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. 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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5. Chapter Three

 


“Sometimes, I think I remember what it was like. You know, before.”

           

Here in the forest, the sky has only vanished completely. Only a few fragments of blue remain like scattered pieces of an impossible puzzle. The air is heavy with the perfume of leaves and dampness. Besides us, the only movement is the occasional bird startling in a tree, or a small animal dashing up a nearby trunk. Part of the ground has dissolves into a brook and the sound of running water has the same hypnotic quality as the ocean. We stop just to drink in the sound.

           

I take my shoes off, dipping my toes into the water, and Gracie does the same, wobbling on one foot as she tugs at her socks. Ansel grabs her arm to steady her and adds to his first thought. “When we’re walking, I daydream about how I got here.”

           

Gracie doesn’t process his words and continues to splash through the brook. Ansel, the boy, and I step aside so we can continue the conversation with more privacy. Gracie seems to know a lot about the forest, but she doesn’t know much about us. Ansel and I agreed to spare her from the harsh realities of the real world until this world becomes harsher.

           

“I remember how I got here,” I say. That fatal afternoon comes flooding back to me: the pills, the alcohol, the needles. There was blood, too, a lot of it. It wasn’t just the drugs that almost killed me. “I have a lot of masochistic tendencies that make me feel like I’m actually alive, rather than just floating through life.”

           

I go into detail about the last real day of my life, from what I said to my mother and stepfather when they left for work to the exact meal I ordered to cover up the taste of my cigarettes. Then the first few sleeping pills. Then the bite of the heroin. I tell them all that I can remember, until the memory goes hazy and I conclude that that’s the moment when I must’ve started to die.

           

Ansel tells Gracie’s story before his own, recounting the childlike simplified version of events. She remembers everything from the moment the driver of the car swerved into oncoming traffic to him crying beside her hospital bed, trying to nestle a teddy bear into her broken arms.

           

When Ansel gets around to telling his story, he doesn’t share any details. “I’ve tried to kill myself a few times before, but this is the first time I’ve come close to actually dying.”

           

“How’d you do it?” He seems too young to have fallen into the influence of drugs like me, but I’m still interested.

           

He rolls his eyes. “Sorry, but you have to be a level eight friend or higher to unlock my full tragic backstory.”

           

The joke falls flat, and I see a hint of the scared boy he truly is in his eyes. I turn away from him and towards the other boy in the hope of removing the lingering awkwardness from the air. “How did you end up here?”

           

The boy is slumped against a tree, his windswept hair looking matted and dull. His caramel skin is tinged with grey, and it’s difficult to believe that he’s not already dead. But then I hear the rattle of his breathing. He slowly looks up, opens his mouth to speak, but Ansel cuts him off before he can say his first words.

           

“Sorry for interrupting, but who are you? What’s your name, how old are you?”

           

“August.” The boy’s blue eyes glint like metal in sunlight. “Not after the month, but after the first Roman emperor.”

           

I didn’t notice it before – how could I – but his voice is low with a trace of huskiness and has more power than his frail body suggests. He makes words sound strangely melodic, sweet, but venomous.

           

“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.”

           

August winks at Ansel, and Ansel’s face instantly burns red. He quickly turns away to find Gracie, demanding that we must keep moving. August chuckles to himself before returning to his previous silence, casting me a small smile as he turns away.

           

This boy is growing on me.

 

***

 

A few minutes later, we stand at the edge of a ravine, an overwhelming sense of vertigo flooding through my veins. I feel sick and dizzy, and feel the urge to run away in case I suddenly fall headfirst into the unknown.

           

If the forest is playing a game with us, it has found my weakness: I am afraid of heights. Standing at the brink of the ravine reminds me of the event that implanted this fear deeply into my mind.

           

I was around six years old, standing in front of the bathroom mirror with a pair of nail clippers, making a feeble attempt to trim my hair. I had always worn it a little long so my dark curls would straighten, but it had gotten to the point where I had to constantly flick my fringe out of my eyes.

           

From where I stood, I could hear my three younger siblings in the main room. Clara and Rose, four-year-old twins, would have been playing with a cardboard box that served as a dollhouse in the corner of the room and Jacob, only a few months old at the time, would have been asleep. My older sister, Brinley, was hanging out our laundry to dry on the roof.

           

Our house back then wasn’t very big. To be honest, it was just an apartment. We had a large main room, a bathroom, and two small bedrooms, one for the girls and one for the boys. There was also a bed in the main room where our mother and her new husband at the time slept when they weren’t working.

 

Every apartment in the building was sparsely furnished and full of ‘problem’ families. These families generally consisted of teenage mothers who had drug or alcohol problems, adults who raised their grandchildren since their own children were so unreliable and single mothers with more children than they could afford to deal with. We were the last family: at the time, it wasn’t expected that I would eventually become part of the problem.

           

As I stood in front of the mirror, I wondered what people meant when they said that I looked like my father. I had never met my father, neither had my sisters or brother. There were three different fathers between five children who cleared off the second they found out my mother was pregnant. My mother remarried after Jacob was born, and that man, Michael, was the one who became our new father. He loved us like we were his own flesh and blood.

           

That was what I was going to talk to my older sister about. Was this father going to be permanent, or was his love and affection just a façade? At the time, I couldn’t accept that this man could genuinely care for us without expecting any other benefits.

 

I finished trimming my hair unevenly and walked out onto the stairwell, half-closing the door to the apartment behind me. The door locked the second it was closed fully and none of my siblings would be able to reach the handle to open it again. We had lost the key a few months back.

