She could hear water.
Trickling gently, just out of sight. There was nothing in the road, nothing on the sidewalk, no rain for two weeks, no nearby river. Not here, not in the middle of multiple apartment blocks, caged in with perimeters of cracked parking lots and four-lane highways.
The only streams around here appeared in the rain and disappeared into the sewers. The only nature, the overgrown weeds on unused lots.
Well, no. That wasn’t completely true. There was one patch of trees she knew of: a natural barrier between her apartment complex and the next one over. A patch so thin she could see through to the other side, a chain link fence visible past the trunks. She saw it every day. Every day to and from the bus stop, to and from work, bundled against the cold or sweating in the heat, doing her best to ignore the college students scattered around her. Yawning in pajamas, coffee in hand, worrying about homework and tests and internships—
She blinked, her apartment door materializing in front of her. Water flowed in the background, a soft white noise with no source.
Her head hurt.
She needed to eat, to clean.
The noise mercifully cut off as her door slammed shut. Blessed silence, if only for a moment before the students living around her stumbled home, the thin walls barely muffling the noise.
She dreamed of water.
It was getting louder.
Even in the bright sun, in the dry, freezing wind, she could hear it. At night in bed, the sound of water cut through, always there, always in the background. Work became the only relief. Or the closest thing to it, as even then there were moments; while a customer complained, a manager lectured, or a fussy baby screamed, she swore she could hear it behind the words, behind the noise. Waiting to break through.
Her phone rang halfway between the bus stop and her apartment. Mom. There was only one reason she ever bothered calling anymore. What are you doing, what’s your plan, your brother never dropped out—
No, he hadn’t. And neither had she. She never wanted to leave.
But they would never know that. She’d forget it herself if she could.
Water rushed in her ears, louder than ever. A river blocking her thoughts. For one wild moment she thought she could see it, the white foam bubbling over rocks, the expanse between the banks, dark rapids rushing by. She could feel the spray on her face, smell it in the air.
And then it was gone, once again faded into the background as the phone fell silent.
It had been a nasty shock to realize student loans wouldn’t stop or go away whether you got your degree or not. She knew she couldn’t do this much longer. She was sinking, closer every day to slipping under.
“Come out with us.”
He sighed. Used to hold back that sort of reaction. He’d been so understanding at first.
“You’re always tired.”
“My job is hard.”
“It’s just retail.”
She didn’t respond. He sighed again.
“Another time, then.”
He didn’t say bye before hanging up. It would have been dead silent in her room without the water. A part of her was grateful for that.
She closed her eyes, not feeling as alone as she expected. The sound was oddly gentle, washing the tension away as in enveloped her.
When she opened her eyes again, it was jarring to be jerked back into reality in her sparse apartment. A sourness crept in through the back of her mind. She should have kept her eyes closed. If only she knew where the noise was coming from. Where to find it. How to get there.
She slept restlessly, dreaming of faces, ever changing, morphing from one person into another. Each one was more disappointed in her than the last.
She started searching. She left earlier and got home later. What little free time she had was consumed by her new efforts. Every day, she walked. Up and down roads, through abandoned lots, past strip malls, miles and miles through town. She ignored everything around her. None of it was what she was looking for. It didn’t matter. Not the people or their stares, the cars, the box stores across stretched out parking lots like desolate islands. Not even the cold that turned her face and hands blue.
It had to be here. It had to be somewhere if she could hear it so clearly. This water, this river, she knew she could find it. She had to. She could do this. If nothing else she could do this.
“It’s over. I’m done.”
“Seriously? Okay? Are you—oh, never mind. Whatever. Have a good life.”
“Where have you been? I haven’t heard from you in weeks.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“With what? Did you find an actual job? You can’t afford it there—"
“I really don’t have time for this right now.”
“What are you talking about? I’m worried about you.”
It was so obvious. All this searching, all over town, and the water had been right here the entire time. Of course it was. It’s where she first heard it, wasn’t it? Right by the apartment. Right here in the trees. She couldn’t see it yet, but she knew now, she knew it was here.
She stepped into the trees. There were more than she thought. More than she remembered ever seeing before. It seemed so sparse and thin from the outside.
It was so much more than that. A forest, a proper forest, deep and dark in the fading light. The town vanished behind her as she stepped inside. Even the sound of cars faded into silence. Nothing moved but her, the air itself still. Trees towered above her, so thick she couldn’t wrap her arms around them if she tried.
How had she missed this? This place was huge.
The water was getting louder. She couldn’t hear anything else beyond the deafening rush. If there were birds, or animals, or even wind, she couldn’t tell.
For a second something else—a phone maybe, or a car. It didn’t matter. It was gone soon enough.
The trees were never ending. No matter how far she walked, or for how long. She didn’t bother looking back. Not that it would have meant anything. It all looked the same, nothing distinguished one stretch of forest from the next.
It didn’t matter. She could feel the spray on her face, she could smell the water. It was real this time, she was sure. Any second she would find it. Everything would be okay. Quiet and still, looking to the sky through the flat surface of a pond.
Any second now.
Nicholas Wright is a horticulturist with a BS in ecology who writes fiction sometimes. He has a love for fantasy and horror fiction when not busy with plants or a hyperactive husky.