Paper Forests

“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. I like to believe that they’re in a place called the Paper Forest, where there is nothing but health and happiness to greet them.” // this blurb and cover is a work in progress.

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10. Chapter Eight


Lilac keeps her promise. The two boys who escorted me into the throne room lead me out of the castle. They laugh and joke between themselves, but their accents are too strong to understand what they’re saying fully. All I can make out is something about death.

           

Before leaving, one of the boys hands me a sword. The handle is bound in black leather, the hilt decorated yet understated, and the blade is short. I still know little about swords, but I’m certain that one with a blade this short will do little to protect me.

           

And I need protecting.

 

A monster is waiting for me as soon as I’m deep enough into the forest that I can’t turn back and rush to safety.

           

It rises, a mass of tangled limbs, each one plated with a paralyzing goo seeping from black pores. The monster clicks its teeth together and follows me with an enormous compound eye. Towering over me, as tall as a double decker bus, it begins to emit a series of squeaks and clicks. The rustling noise that comes from all directions tells me that it isn’t alone. There is a whole family out there, and they’re closing in.

           

I turn around, and there’s already another monster waiting behind me. It seems to choose its shape after it assesses me. What had seemed to be clusters of jelly-like eggs at first begin to vibrate and sing like a whale song. In a matter of seconds, they turn a metallic green colour, letting out sparks of red and yellow as the shape continues to change. Then, in the blink of an eye, the eggs crush themselves together and form one mighty monster, about two lampposts high and as wide as a truck.

           

My breathing becomes erratic, deep, then shallow. I fight it. I fight the feeling of being out of control as my body writhes to be free or shut down entirely. It dawns on me that I was only dragged into this situation because Gracie is valuable to the forest. It’s funny… She was designed as the weapon, and yet I’m the one fighting to protect her.

           

As the monsters close in, I realise that I’m outnumbered. I catch the shapes of smaller monsters emerging out of the trees, and I remember that I don’t have the skill to fight, even if the numbers were fair.

           

I do the only thing that I can do.

 

I drop the sword, then I run.

           

My feet slip outwards on wet leaves as I race through the forest, cold air shocking my throat as I inhale deeper, faster. With each step, a jarring pain shoots from ankle to knee, ankle to knee. My fingers curl into sweaty fists, swinging forward as if it will make me run faster. I can hear the monsters clicking from three hundred yards behind, that’s how noisy they are.

           

I can’t run forever, so eventually I veer to the left and hide, using the trees as my cover.

           

Time takes its own time. I remain hidden within the darkness of the shadows, amongst the trees. My heart throbs in fear as I stand up against the damp wood. The sky is hidden above the canopy of the trees, with only one sound to be heard: the sound of my own pulse throbbing in my eyes. Suddenly, the silence surrenders to the haunting scream of footsteps approaching me. A narrow stream of light fills little areas of the ground like spotlights, and I catch a glimpse of a shadow quickly avoiding the light.

           

I begin hyperventilating, holding my breath to try to avoid making any sounds. Each second seems to play on forever, as I stand perfectly still, listening to the footsteps. It doesn’t sound like another monster, but it could be one of the teenagers from Lilac’s army.

           

Then familiar blue eyes fill my vision and I allow myself to give in to my fear.

           

Tension grows in my face and limbs, and my breathing becomes more rapid, more shallow, reminding me of the feeling I got whenever the heroin flowed through my veins. Instead of the feeling of euphoria, I feel drained both mentally and physically. But the feeling soon passes. With the slightest of smiles and pink puffed eyes, I stretch out my hand and allow August to pull me to my feet and then against his chest. Ansel and Gracie watch from a distance.

           

“I have so much to tell you.”

           

I begin with the smoke girl and the dozen hands that pulled me into the ground. I talk about Catherine next, the smell of her blood overwhelming my senses at the memory. Then it’s the ruined castle in the middle of the forest, Porcelain with her silver and gold scars, Lilac sat on the throne wearing a bloodstained crown.

 

From there, I describe how the teenagers in the ravine work for a child, and how she’s building an army but still trying to create a life here. Gracie starts to cry when I tell her about schizoaffective disorder: it’s shocking for her to discover how she’s managed to control the forest so far, even if it hasn’t been for the best. She continues to cry as she remembers creating the monsters that harmed Ansel.

