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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3. Chapter One


The sun hasn’t risen when I wake up, surrounded by a cold darkness and the stale aroma of dirt. Trees tower over me, almost one hundred feet tall, and the bark is as smooth as plastic with a canopy of leaves that is dark enough to be mistaken for black. Dirt leaves trails and smears across my clothing. The vegetation consists of only the trees and sparse patches of dead grass. Everything around me looks different from yesterday: I think the world resets when I’m sleeping.

           

There may be no living grass, no flowers, on the ground, but there are three people, all wrapped up in their dreams. They’ve been there – sleeping – for the past few days, the rise and fall of their chests being the only evidence that they are still alive.  They are the only things which have remained the same. I don’t recognise any of them. As much as I want to wake one, I walk through the trees instead, noting down the details of my surroundings so I can find my way back to where they rest. Waking one of them might change this world even further.

           

Seemingly endless, the forest stretches out for what could be miles in every direction, each tree the exact same distance apart, organised as if they are soldiers about to step into battle. The scenery is identical no matter where I look, but the spot where I woke up seems to be the anomaly. There, the trees are spaced out further, and I slip on mud wherever I step, even though there is no sign anywhere else that it could have rained.

           

“Hello?”

           

I stop walking. That’s the first sound I’ve heard in days besides my shoes squelching through the mud.

           

“I can see you. Can you come closer? I don’t have my glasses.”

           

One of the people on the ground is sitting up, rubbing at his dirty face. His wide eyes and round cheeks don’t match his skinny arms. Although hunger and thirst no longer affect us here, he looks as if he’s been starved most of the way to death.

           

He squints in my direction, shielding his face with his hands even though there’s no sunlight to disrupt his view. I step into a patch of moonlight so he can see me better.

           

“I’m Ansel,” he says.

           

“I’m Oliver,” I reply, scratching at my arms. I can feel tiny dents and scabs beneath my fingertips, reminders of why I’m here. The marks from the belt still haven’t faded. “Before you ask, I don’t know where we are or how we got here. I woke up a few days ago. It changes every day.”

           

“It changes?”

           

I nod. “It changes everything but your clothes. It does empty your pockets, though. On the first day, it was a rainforest. The next, it looked like something Tim Burton would make. Now,” I pause while I look around, “it’s just a muddy forest.”

           

When I say this, Ansel peels himself from the ground, his clothes squelching as they pull away from the mud. His face distorts in disgust as something cracks beneath his weight: his glasses. He curses, gathers the remains, and then hurls them away as hard as he can. Here, there’s nothing we can do to fix them.

           

We stand on opposite sides of the clearing, leaning against trees and waiting as if we’re wanting the other person to step forward and become the leader, the one who will watch over the remaining two sleepers and try to work out how we can leave this place. There’s nothing we can possibly say to each other, not until he realises why he’s here. I know why I am.

           

Within an hour, another sleeper awakens. This time, it’s a boy around my age. He doesn’t say anything. His body trembles and he rubs at the bruises which decorate his skin, purple and brown roses against a canvas of waxed white. He seems to be hunched in fear but his eyes are angry: narrowed, rigid, cold, hard. All other emotions have evaporated from his eyes, even though his focus is somewhere behind me, as if I don’t exist to him. I’ve never met this boy before but the anger inside him feels like a knife lodged in my ribs.

           

In another world, he could be beautiful. Now, he reminds me of a wild animal: scared, but not afraid to pounce.

           

“What’s your name?” Ansel asks. The boy makes no attempt to move but Ansel has to close the distance to he can make out the features of the figure on the ground. He gets no reply to his question so he doesn’t bother asking again. It’s not like we’re under a time constraint.

           

Time… I begin counting seconds, then minutes, until I reach an hour. The sun appears as I reach my target, almost as if this new world has been listening to me. Today, the sunrise is beautiful, orange hued rays kissing candyfloss clouds and bringing warmth to the air. I don’t have the chance to enjoy it.

           

The little girl wakes up as soon as the sun appears fully over the horizon. When she does, she screams. The sound is like a siren of agony which seeps into my skin. It sounds wrong in a childish voice.

 

I run towards her before my brain can even register why. Ansel gets there first, dropping to his knees and pulling her towards him. She pushes him away and presses herself against the ground, each scream looking as if it about to tear her fragile frame into two.

 

Nothing we say can console her, so me and the other boy keep our distance. I return to keeping a mental note of our surroundings: now that everyone is awake, we’ll be able to start moving. There must be a way of figuring out where we are, and how we can escape.

