(Read the full story here: Group Novel 2017-2018)
We meandered blissfully through the labyrinth of trees, a wild citadel in its own right. Trunks towered like turrets, arms stretching out, enmeshing in an impenetrable wall into the distance. Wooden limbs stroked the air and brushed across our hair, caressing our clothes and guiding us further and deeper into the forest.
Due to the echoes of our own chatter, it took us a while to realise how quiet the woods were. Only once we had exhausted our lazy back and forth, once we had allowed our senses to absorb the scene around us did the silence make itself known. Inattentive to this – we had no reason to think otherwise – we marched on. I trusted the warmth of her palm in mine and let my eyes rove around freely. I’m not entirely sure how far we had walked at this point. Time seemed to slow underneath the golden canopy. Eventually, it was a small shiver scuttling across my skin that had me glance upwards, looking to the sky for answers.
“Do you think we should turn back?” I asked, unable to place my finger on the unease that was slowly and stealthily spreading through my body. It was at that moment, the second my voice broke the silence, that I became conscious of how heavy the air felt, how oppressive the stillness. The quality of the atmosphere somehow delineated and crystallised my form from my immediate environment, all of a sudden alien and claustrophobic. My blood barrelled through my veins, and I felt at once too large and too small in space.
I turned to Marie. And by that I mean, I turned to where she should have been. But the air stood empty, the very act of absence taunting me.
When pain and panic collide, people talk of your stomach dropping. This isn’t what I felt. What I felt was my entire being retracting into the centre of my body, into one pinpoint that could have burned through the fabric of time and space, had the heat been allowed expression. What I felt was my skin recoiling from my fingertips and toes towards my insides, withdrawing from the moment, turning back into itself.
While my frame seemed to collapse in on itself, I felt my neck jerk around disjointedly in a desperation I had previously only seen in animals on television. An animal, wild and discombobulated. My gasp clawed through the air but no sound escaped me.
My brain attempted to wrap itself around the present moment and I lurched forward. Her touch lingered in mine, her face was imprinted in my mind, her taste flavoured my words, I know she was there, she had been there.
I stopped. I stared at my palm.
The hand that had one second ago fit so snugly into mine left no tangible mark, no evidence, no warmth. Within seconds, the way she had inscribed herself into my history appeared to unravel, without her skeleton, the backbone to her existence, securing our intertwining scrolls. My tongue seemed to swell, constricting my throat. Words didn’t fit into my mouth.
I looked up. In the distance, a figure. Was it her? Did I really just lose myself completely? What the fuck was going on?
My tongue uncurled and I screeched her name, unable to keep the hysteria from tainting the ring of her name. I found my legs and sprinted towards the silhouette, desperation seeping out of my pores.
She turned around, but it wasn’t her. What it was, was a woman with an axe.
The woman stared at me with a savage look that I believe mimicked my own. Strands of hair curtained her face, a combination of fear and disbelief reflected in her eyes. I saw something in her eyes, simultaneously profound and glazed over.
After what seemed like an eternity locked in my own head and body, her “what?” grated painfully against my ears. It did the trick though, ripping me out of my mind and planting me firmly back into that excruciating forest. She spoke again.
“Who are you?” she demanded, “Why are you here?”
I heaved out a choked “Alice” before my legs finally gave way, betraying me at last. I had not been far wrong: the forest was a fortress. A fortress under siege.