"Life is precious. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the Suicide Helpline listed below."
It was an old, weathered wood sign posted on the path to Hallows Forest in Maine—a forest known by locals for its strange lure to those who sought to end their lives.
Five college students lingered there, reading the sign thoughtfully. But August and her friends weren't suicidal. They were simply desperate for a distraction from their social-distanced rooms and classes and life. Outdoors was the only real option for some fresh air and freedom from virus-paranoia and its precautions.
Cass, Elsie, and Jenna were all students in August's dorm. Although they had only been at Eliade University for three weeks, they were easy friends. Jonathan was their resident advisor and had offered to bring the group out exploring.
For August, this exploration was a photographer's dream. She had seen images from Japan's notorious "suicide forest" online, but this was Maine's lesser known version.
Like Aokigahara, dozens of people entered Hallows Forest every year to take their own lives, but they left traces of themselves—dark remembrances hinting to their last moments. Hiking bags, shoes, discarded bottles of water and snack wrappers were littered amongst disturbed plants on the forest floor, indicating resting spots of the now deceased.
As they slipped beyond the eerie tree line that led into the forest, Jenna began complaining about how the trip was morbid.
"Whose idea was this again?" she whined. Jonathan reluctantly raised his hand from the front of the line. "So you're the dark mastermind, Jon?"
"Oh come on, Jenna, it'll be fun," Cass nudged her with an elbow. "Besides, it's not any more morbid than what's happening in every hospital in this state right now. At least we're not stuck at home with our parents for another miserable year."
"I hear that," August laughed.
"I wish I had thought to bring a camera," Jenna remarked, gesturing toward the one that hung around August's neck.
"You have your phone don't you?" August asked.
"The camera is busted on it," the black-haired girl grumbled.
"That's what you get for throwing your phone down the stairwell," Cass laughed.
"I didn't throw it, Cass! It slipped," she corrected.
"It slipped right after you got done screaming at your boyfriend on the other end?" Elsie's soft voice teased from next to August. All of them laughed at that as Jenna's face turned red.
"Ex-boyfriend," she mumbled.
"Ah, don't worry, Jen. Now you're free to chase after me," Cass winked and bumped into her on the trail.
"That's too bad your camera phone doesn't work, because I'm not sure much else on it will," Jonathan remarked as he held his own phone in the air. "No signal," he said, turning to look at all of them.
"No signal? Are you serious?" Elsie said quietly.
"Not much of a surprise," Cass said, bringing his own phone out of his pocket to examine.
"What if we get lost?" August asked.
"Ah, that's what I brought this for," Jonathan replied, dropping his backpack from his shoulder and retrieving a long red rope from inside.
"Planning to tie us up out here and leave us, Jonathan?" August's eyebrows shot up.
"Four against one? Unlikely," he replied. "Nah, this is so we can find our way back. Look around—it's not the only one."
As Jonathan tied one end of the rope around a tree, the others began noticing similar ropes strewn about. The trees looked like fingers in some kind of twisted cat's cradle game—all leading further into the forest. All leading down paths that others had walked.
"Wouldn't a compass be smarter?" Cass chuckled.
"It would," Jonathan smirked. "But for some reason compasses seem to act up here." The four others exchanged nervous glances.
"You're kidding, right?" Cass laughed.
"Why would that... happen?" Jenna muttered.
"No worries. That's why we have the rope," Jonathan ignored the question.
"Why were the other ropes left?" Elsie asked quietly. Jonathan finished tying his knot and tugged on the rope to check it was secure without answering.
"Jon?" Cass called, alerting him to Elsie's unanswered question.
"Probably because they didn't come back out," Jonathan said simply. The others looked at him in confusion.
"Didn't come back out?" Jenna eyebrows pinched together.
"This is called suicide forest for a reason, guys," he said simply. And with that, Jonathan led the way, pulling the red rope behind him.
August had read about this. As with Japan's Aokigahara, the reason as to why people flocked to Hallows Forest with suicidal intent was a mystery. Perhaps the dense forest offered a kind of welcoming womb to burrow into for the final moments of life, but that was hard to believe once you actually stepped under its canopy. The forest was eerily silent. It seemed like the living dead itself.
As the five walked further in, August and Elsie paired up on the trail. They wandered off together to investigate a t-shirt tied around a tree so August could get some photos before running to catch up with the others. The forest darkened the further in they went.
Jenna laughed at something Cass whispered to her, pushing him playfully for him to stumble off the path.
"Oh god," his voice plummeted to an uncharacteristic depth that had everyone turning to where he stood. He was looking up into the trees and backing away with a stunned expression on his face.
"What is it?" Elsie asked as she and August approached him.
"What did I tell ya?" Jonathan said ahead of them.
Swinging gently just above Cass's head was the frayed end of a rope. Four of them stood in silence looking at it as Jonathan turned and continued deeper into the forest without another word.
"Is that…" Jenna squeaked.
"There are hauntings everywhere," August whispered before bringing the camera up to her face and taking a picture.
"Come on, Cass," Jenna said gently, grabbing Cass's hand and pulling him to follow Jonathan.
Over two hours later, the group was gathered drinking water and preparing to head back to the university. Jonathan had finally run out of his rope, and the forest appeared to be getting impossibly darker by the minute despite the early afternoon hour.
"I can't believe the rope has an end," Jenna laughed. "I thought you were carrying Mary Poppins' bag back there, Jon."
"Speaking of which, I brought a snack," Jonathan chuckled and retrieved silver rectangular wrappers for each one of them.
"This isn't one of those protein bars that tastes like cardboard is it?" Jenna asked, looking at the wrapper suspiciously.
"It's an energy bar, but it's really good. I promise," he smiled. "We've got a ways to go on the way back, so give it a try."
"I'm tired already," Elsie whined and leaned her head against August's arm. "We have to do that again?"
"The way back will be faster," Jonathan reassured her.
"Not bad, thanks man," Cass said as he finished taking a bite of the energy bar.
"Hm. He's right. Thanks, Jon," Jenna agreed.
"I'm going to go take a leak," Cass said before wandering off.
"Don't go too far!" Jonathan called after him.
"What's in this?" August asked between chews.
Jonathan looked up to meet her eyes before glancing to see that Elsie was eating hers as well.
"Oh it's just oats, seeds, dried cranberries, and something else very special… just for you four," he smirked and withdrew what appeared to be plastic gloves from his bag.
August's chewing slowed, and she glanced over at Elsie and Jenna. Both girls had eyelids that appeared heavy. A loud thud sounded behind them in the forest, and Jenna slowly slumped over onto her side against the leaf-littered forest floor.
August dropped the bar and jolted up to a standing position just as Jonathan was snapping the black gloves on his hands.
"Oh not so fast, Augie, you'll hurt yourself," he stood and rushed toward her as the earth started to sway beneath her feet.
"D-don't call me that," she said, struggling against him as her heart thudded loudly in her ears, but her arms suddenly felt weak and heavy.
"You're taking longer than the rest of them. Interesting," Jonathan mumbled with his head tilted to the side in curiosity.