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Chapter 7 : Sense Deception
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What I just couldn’t fathom was where I was. It made no logical sense, and whilst that had never bothered me during my lifetime, it was something that nagged at the back of my mind. Was I above or below the horizon? When the sun rose, was I part of the daylight or the darkness that preceded it? Nowhere on Earth was as white as this place. Even the Orchard was white; although the fruit trees tried to mask it, the whiteness remained in my heart, in my eyes. The trees almost glowed, their leaves almost blurry.
I lived my life through experiments, for searching for the unknown. Never in all my plans and dreams had I thought I’d find the place where it all came from. But I doubted I’d ever find the answers to my questions here. There was this overwhelming feeling that the white world was hiding something, guarding a secret I was never destined to find out. I’d found the end of the rainbow, only to discover that there was no pot of gold. It was all still as much of a mystery as it had ever been. Was there even an answer to my questions? Was I just never meant to know?
I stared through the whiteness, looking past my orange tree. It’s branches framed my view, the gnarled and twisted fingers caressing the corners of my eyes. There was nothing beyond it, even though I could feel that there was something there. The unanswered questions weighed down heavily in my mind; why was I still here? It all seemed so pointless, so completely devoid of common sense. The white world held its breath, sucking in any possible chance of discovery and I waited for it to come bursting out, for the truth to tumble out; but nothing happened.
I felt a warm hand squeeze my own and I looked around to greet my companion. As her auburn hair came into my line of sight, the white world filled with orange trees, the trunks shot up from the ground as though someone had cast a Growth Charm on their roots. The Orchard swelled, seeming as if once again it was inhaling deeply; I could almost hear how the trees took in breaths, the non-existent air being drawn in. I wanted to forget my common sense and believe we’d breathe again. A reflex action was all I had left, normal everyday habits redundant. It was the little things like that which bothered me. So many things that I had taken for granted. It was one thing I wished I could pass on to the living. Every day on Earth could be their last day, young or old. There were no rules for Death, it could take you with a swipe of its cold hand or slowly drag you towards its grasp; either way, you couldn’t do a thing until it was much too late.
I could smell the scent of oranges on Lily’s hair, the soft citrus smell wafting slowly through my senses; I couldn’t just smell it, I could feel it too. It tingled against my skin, making it slightly damp. I shivered. Lily drew an arm around me, though it felt closer than any hand I had felt before. It drifted under my skin and into me. Her closeness startled me.
“How can you touch me?” I whispered, not moving an inch. It was the first human contact I had had, she did not pass straight through me like others had done before. She almost became part of me, joined to me. She chuckled softly.
“Don’t you ever get tired of asking questions?” She shook her head, sending spirals of citrus sent towards me. “Maybe there are some questions that don’t have an answer.”
“There’s an answer for everything out there somewhere.” I closed my eyes, blocking out the Orchard; its endless torment of unanswered questions staining the insides of my eyelids. “What would I have to live for if I could never find the answers?”
“Whatever the rest of us are living for. Or dying for.” Lily shrugged. “I expected to find the meaning of life in death. But I’m none the wiser now than I was before. I just don’t think we’re meant to know.”
“Sounds like my worst nightmare,” I said sadly, feeling almost sorry for the woman without hope. Without the quest for knowledge, I was nothing. I understood, though, that not everyone felt the thirst that I did, that drive which compelled me to solve mysteries.
We stood quietly for a moment, reflecting on our differences. I felt, though, that we had a connection, that we were akin in some manner. I couldn’t explain it, but she made me feel at peace, feel complete.
“Soulmates,” Lily said under her breath, her grip under my skin tightening. “That’s what we are.”
“I thought James was your soulmate?” I said quizzically, my eyebrows knitting.
“Nobody said we had to find our soulmates on Earth, Aurelia. Open your mind a little.”
I opened my mind to her. It took no effort, it took no energy. As soon as she said it, I felt my thoughts drain from my head; my thoughts became her thoughts, her thoughts became mine. Our dreams were shared, our hopes conjoined. A cool breeze rattled around the inside of my head, a free space ready to be filled with more thought. I had opened my mind; she had helped me.
I opened my eyes when I felt the feeling fade, finding that she had left me alone again. My back felt cool where her arm had left me and the world was quiet. I looked up at the Orchard’s canopy, the leaves turning from gold to green before my eyes, the colour slowly leaking into each leaf one by one. I watched the leaf closest to me as it grazed the top of my arm. The colour continued to leak, spilling onto my arm and spreading across my skin like green cream. It was silky to the touch, cool and smooth and it licked its way across my body as I slowly turned green.
It reached my neck, my body now covered in goose bumps, and burst from my skin, the colour falling to the ground onto the whiteness beneath my bare feet. Colour quickly drained from my body, covering the ground like waves and dyeing it green. Grass shot up from where the colour touched the white. Above me, the trees were bare and skeletal, the colour and life drawn from them.
Something was wrong; I couldn’t place the feeling I had, but I knew that leafs did not lose their colour in such a way. It was an inherent feeling, the knowledge that whatever had just happened was bad. It was almost like a disease, sweeping through the Orchard and destroying the trees which everyone of us clung to. Without them, our memories would fall apart; our past, present and future dissolved into the whiteness around us.
