The Reflected Forest is a series told in parts as posts in this blog, if you haven’t read the parts before this one, you can check them out here:
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1.7 The Reflected Forest – Dark Roots
Andrea was screaming over the cacophony of a door being kicked in and the baby’s cries. My heart hammering, I rolled out of bed and onto my feet without waiting to open my eyes. Flailing blindly, I grabbed the nearest object my hand touched – the bedside lamp – and ripped it from the wall, holding it aloft, ready to strike.
My eyes finally focussed. The hotel room formed around me. Generic bed, bland walls, typical prints in simple frames on the wall; all covered in the bright light of day. Hands shaking, I set the lamp back on the nightstand, checking to make sure it wasn’t damaged. My heart was machinegun firing and I sat down, cradling my head in my hands, willing myself to take deep breaths.
In and out
In and out.
Eventually my light-headedness faded, I felt more grounded, the world felt more real. I pulled my phone closer and checked the time: 9:36 a.m.. Six new messages from Andrea. I didn’t read them. I couldn’t. Not right then.
Instead, I took a long cool shower and tried to clear my mind of the residual nightmare fuel. After, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, I rubbed my palms over my cheeks, grounding myself in the sharp pricks of my facial hair. I decided against shaving. I didn’t care what these superstitious small-town people thought of me. Why should I? I wasn’t moving here. I was going to go to my uncle’s house and pack up everything in the boxes I’d brought in the trunk of my car, then I was going to sell everything and go home to my wife.
First step first: get dressed. Second step: breakfast. I went back into the main room and grabbed some fresh clothes out of my bag. I changed, tossed on some deodorant, and began to leave. I paused. Looked back. The journal sat on the desk, closed, as I had left it last night. My palms prickled. Something urged me to take it with me, some foreboding intuition. I ignored it. Belham was a stupid, ridiculous town full of stupid, ridiculous people who believed in ghosts. I wasn’t one of them. For one thing, I knew there were worse things out there in the world than ghosts – most of them were people like me, like the man who’d broken into my house over a year ago, who had destroyed my world and my mind. Ghosts I could deal with.
I slipped out of the room, waiting to hear the latch clicked before I walked away. I made my way down to the first floor. The lobby was now in the watch of a man with a head covered in a mop of brown hair. He looked to be about my age and seemed to be struggling to stay awake. His head was propped up on his fist, while his elbow sat on the desk. I had planned on asking directions to a good restaurant or if he knew where my cousin lived, but, seeing his obvious exhaustion, I decided to just search for nearby restaurants on my phone and figure out the cousin part later.
Stepping outside was like being punched in the face with light. I brought a hand up against my eyes as my headache returned with a vengeance. The air was heavy with the scent of burning leaves and coming rain. To the west, a thick wall of slate clouds hung on the horizon – a visual threat of the storm to come.
Up and down the streets, shops were open. People were window shopping and enjoying the sunshine while it lasted. I started walking eastward, turning my back to the inclement weather. I passed an ice cream shop, a post office, a grocery market, and a few different restaurants. Nothing caught my eye, but I also just didn’t want to be out of the sunshine. It was bleaching away the last remnants of my nightmare, of the terror I’d felt upon waking.
The muscles in my neck and back relaxed, the tension melting in the out of season heat like ice cream. The sharp, dark memory of that night was replaced by the soft recollection of when I first met Andrea – on a day much like this.
I was at a late season farmer’s market. The heat had drawn out massive crowds, bright light reflecting off a multitude of faces, of glistening teeth, and bright eyes.
She’d been working as a vendor, selling handmade jewelry. It was the reflected and refracted light that had first caught my attention – the autumn sunshine caught in the facets of the semi-precious gems she’d trapped in delicate filigrees of silver, copper, and gold. Rainbows danced across her table, her arms, and neck. As my eyes were drawn upward by the flitting colours, it had almost seemed like she had gems embedded in her very skin.
Our gazes met. She smiled first.
I smiled in my memory, I smiled in my present. I rounded the corner and saw another market.
An eerie feeling of being in a strange intersection of the past and present intruded on my calm. The sunlight here, the sunlight then. The overpowering smell of flowers, a cacophony of voices and laughter. I saw Andrea there, among the faces, as she was then – ten years ago. The colours on her skin, the gems of light. I blinked and it was another woman. I blinked and this market was smaller, there were no flowers or produce, only crafts and goods. I blinked and I was fully in the present.
An old woman had her small, soft hand on my wrist. She was looking up at me through thick glasses. Her small lips were pursed and her entire body wass shaking slightly, as though ready to tremble off into pieces.
“I’m fine, really. It’s just – the heat,” I struggled to find words, something to say.
The old woman nodded and pointed off to my right.
