Happy Sunday, everyone and welcome back to “The Reflected Forest”, Part 3. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here. I hope you’re enjoying the story so far. Things are only getting creepier for poor Tony as he learns a little more about the Coates family history.
And don’t forget, readers, a new P.L. McMillan cosmic horror is up for grabs in Hinnom 006.
1.3 The Reflected Forest – The Curse
It took me a moment to realize my mouth was gaping open in shock. I shut it. Swallowed. My hands itched as they laid on the cover of Uncle Anthony’s journal. I placed the book onto my lap, hiding it partially under the counter. I felt cold, chilled to the point of shivers, all of a sudden.
Seeing this man was a shock to my senses, so much so that it took me a long moment to realize what the issue was. This man looked very nearly identical to the hazy memory of my uncle, the resemblance was eerie and, once I’d taken a second to think, I knew that this had to be his son, my cousin. Struggling to recover from the shock he’d given me with his strange comment, I found that I couldn’t recall his name.
I wiped my hand on my pants and held it out to him. He ignored it, so I let it drop to the book on my lap.
“You’re, um, Uncle Anthony’s son,” the statement fell lame.
He glared at me, crossing his arms.
“I’m not here for introductions, nor to chitchat, nor to get your condolences. I want you out of Belham by morning.”
I pinched the skin between the thumb and finger of my left hand with the nails on my right, using the pain to center myself. His tone, his posture, this felt like a confrontation. He hated me for having received what should have been his.
“Listen, I don’t know why your father willed me his home. Um. We can also talk to Mr. Walsh about it, I know you’re a lawyer so I’m sure we could work something out?”
I was babbling and I forced myself to take a deep breath, to take a moment. He hadn’t moved, his expression hadn’t changed.
“You don’t know anything. My father told me about you. You know you’re adopted, right? You’re not a real Coates,” my cousin shook his head with a disgusted look on his face.
I felt the blood drain from my face. Adopted?
“I’m not –”
“Yes, you are. We have your paperwork in the family file at the office. I’ve seen your adoption papers for myself. Your mother was infertile, they got you when you were three. Closed adoption, no contact with your biological parents. That’s why my father willed the house to you but it doesn’t belong to you. A place like that…”
He paused. Looked around the bar, his eyes darting over the other patrons and probing the shadows. He shifted on his feet, looked tense and harried. I opened my mouth to say something but nothing came out. I thought back, searched through the memories I had of my father and mother, tried to find something that would give away that I had been adopted. The man turned his attention back to me.
“I am not doing this out of spite. You don’t belong in that house. I am trying to do you a favour. Don’t stay in the house, you’ll regret it. This is your last warning,” the man turned and walked away.
“Wait, what do you mean?” I called after him, oblivious to the other people who turned to stare. “What do you mean that I’ll regret it?”
He ignored me, throwing some cash on the bar in front of the bartender as he left. I sat, stunned. In my pocket, I felt my phone vibrating against my thigh. Instead of answering it, I chugged my beer, and signalled to the bartender that I wanted a refill. Rubbing both hands against my face, I took a few deep breaths. The whole exchange had truly shaken me.
“Adopted?” I whispered.
A new beer was placed in front of me. The bartender lingered.
“Don’t mean to pry. Christian is good at making people uncomfortable. Makes him a good lawyer. I used him for my divorce and he did a great job. Made the old bitch cry, never seen her cry in my life til then. Brilliant. He is a good man, though,” the bartender said, helping himself to one of my pretzels.
“Uh huh. So he’s pretty angry that his father didn’t give him the house in the will?”
The man stuck out his beefy hand and I shook it.
“Name’s Lars and no, Christian hated that old house. He moved out when he was seventeen, moved to a whole different state to get his degree. When he came back, he got a house in town straight away. Broke Anthony’s heart. He moved on though, converted the room to a study he told me.”
I shook Lars’ warm hand, feeling even more confused.
“I’m Tony. Tony Walsh. Did you say he hates the house? He just told me to give it up, move out of town and everything. I thought it was because he’d wanted it,” I sipped the cold beer, feeling warmer as the alcohol began to fully set in.
Lars surprised me by laughing.
“You don’t know?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“That house is the source of Belham’s very own ghost story. The good ole Coates curse. Complete horseshit of course, but most people have a tiny part inside that believes it’s true. Christian is no exception,” Lars grinned.
“A curse? You’re kidding me,” I said. “I never heard anything about a curse on my family.”
My mood sunk suddenly again. My family? Maybe not, if Christian was right. I made a mental note to find out where Christian worked and visit him, demand to see these supposed adoption papers. Lars poured me another beer, I hadn’t realized I’d finished my second one. My body was beginning to relax against the emotional tension I was feeling, a contradiction within my very body. Lars made himself more comfortable by leaning against the counter.
“It’s hard to really describe. Most people round here have a different idea of what the curse is. My grandmother says the house is wrong, goes against God, and when you stay there for too long you end up changed.”
“Changed how?” I asked, grateful for the distraction away from the uncomfortable encounter with my cousin.
“I never seen any of it for myself, but Nan used to be friends with Anthony’s aunt. Her name was Gertrude, I think. They were in school together for a couple years before Gertrude was kept home. Even then, they’d play in the canola fields in the summer when Gertrude could get away from her family.”
Lars shrugged again, staring up at the ceiling, picking at his teeth while he talked.
“Nan said the curse got into Gertrude’s pa. Suddenly wouldn’t let any of his kids out – there were four; three boys and Gertrude. All pulled out of school.”
“How was that allowed, wouldn’t social services have gotten involved?” I asked.
“No such thing as social services in Belham back then. Anyways, a lot of kids were homeschooled out on the farms, so no one batted an eye about it. Nan only saw Gertrude in the summer after that. This was when they were both twelve, I think. The dad, Anthony’s grandfather, stopped coming into town. Didn’t mean much besides the fact he and his family were missed at church. This went on for two, three years. Nan said each summer Gertrude looked worse and worse. Her clothes got shabbier, stopped washing her hair, and it was harder and harder to make her laugh or smile. Nan would sometimes ask her what was wrong, but Gertrude would only shake her head, or shrug, and say something like ‘papa’s different’ or ‘papa was mad again today,’
“Nan mentioned that the pastor at that time would go and visit the Coates, he might stay five minutes or two hours, but when he walked back into town, he always looked worried. The following Sunday would always have an extra long sermon. Nan said she hated those. After three years, Nan didn’t see Gertrude anymore. The little girl stopped meeting her in the fields and Nan was too scared to go to the Coates home. The summer went by, Nan regretted never saying anything sooner. She always taught me that if you ever thought anything was wrong, you should always listen to your gut and tell someone. Cause that summer, my Nan didn’t say anything at all and she believed, up and even onto her deathbed, that had she told her pa or the pastor, Gertrude might’ve been saved.”
“What happened to the little girl?”
A part of me wanted to hear the end of this story, another part didn’t because I would hear something horrible about the house that was now mine. The words from the journal rolled through my head: “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.”
“Well Nan finally told the pastor, after his sermon one Sunday. She said the pastor was the only adult she knew at the time who always took her seriously. He did that day too. He got the one and only cop in town and they went to the Coates house. No one would tell Nan what they found, she was a kid after all. What she did learn from town gossip was that Gertrude’s pa was found dead in the basement — hung himself. The three sons and ma were barely alive. He’d tied them up and put bags over their heads. Eventually the mom did die, in the hospital a day or two later, but the sons made it through alright.”
“Gone. They never found her. They even dug up the basement floor, knocked down some of the walls. She was gone.”