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On the inside of opaque eyelids, out of the mist of a muddled mind, a forest grows.
Closing my eyes, opening my mind, I lose myself in it.
I didn't know of its existence until a quiet day in late August, on one of those oppressively hot afternoons that makes you ache with longing for a world beyond that of classrooms and appraising glances, makes you cast desperate looks toward closed windows and finger fumblingly through fantasy novels. Because on an airless day such as that, you feel more than ever that life, real life, is only truly lived outside windows and inside books.
"You need to stop staring out the window," Mr. Edwards snapped at me during algebra; I started in my seat. "There's no point in me working through examples if you don't even look at the board."
"What are you reading? You're supposed to be outlining chapter 3 in the textbook.” The razor-thin edge of Mrs. Kingsley's gaze cut into me, making me wince. "Give me that book."
By the following Monday, stark white blinds obscured the windows of Mr. Edward's room, three fantasy novels wilted in a pile on Mrs. Kingsley's desk, and I felt the strain of day-to-day existence more keenly than ever.
My desperation for respite turned me to the realm of reverie. And when I rested my chin upon my hands, allowing the world around me to swim in my vision until its colors blurred into hazy nothingness, I found that I no longer had to belong to this ugly, stifling world.
I stood in a shadowy forest, indistinct trees looming up around me like a cloud of specters. My gaze traveled their dark trunks upward to the treetops; through the gaps in the leaves above, the sky hovered at the edge of dusk, suspended in that fleeting moment just before the heavens fall into hollow blackness.
In the distance, a yellowish light caught my eye as it shone out from between the trunks, swaying as it gradually became larger and brighter. As I peered through the darkness, a figure emerged from the shadows just beyond that light.
"What is your name?" The voice rang through the darkness as high and clear as a church bell.
I paused, then replied, "I’m Elina. Who’re you?"
The figure pulled back its hood to reveal a girl with thick dark hair and narrowed eyes, clutching a lantern in one fine-boned hand.
"I am Lady Marie, and this is my domain." Approaching until she was within a few paces, the girl held out the lantern to illuminate my face. "What brings you here, Lady Elina?"
"I... I'm not quite sure." I cast around a helpless glance. "Where exactly are we?"
"A place halfway between wakefulness and sleep.”
A harsh wind burst through the trees, rustling leaves so that they giggled like gossipy schoolgirls.
“The Whispering Forest," the girl said, softly, as though she didn’t want to wake me. She took three steps forward.
I took half a step back. "I... don't belong here. I need to go back."
Marie laughed now, and it was an unexpectedly full-bodied sound. "Of course you belong here." She put down the lantern and took my hand in two of hers. A delicate smile traced its way across her lips. "Anyone who can find the Whispering Forest belongs here."
"Wake up, Ellie!" came a voice, seemingly from a great distance.
"Don't go!" Lady Marie cried out just as I resurfaced.
"Ellie," my friend Jamie Davis was hissing, nudging my shoulder.
I wiped a bit of drool from my cheek, rather disoriented with the abrupt change in location. “What?”
"Wake up. Mrs. Kingsley keeps giving you dirty looks. She's gonna get annoyed and--"
"First napping, now chatting?” Mrs. Kingsley cut in, her tone flat. “Do you girls want a detention?"
"No, ma’am!" Jamie piped, but Mrs. Kingsley frowned and turned to me.
"You. Stay after class."
"Everyone who enters the Whispering Forest is searching for something," Lady Marie told me on my second visit to the forest. "What do you seek? Beauty? Power? True love, perhaps?"
I shook my head, drawing away from her. "Nothing like that. Just... an escape, I guess."
"In that case, I know the perfect place to escape to." She caught my hand. "Let's follow the fairies, follow the fairies!" Laughing as she tugged me after her, we chased specks of light over roots and around trees, skipping and running and dancing amidst the gentle murmurs of swishing leaves, streaking unhindered through the eternal twilight, until we came at long last upon a small clearing. Moonbeams slipped through the opening in the treetops, illuminating a little wooden hut covered with moss and vines that stood alone in the glade. "Come inside," Marie whispered, eyes sparkling, and she pushed the door aside for me to enter.
I stepped into a grand ballroom, its walls adorned with swooping golden embellishments that glimmered like starlight, curling all the way up to a high, arching ceiling from which a great chandelier flooded the room with light. The hypnotic strains of an unseen orchestra flowed over the hall in coaxing rivulets of sound. Out on the open floor, men and women spun in a whirl of richly colored fabrics, their faces obscured by masquerade masks traced with gold and silver filigree.
A young man appeared before me, tall and fair with smooth silvery hair. He extended the long, slender fingers of a hand so pale it seemed almost transparent. “May I have this dance, my lady?”
I looked to Marie for help, but another handsome stranger was already leading her out onto the floor. “Um… yes,” I replied, placing my hand in his.
He cupped me about the waist and twirled me out onto the floor.
“You are a vision,” he breathed, the heat of his gaze palpable but his eyes themselves lost in the shadow of his mask.
