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.


9. Chapter Seven

The closest skeleton looks fresh. In some places, there is a pink sheen where flesh has been inexpertly removed. Tool marks have gauged into recently living bone and a round hole in the skull. The rear of the head has been cleaved open with a sharp knife and is now hollow. The femurs have been sliced and the marrow removed. August stamps his foot on a bone to see if it breaks, and Gracie chooses this moment to vomit in the nearest bushes. Ansel runs to comfort her, but that won’t help the fact that a child shouldn’t have to see this much death.


Most of the other skeletons aren’t so fresh. The one thing that all the skeletons have in common is that they’re all from the bodies of children, ranging from kids as young as Gracie to teenagers the size of August.


The bones are a graveyard of children who didn’t survive the paper forest. It’s a reminder that, in the end, we are all made of flesh that can be cut, and bones that can be broken.


“If there are this many dead, how many do you think are alive?” August asks. He pushes some of the bones out of the way, only to reveal more buried underneath. A lot of the skeletons are still dressed in a mixture of shorts and vests or warm winter clothes, some even with hospital gowns. I resist the urge to take some of the items for myself.


I wonder with August. There must be hundreds, maybe even thousands, of skeletons here, the only reminder of how many lives that the forest has taken. There’s no way of telling when the first skeleton was laid to rest, but it’s easy to presume that there must still be some alive, hidden away in the trees.


That’s when I notice a teenage girl standing a few metres away from us, her presence obscured by shadows cast by the trees. Well, a teenage girl with transparent skin, standing in a pool of smoke. The first time I saw her, I wouldn’t have noticed her if the forest seen through the body wasn’t a charred skeleton of what could have been reality. Now, the landscape seen through her body is real skeletons, and they shake and quiver as if they never died. The smoke makes no sound and it only parts to swallow up her feet as she drifts across the forest floor, careful not to disturb the dead. Broken bones tremble form under the skin of the mist.


No one else appears to notice her. They’re occupied with other things: Gracie is vomiting, Ansel is comforting her, August is rummaging through the bodies as if he can find some sign of how they died. I rub hard at my eyes, and when I look again the smoke girl is still stood a short distance away from me. Her eyes meet mine for a moment before her body dissolves and evaporates into smoke. I blink, then she’s gone.


But the pool of smoke on the ground remains, and it floats towards me.


I hear August shout my name as a dozen hands reach out of the smoke, grab my ankles, and pull me under.




I strain against zip-ties, blood running over the translucent plastic, red on white. My nose fills with the musty scent of the sack that covers my head and in the almost blackness my eyes strain for some sign of what is to come.


Other than the noise of a generator, the room is a silent stone box. I crane my neck, trying to catch a glance of a door or window, but there are none. For all I know, I could be deep underground, in some random room in a homebuilt prison. Above, the only source of light is an old-fashioned light built on a bare wire, and its switch is nowhere to be seen.


I try to scream in frustration, but the gag in my mouth makes it difficult.


I can’t remember anything since they grabbed me in the graveyard of bones. Whatever they used to drug me makes my memory hazy. I do remember one thing, and the memory comes flashing back as soon as I spot the corpse laying beside me in the corner of my eye. The only thing that suggests she is dead is the gaping bullet hole in her forehead, and the pool of blood that is still spreading across the floor.


I remember two boys dragging her in while she was kicking and screaming. I didn’t see where they came from, and it was the noise that forced me into consciousness. They threw her onto the floor and she instantly curled into a ball instead of trying to run, long hair stuck to her damp cheeks.


One of the boys stepped out of my line of vision and I presumed that he left the room. The other leaned over the girl, fumbling for something tucked in his waistband. I squinted and caught the glint of metal in the half-light.


“We know you didn’t come here alone, Catherine. Where are the others? Where are your friends, Cathy?”


She whimpered and shook her head frantically. He strode towards her, raising his hand as if to slap her. She flinched before he made another move and shuffled back towards the corner I was sat in.


I didn’t want to see what happened to her so I screwed my eyes shut, grateful for the sack that blocked most of my vision. I tried counting until it was all over.


It became a countdown to when he snapped and decided to kill her.


He shot the girl while she was still by my side. Hours later, the shock still hasn’t passed. I can still feel the drying blood splatters on my face and arms.


At first, he’d raised the gun at her but never fired, instead cuffing her arms and legs, binding her mouth until her sobs for freedom became silenced. He taunted her from a distance before he stepped forward from the shadows and glanced her way, peering down his nose with a crooked little smile.


“I’d offer you a drink, Catherine, but you seem somewhat tied up right now.”


Then he loaded the gun, pressed it to her temple, and pulled the trigger.


The sound of her last scream muffled behind the gag echoes through my mind.


I huddle in the corner of the room. The air that was once stale and smelt of sewage also smells like dried blood. As soon as the boy left, I had pounded against the walls and tried to cry out, but the only reply was my own echoes. Now, I cry out in my mind for my mother, my siblings, even August. I even consider praying to God. But no help comes. The next time someone walks into this room, nothing good will happen to me. Not even Gracie can imagine a way to save me.




I have no way of telling how long they leave me in that room, Catherine’s unrotting corpse by my side. But I know it feels like weeks have passed by the time the two boys return to take me to another room.


Light shines through the wintry branches, shadowy arms stretching across ancient ruins, illuminating the precious secrets of the forest. The columns are the only complete thing, everything else has worn on crumbled, their decay the only marker of time in a place of uncounted days. What is left stands in spite of itself, defying gravity in a precarious way. Yet, this place, kept secret by the trees, is safe.


