Chapter 1, Scene 2

Nokorimura Wake Up Call

[Scene 2]

Barreling through ashen underbrush, bounding over logs, and generally demolishing every branch in her way, Melania held nothing back - the Plague Woods would not stop her. Of course, the Plague Woods didn’t really want to. See, the Plague Woods has seen its share of freaked out ladies. And out of respect for them, or maybe even embarrassment, the Plague Woods generally cuts them a little extra slack. Why? Because the Plague Woods is good people. And maybe a little sexist. But overall, the Plague Woods is generally an upstanding and trustworthy biome. Not like Noppera-bō Mountain. Noppera-bō Mountain is a fucking prick. But I’m getting off track here. The point is that even though the Plague Woods is great, it’s still pretty dangerous. So, you know, not one of my top spots to get lost in.

Nattō and Eta stood at the edge of the forest. Like hungry dogs, they watched as Mel’s silhouette stumbled, slammed into a tree, and crumpled to the ground. A plume of dust leapt from the forest floor like an ersatz smoke signal. Apparently Mel’s legs didn’t warn her that they had clocked out for the night. Nattō was impressed that she’d made it this far. Eta struggled to keep Mel in view.

"I can reach her," Eta said. Eta, you see, was a victim of perpetual optimism and intractable dumbness.

Nattō shot him a look, and though Nattō would never know it, the look conveyed the precise emotion that waitresses feel when the old fucks at their tables make lame jokes and expect a laugh.

"You know the law,” said Nattō, “Now run to the village and summon him."

"What if he doesn’t catch her in time?"

"Then he will return to Nokorimura with her remains. And ours."

Eta ran as fast as his dumb body could go.

In a pile of dirt, Melania Trump clutched her arm and writhed like a wounded insect. The exertion of panic-sprinting left her gasping, choking on kicked-up dust. Her inhalations were sharp, shrill rasps, like those of a drowning woman. The sounds frightened her. So did the notion of her pursuers tracking her down by her noisy panting. She tensed up and forced herself to quiet, compressing her breath to a low wheeze.

Thank you Lamaze class.

Mel’s right arm (the one that fought the tree and lost) stung like she’d been smuggling bees in her sleeve. Spots of blood rose under her white kimono. It shocked her. Mel couldn’t remember the last time she had physically injured herself. Mel’s injuries nowadays were mainly of the heart.

She watched, entranced by the reddening sleeve. Her face relaxed. There was something soothing about the silent progression of blood through the silk. And while you might think it’s stupid to sit around and stare at your sleeve while strangers study you from the edge of the woods, I wanna remind you that everybody needs a little break now and then. Mental health is important, kids.

Now I admit, Mel’s mental holiday lowered her defenses, allowing that creep unconsciousness to move in on her. That’s why the moment Mel’s sugar cube of consciousness began to dissolve, some voiceless asshole deep inside her psyche spooned that cube back out of the dream-coffee and set it on the cold, cruel saucer of being awake. I’m that asshole by the way. Hi.

Hungry critters live on forest floors kiddo, and they love to swarm over wounded animals. They’re especially fond of dead ones.

Mel’s eyes widened. She was not, in fact, dead and, as if to prove it to critters unseen, she pushed up on all fours. The red shoulder of her kimono sucked against her skin and with a stinging tug she swiped it loose.

Dead people don’t bleed, she thought.

Shaking with fatigue, Mel crawled forward. Gnarled roots hindered her, but I got kind of a thing for gnarled roots, so I was happy to observe Mel’s struggle.

You can squeeze blood out of a dead body, Mel thought, but you it wouldn’t be like my blood.

Now remember kids, Mel’s mind was a still little spongy at this point, which is why she began to wax poetic on blood viscosity instead of focusing on the men determined to capture her.

Corpse blood, Mel reasoned, is probably a sort of horrible brown sludge. Like… Like the chocolate milk Father found under my bed.

Oh great, here we go.

Mel drifted back to childhood Slovenia. Which, I’ll grant you, is a hell of a lot more comfortable than scrabbling across a nightmare forest on your knees. She saw seven-year-old Melanija Knavs walking home. No, not walking, swaggering. That triumphant little swagger that was the seed of what would someday become a lucrative runway strut.

Melanija toted a patched canvas bag, more of a mail carrier’s satchel than a child’s book bag, and hidden within was a sky-blue bottle sporting the label ’Brestanica čokoladno mleko.’ Inside that bottle sloshed three-hundred and thirty milliliters of sweet chocolate mleko, won from Daria Kokot fair and square. Melanija adored it, and hid it so deep in her bag that Mother would never find it.

"Appearances matter, darling," was Mother’s mantra. And she practiced what she preached. Mother’s trim figure remained the one constant in Melanija Knavs’ household (well, apartmenthold). Mother had about as much use for chocolate milk as a eunuch does for animal-themed sex pillows. You know the ones.

Mel blinked back to the forest as the knobby roots pressed themselves sharply into her palms, bruising the soft tissue known to the Danish as the "hand-buttocks". Mel’s hands hurt, her knees hurt, just about everything connected to a nerve ending felt like shit. Lying down and getting caught was starting to sound pretty reasonable.

