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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12. Chapter Ten


Now that we know what we’re looking for, it’s even more tempting to leave Ansel to his fate so we can find the way out. We eliminate possibilities for where the gate could be on the map until there is only one mark left that we haven’t discovered. The map still has no way of telling time or distance, so we start walking and hope that it won’t take what’s left of our lives.

           

“Can I tell you a story?” Gracie asks August. She grabs one of his fingers in her hands and swings it as they walk.

           

“Sure,” he smiles. “What’s it about?”

           

“Hansel and Gretel. Have you heard it before?”

           

“I might have, but I can’t quite remember how it goes. Can you tell me the story again?”

           

Gracie beams. She begins retelling the story, but it’s not the simple child-friendly version that Ansel once told her. “Hansel and Gretel were the young children of a poor woodcutter. When a great famine settled over the land, the woodcutter’s abusive second wife decided to take Hansel and Gretel into the woods and leave them there so she and her husband wouldn’t starve. Hansel and Gretel go kidnapped by a cannibalistic witch who lived in the forest in a house made of cake.”

           

I walk ahead of them until their voices begin to fade.

           

Today, the forest trees are thinner, and it looks like there could be a clearing ahead. As we draw closer, I can see that it’s not. The firm ground gives way to a marsh of tall reeds, the soil submersed in water. The autumn sunlight falls directly onto a tree trunk that we can use as a bridge. There’s no handrail. The drop isn’t dangerous, just a messy landing.

           

With a careful step, I test the bark. It’s damp with a covering of moss. It isn’t too slippery, but it isn’t the firmer forest floor that I’ve become used to. The trunk is wide, about three arm spans, yet the top is still curved. I take a deep breath and go, eyes on my feet and the next half metre of tree, arms stretched out like a tightrope. Steady. Steady. One step at a time until the other bank appears.

           

The happy babbling behind me suddenly stops and is replaced with a shrill scream. “Oliver, come back! August fell!”

 

My head snaps round in panic, but I soon see that he’s laying on the trunk, not submerged by the marsh. I run back to his side, and Gracie watches as his body shakes violently.

 

“Are you okay?” I want to hold his hands or wrap my arms around him to comfort him but it doesn’t seem right. Instead, I kneel by his side and he leans on my lap. “August, are you okay?”

 

His nods his head but the shaking doesn’t stop. He covers his mouth with his hands as he coughs and his palms are red with blood when he pulls them away.

 

“He’s coughing blood,” Gracie whispers. “Is August dying?”

 

There’s no point in trying to hide her from it anymore. “Yeah, he is.”

 

“That’s very sad.” Her lips press into a pout.

 

“I know. I love him very much.”

 

She nods thoughtfully. “We need to find a cure.”

 

***

 

When I set off to find a cure, I go alone. I convince Gracie and August to keep walking towards the gate without me, saying that I’ll be able to use the map to find them again when I’m ready. However, the greater the distance between us, the less the map seems to work. All I can do is walk in one direction and hope that it’s the right one.

 

A drone of insects hum around me, many that I haven’t heard before. The forest comes alive with layers of sounds echoing in the cold air. Little frogs croak under broad leaves. Cobwebs are stringed with delicate drops of dew, glistening in the light.

 

Then I hear something behind me. It sounds human.

 

I start running through the forest, leaping over thin winding creeks and slippery rocks. I dodge past rotting oak trees and under low and snapped branches. Everything blurs into a dizzying blend of earthly colours. One of my shoes slips off and the earth is wet and moist against my skin. I jump into a muddy brook, swollen from rain, and the woods begin to widen on the other side of it, thin layers of fallen pine needles disguising the terrain.

 

When I turn around, there’s no one there. But there is a strangely familiar castle.

 

No one tries to stop me as I walk through the front door of the castle and towards the ballroom. In fact, no one even looks my way, even though I’m walking in the centre of the corridors and everyone has to step out of my way to avoid bumping into me.

