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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6. Chapter Four


It’s Gracie who realises that the boy on the floor is lifeless.

 

Lifeless.

 

His body is slumped over, half-sitting, half-laying in the long grass. His auburn air is scattered in multiple places, stained with dried blood; crimson. Without eyelids, the milky blue eyes stare into the sky while the lipless mouth hangs open. The corpse itself almost devoid of skin and pitted by burrowing insects. I turn away as my stomach heaves, nostrils filled with the smell of rotting meat. My heart pounds as one question continues to race through my mind, but Gracie is the one who says it first.

           

“Who did this?”

           

She leans forward and presses her hands against her chest as if she can somehow summon his heart to start beating again. An insect crawls across her hand but she doesn’t flinch. Her eyes squeeze shut in determination. No one tries to stop her. She stays like that for a while. Ansel grows bored and lays in the grass, staring blankly at the sky. August disappears to examine the rest of the ravine.

           

I remain by Gracie’s side, watching her every move. I still wonder why she seems to know so much about the forest. I wonder how she knows things, and how much of what she knows could be the truth.

           

For a moment, I think I see something. A spark, maybe. It could just be wishful thinking, but I think I see patches of the boy’s skin begin to reform, his chest begins to rise and fall with his breaths…

           

The spark flickers out as fast as it appeared.

           

Gracie collapses into the grass, hands marked with patches of dried blood, brow furrowed from confusion. Whatever she was trying to do, she thought it would work. She knew it would work.

           

I don’t have the chance to ask her anything because August appears from behind some trees, his hair unruly and his face flushed as if he’s been running. “You should all come with me. I think I’ve found something.”

 

He leads us up a trail that has been created by many footprints. It’s obscured by bushes and fallen rocks and it slopes high up the side of the ravine. The path halts and a tunnel mouth of impenetrable blackness. From here, it looks dank, and the only sound is dripping water. The entrance is so slow that I would’ve missed it if I hadn’t been looking for something: there is a stone guarding the entrance, jagged and uneven.

 

“Where do you think this goes?” August asks. He leans into the mouth of the tunnel without setting his feet inside it. I do the same, resting my hand on the rock and peering into the darkness. The rock is damp beneath my palm.

 

“There’s only one way to find out.”

 

We follow August towards a tunnel that slices cleanly through the rock. Inside, it is pitch black and I walk with my hand resting on his shoulder, trusting him to lead the way. Small, loose stones litter the floor, causing me to stumble with each step. The absence of light means the absence of warmth as we descend deeper into the tunnel, so I concentrate on the heat of August’s skin beneath my palm. He barely flinches when my grasp tightens.

 

Even after minutes of walking, the tunnel doesn’t widen or become lighter. I manage to cope with the darkness for a while, ignoring how it presses down on me. It feels as if I’m standing in a small room and the ceiling and all four walls are inching closer and closer with no way to escape. I’m not afraid of the dark, or confined spaces, but I have a fear of things that lurk where they can’t be seen.

 

Now, that fear seems irrational, especially since I’m now stuck in a world in perpetual half-light, where monsters try to kill you and you are confronted with corpses.

 

My mum always taught me to fear the dark.

 

She forgot to mention what happens in the light.

 

Seconds drag into minutes. Minutes melt into what feels like hours. The tunnel veers to the left before suddenly turning back to the right, and I can no longer tell if we’re approaching the surface or heading deeper into the ground. All I know is that there is now something glowing in the distance, a light that is only a miniature fleck of gold on a canvas of black. It is candlelight.

 

“We’re almost there,” August murmurs as I’m about to point out my observation. I feel stupid for a moment: of course, everyone else can see it.

 

It’s further than it looks but we soon enter a small cavern lit with the warm golden glow of three candles, spread out evenly around the space. The walls arch around one hundred feet up to giant stalactites and bat roosts. There’s a table against the far wall, and a map lays in the centre of it. It has been crudely drawn, charcoal on fraying cloth.

 

In the middle, there is a large circle, a line splitting it in half and another line splitting one half into quarter. Small shapes and symbols decorate the blank spaces between the lines: circles, squares, and triangles. On the semicircle side of the map, a circle has been scrawled in the middle with a small square above and below it. A messy triangle is beside the line splitting the semicircle in half. The shapes are some kind of code, but the maker of the map didn’t leave a note to say what they represent.

 

“This has to be the forest,” August says, tracing his finger around the edge of the biggest circle. His finger then moves to the other shapes. “These have to be important places, like camps, or other caves like this. They could be places where people are.”

 

Gracie is too short to have a clear view of the map, so she rests her chin on the edge of the table and squints at the map. “What do the lines mean?”

 

“I’m not sure. They could be boundaries, or a way of showing different sections of the forest. If I’m right and the shapes mark important places, we could be here.” His finger drifts towards the triangle and the shorter line. “This line could be the ravine.”

 

Gracie looks at him as if he holds all of the answers to this strange world. I can feel myself gaining the same expression. Ansel looks less than impressed.

 

“Why aren’t any of you looking at the book?”

 

Our eyes flick towards him. He is rubbing at the handprint burnt into his arm and he’s staring at a spot on the ground. I look, and there’s a trunk hidden beneath the table. A small leather-bound book, more like a journal, is resting on it. The trunk itself is covered in an inch thick of dust but the book looks clean as if someone has used it recently.

 

“Why don’t you look at the book? We’re looking at the map.” August rolls his eyes and returns to the map, describing the rest of his theories to Gracie. His tone grows more confident as her smile widens and her timid nods become more enthusiastic.

 

Ansel sighs and walks to the other side of the cave, presumably to sulk, so I’m the one who looks at it.

 

Bound in red leather, cracked and dry with age, the thin book smells faintly of tobacco and dust. The pages are brittle and what remains of the book’s original stitching is barely holding it together. A faint scrawl on the inside cover declares who the journal once belonged to, but it’s too faint to be legible. The first page begins in the middle of a sentence, suggesting that there are pages missing or that there was another book before this one. Unfortunately, the book’s poor condition makes it impossible to tell which.

           

Paper rustles as I thumb through the pages, looking for nothing in particular. Words appear and disappear as my eyes flit across the pages, trying to pick out anything of importance from the jumble of sentences.

           

“Oliver, come here.”

           

Ansel gestures for me to come towards the cave entrance. I snap the book shut and tuck it into my waistband for safekeeping. He’s staring into the emptiness, eyes squinted as if he needs his glasses again.

           

“Is it just me, or is there something coming?”

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