           

I set off up the stairs, taking the first couple flights two steps at a time before my legs went numb and I had to slowly pull myself up the last six or seven flights using the broken banister. I kept climbing the stairs until I reached the roof, the place where, in the summer, everyone did their laundry and hung it out on lines attached to the fire escapes on opposite sides of the building to air dry.

           

I may not have seen a resemblance between me and my mother, but I saw one between me and Brinley. She was an attractive girl with thick dark curls that she inherited from our Colombian father, large brown eyes and golden beige skin, the complete opposite to our mother. She was how I imagined a wealthy person draped in swaths of fur and silk to look.

           

“Hey, Oli,” she said when she saw me, most likely relieved that I was there to help her hang the laundry. At the time, I didn’t realise how you could see her ribs through her cheap shirt when she lifted her arms up to attach a clothing peg to the washing line.

           

“Hi,” I replied, forgetting what I had intended on asking her when I arrived. My attention was glued to a filthy rag doll the other side of Brinley that someone had left hanging on the low railing going around the edge of the roof, only a little under a metre in height. It was the kind of handmade doll that both of my sisters wanted to own, even if it was on the verge of breaking apart as soon as something touched it.

 

I could see the doll slipping across the railing in the strong breeze until I was sure that it was going to fall. Darting across the roof before my mind could catch up, I threw myself at the doll and grabbed it. I miscalculated my leap and had launched myself straight at the fragile, practically ancient, railing.

           

“Oliver!”

           

I felt Brinley’s hand seizing a fistful of my t-shirt and dragging me backwards as the momentum shoved her forwards.

           

She didn’t scream as her body hit the ground and broke her in an unfixable way.

 

***

 

I wrap my arm around a tree to keep my balance as I inhale deeply, closing my eyes and trying to push the memory into nonexistence. We have to keep moving, and choking down my fear is the only way to do that.

           

“Are you okay?” Gracie whispers to me as Ansel plots our route into the ravine, tugging on my sleeve so I’ll look at her. Her hazel eyes are wide with concern.

           

I force myself to smile. It’s unconvincing, but it’s good enough for her. “I’m fine. Let’s get going.”

           

We’re a third of the way into the ravine when I begin contemplating what we’re doing. I’m not thinking about why we’re climbing into a massive tear in the ground instead of finding a way around or over it. I am thinking about why we’re bothering to go down when the world could change at any moment and trap us beneath the ground forever.

           

We’re two thirds of the way into the ravine when my acrophobia returns. The fear of being so high up is my motivation to keep going down towards the ground – towards safety – and it’s a lot quicker to climb into a ravine and out the other side than trail around its edge to find an alternative route. It’s my motivation to not slip and fall like my sister which keeps me taking tentative steps forward.

           

The last third takes the longest amount of time. We stop to rest regularly, even though our bodies no longer need it, and observe the surroundings. Jagged ledges of rock stick out from the ravine wall and I think I see a stream of water at the base of the other wall, glowing a fluorescent cyan blue. I can make out the shapes of bright emerald grass and trees that look like regular beech trees if they had an array of colourful leaves in the shades of highlighters: orange and yellow and green and pink, sometimes a blue or purple.

           

We’re at the bottom of the ravine when Ansel drops into the long grass at the bottom, takes a few steps, then instantly stops.

           

“There’s someone else down here.”

           

The body on the ground is lifeless, and it’s Gracie who realises that.

           

Lifeless.

           

His body is slumped over, half-sitting, half-laying in the long grass. His auburn hair is missing in large patches, stained with dried blood; crimson. Without eyelids, the milky blue irises stare into the sky while the lipless mouth hangs open. The corpse itself is almost devoid of skin and caving in from burrowing insects. I turn away as my stomach heaves, nostrils filled with the smell of rotting meat. My heart pounds as one question continues to race through my mind, but Gracie is the one who says it first.

           

“Who did this?”

           

She crouches down and presses her hands against his chest as if she can somehow summon his heart to start beating again. An insect crawls across her hand, but she barely flinches, only screws her eyes shut in determination. No one tries to stop her. She stays like that for a while. Ansel quickly grows bored and lays in the grass, staring blankly at the sky. August disappears to examine the rest of the ravine.

           

I remain by Gracie’s side, watching her every move. I still wonder why she seems to know so much about the forest. I wonder how she knows things, and how much of what she knows could be the truth.

           

For a moment, I think I see something. A spark, maybe. It could just be wishful thinking, but I think I see patches of the boy’s skin beginning to reform, his chest starting to rise and fall with his breath…

           

The spark flickers out as fast as it appeared.

           

Gracie collapses into the grass, hands stained with patches of dried blood, brow furrowed from confusion. Whatever she was trying to do, she thought it would work. She knew it would work.

           

I don’t have the chance to ask her anything because August appears from behind the trees, his hair unruly and face flushed as if he’s been running. “You should all come with me. I think I’ve found something.”

 

He leads us up a trail that has been created by many footprints. It’s obscured by bushes and fallen rocks, and it slopes high up the side of the ravine. The path halts and gives way to a tunnel mouth of impenetrable blackness. From here, it looks dank, and the only sound is dripping water. The entrance is so concealed that I would’ve missed it if I hadn’t been looking for something: there is a stone guarding the entrance, jagged and uneven.

 

“Where do you think this goes?” August asks. He leans into the mouth of the tunnel without setting his feet inside it. I do the same, resting my hand on the rock and peering into the darkness. The rock is damp beneath my palm.

 

“There’s only one way to find out.”

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