Paper Forests [being rewritten]

“While your children and grandchildren are away, I like to think that they’re visiting a fantastic place, somewhere where they aren’t restrained by an illness or held back by their own emotions, a place where there is nothing but health and happiness to greet them.”

When children and teenagers are on the brink of death, their souls visit a personal heaven before moving on to their final resting place.

This place is called the Paper Forest.

// Winner of 'Movella of the Year' 2017

// this cover is a work in progress.

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4. Chapter Two

As we continue our journey, the temperature begins to drop. The air is frozen lace on our skin, delicate and cold, like waves of winter across sand. One half of the sky is washed with grey, watery light, illuminated by the partially sunk sun. The other half is a matte blank canvas with no stars. Other than us and the darkness, all that seems to exist is the harsh bite of the air that can’t be blocked out by our clothes.

           

We build a campfire, but the heat seems to suck into the frigid air before reaching our frozen hands. We add more wood and poke it with sticks, but it seems to die a little each time, not ready to devour the new offerings. The light cast by the flames dances across the tree trunks, twisting and curling in obscure shapes. The fire itself is pulsating, matching every dip and sweep, the glowing embers moving in rhythm with the flames. It’s mesmerising to watch: an array of orange and red giving way to yellow and white near the centre, like the fire is charming our worries from us and sending them away with the dark smoke.

           

Ansel lays on a log with arms folded across his chest, rocking side to side and whimpering. He no longer needs to sleep, but his eyes are screwed shut with the determination to escape from this world, even if it’s just for a few minutes. I wonder what he thinks about as he lays there, if he thinks about his family, his home, or if his thoughts have been consumed by what’s going to happen to us.

           

Gracie sits at the end of the log by his feet, legs kicking the air, clearing the ground by several inches as they swing back and forth. Her face has an unhealthy look to it, and her eyes are hard as she stares at nothing in the distance.

           

“Are you alright, Gracie?” I ask, reaching out to rest my hand on her shoulder. She becomes still and quiet for a moment.

           

“No.” The word comes out almost like an accident, spilling out of her lips. Her hazel eyes lose their harshness, becoming rounder, glossier. Then her face buckles all at once, her breathing stopping momentarily as the tears begin to stream. She hits my hand away from her, stands up, and runs off into the trees. Ansel opens his eyes briefly, but he decides not to go after her.

           

He told me earlier that he thinks Gracie knows something about the Forest, although she doesn’t want to tell anyone. He said that giving her space would eventually force her to tell her secrets. I don’t think so, but there’s not much else for us to do.

           

The boy is sat on the log where I was before, close enough for us to have been sat together, but keeping his distance. The hairs on his arms are raised, and the bite of the wind has left its mark in the form of goose bumps across his skin. I imagine that the bite is more than flesh deep: blood running cold through his veins and his bones becoming chilled. The flames of the fire may look like they’re burning warm, but the heat refuses to reach our skin.

           

“Don’t you want to rest for a bit?” I ask, wondering if the chill is also working its way inside of me.

           

He shakes his head frantically, unruly hair falling into his eyes. They’re hard to see against the colour of his skin, but purple welts are scattered across his arms like a disease, a new one for each hour we’ve been in the Forest. A bruise that had begun as a purple stain above his eyebrow has sunk into the socket itself and now has the appearance of a black eye. He’s stopped rubbing at them so I presume that he’s not in pain.

           

“Why not?”

           

Then, the boy opens his mouth and whispers the first words he’s said since we arrived in this Forest. “I don’t want to sleep.” His words are accompanied by a dry laugh, almost as if he’s mocking himself. “My mind has the scary capability of being dark and demented.”

           

“You’re afraid of your dreams?”

           

“Yes,” he whispers. His eyes fill with shadows as if he’s seeing the darkness right now. I resist the urge to look behind me. “Who isn’t?”

           

With that, the conversation is over. I stand and brush dirt off my jeans, wincing at the new stains. Ansel offers to go find Gracie.

           

We keep moving.

 

***

 

Gracie was right: we aren’t alone in the Forest.

           

The first monsters appear when we’ve reached our third rest stop. By now, the Forest has changed again, sprouting leaves the colours of flames, and grass adorned with splashes of white flowers. An unnatural, choking mist swirls and sprawls across the Forest floor, trapping protruding tree roots within its grasp. The bark now has the appearance of driftwood; twisting in patterns that remind me of ocean waves; even the moss is kelp-like. It’s soft, damp, yet my fingers come away dry. The dying embers of sunlight streak through the leaves in shadowy beams, but the fog casts it into the sepia tones of aged photographs.

           

The Forest could have become one of those beautiful photographs. That was until Ansel claimed he spotted something moving in the distance.

           

“Stop!” Ansel demands suddenly, throwing out his arms to stop us from walking past him. “There’s someone ahead of us. I think they’re walking towards us.”

