PEOPLE WERE commonly taught there are two reactions to acute stress disorder: fight or flight. Joel knew there was a third, paralysis.
He stood awkwardly at the edge of hell, doing his best to appear calm. He shook the hair from his eyes, but it persisted in irritating his lashes. Sweat was making it droop farther down his forehead than usual, and he scanned the area before him through the haze of brown strands. He caught every minute movement in the trees and sway of grass near his feet.
The tapestry of greens bouncing in the wind would’ve been beautiful to most people, but not him. The trunks were four times the width of him, and they traveled up to the sky, so high the sun singeing his eyeballs stopped him viewing the top.
Compared to others, the Forest of Dean wasn’t the biggest, nor the most remote. With no dangerous animals or poisonous bugs, one of the safest places to trek into nature and on paper, it had been the starting point for Joel. The practice before he sought out bigger, denser, and scarier forests. He hadn’t expected to be haunted by such pain from the unassuming forest. It had been three years since he’d gone deeper, the paralyzing fear stopped him.
Joel’s heart thundered so much, he could see the slight jerk of his pectoral muscles in his peripheral vision. His lips were firmly pressed together to stop any shaking, and his hands were slippery even though he repeatedly wiped them on his parka. The closest tree got his attention. Ivy claimed it. The branches had spindled, the leaves were dead, and the weed constricted the trunk, wrapped its coils around life and infected it, weighed it, clouded it. For years the tree had grown high in peace and harmony, but ivy, gaining momentum, had destroyed it.
The ivy was a lot like fear. Joel had enjoyed the forest for years. He’d loved the peace, the freshness, and the raw beauty of earth. His friends had joked he was a seventy-year-old concealed in the youthful flesh of an eighteen-year-old. They’d spent their weekends watching football, going to the movies, and playing the latest computer games.
They hadn’t understood why he chose to walk deep into the trees each Saturday, armed with a camera and a picnic for one. He hadn’t known himself why he enjoyed it, so he’d had no hope in explaining it to them.
The worst was his ex-boyfriend, Keen. Keen enjoyed the city, dressed flashy, and loved the party life. He’d teased Joel mercilessly about his love of nature; he saw it as a rival to ridicule. On the rare occasions he’d joined Joel on his treks, he moaned loud enough to frighten the animals, kicked at the trees, and stamped on the shoots. The only way to stop his childishness was to promise him sex in the woods. Keen enjoyed the excitement of shoving Joel’s chest against a trunk and pushing deep inside—
“Thought I’d find you here.”
Joel sagged forward at the amused tone before turning on the spot to face the man behind him. The twigs that littered the floor snapped noisily as Keen made his way closer. His eyebrow was raised, brown gaze boring into Joel’s, and his mouth twisted at one corner. He oozed confidence. Joel was half-convinced it ran in his veins instead of blood.
Dressed in a pristine suit, he narrowed his eyes at Joel’s clothing. The camouflage pants he’d picked were baggy, easy to get on, and the parka around him was bright red. The brown and green ones had been too high for him to reach at the shop, and he hated asking for help. He looked tatty and homeless compared to the ordered Keen.
He attempted to barge past, but Keen threw an arm over his shoulder and tugged him close.
“Easy, there. We know which one of us will win in a race.”
He chuckled, patting Joel’s chest with his free hand like it was a joke they both enjoyed. The hand lingered, and Keen stroked the rustling parka.
“What do you want?” Joel hissed.
Keen clicked his tongue loudly, studying Joel’s face. The more he silently stared, the redder Joel grew. There was always want and amusement on Keen’s face. He had a permanently crude expression.
“It’s your twenty-first…. You need to celebrate. Come out with us. Have some fun.”
Keen’s idea of fun was sex, and that was something Joel had no interest in anymore. It was the depression that killed his sexual appetite, the sadness and confusion over what’d happened to him.
He shook his head, and the arm wrapped around his shoulder vanished.
“Come on, Joel. This pity routine is getting old.”
“I don’t want pity!”
Joel shoved him, but all it did was knock himself off balance on the uneven ground, and he stumbled.
Keen steadied Joel’s elbow to stop his fall. If Joel had been more balanced, he would’ve shoved Keen again.
“It will be three years since the attack.”
Joel glared at Keen, blue eyes meeting frustrated brown ones. He had once loved Keen’s confidence and authoritarian nature, but as he grew older, he saw the arrogance in his boyfriend, saw how he sneered at others different to him. Joel blamed the celebrity lifestyle Keen came from, and as the years went by, his attitude soured until only a few bursts of the old Keen remained.
“Three years since you lost the leg,” Keen mumbled, even though clarification really wasn’t needed.
Joel recoiled. Lost a leg. Keen said it like he’d forgotten where he placed it, left it on a bus, or threw it away by mistake. He didn’t lose his leg; his leg was cut off.
“My leg got amputated,” he hissed. “I didn’t lose it.”
Keen squeezed his brow with a weary sigh. “You know what I meant. It’s been three years, Joel. You keep coming back here, staring into the woods. Why? Do you want to be finished off?”
Joel’s face ached from his frown, brow scrunching and cheeks straining with aggression. It was a routine argument, one where Keen never quite understood Joel’s need to know all the facts of what happened that day.
“No, I want to remember!”
Keen huffed and took a few steps away. “You remember enough. We’ve filled in the blanks, the hospital has, Sally has, yet you refuse to move on.”
Joel wrinkled his nose at Sally’s name. It still unsettled him that Keen and his therapist were on a first-name basis.
“I-it doesn’t feel right.”
