Thanks for sticking with me during this short break! From now on, I’ll be adding longer posts of a continuing storyline for you to enjoy. This tale follows the trials of a young man named Tony Walsh, who inherits a house from an estranged uncle. What should have been a quick visit to inventory and sell the place and the belongings inside turns into something much more sinister…
So please enjoy this first post and let me know what you think in the comments below!
x P.L. McMillan
1.1 The Reflected Forest – Tony Walsh
My car bumped over the poorly paved driveway. It had been neglected the last few months and was slowly being taken over by an army of thistles and weeds. The old house that my late Uncle Anthony had owned loomed like a hulking shadow against the evening sky. It had taken me several hours longer than I had planned to get here, due to lack of service, failing GPS, and terrible directions from a gas station worker. Now I would have to try and find a hotel or stay in the house for the night. My wheels crunched to a stop over the final few feet of the gravel. My headlights illuminated part of the drooping front porch, glinted off the left-hand front bay window, and cast an emerald halo over the thick ivy that clung to the sides of the house.
I stepped out from the thick warmth of my car, shivering as the crisp autumn air bit at my neck and nose, chasing my new goosebumps down my spine to my lower back. The house, surrounding fields, and the small apple orchard to the left of the house whispered with the evening wind, quiet as parishioners in early mass.
I examined the house, reluctant to go inside. I had only ever met my uncle when I was a kid, never talked to him as I grew up, my parents never mentioned him, and he never came to visit. I couldn’t understand why he’d have left me his house and belongings when he had his own son still alive and even living in the nearby town.
It was a single-story ranch style house, painted a light blue that had faded to almost gray over the years. The roof was shingled in black, though I could see bright spots where holes had been patched. Two large bay windows framed the wooden front door – like the great glassy eyes of a dumb insect.
A porch swing creaked to the right of the door with a paperback book still open, facedown, on the seat. The driveway itself ended against a garage, whose door was open and revealed an empty space from which a lattice of cobwebs hung. Pushed against the very back was a simple sawhorse next to a bucket.
A particularly cold gust of wind buffeted my back, pushing me forward with the fragrance of canola blossoms. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the heavy steel key Mr. Walsh, my late uncle’s lawyer, had given me.
I made my way through the bald dandelion stems and ankle-high grass that choked the front walkway and ascended the two wooden steps to the porch. I slipped the heavy key and twisted it, listening the catch open as the tumblers clunked home.
To my far right, I heard distant chimes clamouring on the wind. My body hair rose in an instant. I whipped my head in that direction, an uneasy flutter tightening my chest. I frowned. The night was silent again, but my skin was still crawling. I tried to analyze the source of that instant moment of fear, that wave of revulsion, but could find no logical reason.
I rubbed my hands up and down over my biceps, waiting a moment to hear the chimes again as another gust of wind whipped through the orchard, scattering dying leaves and rustling the grass. The night remained quiet. I shrugged instead and opened the front door, repocketing the key to keep it safe. I had expected the house to smell musty, neglected, an oratory sign that its owner had died a month ago, but the air inside was clean. The front door opened into a large entrance hall that spanned to the very back of the house and ended in a set of double doors. On each side of the hall were three sets of doors, all closed. Everything was a shade of brown – the wooden doors, dull hardwood floors, beige wallpaper with a faded white fleur-de-lis design, the golden chandelier hung overhead with electric candles, and the oak coatrack with matching umbrella stand that sat to the right of the front door.
The walls were bare of any decoration, the floor bare of any carpet or rug. A yellowing, cracked light switch was on the wall above the umbrella stand, it had three switches. The first one did nothing as far as I could tell, the second caused a lightbulb outside to chase the shadows from the porch, and the last flooded the hallway with a strange amber light from the chandelier in the middle of the long ceiling.
Still feeling strange from what had happened outside, I turned and made sure the door was locked behind me and left the porch light on for good measure. Feeling a bit better, I tried the first door on my left. It opened on a comfy, living room complete with overstuffed couch and armchairs, scratched coffee table, cluttered end tables, and strategically placed floor lamps with worn out shades. The couch and armchairs were placed on a threadbare braided rug in a generous semi-circle around a fireplace that looked like it had been used regularly but cleaned rarely, logs were stacked in a carefully manner on the brick hearth, which was blackened with years of soot. Metal tongs and pokers leaned against the wall to the right of the fireplace. Above the mantle was a simply framed painting of a fox hunt – six regally dressed men on heaving horses following a wave of snarling hounds that chased a terrified fox to the left edge of the canvas.
