Christopher crashed through the long grass and low branches, determined to look at this mysterious new cap more closely. They were unlikely to find anything in it aside from a label bearing a first name, but it would nevertheless be a useful clue as to the whereabouts of its owner. They reached it and froze, extending a somewhat hesitant arm towards it as though it were a venomous snake. Their fingers curled around its discoloured edge and they slowly plucked it from the ground. Bringing it nearer to their face, they shook it to ensure it was straightened. They narrowed their right eye while expanding their left like a fleshy magnifying glass – and just as they had suspected, the cap did bear a label on its inner stitching. The writing was very faint, but scribbled in what Christopher believed to be permanent marker was undoubtedly a name: “JIM”.
What Christopher initially failed to notice as they turned the cap over to look at this was a single playing card – the queen of hearts, to be precise – fluttering gently out of it, all the way down to their feet. They eventually caught sight of it just as it settled on the edge of one of their battered shoes, and it was the card – not the cap – that convinced them they’d definitely stumbled upon something fishy. Finding a piece of headgear on its own in a forest was feasible, but someone practising their magic tricks there, in total solitude, seemed much less likely. Christopher peered down their nose at the card in a way that was almost cautious, as though they expected it to come to life like a mysterious new species of insect. They bent down to retrieve it, and made sure to examine both sides for any further clues. Finding none, they pocketed it, and feeling more than a little disturbed by their initially soothing location they moved out – only to be confronted by yet another surprise.
Christopher was taking one gradual step after another, travelling deeper and deeper into the forest that lay on the other side of the idyllic opening. Just as before, very little light was let in by the tree canopies, but Christopher’s eyes had adjusted to such an extent that they could identify certain small details on the path ahead – if you could even call it a path. Christopher was the one forging a trail here, as twigs snapped and dry leaves rustled beneath their feet. Every so often they would kick away a discarded sweet wrapper or crisp packet, perhaps left by the last poor soul to find themselves lost here, with no clear view of any sort of horizon. These would roll away, carried gently by a soft Spring breeze of which Christopher could never quite trace the source. They would watch each piece of debris vanish into the shadows – everything really was deserting them, and seeing this happen reminded Christopher of exactly how isolated they were around here. They kept trying not to think about it, but seeing all of these things dance gracefully in mid-air proved to be more captivating than they had expected. For what seemed like mile after mile, they saw the same twig-leaf-wrapper cycle of objects, and the pattern became predictable and monotonous. Christopher was glazing over, and came to the point of switching off entirely before another playing card floated in front of their eyes – much to their sudden, spontaneous bewilderment.
If Christopher had been in any kind of doubt that the first card in the cap was a random countryside find, this definitely proved it wasn’t. Neither, when Christopher came across it, was the third. Or the fourth. Or the fifth. By the time the sixth appeared, it occurred to them that there was a trail – and not a lazy, wildly scattered one either. This was unmistakably neat, and it followed the exact path of Christopher’s journey, one that whoever left these cards could not possibly have known was going to be made. As the trail went by, it occurred to Christopher that there were far more than 52 cards here, and that this person must have had a rather large deck. Or just several industrial decks. Whatever the case, they were definitely leading to somewhere, and sure enough, the last card soon hoved into view, marking the end of the trail.
Christopher couldn’t believe what they were seeing. In a much darker opening was another tree stump, but here it was being used almost as a makeshift poker table. Next to it sat a wheelchair-bound boy of around seventeen, with a mass of dishevelled curly hair on his head and yet another pack of cards in his hands. As Christopher looked on – open-mouthed in disbelief – the boy tried frantically to shuffle them, cursing to himself whenever he lost his grip and they tumbled into his lap. He kept on trying again, completely oblivious to Christopher’s presence, and he dropped and gathered his cards several times before noticing he was no longer alone. At last, his eyes darted up to meet Christopher’s. He froze, loosening his grip on his cards slightly as he surveyed his new companion from head to toe suspiciously. There was silence as he did so, since Christopher knew they were far too baffled to speak. It was down to the boy to break the ice, which he did after a few minutes, when he had completed his checks and a smile was gradually appearing on his face:
“My name is Jim,” he said calmly, before fanning the cards out with his fingers and leaning forward in Christopher’s direction. “Pick a card. Any card…”
To be continued…