as that of an infant’s that gets the attention of its mother when it seeks. In the dark world which I come from, seeing something like that is as rare as spotting a squirrel. Even from kids his age.
‘Thank you kind sir’, he exclaimed with a new found energy. ‘I don’t know how to repay you. You saved my friend’s life!’ His happiness was infectious as I felt a smile take shape on my face. ‘There’s no need for that Sonny. You’re the kind of person that a rotten world like this needs. No wonder you people still have the greens around you. Feels like a trace of soul still looms in this place.’ He was puzzled with everything I said. His confusion made sense. These people have been living in total seclusion. They have no idea about the world outside. ‘Just stay the way you are. You seem to understand what’s most important’ I said heartily while I patted him on his shoulder.
A sudden chill ran up my spine. My hand reached the handle of my holstered dagger while I shook my head around looking for anything abnormal. I could feel like I was being watched, with malice. A hundred watchful eyes all around me, yet I couldn’t see a single person. The boy was taken aback with my perplexedness. A few seconds later, I could hear them moving. The leaves on the ground crunched, the branches around me creaked and wings flapped. I was being watched, not by people but by beasts. All kinds of beasts. From lizards to birds. From cats to hounds. Every beast around me felt like a cornered animal. One ready to fight with all its might to survive. A beast pushed so deep into desperation that it is ready to defy every law of nature to survive.
I stood around with total awareness while the gaze of the animals around me grew weaker. My hearbeat became more stable with every passing second. What did I do to trigger a response like that? I looked at the boy standing beside me, completely confused about what was going on. ‘Mister, are you all right?’ he asked me gently. I hadn’t gathered myself fully yet. I kept staring at him without anything to answer. I had grown so accustomed to conflict that it didn’t faze me anymore. Ten people trying to choke me to death in a bar was a weekly thing. It never gave me the shakes. Violence was just another small part of my life. Yet this was something else, something I’ve never had to face. It was as if I was facing the gruesome wrath of nature. There was nothing I could do.
Suddenly, my mind cleared. For some reason, I wanted to pat the boy again. It was very clear to me that this was what I had to. ‘It’s nothing lad, just got spooked for no reason’. I took a step towards him and gave him another pat on his shoulder. I felt the rush again. The rush of fear. Every strand of hair on my body shot up while I tried my best not to look spooked again. I felt the same malice flowing from every direction. This time my heart started beating even faster. I could feel myself breath faster. I felt stupid for even considering it. There’s no way that’s true. I looked at the boy again.
‘Boy, do you remember the last time you fell sick?’ I asked him. He looked at me with astonishment. He looked at me as if he had always expected someone to ask him about this and was baffled by the odds. ‘No. I don’t remember the last time I was sick. It’s strange, I asked my mother about this and she told me that I was stronger than the rest of the kids in town which is why I never got sick. But, why did you ask me this? Did something give it away?’
I tried my best to handle my shock. After standing frozen still for three seconds, I responded with a ‘heh, no reason’ with a quirky half smile. This could just be a co-incidence. Maybe it’s the town. These people live a cultured life. Maybe the boy just got lucky.
‘Don’t mind me. I don’t know why I say the things I do. But tell me, how old are you’, I asked him hoping that I was wrong. ‘I just turned fourteen two moons ago’ he said heartily, exclaiming how proud he was to be a year older than he was. I didn’t share his enthusiasm. I was getting all the answers I didn’t want to hear. There was no way this was happening. All logic told me that it was impossible but my gut wasn’t ready to give up yet.
‘Hey, have you ever seen a squirrel around these parts?’ I asked him. A question like that on the mainland would make people assume that I was insane.
‘Yes! There are so many squirrels here. As a matter of fact, two of them are here right now’. I got more and more nervous by the second. ‘Do you see them?’ I asked him.
‘No, but I know they’re here’ he said as a matter of factly.
‘You just know!?’ I asked him while wearing a very confused look on my face and he nodded in response as if it was something very normal. For some reason, I uttered a question without thinking. ‘Can you…. call them here?’ I asked him with a shameful pause halfway.
‘Yeah, sure’. He stared behind me and stood there without doing anything. He didn’t call out or even move a muscle. His empty stare was asnwered with some ruffling behind me. Two squirrels came sprinting from behind me from both sides and they ran up on his shoulder and started circling around while trying to maintain their grip on his shirt. The boy giggled as they crawled on him lovingly. They finally found a seat. One on his left shoulder and the other on the top of his head. The three of them looked at me. ‘This is Shawna and this is Randall’ he pointed at both the squirrels on him. I tried my best to get this over with my sanity intact.
‘Charming friends you have there. What’s your name again?’ I asked him.
‘Edward. Edward Forrest. But my friends call me Ed. You can too.’ He answered. I forced a smile upon my face. ‘Well Ed, I have some urgent business to tend to. I’ll be seeing you again.’ I waved him goodbye and walked back to my horse at an abnormally fast pace. Sweat rolled down my face while my heart still pounded heavily.
‘There’s no way’
‘Fourteen years! Someone should have noticed’
I kept muttering to myself on my way back. I untied Sheena’s hitch from the tree and hopped on. I looked back at the direction I came from.
“There’s no way he’s a soul keeper! They killed them all”