The bay window here let in a meager amount of evening light through thick red curtains that matched the red upholstery on the furniture. I wondered for a moment if both were made from the same fabric. The room had a faint but persistent stench of tobacco and I spied a large, over-flowing ashtray on the end table that stood next to the armchair closest to the fireplace. This armchair was also the one most used, the fabric on the cushions was worn down and, in patches on the arm rests, balding. Sliding doors on the left-hand wall were standing half open so I could see the next room was a formal dining room.
Entering it, I saw that a long table dominated the room, along with eight, plain wooden straight-back chairs – three on each side and one at each end. To my left, against the outside wall, was a tall china cabinet, roughly six-feet long. I walked up to it and could see a strange collection of mismatched china cups, plates, bowls, serving platters, and wine glasses. No three things seemed to come from the same set. There were delicate bone china pieces with robin egg blue lace designs along the edges, silver tableware with rich scalloped edges, plain white pieces with no decoration at all, and over-the-top china with hand-painted Greek scenes in the basins. Scattered among the dishes were half melted candles, old-fashioned crude black carpentry nails, dried herbs, and a single ivory cameo of an extremely heavy-set woman with four chins and curls as wide as German sausages.
Below the display doors were two long drawers. I tugged on the wrought iron handle on the left drawer and found it stuck. It wouldn’t open past a quarter of an inch no matter how much I wiggled or pulled. It must have been caught on something inside. The other drawer contained a tray of tarnished silverware, at least three separate sets with their own unique designs on the heavy handles. Next to this tray was a fat box of long matches, only half full.
I closed the drawer, wincing as the wood squealed. As I did, I caught a strange reflection in the cabinet glass of something just over my shoulder. I whirled around, goosebumps all over my body again, only to snort with relief. Three stuffed boar heads were mounted high on the opposite wall. I had seen the reflection of the middle boar – by far the largest of the three, with monstrous tusks, pitch-coloured bristles, and malignant amber eyes. The two boars on either side of the black beast were caramel colour and much smaller cousins to the one in the middle. Their eyes were brown, glassy, lacking in life while the ebony boar’s gaze seemed to drill into me, full of fiery hate.
I shook my head again.
“Get a hold of yourself, you loser,” I told myself.
Still I wanted to get out of this room as soon as possible, so I exited out the heavy door beneath the black boar and was back in the hall. As expected, the doors at the end of the entrance hall, to my left, led to a large kitchen complete with an informal dining area. The kitchen was set up with a wide L shaped counter, separating it from the small table and four chairs that sat to the left of the doors. The counters were lacquered wood, old and pitted. Along the outside wall were four windows looking westward onto a dark nightscape of fields and rising moon. I walked further into the room. The air seemed warmer here and I thought I could smell a hint of baked bread. A deep metal sink was situated in the counter under the window second from the right.
To the right of this sink was an ancient stove and oven, next to that: a hulking fridge covered in magnets and flyers. I opened the fridge, expecting to find rotting food or mouldy leftovers, but was surprised to see it bare besides a crock of butter, some apples, and a case of beer. I helped myself to a bottle with a half smile as I twisted off the cap. Behind me, across from the outside wall, were cabinets above a shorter counter and, in the corner, a standalone pantry. On this counter sat a toaster and a microwave, both looked like they were older than me. Curious, I looked through the cabinets and found pots, pans, and an assortment of earthenware casserole dishes, and water glasses. The pantry had everything I would expect it to: flour, sugar, salt, spices, tin containers of tea, tea towels, paper towels, and a large crate of canned soup. My uncle seemed like a simple man who knew what he liked, that is, cream of tomato and nothing else.
The room was painted butter yellow, the walls were decorated with small black and white photos of generations of the same family out in the orchard squinting against the sun, and the windows were framed with handmade lace curtains. The dining room table was scarred and stained with water rings. The wooden chairs had been adorned with thick cushions tied to the outer spindles of the back.