 

“It’s okay,” Ansel says when Gracie has calmed down enough to take a breath, wrapping his arms around her as she shakes with terror. In this moment, it looks as if he could be her older brother, trying to protect her from the unknown. “It’s over now.”

 

She looks up, not at Ansel, but into the trees behind him. Her wide eyes lack the childish innocence that I was once familiar with.

 

“No, it’s not,” she whispers back. “It hasn’t even begun.”

 

***

 

We’ve been walking for hours when Gracie runs up to me and grabs my hand. Her palms are cold and slightly sticky and I resist the urge to pull away. She quickens her pace to keep up with me: two of her steps are equal to one of mine.

           

“I feel strange,” she announces after a few more moments of walking. Her pink Velcro trainers stumble across the uneven ground so I slow down to a speed easier for her, casting an eye around to see where the others are. Ansel is striding confidently ahead of us, no longer handicapped by his broken glasses. The boy is somewhere behind: I can’t see him, but I can hear his heavy footfall crushing fallen twigs beneath his weight.

           

“What do you mean by ‘strange’?” I say, turning my attention back to Gracie. She stops walking and crosses her arms across her chest, crinkling the plastic of her waterproof coat. A pout appears on her face.

 

“I should be hungry. I haven’t had my breakfast.” With that, she turns away from me and stomps ahead to catch up with Ansel. She’s found comfort in him since this morning.

 

I understand what she’s been feeling. I woke up three days ago and I still haven’t adjusted to the effects this new world has had on me. My first instinct was to search for food and water, but by the time I found some, I realised that I didn’t have the appetite to eat any. I carried some around with me all day. Hunger never found me. Neither did thirst.

 

As we walk, I can hear snippets of Gracie and Ansel’s conversation, occasionally broken by the other boy’s movement like static.

 

“Have your parents told you the story of Hansel and Gretel?” Ansel asks. He’s holding Gracie’s hand and he swings it with each step.

 

I imagine that she is screwing up her nose. “No. What’s that?”

 

Even from this distance, I can see how his body tenses. He hesitates as if he didn’t prepare for this scenario. “Hansel and Gretel were the children of a woodcutter. One day, they were in the woods with their father while he was working but they got lost while they were playing.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“If you think about it, we’re like Hansel and Gretel. We’re lost in the woods and we can’t find our parents.”

 

“You’re Hansel because your name sounds like Hansel.”

 

He nods. “And you’re Gretel.”

 

Gracie stops in her tracks, tugging her hand back to herself. “No, I’m not,” she insists. “Gretel is an ugly name.”

 

***

 

Another hour has passed before we decide to stop for a break. Exhaustion and fatigue don’t affect us as greatly anymore, but walking for so long has made Gracie bored and she needs time to rest her mind.

 

Time also works differently: it’s goes faster. It was only a few hours ago when the others woke up, just as the sun was rising, but it’s already starting to dip below the horizon. It makes me wonder if we’re in a Northern country: Norway, Sweden, maybe even Iceland. But it’s not cold enough for the short winter days and long nights. It’s like we’ve been snatched off the surface of the earth and dumped into a new world made just for us.

 

Gracie seems to understand this concept a lot easier than the rest of us. She darts through the trees like a bird, spouting out random theories and eruptions of knowledge she must have gathered during the first part of our journey to nowhere.

 

“We’re not the only living things here. There’s prettier plants, and animals, and people if we keep walking.” She takes off her coat and wraps the sleeves around her shoulders like a cape. “We’re going to catch up to everyone else and we’ll all be together. We have to be together so we can leave.” She runs into the gaps between the trees, twirling and spinning with each step. “There’s monsters here, too. They’re going to find a way to stop us.”

 

“How do you know that, Gracie?” I ask. It’s impossible to smother the concern in my voice, but she doesn’t miss a beat.

 

 “The voices.”

 

That’s the exact moment when we realise that the isolation and unfamiliarity of the forest may be effecting more than just Gracie’s body. If she’s already hearing voices taunting her, who knows how her mind will deteriorate over the next few days.

 

Ansel’s eyes are already fixed on me when I look in his direction. He doesn’t have a story that could fix this situation and make it nothing more than a fairy-tale.

 

I clear my throat. Gracie’s head snaps in my direction. “Well, don’t let the voices drive you insane.”

 

“Only some of them can drive,” she says absentmindedly. “Most of them are underage.”

 

With that, we set off walking into the night. I can’t help but notice that the sun doesn’t fully set.

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