           

I squint into the distance, wondering how Ansel could barely see without glasses a day ago, but now he can see things through the translucent sheet of white. “Are you sure? I can’t see anything.”

           

“I’m sure. It doesn’t really look like a person, but it’s definitely something.”

           

That’s when I see it: a figure moving in the distance, moving towards us. It’s about fifty metres away when the shapeless blur begins to expand.

           

“Well, I’m wrong. It’s actually three somethings.”

           

The monsters advance on us. In all honesty, we don’t do much to escape from them. With each slow movement, slime drips from their skin, oozing puddles of white onto the ground, turning the delicate flowers to decayed mush. The sickly substance reminds me of the maggot-like texture of the eyes of the dead man, ready to burst at the slightest touch after being forgotten in his apartment for a few months. I’ve never seen a dead person, but I’ve seen enough in films to guess what they must be like.

           

“Shouldn’t we be running?” Ansel asks, his breathing becoming erratic. Gracie shuffles away from him and towards me instead. The other boy’s body has tensed as if he’s preparing for a fight.

           

We should be, but I’m too scared to run.

           

I can feel sweat drench my skin, the throbbing of my eyes, the ringing screams vibrating in my ears, and the thumping of my heart against my chest. Gracie’s hand slips into mine, her nails digging into my palm as I curl it into a fist. I can’t hear my rapid breathing above the sound of the blood rushing through my ears, but I can feel the oxygen flowing in and out of my lungs. In and out. In and out. In and out.

           

“We can’t run,” I say eventually. “They probably know this Forest a lot better than us, and there has to be more of them somewhere else. Running would just be delaying the inevitable.”

           

“What are we going to do?” Ansel’s eyes become shiny, and I wonder if he’s holding back tears, or wondering if he should run and leave the rest of us to our fate.

           

“There’s nothing we can do.”

           

I may say that, but I instantly begin making a mental list of all the things we could possibly do in this situation. None of them are very appealing.

           

The monsters get closer, and I get a clearer look at their appearance. A foot-long beak between the eyes caused by their prolonged heads. A mouth which opens downwards and is armed with terrific mandibles. A pair of huge, compound eyes like enormous crystals of cut glass. A shapeless body resembling a six-foot-tall maggot with flaps of concave skin covering the stomach. A stench of sewage and rotting flesh, potent enough for Gracie to take a few steps back and retch dryly behind a tree.

 

That’s when I notice a teenage girl standing a few metres behind us. Well, a teenage girl with transparent skin, standing in a pool of smoke. I wouldn’t have noticed her if the Forest seen through her body wasn’t a charred skeleton of what could be reality. The world is painted in an array of orange and brown, but the world seen through her is burnt, the ashes still smoking. The smoke pool makes no sound as she marches across the Forest floor, only parting to swallow up her feet. Dead leaves whisper from under the skin of the mist.

 

A sudden gush of pain jolts through my body, and a burn like acid across my skin. My stomach aches, my arms lose tension, and my legs begin to weaken. I drop to the ground. My tongue is soaked in the taste of blood. Bruised and winded, with a leg now in agony, I grab the closest thing which will serve as a weapon – a fallen tree branch – and thrust it forward, feeling it encounter something. I shut my eyes and push harder until there is no longer anything resisting the force. When I open my eyes again, there is nothing in front of me besides a stick with the end coated in thick white slime.

 

One down, two left. And the mysterious smoke girl whose body trembles in the breeze.

 

The boy has the same idea as me. In the frozen second between stand off and fighting, I see his eyes flick from me to the monster. His face is unreadable, no fear, no invitational smirk. His expression doesn’t change as he steps forwards and plunges his branch into the monster’s stomach, showing no signs of remorse as the body caves in around the branch and breaks apart like putty.

 

We forget about the third monster until we hear Ansel’s scream. I turn around and the monster’s claws are wrapped around his forearm, the skin singeing from beneath its touch. It’s too late for us to help him, so we stand frozen with fear, wondering what’s going to happen to him as soon as the monster lets go.

 

After a few more seconds, the monster collapses to the ground, its body crumbling beneath it. Ansel drops to his knees, shouting hoarsely and clutching at his arm: the shape of the monster’s hand has been burned into his flesh. Gracie runs to Ansel’s side, stabbing the monster in the chest with the stick as she goes past, reducing its form to a pile of ashes. Her knuckles are white from gripping tightly at the stick, almost as if she’s afraid to let go.

 

I’m still afraid, but I loosen my grip on the branch, noticing that the bumps in the surface have imprinted themselves into my palm. It was a good weapon in the moment. Hopefully, I won’t need it for a while.

 

When I turn around to hurl the branch away, the smoke girl is still stood a short distance behind me. Her eyes meet mine for a moment before her body dissolves and evaporates into smoke. I blink, then she’s gone.

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