           

Coming back here is accompanied with a feeling of dread, and the memory of Catherine’s lifeless form appears each time I blink my eyes. The further I get into the castle, the more the scent of her blood overwhelms my senses.

           

The first person to pay attention to me is Porcelain. When she spots me, her eyes widen and she gestures subtly for me to stop walking and move out of the way. I do that, and she soon hurries over to me, grabs my arm, and drags me into the nearest room.

           

“What are you doing back here?” she demands, her scars shimmering with each movement in the candlelight. “Lilac gave you the chance to leave freely once before. She won’t be that generous again.”

           

I summarise the situation as well as I can. “August is dying. We’ve found the way home. I’d quite like it if August survived until we can get him home.” Then, after another moment of thinking. “Ansel is here, too.”

           

She rolls her eyes. They’re golden brown and flecked with metal. “Ansel has joined the court at Lilac’s request. She knows who he is and he could become a valuable player in the game, although not an important one.”

           

My head is swarmed with questions. “What’s the court?”

           

“A king or queen usually has a group of people to advise them about decisions that will affect their kingdom. Lilac has made herself the queen, so she needs a court to stop her from destroying this world.”

           

“Are you part of the court?”

           

“Officially, I am. But there are many of us who do not wish to be, and wish to return home, just like you. Many of the army that Lilac is building are going to turn against her when the time is right.” She opens the door slightly and peers out. “Because of all this, I have chosen to help you.”

 

***

 

Porcelain guides me to one of the turrets of the castle, shows me up the stairs, then pushes me into a dark room and shuts the door behind me.

 

At first, the darkness of the room must have deceived me, or else my eyes were confused and dazzled by the glare of the lights outside. For a minute or two, I can make out nothing at all besides dark lumps of furniture, a chest of drawers by the wall, and a white patch of paint marking something on the floor.

 

“I see you.” A voice echoes through the darkness.

 

I bite back a scream, praying for the sound to choke itself before someone hears. Before that, I hadn’t heard a single sound besides the irregular tune of my breathing and the racing thud of my heart.

 

“Do you see me?”

 

I turn around.

 

A man stands a short distance away from me. His body is covered with a patched burlap cloak and his face is masked with a shadow cast by a battered top hat. When he walks towards me, his movements are mechanic, smooth as a blade across ice, but shattered with the occasional jerk or shudder. That’s when I realise that he isn’t a man: he is a toy.

 

“I see you,” I murmur when he is within touching distance.

 

I see how one half of his face is constructed of cream cotton stretched over painted plastic instead of flesh and muscle. I see how his face is brightly coloured wool and yarn, appealing to the eyes of children. I see how, when he pulls back his cloak, his body is entirely made of a metal skeletal structure.

 

“You don’t belong here,” he says, a cog whirring around where his heart should be, making the sound of an elderly man wheezing. “This is not your home.”

 

“I know. It’s different to where I’m supposed to be. I don’t know how I got here, but I think there’s a way home.”

 

The Toyman’s only response is to lean on a metal cane he pulls out from beneath his cloak, his one real and one fake eye scanning me from head to toe. I wonder how much my appearance has changed since I’ve been here, if I still look like me.

 

“Tell me about your… home.”

 

That’s what I do. I tell him about Earth, a summary of all the different continents and countries and cultures before narrowing it down to just my little town in the middle of nowhere. I explain to him about my life before he tells me about his.

 

“I am a… toy.”

 

“Who made you like this?” I question.

 

He breathes slowly as if the answer pains him. “Lilac Bonneville.”

 

The image of a tiny girl in a bloodstained crown fills my vision. “If she made you, what else has she made?”

 

“She made two keys and hid them both. They unlock a gate that will take you back home.”

 

My eyes widen. “Where are these keys? How can I get them?”

 

He hesitates as if he doesn’t want to tell me. The cog in his chest whirrs faster. “One key is stolen from who holds the crown. One key is held when the crown has been stolen.”

 

Then he steps back and fades into the shadows. The room I’m standing in becomes empty once more.

 

I set off to continue my search for a cure, and to find two hidden keys.

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