Once upon a time, I awoke in a strange place. It was clear that this place was not my home.
The sun hasn’t risen when I sit up and rub at my bleary eyes, surrounded by an almost familiar cold darkness and the stale aroma of dirt. Trees tower over me, almost one hundred feet tall, and the bark is as smooth as ice. The canopy of leaves is dark enough to be mistaken for black. Dried mud from the day before leaves smears across my clothing. The vegetation consists of only trees and sparse patches of dead grass. Everything around me looks different from yesterday; I think the world resets when I’m sleeping.
There may be no living grass, no flowers on the ground, but there are three sleeping people, all wrapped up in their dreams. They’ve been here for the past few days, the rise and fall of their chests being the only evidence that they were still alive. They are the only things which have remained the same since I woke up here, surrounded by unfamiliarity.
The sleepers lie in a triangle. There’s a little girl, maybe seven or eight years old, with stubby brown braids and a cornflower blue raincoat. One of her hands clasps at her zipper while the other is curled into a fist by her face, her thumb tucked into her mouth. The other two sleepers are both teenage boys dressed in jeans and oversized band t-shirts. One is pale with hair like raven feathers and soft features. The other has a face made from sharp angles rather than curves, with skin like bronze marked with bruises and a mane of mahogany curls.
As much as I want to wake one of them, I resist the urge and walk through the trees instead, taking a mental note of the scenery so I can find my way back to where they rest. Waking one of them might change this world even further.
Seemingly endless, the Forest stretches out for what could be miles in each direction, every tree the same distance apart, organised as if they are soldiers about to step into battle. Everything is identical, but the spot where I woke up is the anomaly. There, the trees space out further and I slip on mud wherever I step, even though there is no sign of past rain or water nearby.
I stop walking.
“Hello? Is someone there?”
It’s the first sound I’ve heard in days other than my breathing and my shoes sticking in the mud.
“I can’t see you. Can you come closer? I don’t have my glasses.” The raven-haired boy is sitting up, rubbing at his dirty face. His wide eyes and round cheeks don’t match his scrawny frame. Although hunger and thirst no longer affect us here, his body looks as if he’s been starved almost to death.
He squints in my direction, shielding his eyes with his hands even though there’s no sunlight to disrupt his view. I step into a patch of moonlight so he can see me better.
“My name is Ansel,” he says hesitantly to fill the silence, and I realise I haven’t responded to any of his calls.
“I’m Oliver.” I scratch at my arms. The tiny dents and scabs that linger beneath my fingertips remind me of the last few moments of my life. The marks from the belt still haven’t faded. They never will, not here. I’m frozen in the moment of my last breath. “Before you ask, I don’t know where we are or how we got here. I woke up a few days ago. It changes every day.”
I nod. “The Forest changes everything but your clothes. On the first day, it was a rainforest. The second, it looked like something straight out of a Tim Burton film. Now,” I pause while I look around, “it’s just a muddy forest.”
As I say this, Ansel peels himself from the ground, his clothes squelching as they pull away from the mud. His face distorts in disgust as something cracks beneath his weight: his glasses. He curses, fumbles around for the remains, and then hurls them away as hard as he can. Here, there’s nothing we can do to fix them.
We stand on opposite sides of the clearing, leaning against the trees and waiting as if we’re wanting the other person to step forward and take charge, the one who will watch over the remaining two sleepers and find our way home. There’s nothing we can say to each other, not until he realises why he’s here. I know why I am.
The sun rises and sets again before another sleeper awakens. This time, it’s the other boy, closer to my age than Ansel. He doesn’t say anything. His paint-splattered hands tremble as he rubs at the bruises which decorate his skin, purple and blue roses against a brown canvas. One hand drifts towards his neck and he fumbles with the collar of his shirt as if he’s looking for something. He drops the hand in defeat. All emotions evaporate from his face. His focus is somewhere behind me, as if I don’t exist to him.
In another world, he could be beautiful.
In this world, he’s a ragged thing, a boy tilting too close to monstrous.
I want to be afraid of him, but I’m not.
“What’s your name?” Ansel asks. The boy does not move, but Ansel must close the distance between them to make out his features. He gets no reply, so he doesn’t bother asking again. It’s not like we’re under a time constraint.
Time…I count seconds, then minutes, until I reach an hour. The sun appears over the horizon as I reach my target, almost as if the new world is listening to me. Today, the sunrise is beautiful, with orange-hued rays kissing candyfloss clouds and bringing warmth to the air. I don’t have the chance to enjoy it.
The little girl wakes up as soon as the sun has fully risen. When she opens her eyes, she screams, a sound that seeps beneath my skin and is painfully wrong in such a childish voice.
I run towards her before my brain can register why. Ansel reaches her first, dropping to his knees and pulling her against his chest. She pushes him away and presses herself against the ground, each scream looking as if it is about to tear her body in two.
