Welcome back, dear readers. I hope you enjoyed the first part of this ongoing series. Let me know what you think in the comments below, and don’t forget to like and share!
x P.L. McMillan
1.2 The Reflected Forest – The Journal
My mood was beginning to verge on melancholic as I dropped too deep into dusty, painful memories so I pulled out my phone as a distraction. Just because my uncle preferred oppressing silence, didn’t mean I had to put up with it.
My mood dropped even lower as I saw the new missed call and six new messages waiting for me on the screen. They were all from Andrea.
I couldn’t deal with the guilt right now. The old, aching guilt and the fresh, hot guilt of having left her behind without even telling her I was planning on coming up this weekend. I knew I would have to call her back soon but instead, I set my phone to play the podcast series I’d been listening to on the long drive up. I would have to talk to Andrea eventually but tonight was not that night.
My body slowly relaxed as I sipped at my soup, munched the salty crackers, and listened to the podcast’s hosts debate some cold case mystery in their soothing voices. Despite the interesting content, my mind wandered. I knew my uncle had had three children, the eldest of which lived in the nearby town of Belham working as a lawyer. I couldn’t remember anything about the other two, except that maybe they had died young. The fact that Uncle Anthony had left me the house and not his living son still nagged at me. They must have had some falling out, especially if Anthony hadn’t chosen his own son to be his estate lawyer and executor of his last will.
I finished my soup, brushing crumbs off my lap, and deposited the bowl into the sink to be washed later. I’d made up my mind on the ride over to take up a room in town at a motel so I walked back into the hallway, with the intent to head outside. As I passed the now opened door to the study, I stopped. The desk sat in my view, illuminated by the porch light and hallway light both. On top of the mess of papers and office supplies, I could clearly see a leather-bound book.
I took a step into the room. Stopped. Had I not noticed the book when I was looking over the desk before? It was a beautiful volume bound in golden calfskin and wrapped with a dark green ribbon. This didn’t seem right. My memory of the desk was stark clear – there had been no book on top when I was last in the room, only a half hour before.
My skin crawled and I stepped back, out into the hall. Hands sweating, I twisted the front door’s knob and shook the door against the still engaged lock. I had locked the door behind me and it was still locked. I tiptoed through all the rooms, checking the windows, first the living room, then the formal dining room, the kitchen, the bedroom, until I was back in the hallway – staring into the study. The only place I hadn’t check was the basement, but no one could have snuck up those stairs and into the study without going right past me. It would have been impossible.
My hands were shaking. I tried to remember what Mandy, my therapist, always said to do. Breathe: in, hold, out slowly. In, hold, out slowly. Think: was I sure the book hadn’t always there? I had been distracted by the food in the kitchen, I had only given the desk a brief examination. It was possible I could have seen the book, then forgotten about it. There was no reason to think there was an intruder in the house.
Memories of months ago intruded – as they always did. Nighttime. Waking up to someone in the house, unfamiliar footsteps on the stairs. Andrea reaching for me, whispering my name. The bedroom door kicked open as I was getting out of bed.
“Stop. Stop it.” I whispered to myself, clenching my fists besides my temples and squeezing.
Andrea’s screams faded, an old memory echo that refused to disappear completely. I sucked in a breath and stepped into the study, flicking on the overhead light. The dark room was flooded with the abrasive brilliance of five naked bulbs in a fixture on the ceiling, which seemed to have lost its cover.
I moved to the desk and reached down to run a fingertip across the creamy hide. A part of me was expecting it to be warm, to have retained the body heat of whatever intruder had put it there, but the leather was cool to the touch.
I rested my whole palm on it, relishing the smooth feel of the leather. Around me the house groaned, shuddering from the front porch down the length of the house and ending in the kitchen, as a particularly strong gust of wind crashed against it. I looked up out of the bay window. The fields around the property thrashed in waves while the apple trees clattered their branches together in a dry applause.
There was no visible life in the night, no signs of human occupancy, except for the vague twinkling of lights from Belham, almost hidden by the cusp of a hill. I desperately wanted a beer, a cold pint surrounded by friendly strangers in a loud, dimly-lit bar – anywhere rather than here in this tomb-like house that used to be a home.
I picked up the book, tucking it against my left side as I hurried out the front door, locking it behind me, but leaving every light blazing inside. I jogged across the gravel, head ducked against the wind, as I made my way to my car. It felt farther away, too far. In the looming night, surrounded by endless fields, I knew what a rabbit must feel waiting for the feel of the owl’s talons in the back of its neck.
I got into my car, slamming the door behind me. As an after thought, I locked all the doors too. In the familiar safety of my sedan, I looked at the squatting house. I felt silly. With all the lights on, it looked less sinister and more like the family home it once was. Still, I didn’t want to go back inside. I placed the book on the passenger side seat, started the car, and began the drive to Belham.
The road there was rough and lonely, surrounded by those dark fields. Once and a while, I would pass a dirt driveway leading off the main road and into the fields. In the distance, presumably at the end of the driveway, were the hazy lights of farms. Gradually, the road widened and smoothed, becoming a proper thoroughfare, then a highway. The way was ill-lit because, despite this being a main road, it was not maintained and half the streetlamps were burnt-out or flickering. I drove in silence, listening to the hum of the engine.