Two boys stand either side of me, their hands gripped tightly on my arms to stop me from running away. Even if I did know where I was or how to find the others, I wouldn’t be able to escape: these ruins have been designed as a fortress.


They lead me into a large room, probably the ballroom, with the windows covered in old translucent maps and a throne at the far side. The chair is carved of fine oak, crested with several jewels and decorative metals forming an elegant coat of arms for a kingdom that no longer exists. Although it’s an impressive throne, the thing that shocks me most is the young girl who sits on it, no older than Gracie, a bloodstained crown perched on her head.


The girl doesn’t say anything when I’m dragged towards her. Instead, a teenage girl steps forward to greet me. Her messy ebony hair is full of rainbow leaves like those from the ravine and her white dress is surprisingly clean. She holds a bow in her left hand with the care you would give a child. Scars cover every part of her body besides her face, but they’re a metallic cobweb, silver and gold rather than red and flesh tones.


She looks like a lost warrior, beautiful and dangerous, emitting an aura of regality. It looks like she should be the one sat on the throne.


“My name is Porcelain Castellan. This is Lilac Bonneville, the leader of the people living freely in the Paper Forest.” The girl on the throne shows no sign of acknowledgement, only adjusting how the crown sits on her head. “We’re aiming to establish a live for ourselves here. All attempts to leave have been futile until this day.”


She speaks with a strong accent, thick and authoritative. I don’t like how that seems to make her words more powerful than mine.


“It’s a shame that me and my friends have found a way to leave then, isn’t it?”


Porcelain’s expression remains unfazed. Lilac’s face turns into a scowl, meaner than I’ve seen from anyone else her age. She still doesn’t speak, leaving Porcelain to carry on the conversation.


“All attempts to leave have been futile until this day,” she repeats, not losing her calm composure. “Once, we gave you the option to come willingly or forcefully. You denied coming willingly but then chose to murder some of our finest soldiers. I’m sorry to say but we were slightly offended by that and wanted to have a discussion.”


Soldiers? This is more than just a group of kids playing dress up in a castle. This is a group of kids trying to build an army.


I don’t say anything, so Porcelain continues.


“Children like Lilac – like your Gracie – are special because they have the power to control the forest. You may have met Catherine earlier today. She knew another special child but was unwilling to bring them to us. They have a mental illness that may occur one in their life, or come and go and be triggered by stress. It’s a rare psychological condition. Symptoms can include paranoia, hallucinations, confusion, irritability, and hyperactivity.”


Porcelain lists symptoms as if she’s been rehearsing. Some of them sound familiar to me. “Hallucinations… Isn’t that like schizophrenia?”


She nods, seeming grateful that I’m keeping up with what she’s saying. “Similar. It’s more closely related to schizoaffective disorder, but the power that the forest holds on its own manages to control a lot of the symptoms. Children who have this condition are incredibly valuable to us, but are becoming rarer with each new group of people who arrive in our forest.”


There are more people in this forest. Not just me and the others. Not just the people living in this ruined castle. There are more people than just us.


“If Gracie is so special,” I begin, my voice starting to drift off. I can’t think of an answer to the unspoken question, so I have to ask. “Why did you make me come?”


“We want more recruits. As you said, Gracie is special, but she’s too young and too valuable to us. Ansel is too weak, both mentally and physically. And your August isn’t going to be alive much longer.”


“How do you know that?” I remember the brief conversation where Ansel was telling us how he daydreams about how he got here. August told us about his terminal cancer. He knew it could be the last day of his life at any point. That was the day when we found out August’s name: not after the month, but after the first Roman emperor.


“His bruises. Haven’t you noticed them? They get worse every day and match the bruises found on his body in the real world. It isn’t just the cancer that is killing him.”


“It isn’t?” I remember how I saw the bruises across August’s skin on our first day together and thinking that he would be beautiful in another world. We are in another world, and now the bruises are a sign of his oncoming death.


Then I remember his exact words from a later day.


I’m sixteen, not born in August. I have terminal cancer and it could be the last day of my life any time soon, but that’s not why I’m here. I guess you’ll just have to wait and find out.


“No, it’s not. This is a conversation you’ll need to have with him rather than me. The point is, we’re looking for a warrior. We have a lot of soldiers, but we need a warrior to join our ranks.”


It’s difficult to hold back my laughter. “I don’t want to join you. I just want to get home.”


There is no sound in the ballroom, yet I can people moving at the edge of my vision, moving and not talking. We become knee deep in silence. No one says anything, so I allow my eyes to drift back towards the throne.


Lilac wears a watch on her right wrist, not a colourful plastic one made for children, but an expensive one where the gold glints casually in the faded sunlight. It’s broken, but she still glances at it when no one’s looking. I wonder if it belonged to a family member, or a friend she made in the forest. If she’s keeping hold of a broken watch, it must have sentimental value, a way of keeping someone’s memory alive.


That’s when I realise the child sat on a too large throne wearing a bloodstained crown is nothing more than that: a child. A lost one, too.


Lilac catches me staring at her watch. She repositions her crown and sits up straight, looking directly into my eyes. “All of us here respect your decision.” She nods thoughtfully, as if she’s plotting something. “I’ll tell the guards to release you, then I suggest that you should start running as fast as you can.”



​Art by BadassJem

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