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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1.8 The Reflected Forest – Into The Storm
I had originally meant to go up to my room, grab a few things, and drive straight to my late uncle’s house. When I stepped into my hotel room, however, I was drawn to the journal on my desk. It was open. I was almost completely positive that I had closed it. My skin crawled. It was closed when I left. Someone must have come into my room and gone through my stuff. I sniffed the air, trying to detect anything strange. I went through the whole room, checking the bed, the table, the mini-fridge, going through my bag, and examining my toiletries in the bathroom. Nothing seemed to be moved, but someone had to have come in. Otherwise, how would the book be open?
I had meant to grab some stuff and leave right away, to get to my uncle’s house in the daylight, giving me tons of time to check the basement.
Check for what?
The whole room seemed to be thumping, I felt dizzy.
Someone had come in. Knew I had the journal.
Why did I need to go to my uncle’s house? I should call Christian, call him right now. I needed to get out of Belham.
The thumping was filling my head like a deep drum. Black dots speckled the edges of my vision.
I was about to panic when I realized I had been holding my breath. I gasped, sucking breaths in a frenzy. The black dots retreated, the thumping quieted, the dizziness disappeared. I held a hand to my chest, feeling my heart rate slow.
Forced myself to breathe.
In and out. In and out.
No one had come into my hotel room. No one had touched my stuff. If the book was closed when I left, then the air-conditioning must have blown it open. I walked over to the AC unit and held my hand over the vent.
Breathe in and out. In and out.
It was on a timer and only went on at certain times. It was the only explanation. I refused to check if I could figure out what program it was on. I was afraid I might find my excuse break into flimsy pieces.
I went to the desk and sat. I would read a couple pages to distract myself, then I would drive to my uncle’s place. I would see that there was nothing in the basement but cobwebs, spiders, and dust. After that, I would call Christian and I would get the hell out of dodge.
I pulled out my phone and called Andrea. I listened to the static on the line as my signal fought through the clouds and storm. It rang seven times before her voicemail picked up. I hung up. I didn’t know what to say. I left my phone next to the journal. Hopefully she would call back soon. Until then, I would just read a couple pages.
After Sanford Coates’s entry, someone had taped in an article from the Dunwich Bugle, the neighbouring town. The paper was like old onion skin, flaking away to dust, and it was held in place by jaundiced tape. The article was from 1898 and covered the arson of the Coates family home, Sanford’s subsequent trial, his confession, and finally his hanging. There was a woodprint of a hanged man to the right of the article. The caption stated that the town had erected the scaffold on the still smoldering ashes of his family home. He had died on the same site as his parents. I shivered.
I turned the page, imagining that I could smell the smoke as I did so. The next page was covered in different handwriting. While Sanford’s letters had been careful, meticulous, and beautiful, this person wrote with a wild, careless abandon. It was done in a similar style, like a diary, like the author was speaking to an expected audience, like it was written for me.
“Daddy told me about his brother Sanford. It was like living in a fairy tale. I had an uncle who outsmarted the wolf, who chased off the witch. Every time he told the story, Daddy changed the details. I guess that makes sense. He was pretty young himself when it all happened. Ma always tells me to ignore him, that Daddy is just telling his stories again, and it is all nonsense. She says we had enough to worry about that we didn’t need to be wasting time with made-up tales.
“Ma is the smart one between them two. Daddy is slow sometimes, but he is good with his hands. He makes cribs and chairs. People in town really like them. They sometimes come by the house and ask to look in his workshop, if they bought something then Ma was really happy. Ma works as a seamstress and hated it. She always has bandages on her fingers and talks about how the ladies of Dunwich don’t know how wear the fall fashions, or the summer fashions, or whichever fashion is in season. If there is extra fabric from her job, she sometimes makes me a pretty pinafore that I can wear, as long as I don’t get it dirty.
“Anyway, so I grew up thinking Daddy’s brother was a hero, maybe he even had magic. That all changed. A man came by the house. He was dressed in a suit and tie. When I answered the front door and he took off his hat, I could see his orange hair. I knew he wasn’t here to buy anything from Daddy’s workshop. He asked me to get Daddy and I got Ma too, in case it was something that needed her. Daddy’s sweet but something he forgets to pay attention to the important things.
“Ma told me to stay in the kitchen with my little brothers, Joshua and Daniel, and told me to watch over Baby Hunter. I was stuck with my annoying brothers for an hour. When Ma came back into the kitchen to start Sunday dinner, the man was already gone. I went to find Daddy and he was still in the sitting room. He was crying but tried to hide it when I came in. Adults are like that. They never want to seem weak or silly.
“When I asked him what had happened, he told me his twin brother had died. I didn’t know Uncle Lawrence very well so I didn’t feel sad about it. He would send presents sometimes, at Christmas, or for my Daddy’s birthday, but didn’t come to Dunwich much. Daddy told me how, even though they were twins, Uncle Lawrence was older by three minutes. When my grandparents died, Uncle Lawrence got everything. He had split it with Daddy since they were twins after all. One thing they couldn’t share was the land where Daddy’s house used to be until it burnt down. Daddy didn’t want it so Uncle Lawrence got it. He built a new house and lived there until he died.