My headlights finally highlighted the turn-off for Belham. This road was brighter, with less potholes, and I began feeling better the farther I got away from the house. Society formed around me as houses became more regular, becoming suburbs, becoming dense neighbourhoods. I passed Belham’s high school, a couple grocery stores, even a tiny strip mall, before finding a tiny motel next to a lush park. I parked in the appropriately tiny lot and went inside.
The lobby was decorated in bright red wallpaper and gold-coloured carpet, red vinyl chairs, and a pale wood front desk. Behind the desk sat a bored looking woman with frizzy orange hair. She was wearing a Belham High hoody and was scribbling notes in the margins of an AP Calculus textbook.
“Preparing for your SAT?” I asked.
She sat up with a jerk, green eyes widening behind thick rimmed glasses.
“Can I help you?” she said in reply.
“Any rooms available?”
She rolled her chair to the left, where an old desktop computer sat, and began pecking slowly away at the keyboard with her two index fingers. I saw that her name was Annaleigh from a nameplate next to the antique bell on the counter.
“Do you like working the night shifts?” I said, trying to fill the silence.
“We only have one double bed guest room available until Monday, payment due up front, no smoking, it faces the parking lot,” she said without making eye contact.
I slid my credit card towards her, embarrassed at my failed attempt at conversation. She swiped it, we both listened to the loud buzz of the printer as it spat out a receipt. She slid my card back to me, along with the receipt, which I signed and exchanged for the key. It was an actual key, not one of those flimsy cards you swipe for entry. I weighed it in my palm.
“Problem?” she asked, hunched over her textbook again.
“Where’s the nearest bar?” I asked.
The place was only a ten-minute walk from the motel. It was called Bell’s Ring and was probably Belham’s idea of a classy joint. It was styled like an English pub, with a hand-carved sign hanging above the door with the pub’s name in Olde English font beneath the image of two bells. Inside, the room was mainly dominated by a ring-shaped bar around which orbited twelve booths in forest-green plastic and tables set with paper mats. The floor was carpeted in a gray and dark green floral design. The wood paneled walls were decorated with vintage advertisements for English beers, whiskeys, and cigarettes. On the back end was a six-foot-long painting depicting a white English manor on lush green moors.
The place was busy, with three-quarters of the booths taken and half the bar stools occupied. I circled the bar and found a seat near the back, under one of the hanging lights domed in green sea glass. Most of the other patrons were sat closer to the front so I would have some privacy. My seat was directly across the entrance to the men’s washroom, over which was hung a stag’s head. The women’s washroom at the other end of the room was designated by a mounted doe’s head, of course. I took a moment to look at the draft taps before placing the leather-bound book in front of me. I waited to open it when I saw the bartender approaching.
He was a heavy-set man, wearing a yellow plaid button-up and cargo shorts. His brown hair was shoulder-length and tied back in a ponytail at the base of his neck. His square face was framed between a set of thick sideburns and moustache that looked like it was carefully groomed every day. Small blue eyes, a nose that looked like it had been broken at least two times, and thin lips finished off the stern bartender look.
“A pint of whatever lager you have on tap,” I said with a smile.
He nodded and left without so much as asking me to start a tab. I suppose it was a small enough town that you wouldn’t get far with an outstanding bill. I kept both hands on the book, watching him pull a glass from the overhead shelf and pour my beer. Walking back my way, he scooped a small wicker basket of pretzels from a lower shelf and placed both in front of me.
“We do food too, only till eleven though, so order now if you want anything,” the man said.
I waved off his offer and he paused.
It wasn’t a question, nor was I surprised at the statement.
“Just got in tonight.”
“You’re the nephew, right? You missed the funeral.”
My face flushed, like it once had when my father would reprimand me for something stupid I had done.
“No one – I wasn’t told about his passing until after. I only got a call when the will was being executed,” I muttered.
The bartender nodded, turned, and went to the front end of the bar, refilling glasses and taking last minute food orders. Finally alone, I pushed my beer and pretzels to the side so I could have enough room to open the book.
A part of me had already known that it would be a journal. Opening the cover revealed an embellished first page with the words; “Coates Family Record” in faded ink. The next page was a carefully sketched out family tree. It started four generations before my uncle’s and stopped at mine. The ink at the top of the tree was faded and grew darker as you went down the tree. In the same way, the handwriting changed where the newest entries started: at my uncle’s name. Each name and date was carefully printed under varying sigils. Some sigils seemed to be a part of matching sets, including the one above mine.
I puzzled over these symbols a while, diving into a couple internet searches as I sipped my beer but found nothing. Giving up, I moved onto the next page, which was the start of the journal.
“Most family trees are breeding grounds for boredom. Maybe a few standard affairs, bastard children, trivial things. I learned that our tree has been rotting. My mother rests in her grave now. She told me everything on her deathbed. She kept our family’s secrets for five long decades and now it’s my turn to keep the poison. There must be a reason for the darkness that shadows our family name. Are we cursed by God? If we are, I must find salvation for myself, for our family. I must stop what is happening at any cost.”
A silhouette crept over the page and, on instinct, I closed the journal and sat up straight. A man leaned on the bar to my right, his cold gray eyes examining me.
“You need to leave. Forget about the house and go back home tomorrow. It’s not worth it. It’s not worth your life.”