“There’s a little espresso bar down by the origami table. My grandson runs it. Some sugar and caffeine will do you wonders and take that ghost from your face.”
“Ghost?” I said, startled.
I put a hand against my face and felt a chill traverse my whole body. The old woman shook her head and patted my hand.
“I didn’t mean any harm. I only meant you’re looking very pale, dear. Just get some food.”
She patted my hand again and wandered off, readjusting the basket she was holding over one arm. Without thinking too much about it, I followed the direction she had pointed in. Tables were set up in two rows along the pedestrian walkway, forming the small market. Men and women stood by their wares and talked with the people who stopped by. There were tables of handmade ceramics, blown glass baubles, windchimes, clothing, framed cross-stitch designs, and painted coasters. I soon found the origami table.
The table was covered in intricately made paper animals and shapes, all varnished so that they were protected. The vibrant coloured paper shined in the sun, making for a cheerful display. The espresso cart was next to it. A younger man leaned against it, flirting with the young woman who had made all the origami.
The cart was a repurposed wheelbarrow outfitted with an espresso machine, mini fridge, and a cash box. Paper cups and plastic lids sat in a large wicker basket next to an insulated container of cream and a box of sugar packets. Muffins, croissants, and bagels were situated in a plastic case built into the side of the wheelbarrow.
The two looked up at me as I approached. They were both smiling. They reminded me of Andrea, of myself, a decade ago. The girl took her place behind the table, rearranging some of the origami.
“Can I help you?” the guy asked.
“What gave me away?” I said in way of a reply.
“It’s the hungry look in your eyes. Plus, no offense, but you look a little hungover.”
“No offense taken. I’ll take the largest size latte you have and one of those muffins, please,” I dug into my back pocket for my wallet, pulling out a ten.
“You’ll love the muffins. My grandma makes them fresh every morning. Today’s flavour of the day is lemon poppyseed.”
The young man handed me the muffin wrapped in a napkin then pulled a jug of milk from the mini fridge and started making my drink. I plucked chunks out of the soft pastry, eating while I watched him froth the milk.
“You’re not from around here,” the girl said, coming closer again.
“That easy to tell?”
“Everyone knows everyone around here,” she said. “Are you moving to Belham?”
“No, just passing through. I inherited a house and I’m just going to get it ready to be put on the market,” I said around a mouthful of muffin.
“Oh! Oh, the Coates house, right? The haunted house?” the girl gasped, her pretty hands fluttering up to her mouth.
I instantly regretted saying anything. The thick taste of metal and bile clouded the back of my throat and the muffin turned to sludge on my tongue.
“Yeah, that’s the one,” I said.
The young man passed me the hot coffee just in time. I took a deep drink and relished the burn.
“Don’t tell me you believe in that stupid stuff, Carly,” he said.
The young woman frowned, stuffing her hands into her apron pockets. Her dark, curly brown hair was tossed about behind her head in a playful cloud by the wind. In a moment of silence, she examined me with large, dark eyes. The concern on her face aged her into the woman she would become in a few years’ time and she was beautiful.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” she asked me.
“Uh, no, not really, it’s all silly,” I forced a laugh.
She didn’t laugh with me. The young man rolled his eyes.
“You’ve heard stories then?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’ve all heard them, or at least different versions of the same sort of thing. No one can ever agree on one version or the other,” he said.
“My grandmother’s originally from New Orleans, she used to work as a back-alley hoodoo doctor when she was younger. She knows everything you can know about spirits and evil, she can sense things too. When she married my grandfather, they moved here. She knew there was something wrong with that house,” Carly said.
“How so?” I asked.
“She often spent time in the fields, collecting the long grass that she’d weave into baskets to sell. Sometimes that took her close to the Coates house. She said, when she was close enough, she’d hear a strange noise. She said it sounded like the beating of a giant heart, coming from the house, or from the ground beneath the house.”
“Oooh, spooky. Edgar Allen Poe called, he wants his tell-tale heart back!”
Carly ignored her friend.
“She said that one time, she closed her eyes and the house sent her a vision. She saw deep, dark roots growing down, out of the house and into the earth. Something in the ground, in those dark roots under the house, was white and pulsing with the sound.”
“And then what happened?”
Carly shook her head.
“My grandmother ran back home and never went into the fields by the Coates house again. When anyone from the family would come into town, my grandmother could sense them before she even saw them. Something in the house marked them and she could hear it, almost like the chiming of a dark bell,” the young woman shivered.
“That’s the lamest story I’ve heard about the house, to be honest,” her friend said, grinning.
Carly and I didn’t smile. She reached out and touched the back of my hand with her fingertips.
“You aren’t staying there, are you?”
I shook my head. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of someone familiar. When I turned my head for a better look, I saw my cousin. He was picking through the handmade mugs three or four tables away.
