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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11. Chapter Nine


It’s tempting for us to forget about Ansel and keep following the map to find a way home, but Gracie insists that we try to find him. She leads the way again: navigating us through the forest takes her mind off what could have happened to Ansel, and what has been happening to her.

 

During our search, August starts to cough.

 

It’s a whooping cough for sure. He hacks continuously for a while before taking in a sharp gasp of breath. At the end of each cough, there’s a whistling sound as his airways close up. They’re coming thick and fast and he’s struggling to get enough air. If we were still in our world, I would be rushing to get him to the hospital.

 

It’s not just the cough that worries me: his body is now almost entirely black and blue with bruises. I can’t figure out why the forest hasn’t healed him yet.

 

Exhaustion never affected us before, but now he becomes tired as we walk. Gracie curls up by his side whenever we stop for a rest. At one point, she had her hands pressed against his ribs and willed him to get better, but nothing happened. The only thing she can offer him now is the comfort of her warmth and his fingers running through her hair. In this moment, they look like brother and sister.

 

“You do realise I’m dying, right?” he says while I fuss over him for the hundredth time during our next rest stop and Gracie steps away to summon two tents. It hurts me to hear what we both know is true.

 

“Yeah. I know. I just don’t want to believe it.”

 

He smiles, but it’s soaked with sadness. “I guess it’s time for me to tell you my tragic backstory.”

 

“As much as I’d love the full version, I can’t help but feel like we’re pressed for time. Could you enlighten me with a summary?”

 

He laughs, and it’s one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard. “Sure. I would now like to welcome you to the first listening of the summarised life story of August Conabeer.”

 

***

 

August was born on September 13th in a little town near London, one that he repeated the name of several times and I still had no idea what he said. His mother died within minutes of his birth, and it took less than a month for his father to jump into a new relationship. August couldn’t tell if that was how his father chose to mourn or if it was because he didn’t want to handle a baby.

           

It took eleven years for his father to come clean about who his mother truly was, that the woman cooking dinner in their kitchen wasn’t related to him at all. That realisation changed everything. His stepmother became cruel, thinking that she was no longer a maternal figure for August now that he knew the truth.

           

It was another year until the problems started.

           

August’s stepmother found a new job in the local hospital. When August felt ill, she was the one waiting for him to walk into the building. When he broke a bone and needed it to be fixed, she would be the nurse assisting the doctor. Now that she was no longer August’s mother, she needed to find a different way to be in control of him.

 

The lack of staff in the hospital meant that it didn’t take long for her to be promoted to doctor status. Soon, she became the only person in the room whenever August had to visit a doctor, and she had the chance to diagnose him with whatever she felt was appropriate.

           

January 17th, 2016, was the date when August was given the diagnosis of a brain tumour to explain his constant severe headaches.

           

His father was distraught and wanted the best medicine that money could buy, even if it would only delay the growth of the tumour. His stepmother lit up at the thought of money and send off for medication that would not normally be supplied by the hospital. Due to the lack of staff, no one suspected a thing.

           

After some late nights on Wikipedia, she learned that medicines used to treat cancer can reduce your blood’s ability to clot and can cause bruising or bleeding under the skin. To simulate this effect, she found blood thinning medicines, a series of anticoagulants that caused August’s skin to become an array of bruises. She combined them with a series of other medicines that she passed off as chemotherapy to continue her treatment of August’s brain tumour for as long as possible.

           

Just over a year later, August reached the final few weeks of his life expectancy. It wasn’t the cancer that was killing him, because the cancer didn’t really exist.

           

It was his stepmother.

 

***

 

“So, in conclusion, I’m dying.” He accompanies the grim fact with a sad smile.

 

“What’s your last wish?” I ask. His fingers interlock with mine and I rub my thumb against the back of his palm.

 

“My what?”

 

“You know, your last wish. When people find out they don’t have much longer to live, they either go crazy and try to complete everything on their bucket list, or choose one thing they want to have or do before they die.”

 

He thinks about it for a second. “I want you to dance with me.”

 

There’s no intricacies to the dance. It’s just the two of us, arms wrapped around each other, swaying in time to the breeze. I find comfort in the pressure of a warm hand against my back, and the sound of fallen leaves crunching with each step. August sings beneath his breath, and I don’t know what song it is, but to me it sounds like a slow dance: mainly sad, but with a hint of hope.

 

I lose count of how many times I squish his feet under my own. Still, he smiles faintly, his singing fading as I spin him around, watching as his hair flies out and bounces with each twirl. When I dip him, our gazes lock.

 

“Did you know that your eyes are different colours?” he asks, pulling himself back onto his feet.

 

I shake my head. “They’re both green.”

 

“They’re different greens.” He grabs my face in his hands and pulls me down to his height, staring intently into my eyes. “The right one is yellow-green, like olives. Like the leaves in this goddamn forest. The left one is blue-green, just like the sea. That’s my favourite colour.”

 

And his eyes might just be mine.

 

My mother warned me about the drugs and the freaks in the streets, but never the ones with the Atlantic blue eyes and a heartbeat. As I look into his eyes, I can feel him searching deep into my soul.

 

August stands close enough for me to breathe in his scent. His arms wrap around my back and in one gentle pull our skin touches. I feel his hand in my hair, how he loves the softness, watching it tremble as he releases it. Then his hand moves down my cheekbones to my lips.

 

That’s when the kissing starts. Every kiss has a raw intensity – breathing fast, heartrates faster. Our bodies fit together as if we were made just for this, to fall into one another, to feel this natural rhythm. With a laugh, I lift him right of his feet, carrying him inside one of the tents, letting him fall with a soft bounce on the sleeping bags. We lock eyes for just a moment, just enough for us to feel safe with one another. Then it all happens quickly, undoing our jeans, pulling off our shirts, kissing every inch of exposed skin, softly, my hands brushing his thighs and his on my chest.

 

His skin is dark amber in the firelight. The orange glow softens his pale skin, mahogany hair curling around his face like a halo. My fingers caress his skin as if I’m afraid that a heavier touch could break him. With the bruises marking his skin, he already looks broken. On skin as damaged as his they’re harder to spot, but now he starts to wince and I hope he doesn’t feel pain with each breath.

 

I kiss him some more. The moment sends me into a heady trance, one that doesn’t end until our bodies are still once more, just warm and snuggled in as close as two souls can be. The bruise fades like the last petals of summer beneath my lips, kissed purple and yellow as the hue of his skin returns. The bruises won’t be gone forever, but they’ve disappeared for long enough to give us a few hours of bliss.

 

***

 

We lay there in comfortable silence, tracing fingers across freckles on cheeks, until Gracie comes to find us a few hours later, the book in her hands.

           

“I found something,” she lays, rapidly flicking through pages until she finds the one that she wants. She thrusts it towards us and disappears from our tent.

 

On one of the last pages of the book is a crude drawing of a gate with notes scrawled around it: six feet tall, iron, with a top that reminds me of a mosque. On either side there is no fence at all, it’s blackened catch dangling mid-air as if it’s resting on some unseen barrier.

 

The writing beneath the drawing simply states ‘Home’.

 

“Oliver.” August clutches my hand. “I think we’ve found our way out.

 

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