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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8. Chapter Six


We see the campfire before the see the camp.

 

The wood is far longer than what should have been used. It is taller than us and burns with the smokiness of a funeral pyre. The flames leap high and its crackling can be heard from several hundred yards away. A bucket of water sits beside the blaze, not even large enough to annoy the merry inferno.

 

But we don’t care.

 

The chill has returned to the air so we stand as close to the fire as we dare to feel the radiating warmth, holding out numbed hands for defrosting. Sparks fly into the sub-zero air only to die mid-flight and fall unnoticed as a blackened charcoal speck.

 

A tent has been put up and it looks dishevelled. I don’t think about who assembled it, or where they are now. The ropes that should have been tight have plenty of give in them and the bottom should have been pulled out more when it was pegged in. With grey clouds gathering overhead and the half-light from the sun fading, I can’t really judge the efforts of whoever put up the tent. It may be no more than a pile of fraying green canvas, but it’s the shelter we’re going to need as soon as the rain begins to fall.

 

I look inside. There’s two sleeping bags laid out on the ground, an empty picnic hamper, and an electric lantern that doesn’t work. The sleeping bags have become threadbare and could be filled with bugs, but I lay down on one anyway, grateful for the slight comfort that reminds me vaguely of home.

 

August slips into the tent behind me, laying down on the other sleeping bag. He stares blankly at the tent roof for a few minutes before rolling over to face me. His eyes flicker in the light of the campfire, making them resemble light reflecting off running water. I hadn’t been paying enough attention to get a good look at them before, but they’re electric blue, just not in the recurrent way the phrase ‘electric’ is used. They’re not the electric shock that paralyses you or crawls under your muscles, but the kind that makes your blood dance.

 

He allows me to stare into his eyes for a moment before breaking the silence. “How’s your arm?” A smirk appears on his face as if he could tell what I was thinking of.

 

“It’s better.” I stretch it out and bend it a few times, barely feeling any pain.

 

“Good.”

 

“Why?”

 

“So you can hug me again.”

 

I laugh and he rolls over to curl up in my arms, adjusting the tent flaps so we’re shut off from the outside world. In the darkness, the hug feels like a touch of heaven, warm, together, safe. I wish I could pretend that Ansel and Gracie weren’t going to come into the tent any second so I can stay close to August for longer, holding him in my arms, his head resting on my chest. It feels like light in darkness, a lone star in an otherwise empty sky. I don’t think that I’ve ever felt this way before.

 

“Do you think we’re moving too fast?” August asks. He tilts his head up so his chin is resting on my chest. The blue of his irises is darkened by his eyelashes, but they’re still beautiful.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Well, we hugged for the first time and then kissed an hour or so later. We’re cuddling now. Look, I don’t even know what my sexuality is.”

 

I think about it, and realise that neither do I. But I don’t care. “That doesn’t matter. What do you think is more important right now: having a sexuality crisis or being lost in some kind of magical forest that changes every day with no known way of escaping?”

           

He laughs. “But don’t you think we’re moving too fast?”

           

“August. Listen to me. In a place like this, it’s now or never.”

 

That seems to soothe his thoughts.

 

In the darkness, his bruises look worse, his skin now more purple than any other colour. On each arm, there are great purple welts that won’t do anything but deepen as time passes. Against his ghostly skin, they are grotesque, but it’s hard to imagine him looking any different. He doesn’t mention them causing his pain, so I choose not to question him.

 

Rain beats against the canvas roof, drips of water running down the sides, water dripping inside. The diffused light of the storm shines through the droplets, throwing brindled radiance onto the saturated cloth. There isn’t any wind but the sides of the tent ripple as if they’re being hit by gusts: straining against the rope and pegs, edges flapping wildly, feeling flimsy.

 

Ansel and Gracie soon come barrelling in, deciding that the heat of the fire isn’t worth standing in the rain for. August and I shuffle to one side of the tent. It’s dark and cramped so it’s less obvious that our arms are still wrapped around each other.

 

“Did you read the book?” Gracie asks, pushing her wet hair from her face. Her cheeks are flushed and a single droplet trails down her nose.

 

I shake my head. The edges of the book stab into my stomach, and it’s a relief to finally remove it from my waistband. The fire outside still leads us with enough light to carry on reading from where I left off. Ansel takes the book from me and reads aloud.