“Daddy also told me that Uncle Lawrence had had two little boys around my age. My Aunt, Uncle Lawrence’s wife, died during childbirth with their third. He told me that we would have to move to live with them because our house was too small for everyone and we couldn’t afford to pay to move into a larger house in Dunwich.
“That’s how I ended up here, in Bell’s Hamlet. That’s how I found this diary. It was under my bed, which is strange, it wasn’t there the night before. I think one of my cousins put it there. I hate them. They are brats and always pull my hair. They are both younger than me, Kyle is eleven and Lawrence Jr. is eight. I don’t think it’s fair that I’m the only girl. Ma always tells me to smarten up and act like a lady, but it’s really hard when you have stupid boys pulling your hair or pinching your thighs.
“At first, I was really excited to move here. I didn’t like my old school and the girls there were really mean. The school in Bell’s Hamlet is small and the work is easier. My grades are better and Ma doesn’t know it’s because the teacher isn’t as tough as the one I had at the old school.
“The house is huge. There are so many places to hide, which helps me get away from my brothers. It’s also scary. The house is full of shadows and whispers. When I put my ear against the floor, I can hear something thumping under me somewhere. If I close my eyes while I listen, I can see things. A star under the house and nighttime always. If I close my eyes for too long, the whispers find me. I don’t like what they say. They’re scary. I think this house is haunted and I think it’s my uncle. When I told Ma, she hit me with a wooden spoon. I told Daddy and he just looked sad and shook his head. He said, because he and my uncle were twins, he would know if my uncle was still around.”
The entry stopped there and started up again, in the same messy handwriting, a few lines below the last.
“It’s been months now. Baby Hunter never stops crying. I hate it. I hate him. He cries and cries and cries. My brothers and cousins have gotten meaner. I caught Kyle outside the other day, he was chopping up a squirrel with a kitchen knife. He chased me with the knife, screaming that he was going to get me next. I ran to Ma, crying, but she told me to smarten up. It’s like she’s blind. She never smiles. Her eyes are like black holes. I hid upstairs until Kyle found someone else to chase.
“The house is starting to smell too. It stinks like the time Ma forgot a pound of pork outside on the porch in the summer when she was bringing in groceries. By the time we had found it the next morning, the smell nearly made me fall over. Daddy said that maybe something died in the walls and that the smell would go away in a few days. He spends everyday in his new workshop. I think he’s scared of Ma. She yells at him all the time.”
Another entry underneath that:
“My teacher gave me a newspaper article. It’s about my Daddy’s hero brother. He wasn’t a hero. He was a murderer. He killed my grandparents and burned the house to the ground. I showed Daddy. He started crying and said I would understand when I was older. I wish I’d kept the newspaper a secret. I hate when Daddy is sad. This is why Ma always told him to stop his stories, because they were all lies anyway. After school yesterday, I asked my teacher about my dead uncle. She said that I should know because ‘ignorance is no excuse.’ When I asked her what she meant, she told me to go home.
“I miss Dunwich. When I lived there, I thought it wasn’t a nice place, but Bell’s Hamlet is worse. My brothers are worse too. They think my cousins are funny, they started to act like them. They are not allowed to go to school anymore because they cut off a girl’s hair. Not just that but they cut her face too. They said it was an accident, but the teacher said they couldn’t come back. The teacher said the girl might not be able to keep her right eye, she might have to wear an eye patch. I hate them. I am so scared. The only time I feel safe is when I’m at school, but they won’t let me sleep there.
“Father Carrigan came yesterday. He wanted to talk to Daddy about my brothers, about my cousins. Daddy was in his workshop and didn’t see what happened, but I did. Father Carrigan knocked on the door and my cousins came out with no trousers on. They were holding themselves, the skinny things boys have that girls don’t, they were shaking them at the Father. I don’t know what they did but the Father yelled at them and ran away. Ma stood there laughing.”
The next entry started another couple of lines down. The ink was blotted here and there by old water marks… like tears.
“Last night I heard a noise and I … … Kyle and Lawrence Jr. were in the cellar. I could hear the whispers. They were so loud. It wasn’t just Kyle and Lawrence Jr., there were so many voices. I wanted to run and get Daddy, but I was too scared … … she had Baby Hunter, but he wasn’t crying, his mouth was stuffed with rags … … Ma put him on the ground, there were shapes drawn in the dirt. The air got so cold and I felt frozen to the bones. Kyle had the kitchen knife in his hand … … … Ma held him down, so he couldn’t roll away. My voice was trapped in my throat… … think Kyle saw me. I think he will kill me next. I ran away. I couldn’t find Daddy. I hid under a bed, not my own bed because Kyle would look there first, I stayed there all night. I’m scared.”