“Listen, thanks… thanks for everything, but I should get going,” I forced a smile and took a step back.
Carly’s hand darted out and grabbed mine. Before I could say anything, she had turned my hand palm up and placed a small origami rooster on my palm.
“For luck,” she said and closed my fingers around the small paper craft.
I held it carefully as I made my way through the crowds. Christian was paying the woman for two mugs that she was wrapping in newspaper for him. He looked up as I approached and frowned. He took the bag from the vendor and turned to go. I jogged to catch up.
“Christian, we need to talk,” I rounded him, stopping in front.
“No, we don’t,” he tried to step around me but I sidestepped into his way again.
“I want those documents you said you have. My supposed adoption records. I have a right to see it.”
He glared at me. I finally felt like I had the upper hand for once. I took a drink from my coffee cup. We held the standoff for a full minute before his shoulders slumped.
“Follow me, my office is only a couple blocks from here,” he said.
This time I allowed him to step around me. He led me through the crowds to the other end of the market. From there, we entered a quieter street where there were fewer shops. We walked in silence for the two blocks. The neighbourhoods were full of stately Victorian-era houses, some of which had been converted into businesses.
Christian led me to one of these houses, painted a light gray with white shutters. An embossed sign hung on a post to the right of the front walk, reading: “Coates & Pritchard, Attorneys.” He walked up to the front door and juggled a set of keys out his pocket, leading the way into the house.
“This is your office?” I asked.
The inside seemed cozier than a law office should be. Off to the right was a sitting room with a large flat screen TV, to the left a set of double doors that opened into a spacious office. Carpeted stairs led to a shadowy second floor.
“Office and home. I live on the second floor, makes the morning commute a breeze.”
I was shocked. Was that a joke? He set his bag down onto the desk and sat down. The office was clean, immaculate. Three short bookcases lined the wall to the left of the desk, filing cabinets took up the opposite wall, sitting beneath several framed degrees that hung on the wall. Behind the desk was a large fireplace that looked like it had never been used. The desk was a sand colour, gleaming in the sunlight streaming in from the windows above the bookcases. I sat in one of the two simple visitor chairs that were placed in front of the desk.. Christian unlocked one of the desk drawers, sliding it open to reveal a number of hanging files.
“I suppose you’re staying then?” he asked as he rifled through the files.
“I need to go through the stuff in the house and get it ready to sell,” I said.
I finished my coffee and derived a perverse pleasure from putting it on his desk and adding a bit of clutter to this room. He glanced up as I did so and I got a little more satisfaction from the little eye twitch I saw.
“It would be better if you left,” Christian replied.
“Because of the curse?”
“Listen, I don’t know why my dad willed you the house. Maybe because he knew I would never go near it. Maybe it was something else. He – my dad – he wasn’t himself in the end. There was something wrong with him. Whatever the reason, you shouldn’t trust it,” Christian said, sitting up.
He slid a folder over to me. I looked at my name on the label and felt my newly found confidence melt away. I picked it up and opened it. Inside were the adoption documents. I skimmed through the contents, my heart dropping to the soles of my feet: my birth certificate, my parents’ signatures on the forms, release papers, closed adoption.
I closed the file and left it on my legs. I closed my eyes.
“Wow,” I said.
I opened my eyes. Christian had steepled his fingers under his chin, his eyes glittered with sympathy. He looked almost like a good guy.
“I’m sorry I broke it to you the way I did. That was unfair of me,” he said. “I also know a great company that can catalogue and box everything for you, it’s a small family business from Belham so you can rest assured that you’ll get honest rates. I also know a realtor who can take care of the house, get it sold, and wire the money to you.”
“You really want me gone.”
“I don’t trust my father, not when he was alive, not now he’s dead.”
“What do you mean he changed? How did he change?”
Christian shook his head.
“I want to help you. Take my card,” he pulled one from his desk and handed it to me. “Call me and I can set everything up with the realtor. It can be that easy.”
“How did he change, Christian? What happened?”
My cousin shook his head and he stood. I stood up after him, business card in one card, origami rooster in the other.
“Call me when you’re ready to move on with your life. Just don’t wait too long,” he said and ushered me out the front door.
I stood on the front step, blinking in the bright sunlight. I slipped the business card into the left front pocket of my jeans and walked back to the hotel. Christian’s offer made sense. It would take me, one man, a lot longer to get everything finished up at the house than a crew from a moving company. I should just get to the hotel, call Christian, and tell him ‘yes, arrange everything and just send me cash when the house is sold, thanks for everything, and I hope to never see Belham again.’
I looked up and found myself in front of the hotel already. The logical thing to do would be to let Christian help me. I nodded to myself and held the rooster up. Carly had used red and white polka dot paper to make it. I nodded to it.
But first, I wanted to see what was in the basement.