I glanced down to find myself arrayed in a shimmering ball gown, each individual thread seemingly plaited with gold. “Oh. Thank you.”
“I do hope you stay a while.” His grip tightened and he pulled me a fraction of an inch closer, sending my heart pattering.
“I… think I might.”
“You have not been paying attention in my class,” Mrs. Kingsley stated without inflexion, instead relying on her piercingly blue eyes to add appropriate emphasis.
I shifted uncomfortably in the chair across from her. “I… just need a little break sometimes.”
“World history is not the place for a ‘break.’” She regarded me carefully, eyes flicking over my face with clear acuity. “I hope you realize that the only reason I care about you reading or sleeping during class is because I know that you have the capacity to be a great student. I’ve seen it in class discussions—whenever you choose to actually participate.” After a pause, she continued, “I understand that the content may not be personally interesting to you, but success takes effort, sometimes grueling effort, and the only way you’re going to be successful in school or in life is if you make the decision to be fully present each moment.”
I stared, eyes wide and unseeing.
“Think about it,” she finished. “You may go.”
The table before me was piled high with iced, powdered, and honeyed confections, their bright colors and sweet fragrances drawing my searching fingers perilously closer.
“This is for me?” I asked Marie a bit too eagerly.
“Certainly, Lady Elina. It’s all for you.” She passed me a ceramic dish, which I immediately began stacking with cakes and cookies and pies.
“So good,” I murmured, tearing sloppily into a pink-frosted cupcake.
“Better than anything you have out there in that other world, I can assure you.”
I froze. “You know about my… other life?”
Marie nodded grimly, her jaw clenched as though she was reluctant to speak of it.
“How?” I asked, as gently as I could manage.
She looked away slightly, toward the mounds of desserts. "I once led an abject existence in a colorless world, just like you.” Smiling unexpectedly, she turned back to me. “But I traded it all away to live here, and have everything I ever dreamed of."
I lifted another heaping spoonful of pudding to my lips. "What did you trade?"
It was quiet for a few moments. The haunting wail of violin drifted into the dining hall from the doorway to the ballroom, ricocheting off the walls of the great room like distant cries for help.
I swallowed hard; the pudding seemed to congeal in my throat. "Why would anyone want to live in… in that world when they could be here?"
Marie shrugged. "I haven't the faintest notion. Ah, the music’s picking up." She glanced over at the doorway, then back to me with a grin. "Suppose we find another pair of mysterious strangers to dance with?"
I shook my head, suddenly feeling a bit queasy. “I have to go, Lady Marie. I have homework due tomorrow.”
“That’s exactly why you should stay.” Her smile was innocent, but her eyes burned holes into my flesh. “Stay here. You haven’t even tried the soufflé yet—”
“No, I’m done for today.” I willed my real body to regain consciousness.
Marie waited expectantly, her smile never dimming, her gaze never cooling.
“That’s… weird.” I tried again, then rubbed my eyes. “I… can’t seem… to go back.”
“Oh, well that’s too bad.” Her expression didn’t change. “I suppose you’ll just have to stay with us for a bit, until you can get back. Now, try the pavlova; it’s divine.”
“I don’t want it.” I pushed back against the table to stand; the chair legs shrieked as they scraped across the polished marble floor. “I need to go. Help me get out of here.”
She just kept smiling. “How about an iced raspberry Danish? Lemon meringue pie?”
“I don’t want pie,” I cried, slamming my hands down on the table in a surge of frustration. Dishes rattled and biscuits fell to the floor.
“Oh, yes, that’s right. I had almost forgotten. You don’t want any of this.” Marie’s upturned lips had fallen into a straight line. “What you want is to work. Work and work and work until your fingers fall off and you die of some gruesome complication of old age. That’s a normal person’s ambition, correct? To expire from age and exhaustion, to die when no one who knew you in your prime would ever recognize you because you’ve since deteriorated into a wrinkled sack of atrophied muscle and frail bones?” Her voice was steadily rising now, higher and louder and harsher, shrilling along to the panicked squeals of the violins. “Is that what you want, Elina? Is it? Tell me.”
“No!” I blubbered, burying my head in my hands.
“Then sit down,” she hissed, her words as cold and sharp as a blade hewn from ice. “And eat.”
I sat down. A wave of handsome young men entered the hall, churning all around me, tugging my palms from my moist eyes, holding soufflés and pavlovas and pies and tarts to my mouth, enticing me to eat with sweet words and delicate touches until I finally gave up and parted my lips submissively.
But every bite turned to ash on my tongue.
“Wake up!” my mom was screaming, shaking me. “Wake up!”
My eyes fluttered open. “What—”
“Oh, thank God.” She collapsed in a teary heap at the end of my bed. “You didn’t wake up with your alarm, and then, no matter how much I yelled, you…” She swiped at her tear-stained cheeks. “…You wouldn’t move. I didn’t know if I was going to have to do CPR or take you to the hospital or…”
I ogled my surroundings like a blind man seeing for the first time. I was in my own room, partially under my covers. According to my clock, it was 7:30 in the morning.
