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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5. Chapter Three


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

           

Here in the forest, the sky has almost 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 squirrel dashing up a nearby trunk. Part of the ground dissolved into a brook and the sound of running water has the same hypnotic quality of water. 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 decides to add 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. The boy and I step aside so we can continue this conversation with more privacy. Gracie seems to know a lot about this forest, but she doesn’t know 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 drugs that almost killed me. “I have a lot of masochistic tendencies that make me feel like I’m actually alive rather just floating through life.”

           

I go into detail about the last real day of my life, from what I said to my parents 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 I must’ve blacked out.

           

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

           

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

           

The joke falls flat. I turn towards the other boy with 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 skin is so pale that is has gained a waxy appearance, and it’s difficult to believe that he’s not dead. But then I hear the rattle of his breathing. He opens his mouth to tell his story, but Ansel cuts him off before he can say the first words. “Sorry for interrupting, but who are you? What’s your name, how old are you?”

 

“August. Not after the month, but after the first Roman emperor.”

           

I didn’t notice before, but his voice is low with a trace of huskiness and 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.

 

***

 

We stand at the edge of a ravine a few minutes later, 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, Emily, 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. We all had different fathers who cleared off the second they found out my mother had children or was about to have their child. 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 parents – including the father I had never met – but I saw one between me and Emily.

           

She was an attractive girl. Her father was from the Caribbean and she inherited thick dark curls, 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.

           

“Hello, 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.

           

Hello,” 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 Emily 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 Emily’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 breathe 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 eyes are wide and full of concern.

           

I force myself to smile. “I’m fine. Let’s get going.”

 

We’re a third of the way into the ravine when I begin contemplating what we’re actually 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 fear of heights returns. The fear of being so high up is my motivation to keep going lower to 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 end up like my sister.

 

The last third takes the longest amount of time. We stop to rest regularly even though our bodies no longer need it, observing the surroundings. Jagged ledges 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 blue. I can make out the shapes of bright emerald grass and trees that look like regular beech trees beside an array of colourful leaves that resemble a packet of highlighters: orange and yellow and green and pink, sometimes a blue or a 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.”

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