Finally, between the fridge and pantry was a thin wooden door. I made my way over the ancient linoleum and tried the handle, opening the protesting door on its creaking hinges to reveal a rickety set of wooden stairs descending into absolute darkness. Standing at the top of the stairs, I felt the cool air creep out, curling around my ankles like icy fingers. The smell hit me next, rising from the stairs: the thick stench of wet dirt, ages of dust, and mould. Wrinkling my nose, I shut the door again. I wasn’t in the mood to go exploring a damp, dirty basement tonight.
My belly growled then, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten anything since that stale bagel I’d grabbed a coffee shop early this afternoon. I dug through the cupboards, grabbing a pot and setting it out on the stove. Another search through the pantry yielded a half empty packet of crackers to go with my tomato soup, which I had dumped in the pot to heat.
Waiting for the soup to warm up, I took my beer with me to explore the last two rooms on the right side of the entrance hall. The room closest to the kitchen turned out to be my late uncle’s bedroom. The room was dominated by the queen-sized bed set in the middle of the outside wall, directly across by the bedroom door. The room was swathed in shadows, so I reached to the light switch. The overhead light buzzed as it flickered to life.
In the dim light, I saw that the bed had been stripped of sheets and I could see the various discolorations that mattresses tend to collect over the years. I walked deeper into the room, feeling as though I was intruding on someone’s personal sanctuary. Against the wall to the left of the bed was a squat dresser, over which a portrait of my late uncle and his family was hung.
To the right of the door was a wardrobe. Feeling guilty, I opened the doors and saw that my uncle’s button-up shirts still hung next to his dead wife’s dresses and blouses. I shut the doors again, taking a swig of my beer. Thinking of my soup, I moved quickly to the far end of the bedroom where another door opened into an antiquated bathroom – all white tiles and porcelain with a braided rug acting as a bathmat, a toothbrush still in the cup next to the cold water faucet. There was no showerhead, only a fat claw-footed bathtub with a faint soap scum ring around the sides. This bathroom had two more doors besides the one I had come through. One revealed a closet full of cleaning supplies and towels, and the other which led to the final room of the house: a study.
It was just slightly smaller than the living room across the hall. Its heavy curtains were open, allowing the bay window to let in some porch light across the large, heavy desk that sat pushed against it. The floor was bare and the walls were white, stained with a yellowish tinge from smoking damage. The air here smelled strongly of tobacco and dust. Besides the desk and its accompanying chair, the only other pieces of furniture were the four bookshelves that rose up to the ceiling against the wall that separated this room from the hallway. Across from the door sat this room’s fireplace, smaller and dingier than the one in the living room. Six vintage rifles were mounted to the wall above the mantle.
I approached the desk. It was a handsome piece of furniture, made of dark wood that had once been highly polished – and still was in places. The drawers were richly engraved with forest scenes, the handles were brass rubbed bright with use. The surface of the desk was messy, tall stacks of papers, crumpled bills, pens, pencils, a steel letter opener in the shape of a monstrous tusk, and notebooks sat scattered everywhere.
I walked back to the hall, returning to the kitchen to find my soup boiling. I shut the heat off and dumped it into a bowl I scavenged from the cupboards. Juggling my beer, a spoon, the crackers, and my soup; I made my way to the table at the other end of the room. I sat down. The house was silent. My uncle had spent the last decade of his life living here alone. I had seen no TV, no radio, no laptop, not even a record player to dispel the gloomy atmosphere that hung over these rooms. I tried to imagine Uncle Anthony walking up and down the hall, sitting by a crackling fire in the living, and eating dinners alone in absolute monkish silence and realized I wasn’t even sure what he looked like.
Uncle Anthony was from my mother’s side, she had died when I was nine years old, and I had met him at the funeral. The memory was faded and I struggling to pull details out. I could remember my dad’s hand tightening on mind as Uncle Anthony approached, the way my new dress shoes – bought especially for this event and never worn again for the pain of the memories – as I stood by his side. I had the impression that my uncle had been a tall, thin man with a gaunt, almost skeletal cast to his face. He’d ignored my father and knelt, offering me a bony hand to shake. His eyes had been the pale blue of washed out denim, or maybe gray and the blue had been reflected from the tie my father had forced me to wear. He’d taken my hand, given it a firm shake, and said: “well met.”
“Well met,” I said to the empty house, trying out the strange phrase.
Then my father had pulled me away, tugging my arm in painful jerks as he dragged me from the cemetery to the waiting car. I’d looked back over my shoulder and my uncle was crouched where we’d left him, gazing at my mother’s new, pristine granite headstone.