Nothing we say can console her, so the other boy and I keep our distance. I return to keeping note of our surroundings. A golden trail of sunlight illuminates a string of orange daisies sprouting up from the mud. They wind into the trees and out of sight.
Now that everyone is awake, we’ll be able to start moving. There must be a way of figuring out where we are and how we can get home.
“It’s okay,” Ansel murmurs when the girl has calmed down enough to take a breath, wrapping his arms around her as she shakes. In this moment, he looks like an older brother trying to comfort her after a bad dream. “It’s over now.”
She looks up, not at Ansel, but into the canopy of the Forest above us. Her wide eyes lack the childish innocence that I’ve seen in my siblings.
“No, it’s not,” she whispers back. “It hasn’t even begun.”
We have been following the daisies for hours when the girl—Gracie, not Grace, she tells me firmly—runs up to me and grabs my hand. Her palms are cold and clammy, and I resist the urge to pull away. She quickens her pace to keep up with me; three of her steps are equal to one of mine.
“I feel strange,” she announces after we’ve passed a few dozen trees. Her pink Velcro trainers stumble across protruding roots, so I slow down for her, casting an eye around to see where the others are. Ansel is striding confidently ahead of us, no longer disorientated by his broken glasses. The other boy is somewhere behind. I can’t see him, but I can hear his heavy footfall crushing fallen twigs.
“What do you mean by ‘strange’?” I ask, turning my attention back to Gracie. She stops walking and crosses her arms across her chest, crinkling the plastic of her raincoat. Her lips curl into a pout.
“I should be hungry. I haven’t had my breakfast.” With that, she turns away and stomps ahead to catch up with Ansel. She’s found comfort in him since this morning.
I understand what she’s feeling. I woke up four days and I still haven’t adjusted to the effects this new world has on me. My first instinct was to search for food and water, but I realised I didn’t have an appetite by the time I found some. I carried berries around with me all day until the world reset and my pockets emptied. Hunger never found me. Neither did thirst.
As we walk, I hear snippets of Ansel and Gracie’s conversation, occasionally broken by the other boy’s movements like static.
“Have your parents told you the story of Hansel and Gretel?” Ansel asks. He’s holding Gracie’s hand and swings it with each step.
“No.” I catch a glimpse of her screwing up her nose. “What’s that?”
Even from this distance, I can see his body tense. He hesitates as if he didn’t prepare for this scenario. “Hansel and Gretel were the children of a woodcutter. One day, they were playing in the woods while their father was working, but they got lost.”
“Oh.” I hear the disappointment in Gracie’s voice. If I were Ansel, I would’ve told her the authentic version of the story, the one with the parents selling the children and the witch fattening them up to eat.
“If you think about it, we’re like Hansel and Gretel. We’re lost in the woods and we can’t find our parents.”
“You’re Hansel because your name sounds like Hansel.”
He nods. “And you’re Gretel.”
Gracie stops in her tracks, tugging her hand back to herself. “No, I’m not,” she insists. “Gretel is an ugly name.”
Another hour passes before we decide to stop for a break. Exhaustion and fatigue don’t seem to affect us anymore, but looking at nothing but trees for hours has bored Gracie and she needs time to rest her mind.
Time also works differently here: it goes faster. It was only a few hours ago when Gracie woke up just as the sun finished rising, but it’s already dipping below the horizon. I wonder if we’re in a northern country with short winter days and long nights, although the chill in the air isn’t quite cold enough. It’s like we’ve been snatched off the surface of the Earth and dumped into a world made just for us.
Gracie seems to grasp this concept a lot faster than the rest of us, maybe because she’s still young enough to believe in stories of magic and fantasy worlds. She darts through the trees like a bird, spouting out random theories and eruptions of knowledge she must have invented during the first part of our journey.
“We’re not the only living things here. There are prettier plants and animals and people if we keep walking.” She takes off her coat and ties the sleeves in a knot around her shoulders like a cape. “We’re going to catch up to everyone else soon and we’ll all be together. We have to be together so we can be safe.” She runs into gaps between the trees, twirling and spinning with each step. “There are monsters here, too. They’re going to find a way to stop us.”
“How do you know that, Gracie?” I ask. It’s impossible to smother the concern in my voice, but she doesn’t miss a beat.
“The voices told me.”
That’s when I make eye contact with Ansel and realise we’re both thinking the same thing: the Forest is affecting more than just Gracie’s body. If she’s already speaking to voices in her head, who knows how her mind will deteriorate over the next few days.
Ansel’s eyes fix helplessly on me. He doesn’t have a story that can fix this situation and make it nothing more than a fairytale.
I clear my throat. Gracie’s gaze shifts in my direction, but her eyes don’t quite reach mine. “Well, don’t let the voices drive you insane.”
“Only some of them can drive,” she says absentmindedly. “Most of them are underage.”
With that, we set off into the trees. I can’t help but notice that the sun doesn’t fully set.