 

“When reaching death, some humans can find themselves in a personal heaven, identified by them reliving happy memories in their own separate world. It is suggested that they move along the axis mundi from one happy memory to another.”

 

“What’s that?” Gracie asks.

 

“The axis mundi? It’s the cosmic axis, kind of like a connection between worlds. Most people cannot leave their own ‘Heaven’, although a practical application of string theory suggests there may be a way to leave.”

 

“What’s that?” Gracie asks again.

 

“There’s a lot of suggesting going on here,” I say.

 

“Shut up, I’m just reading the book.” Ansel sighs.

 

“Well, skip to the good parts.”

 

Ansel sighs again. “Fine. However, a personal heaven is not just exclusive to those who have died: people who are close to death may share their heaven with each other – similar to purgatory – before moving onto their own. Many people who have avoided death have claimed that their shared heaven was a forest.”

 

That’s the part that catches our attention. Ansel continues.

 

“A forest represents an unexplored realm full of the unknown. It stands for the unconscious and its mysteries. The forest has great connection with the symbolism of a nurturing figure as it is a place where life thrives. However, the addition of paper derives from the idea of a paper town: a fake town created by map makers to protect their copyright. As this forest cannot be proven to be real, it can be identified as a paper forest.”

 

Ansel stops reading and hurls the book against the side of the tent, narrowly avoiding hitting me in the head. He stumbles to his feet and storms out into the rain, muttering curses beneath his breath. Gracie crawls over to mine and August’s side of the tent and silently nestles into his arms. The firelight reflects in a single tear which slides down her cheek.

 

While August comforts her, I search the book for answers, not with a specific question in mind.

 

The book has no explanation for Gracie and how she could know so much about a place she’s never been. We can only decide that she is a child with an imagination so strong that it leaks into reality, influencing how this world functions. If she’s scared and thinks of monsters, her imagination will form them to be real but also unrealistic, fitting into a child’s fantasies. If she’s tired of walking and wants to rest, all she has to do is think and a brook will appear at our feet, a campfire will have built itself to warm her hands, and a tent will assemble to become the shelter over her head. If she wills a boy to come back to life, he might just do that.

 

Although the book has no explanation for Gracie, it does hold the answers to the map. All of August’s predictions were correct. In addition to that, the book explains that there is a way out: it exists in the circle between the two squares. It sounds almost too good to be true. But we can’t think of our own way to escape this paper forest, so we’re willing to believe anything that we’re told.

 

***

 

Gracie is the one who leads us to our next destination. She holds the handmade map in her grubby hands, careful not to smudge any of the charcoal even though we’ve all managed to commit it to memory. Now, the only difference is that a gold trail curves across the cloth, marking the path that we’re supposed to follow.

 

“Has anyone thought about what would happen if we died here?” Ansel asks. His arms are folded and I can’t tell if he’s cold or if he’s trying to cover up how the burn mark on his arm has grown.

 

“No, have you?”

 

The trees are veiled in mist, their trunks sombre brown with cracks that gnarl the bark. It wraps around is like a blanket, the everyday familiar sights of the forest becoming mysterious, hiding, looming out at us in their whitened haze at the last minute like images from some half-forgotten dream.

 

“Of course I have. The book said that this forest is a personal heaven. Does that mean that we’re just our souls right now? Are we attached to our physical bodies in any way?”

 

I hold out my hand in front of me and watch it become partially obscured. The sounds of birdsong that we once heard filling the air around us all seem to have stopped. Even our footsteps have been swallowed by the mist.

 

“You’ve thought about this way too much.”

 

He sighs, irritable. The longer he stays in the forest, the more it consumes the more likeable parts of his personality. “You haven’t thought about it enough. If we die here, we could wake up in the real world alive and well. Or we could die and be trapped here forever.”

 

August appears out of the mist and walks by my side. His hand slips into mine. I squeeze it tight.

 

“Or we could completely skip around the subject of death and focus on finding the way out. It looks like there’s a clearing coming up soon.”

 

There is a clearing, but it isn’t just a break from the trees.

 

A blanket of clouds fills the sky, smothering out the sunlight. The temperature drops a few degrees and I start to shiver, goose bumps raising on my arms. The chill creeps further up my spine as the fog parts to reveal a sea of bones as far as I can see.

 

“Well, this is a nice change of scenery.”

 

August chokes back a laugh. Ansel glares at me.

 

“Are you being serious right now?”

 

“Actually,” I say, looking out across the bones. “I was being sarcastic.”

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