There was one last entry.
“After what I saw, Ma looked for me all day. She called for me and promised to buy me sweets if I came to her, but I stayed where I was. There is a loose board in the wall at the back of my closet. I found it one day when I was hiding from my cousins. I heard Daddy call my name, but I didn’t know if he could save me, not now, so I stayed there. Even though I was so hungry, I stayed there. I waited until nighttime. I waited until the whole house was quiet, except for the whispers.
“I was too scared to go out the front door, so I climbed out the window and down the vines that grew on the side of the house. The thorns cut my hands and I bled, but I didn’t stop. It took me all night to walk to Bell’s Hamlet. I had forgotten my shoes so my feet were bleeding like my hands. My nightdress was ruined. The sun shone on the bell of the church. I went inside and Father Carrigan was there, setting up for Mass.
“I went to Father Carrigan. He held me while I cried. He got the Constable and we all went back home. No one was there but Daddy. They wouldn’t let me go inside but I heard the Constable tell Father Carrigan that there was a lot of blood, blood everywhere. The Constable found Daddy in his work shed, he was crying. Father Carrigan hugged me and the Constable began to take Daddy away. Daddy just kept crying and crying like Baby Hunter used to. I tried to run to him, to hug him. I always knew how to help him feel better but Father Carrigan wouldn’t let me go. I screamed and Daddy turned. He looked at me and said: “Don’t go into the forest, Maybelle, don’t you go into the forest too.”
“They took Daddy away. I’ve been staying with Ms. Willer, the woman who plays the organ on Sundays. No one will let me see Daddy. Ms. Willer says it’s because he did bad things, but he didn’t, I know he didn’t. I tried to tell Ms. Willer about what I saw but she said it was just a nightmare.
“No one listens to me. I know what I saw was real. Please, why won’t they let me Daddy come back home? When I asked why they thought Daddy did it, Ms. Willer said the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I don’t understand. I’m so scared and no one will help me.
“Father Carrigan says I have to go live with a different relative. A stranger. Daddy’s second cousin who lives in Ohio. When I asked him if I could say goodbye to Daddy, he said no. I hate Father Carrigan. I hate Bell’s Hamlet. I hate him. I hate this place. I hate him. I hate this place. I hate him. I hate this place.”
That was how it ended. I rubbed my arms, shivering. I closed the journal, the book of death and heartbreak.
I learned that our tree has been rotting.
Maybe it was a good thing that I wasn’t part of this family. Maybe it was a blessing. I stood, shaking my head. This place was getting to me. I was being pulled down into a toxic spiral thanks to this inbred town. Before I could think too much more on anything, I grabbed my car keys and slammed the hotel door behind me. I had lost more time than I thought, reading the journal. The sky was growing dark prematurely as the storm swept up from the West. It caught me as I was turning onto the highway. Walls of water came down like a gray hammer, dashing my visibility down to zero in a matter of seconds. My car thrummed with the sheer force of the rain falling from the heavens.
My speed dropped to thirty, to twenty miles an hour. The rain erased the landscape around me, turning everything into a dark void. The absence of light, of life. I should have turned back. I should have returned to the safety of the hotel. My common sense was screaming at me to turn back, turn back!
Things didn’t make sense. The little girl, she described the house she’d lived in as being huge. At one point, she’d said she went upstairs so it had to have had a second floor. That didn’t describe my uncle’s house at all. Did the house she lived in burn down as well? Was my uncle’s house the third in a generation of cursed homes?
I screeched to a stop when I passed my turn off. I risked reversing in the downpour and pulled into the long drive to my uncle’s house. I slowed, leaning over the steering wheel to peer through the water. A massive shadow loomed and my headlights illuminated white walls, blank windows. Something unsettled me. I shook my head. It was just a house.
I jerked the car door open, jumping out into the rain, and slammed it behind me. I was drenched instantly. I slipped over the gravel and jumped up the two steps to the shelter of the porch. I unlocked the door and stepped inside. Behind me, I heard the chimes in the night, chasing me into the house. I locked the front door. Enveloped by the cloying inner shadows of the empty house, I reached for the light switch I knew would be close to the door. My fingers brushed the plastic. My heart jumped to my throat.
When I had left last night, I had left all the lights on.
Under my feet, I felt the floorboards shudder. I gagged on my own fear and flipped the switch. The porch light flickered on, sending meager light into the hallway. In front of me: a shadow darker then the rest – tall and thin, looming over me, close enough to touch – stepped back, deeper into the hallway. I gargled out an attempted scream, choking, choking, choking. I wasn’t alone, the man had come back, the man was in the house. I pressed myself against the door, my numb fingers fumbling, fumbling over the switches.
The hallway was lit. The hallway was empty. The man was not here. The man had never been here. I was alone. It didn’t matter. His deeds, what he did that night, would never leave me. I would be haunted forever. I slid down the door, clutched my head, and cried.