“I’m gonna be late,” I muttered rather stupidly.
“I think we need to get you checked out. I don’t know what just happened, but I don’t want it to happen again.”
“I can’t miss school,” I said, tugging aside the covers and getting to my feet.
She grabbed my arm. “No way. You’re not going to school today.”
“Yes, I am.” I shook her off, attempting to mask my confusion and irritation with a smile. “I feel fine. I probably just didn’t get enough sleep last night, so I had trouble getting up.”
She didn’t look convinced.
“Please, Mom,” I begged. “It’s so early in the year. It’s not a good time to miss school.” I can’t allow myself to be sucked back into the forest. I need to… ground myself in reality… somehow.
She knit her brows. “I guess we could see how you feel after getting ready. You’ll still be late to your first class, though.”
“That’s fine,” I said, relief washing over me. I just can’t try to run away this time.
My mom went downstairs, leaving me to get ready. I wobbled to the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face.
When I looked into the mirror, Marie’s icy smile was on my lips.
I blinked. It disappeared.
Shuddering, I quickly washed my face, brushed my teeth, and got dressed.
My head ached like it had been in the path of a parade.
“Where am I?” I mumbled.
“Just a little bit further, Lady Elina. You’re nearly there.” Marie’s voice, slow and hollow like a funeral toll.
“No,” I said, my pulse accelerating. I felt a presence materialize just behind me, but when I whipped around, I confronted only darkness. “S-stay back. I won’t be coming to the forest anymore. I… I’m done.”
“Liar. I can see how you really feel.”
I felt myself being pushed forward by unseen hands towards a pinprick of light in the distance.
“Let go of me!” I shrieked. But there were dozens of hands on my back now, shoving harder and faster, and the light grew larger and larger until it threatened to swallow me whole. “No! I won’t go!”
And then I was in the light, standing alone with the silver-haired masquerade stranger.
“My lady,” he whispered, his voice a caress. “Please stay a while. I can make you happy.”
He enveloped me in his arms. I didn’t move for what felt like a full minute. Then, pulling back slightly, I smiled disarmingly up at him. And I ripped off his mask.
There was a gaping black hole where his face should have been.
Before I could move or even scream, he fell into dust at my feet, and his mask crumbled in my hands.
I opened my eyes to find myself lying on a bed in the school nurse’s office.
Jamie was sitting in a chair against the wall to my right, texting. When I began to stir, she glanced up, and her face immediately flooded with relief. “Finally, you’re up.”
I sat up on the cot, groaning at a sudden sharp pain in my temples. “What happened?”
“You collapsed during P.E.” She scooted her chair nearer to the bed. “How are you feeling?”
“Not great,” I replied honestly. “I… collapsed?”
She nodded. “The nurse says it’s anemia. Apparently you need to work on your diet.”
“When I heard about it from the other girls, I came right over. It’s lunch now. The nurse ran out to grab something to eat, but she’ll be back soon.”
“Oh.” I stared down at my hands, pale and trembling.
“You really scared me, though, Marie. I--”
My head snapped up. "What did you just call me?"
"Um, Ellie, of course." She furrowed her brows; concern crept into her eyes. “Do you need… anything?"
"I’m fine." I stood and nearly keeled over; Jamie caught my arm to steady me, but I shook her off. “I’m just going to the restroom. I’ll be right back.”
I staggered into the adjacent room, locking the door behind me.
“I know you’re here, Marie,” I growled. “What do you want with me?”
In the mirror, my face contorted into a gleeful grin. “Isn’t it obvious?” she asked with my voice. “I’m trading places with you.”
“I didn’t ask for a trade,” I whispered, regaining control over my features.
She giggled. “You didn’t have to.”
“I just wanted a little… relief,” I said, with effort.
“You came to the forest because you were running away from your real life. If you’re that ungrateful, I might as well take your place.”
Images of my mother, Jamie, Mrs. Kingsley flew through my mind. I clutched the sides of the sink.
"You can stay in the forest and wear pretty clothes and eat tasty things and dance with handsome strangers every day. I'll take care of everything, Elina, darling."
"It’s not real. None… of it,” I gasped. As she grew stronger, I could feel my own power weakening.
“I’ll take care of everything, my lady.” She giggled again, this time wild with excitement, and a feverish look came into my eyes. “Oh, how long I’ve waited to have the chance to live again!”
“This life is mine!" I screamed, but as the words fell out, I could feel my soul being pulled from my body, and I watched my expression morph into a ghastly sneer.
"I'll take care of everything," she said with my mouth.
Then it was my mouth no longer.
"What’s your name?" I asked the red-haired girl, holding out a lantern to illuminate her face.
"I’m Christina," she replied, wide-eyed.
I smiled. "Welcome to the Whispering Forest, Lady Christina. What is it that you seek?"
And when the wind tore through the trees and the violins reached a fever pitch, whispers of a more beautiful existence enticed the child out of her world, out of herself. Willingly, she was lost in a fantasy of her own conception.
But it was only a mirage.