The weakness in his voice made him turn away. He didn’t want Keen to see how much it took to admit those words. The memory he had slotted together didn’t fit, felt wrong with jagged lines and uneven surfaces.
“Shock,” Keen mumbled. “You won’t recover the full memory because of the shock, the blood loss.”
“I-I just feel like I’m missing something.”
Keen closed the distance between them and grimaced down at his black shoes. Joel remembered Keen used to spend hours waxing them to a mirror shine, and they had been ruined in mere minutes on the edge of the forest. Keen grabbed both Joel’s arms and shook him.
“Let me help you, yeah? That day three years ago. You went walking in the woods, and something terrible happened.”
Joel tried to shuffle from Keen’s grip but gave up when Keen tightened his fingers.
“You kept telling me you’d seen a wolf. I didn’t believe you. You never got a picture, but you were so determined you went deeper that day than you’d ever been before.”
Joel stared solemnly at the ground. The wolf had been his secret. It was bigger than those he’d seen at the zoo, black as the night sky, and every time he’d brought his camera up to snap a photograph, it had vanished. He’d finally shared his experience with Keen, and he had barked with laughter. There were no wolves in this climate, no wolves in the forest or in the whole country apart from in captivity. Joel had felt stupid for telling him, started to doubt his own mind. Keen could never keep a secret, and soon enough, his group of friends had found out and laughed at his expense, claiming he’d got high on mushrooms in the woods and imagined it.
“You entered its territory, and it attacked you. It bit through your leg—”
Joel shuddered at the memory of stinging flesh, the smell of blood so intense he could taste it.
“It wasn’t a wolf, but some stray mutt that bit you hard enough to snap bone—”
It had split under jagged teeth like a toothpick, like a fickle twig with little pressure. Joel looked down at his hand, remembering it covered in blood, mud embedded in his nails as he tried to claw the ground to escape the teeth.
Keen matched his angry strides away with ease. “Look, I’m giving it to you straight ’cause I care about you. It wasn’t just your life affected that day, but mine too.”
“I lost a leg! What did you lose?” Joel’s eyes were watering, and he hated the reaction, blinked away the tears furiously. He had seen himself cry, knew his blue eyes looked more tragic and pathetic than most.
“My boyfriend. I lost my boyfriend,” Keen muttered.
The words were like a physical blow, and Joel hunched forward. “You can’t blame that on me, our relationship didn’t end because of me.”
Keen pinched the bridge of his nose and huffed. “I’m not blaming you, I’m blaming the situation. If you had never been attacked, things wouldn’t have got messy between us. You wouldn’t have shut me out, and I wouldn’t have done what I did.”
Joel opened his mouth to argue, to release some catty remark, but all that left his lips was a sigh. He knew there was truth to Keen’s words, knew he had shut him out after the attack. In Keen’s own way, he had been trying to help. Promising to take Joel away, pay for the best physiotherapy, and the most realistic-looking prosthetic. Joel had ignored him and focused on the blank space in his mind where he knew the memory of the attack should have been.
“I know I was cold with you, but that doesn’t excuse what you did.”
Keen held his hands up in surrender. “I know, okay? I know I messed up, but I felt rejected. You were different. You weren’t interested in me. It kind of just happened.”
Joel scrunched up his nose. “Kind of just happened?”
“Yeah, no emotions involved, purely physical. It didn’t mean I didn’t love you.”
Joel shuddered and walked away, only for Keen to grip his hand and slow him.
“I’m sorry. You weren’t the same guy you were before the attack.”
“Well, I’m sorry I was fucked-up. I’d just had my leg cut off—”
“I didn’t mean it like that… but, Joel, physically and mentally, you changed. You were always odd but sweet and sexy. Now you’re just—”
“Depressed and ugly?”
Keen shook his head. “No. I still want you, and I still care about you. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. You need to move on, have fun again. When was the last time you had fun, hey?”
Joel scrunched his lips tight before spitting out his words. “Fun isn’t just sex.”
Keen grinned coyly but dropped the expression once he saw Joel’s angry scowl. “You’re right. Going out, having a drink with friends, dancing…. That’s fun too, but you don’t do that either.”
He had never been one for the party scene. He kept to himself outside of college. Lazy barbecues, small gatherings with a laptop providing the music, that he enjoyed with his friends, but they all grew up and started going to gigs and music concerts.
“Come out with us. The others can’t wait to see you.”
“The others,” Joel said bitterly. “You mean your friends?”
Keen sighed, pinching the top of his nose. “They’re our friends and have been since school.”
“I haven’t spoken to them in years.”
Keen wagged his finger. “Whose fault’s that, hey? They tried to be there for you, but you kept pushing everyone away. You make them feel uncomfortable.”
“Is it that hard to look at me?”
Keen raised his hands in surrender. “You’re defensive, have been since the attack happened. Everyone feels like they’re on eggshells around you.”
Joel dropped his gaze to the floor. “I-I just want to be on my own.”
“Being on your own is doing you no good. Come out with us, only for a few hours, and if it’s unbearable, I’ll call us a taxi.”
“I’ll—I’ll just bring everyone down.”
Keen shook his head with a sure smile. “You won’t. It’s your birthday, after all. If you start having fun again, you might feel your mojo coming back too.”
Keen’s eyebrows danced, and Joel hissed a stream of curse words his way.
“Might work. You’ve tried therapy, pills…. Maybe it’s fun that will get you to full attention again.”
“I knew this was about sex.”
Keen tipped his head back and laughed. “It’s me, and I’ll always have a soft spot for you, Joel. The minute your libido returns, I’m gunna be the first to enjoy you.”
Joel stared, face neutral and voice masked. “Can’t wait….”