One foot in front of the other, I carefully made my way down the grassy path, the lush greenery tickling the soles of me feet. I felt strangely calm and, as always, curious. I had gone all my life without making the discovery I dreamt of, without taking one step further than anyone else. But now… I knew I could solve this. I knew we, the people from the orange trees, could solve it. I looked up through the naked branches of the trees, staring into the white sky. It was so empty, yet it gave me the feeling that there really was something out there watching, something that knew the answers. I quickened my steps, heading into the heart of the Orchard where the light was less bright.
The green followed my footsteps, never reaching ahead or lagging behind. Wherever my feet touched turned green, the whiteness behind me fading completely. I approached James, his back rigid against a tree trunk which stretched up far into the sky.
“What’s happening to you?” He quickly got to his feet, shaking his hair out of his eyes. I could almost call the look on his face concern; it touched me.
“I don’t know,” I said softly, looking down at my green feet, the colour of fresh spring leaves. “It follows my footsteps. I don’t know how to stop it.”
“Have you noticed the trees have lost all their leaves, already?” He gestured to the bare canopy above us, how the branches and twigs tangled into each other like a wooden bridge.
“It’s like that for you too?” I looked around, looking for anything else out of place. Apart from the green beneath my feet and the dead-looking trees, nothing seemed out of the ordinary; not for this world, anyway. “I wonder what-”
James and I both looked up at the same time, our heads jolting around to look in the same direction. My eyes widened in horror as I realised what I was seeing. I had not just been followed by the growth of grass; James and I were no longer alone.
Slowly, very slowly, drifting along the green path were some oddly deformed shapes. There were hundreds of them, all forming a dark mass as they gradually floated closer. Not more than twenty feet away, I could make out the ashen and twisted faces of the souls of Skeleton Wood. Their smoky consistency meant that I could see through each one into the rotten, lost face of the others. A jumbled mass of despair and distress. And they were reaching our their wasted hands for me.
“How did they leave Skeleton Wood?” I murmured to James, who stood close enough for me to touch, had it been possible. I could feel his agitation grow stronger as we stood watching them.
“How should I know,” he said edgily, his eyes transfixed. “Let’s just get out of here.”
I did not ask how he planned to escape from the afterlife. I asked nothing. I just wondered as they steadily drifted closer if we should help them, stop them. There was something not right and I yearned to understand. I couldn’t walk away from an unsolved mystery.
“Come on,” James said through gritted teeth. He tried to grab my hand and drag me away, but he passed straight through me like sand through fingers. It was enough to break the spell that engulfed me and I finally saw what was in front of me, just over ten feet away.
“Let’s go,” I said decisively and I turned swiftly in the other direction, James walking beside me. I looked down, watching as the green path formed under my toes, watching as I created a path that lead the souls directly to me.
An eerie silence hung in the air moments before a shrill piercing sound shattered it.
“Run!” James yelled. I didn’t need telling twice. I lifted my dress up a little and ran as fast as I could away from the shadowy souls, trying desperately to outrun the pathway I created under my feet. It was hopeless, it was pointed. I couldn’t outrun myself.
Above me, the branches started to fall. They crumbled and disintegrated on their way to the ground, leaving an ashy residue on the grass. I held my hands over my head, protecting my eyes from the dusty rain. Drops of water fell with the ash, falling onto my skin and onto the grass. I tried to breathe deeper, quicker, but it did me little good. I could smell the ash, smell the woody scent from the trees. On top of that, there was a pungent smell of oranges that burst from the water droplets. They had come from inside the trees themselves, from their roots. The juice was their elixir, was my hope.
I looked behind me to see an astonishing sight; the trees were growing back. I slowed my steps, calling to James to stop. We stared in amazement as stems shot up from where the orange rain collided with the ash. Slowly they grew, little forms of life that shot up from death and those orange droplets. They swelled, turning darker as their trunks changed from green to brown. They aged before our eyes, in a timescale that did not correspond with our own. I felt as though I was frozen in time, that we were all just waiting for the trees to grow. They shot towards the sky as one, branches and leaves developing as they were lifted higher and higher.
The souls could not pass through the regenerated trees. They tried, their wispy forms surging forward only to be thrown back again. A wailing sound came from them; pain and suffering were contained in their lost voices.
Pity rose within me; I couldn’t understand now why we had run away from them. They were people just as James and I were. It was not their fault they had ended up trapped in the cruel form of a demented soul. I had run away from these people in need, I had turned my back on them. I took a step into the freshly formed orchard in front of me. James, who lingered on the clean, white ground behind me, coughed.
“Come on,” he said softly. “There’s nothing we can do for them.”
I shook my head, trying to stop tears forming in my eyes. Each of those helpless souls on the other side of the trees had a face, they had memories. They had families, just like I did. What was I stuck here for if it wasn’t to help creatures like these.
The trees creaked, as though the strain of all the souls trying to get through was too much. I swallowed my concern, fear once again overwhelming me.
“We should go and warn the others,” I said sadly, turning my back on the souls once again.
I hated myself for it. I hated how I could just walk away from all the terrors of this world, all the despair and hurt and be unchanged. I struggled to find any purpose in this world. How was I expected to remain here if there was no reason?
James smiled sadly at me and I knew he felt it too. There was such a sadness in the white world. After a while, it became a part of you as much as you were a part of it.
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