           

I miss out the part about August dying and decide to end with the monsters, and that brings me up to the present moment.

           

“We found you,” Ansel states as soon as I’ve finished talking.

           

“I know. Thank you.”

 

There’s a brief pause. “Just so you know, we could’ve been out of here by now if your lover boy wasn’t caught up in wanting to save you.”

 

The comfort of August’s arms doesn’t last for long. I snap, and I decide that shoving Ansel to the ground and punching him is a reasonable thing to do.

 

At first there is guilt, an attempt to stop, but I soon give in, realising how much I enjoy beating my fists into his skin. With every hit, I feel a cold zing of delight, a buzz I can get no other way. I hope that there’s blood seeping beneath his skin, ribs fractured. I know that there’ll be no doctor, no evidence, and I wonder if we might just find out what happens when someone dies in the forest.

 

Suddenly, August grabs my arms, dragging me away from Ansel. He sits up, wipes blood away from his nose with the back of his hand, then stares at me. His eyes aren’t full of fear, or pain, but they’re full of anger.

 

***

 

August and I lay together in the grass, staring into the sky. We’re alone: Ansel stormed off to find out if there was anything interesting nearby and he dragged Gracie with him.

 

With the sun half set, there are some faint constellations in the sky, and we take turns pointing out ones we recognise and making up names for the ones we don’t. I recognise the tattered band of the Milky Way, with Sirius and Orion shining against the blackness. The Pole Star is overhead, and the Great Bear hangs over the circle of the earth. And away beneath and beyond the crown of the sun are strange groupings of stars I haven’t seen before, like a dagger shaped group, and a few crosses.

 

Most of the constellations and their positions are the same as they are at home, and the homesickness arrives in waves.

 

My vision softens with tears, turning the starry sky into a Van Gogh painting, everything bigger and brighter, blurring in a beautiful way. The stars almost succeed in stealing every thought from my mind, leaving behind the images of blue eyes and a strange mark on a map.

 

But I still have no hope that we’ll ever get home. Maybe I’ll be trapped here forever, waiting to see whose real body will give up on them first out of me and August.

 

“Have you ever loved someone so much you actually ached?” I roll onto my side so I’m face to face with August, watching his eyes glint in the half-light. “It sucks. Especially when it’s someone you used to hate.”

 

“Well, that didn’t hurt at all.”

 

“I said ‘used to’, didn’t I? But I didn’t hate you. If anything, you hated me.”

 

“I hate you a little bit right now,” he says quietly. “We're all still together because we want to leave this place, not so you can hit each other whenever Ansel can’t shut his mouth.”

 

“Sorry about that. I’ll apologise to him later, but for now I just want to be happy that I’m back with you.”

 

“I guess I can forgive you for that.”

 

He shuffles closer to me and rests his head in the crook of my neck, long hair tickling my cheeks. I resist the urge to twist it around my fingers, pulling the curls straight and watching them spring back into shape.

 

Something about the gesture makes me wish that we were at home together, curled up on the sofa in front of a fire, playing with each other’s hair and exchanging kisses beneath blankets. We would be happy, but it’s hard to imagine happiness when my mother could be repulsed to see two boys laying in her living room and my sisters wouldn’t understand why their older brother is in love with a boy. But, maybe, my family will understand, and my imagined happiness can eventually become real.

 

That’s the one good thing about the forest: I don’t have to worry about how anyone else will react.

 

I contemplate my dream scenario for a while longer, feeling August’s heartbeat against my chest and his breath against my neck. I keep imagining us together on the sofa, and when Gracie returns I imagine her as a sister walking in.

 

She walks over and sits on the ground beside us. She’s alone.

 

“Where’s Ansel?” August asks, sitting up slowly. He leans forward to brush some stray leaves from her hair.

 

She frowns at him but doesn’t bat away his hand. “Ansel is gone.”

 

“What do you mean?”

           

“We went for a walk because he's very angry that Oliver hit him, even though he deserved it for being mean. He asked if I could use the map to find my way back to you. I said yes. He said-”

           

“Gracie, where has Ansel gone?”

           

“He’s gone to find the castle. He told me to tell you not to follow him.”

 

“So I guess we’re now going to have to follow him.”

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