"Remember the best of life, darling," Mother used to say, "it is still there for you when you suffer the worst."

Mel sucked in a lungful of dusty air, hacked up something unpleasant, and continued on.

As she crawled past tall, white trees, she worked to recall the exact moment she won that priceless milk. In a flash, there was Daria Kokot’s red face looming over the weathered chessboard, checking and rechecking all the moves cut off by Melanija’s pieces. Daria huffed like a child half her age and scowled as though Melanija had just boiled her dog. Melanija Knavs, that boring little neighbor from down the hall - the one Daria trounced in chess; the one she fleeced countless times for sticks of chewing gum, super balls, and once even an American fashion magazine, was now Daria’s equal, maybe even her better. The thought of it set Daria’s teeth on edge.

"Milk please," Melanija cooed.

Daria stomped to her mother’s kitchenette, yanked open the refrigerator door, and rolled that bottle of milk across the living room rug with the bitterest enmity an eight-year-old can muster. The roll was too hard, but Melanija’s tiny, perfect hand shot out and caught the bottle just inches short of striking the Kokot’s cinderblock coffee table. A smirk graced Melanija’s lips. Then, as quickly as it surfaced, it faded into the innocent but stoic mask of all good soviet children. Daria absorbed the smirk and the galling certainty that Melanija wasn’t just some pretty little idiot. Melanija Knavs was a shark and a cheat. No, not a cheat exactly. An illusionist. She misdirected you. Lulled you into a sense of security before she sprang the trap.

And now the illusionist of Sevnica felt her chest warm with the memory of that little victory. Her mind then strayed to the sour conclusion of her chocolate milk episode. Father’s livid face. The bottle’s nauseating stench. Mel pushed that thought away and returned to the here and now. Here and now she was still in pain, still cold, still sopping with greasy, black water. Here and now the men who fished her out of that horrifying river were still planning her capture.

Mel found a hollow space in a desiccated tree and stuffed herself inside. The wooden cocoon was inconspicuous, virtually invisible to anyone approaching from the north, east, or west. Its teardrop shape also trapped some of Mel’s body heat, which was an unexpected perk. She settled in, scraped the dirt off her hands, and massaged her temples. When the dubstep concert of her throbbing headache died down, she listened.

If you don’t count the shivering, Mel sat still for hours, watching, listening, and noting the moon’s slow ascent. Mel decided that if the river men finally decided to man up (y’know what, let’s not unsex them just for being cowards - if they finally decided to human up) and enter the forest, they were being damned quiet about it. No snapping twigs or skittering rocks. In fact, she heard nothing at all. No birds, no bugs, not even wind through the trees. And the longer she listened the clearer it became that no one was following her anymore.

Maybe they just gave up, Mel thought. Maybe they’re afraid of the woods? Good.

Or very bad.

What are they afraid of, she wondered.

Mel didn’t spot any dangerous "critters" up in the branch canopy. In fact, she couldn’t spot another living thing. This place was like a desert wearing a forest disguise. Leafless. Lifeless. All the trees were the color of diseased eggshells, spiderwebbed with cracks and fissures, every single one absolutely bare. The forest smelled like old library books and sometimes maybe like dried blood.

Mel touched the bark of the tree she in which huddled. Irregular tumorous knobs ribbed the surface like mutated braille. She chipped away at a segment of bark; it peeled back fibrously. When she pried it loose she saw it was riddled with tiny, dried up capillaries, like a stalk of celery.

Or a bone.

Mel dropped the wood and wiped her hands on her damp kimono.

This pale forest was frightening of course, but there was more to it than that. Mel felt an overwhelming melancholy here: it was a lonesome place. But c’mon, what did you expect? It’s not called the Plague Woods because it’s fun for the whole family.

Mel turned toward the starless, purple sky. The fingernail moon had reached its zenith. In the distance, the silhouette of a mountain loomed unnaturally high and narrow - like a piece of evil candy corn. An arc of lightning illuminated its face. Okay, it was not candy corn, just miles of snow-capped rock. Mel was too tired to notice that the thunder never came.

Mel thought about the strange clothes that her pursuers wore. Like something out of a museum. None of it made sense, but right now, sitting exhausted in the crook of a tree, Mel only had space for one slice of crazy at a time. And her recent baptism in a pool of dead jerks was still plenty to chew over.

Dante Alighieri’s lazy river ride.

She surprised herself by letting a bark of laughter escape. Her voice was rough, unfamiliar. Not quite Tom Waits, but definitely somewhere on that spectrum. It’s not surprising: coughing out lungfuls of river silt then sprinting until you taste blood would make anyone hoarse. Only now that she’d slowed down and cleared her head did she fully appreciate the damage she’d done to her pipes. She felt like she’d gargled whiskey and crocodile teeth, which would have been preferable to the corpse-flavored marinade that still saturated her taste buds.

Mel licked her chapped lips, then dry-tongued some grit out of her gums. She felt like one of those internet kids who wolf down a mouthful of cinnamon powder then cough, or throw up, or explode - I don’t know, I never watch shit like that all the way to the end. I have a short attention span. Also a surprising lack of interest in watching humans barf.

Next Chapter: Chapter 1: Nokorimura Wake Up Call