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, a place where there is nothing but health and happiness to greet them.”

When children and teenagers are on the brink of death, their souls visit a personal heaven before moving on to their final resting place.

This place is called the Paper Forest.

// Winner of 'Movella of the Year' 2017

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2. Prologue

Usually, in a counselling room with a circle of chairs, you would expect to see a group of teenagers. They would have expressionless faces, and slumped postures, and minds that told them that they were immortal or immune to the influences of society. However, those influences would be the reason why they were in that room in the first place.

           

Now, the room is full of adults, holding on to each other as their final shreds of hope flicker before them.

           

“We’ll go around the circle one-by-one,” says a man stood at the edge of the circle, scratching at the stubble across his cheeks. “Introduce yourself and tell us a little about why you are here, as much as you are comfortable with sharing. Remember, we’re here to support each other, not to block each other out.”

           

The first person to stand is a woman, likely to be in her late forties or early fifties but looking many years past her age. She has the dainty features of a porcelain doll, although her makeup is smeared by tears and her skin looks many sizes too big for her skinny frame. She smells strongly of a cheap floral perfume. There’s a man beside her with a fuller figure from comfort eating, and an untrimmed moustache. He doesn’t stand.

           

“I’m Caroline Harwood. This is my husband, Michael. My son… Our son… His name is Oliver. He’s in a coma. He’s only sixteen.”

           

Her hands shake as she talks, but her voice doesn’t falter. Her words sound rehearsed, almost as if she’s been repeating the same story over and over again to other counsellors, private therapists, or old friends who come for visits and ask where her only son is that day. The man beside her reaches up and holds one of her hands in both of his, squeezing it gently.

           

“He overdosed on heroin a few weeks ago, and the doctors were surprised he made it. He’s been on life support ever since. We’re praying for the best, but it isn’t looking promising.”

           

A few tears leak out of her eyes, and she sinks back into her chair, not uttering another word for the rest of the session.

           

The counsellor continues to go around the circle, all the wet cheeks and empty eyes blurring into one figure, looking like despair has been personified. There’s a young man representing a little girl named Gracie. She was left critically injured at age nine – along with her mother – in a car accident where the man was driving. An elderly couple speak about their grandson, Ansel, only fourteen years old. A middle-aged man and woman who don’t make eye-contact or acknowledge each other’s presences besides constantly interrupting each other talk about their son called August. He is a terminal cancer patient, approaching the end of his life expectancy.

           

After allowing each child to be spoken about for a few minutes, the counsellor steps in, sensing that the adults are becoming too distraught, or too uncomfortable, to continue. He steps into the centre of the circle, cracking his knuckles.

           

“One thing that you all have in common is that you have a child who is on the verge of being taken away from you, whether it is by a natural illness or something that could have been prevented. You mustn’t worry, for they have been placed in the best hands, and there are people who are trying their best to look after them.”

           

The adults in the circle lean in, desperate to hear anything that could ease their pain, even if it’s just a story woven for their own comfort. In this situation, it is a story, although there’s some truth behind each word.

           

“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.”

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