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.

// this cover is a work in progress.

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3. Chapter One


Once upon a time, I awoke in a strange place. It was clear that this place was not my home.

           

The sun hasn’t risen when I sit up and rub at my bleary eyes, 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. The canopy of leaves 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 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 since I woke up here, surrounded by unfamiliar faces.

           

The three people lay in a triangular shape. There’s a little girl, only nine or ten years old, with stubby brown braids and a pale blue raincoat. One of her hands clasps at her zipper while the other is curled into a fist by her face, her thumb tucked into her mouth. The other two sleepers are both teenage boys in jeans and baggy t-shirts. One is pale with feathery blonde hair and soft features. The other has a face made of sharp angles rather than curves, with caramel brown skin marked with bruises, and a mane of mahogany brown curls.

 

As much as I want to wake one of them, I resist the urge to and walk through the trees instead, making a mental note of the scenery 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. Everything is identical no matter where I look, but the spot where I woke up seems to be the anomaly. There, the trees space out further, and I slip on mud wherever I step, even though there is no sign anywhere else that it could have rained, or that there is water nearby.

           

“Hello?”

           

I stop walking.

           

“Hello? Is someone there?”

           

That’s the first sound I’ve heard in days, besides my own breathing, and my shoes squelching through the mud.

           

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

           

The blonde boy is sitting up, rubbing at his dirty face. His wide eyes and round cheeks don’t match his skinny arms. Although hunger and first no longer seem to 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.

           

“My name is Ansel,” he says quickly, as if he’s trying to fill the silence.

           

“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. “The forest changes everything but your clothes. It doesn’t empty your pockets, though, so don’t keep your valuables in them. 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, fumbles around for 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 the 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 say to each other, not until he realises why he’s here. I know why I am.

           

The sun rises and sets again before another sleeper awakens. This time, it’s the other boy, and he must be close to 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 golden canvas. He hunches in fear, but his eyes are angry: narrowed, rigid, cold, hard. All other emotions have evaporated from his eyes. 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 so 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 opens her eyes, she screams. The sound is like a siren of agony which seeps into my skin. It sounds painfully wrong in such 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 is 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 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 get home.

           

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

           

She looks up, not at Ansel, but into the forest 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, catching 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 ask, 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 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 water and food, but by the time I found some, I realised that I didn’t have the appetite to eat. 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 movements 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.

           

“No.” I imagine that she is screwing up her nose. “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 his father while he was working, but they got lost while they were playing.”

           

“Oh.” I can hear the disappointment in her voice. If I was Ansel, I would’ve told her the real version of the story, the one with the parents selling the children, and the witch fattening them up to eat them.

           

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

           

Time also works differently: it goes faster. It was only a few hours ago when Gracie woke up, just as the sun had finished 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, maybe because she’s still young enough to believe in stories of magic and fantasy worlds. 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 soon 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 told me.”

           

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 helplessly on me when I look in his direction. He doesn’t have a story that can fix this situation and make it nothing more than a fairy-tale.

           

I clear my throat. Gracie’s gaze drifts in my direction but doesn’t quite reach me. “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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