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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1.9 The Reflected Forest – The Room in The Cellar
I laid on the floorboards, feeling the thunder shake the little house. The front windows rattled as a gust of wind struck, the lights flickered in the hall. What was I doing here? I had left home, cut myself off from support, from Andrea. I was having a breakdown.
With my back against the door, I pushed myself up with my legs. The damp scent of rain had already crept into the hall, the clamminess had already sunk into my skin. My head felt like it was filled with concrete, my mouth and throat with cotton. I was being embalmed alive with fear. With shaking fingers, I dug into my left front jeans pocket first and came up empty. I dug into the other, searched through my back pockets, back to the front left, front right, back pockets.
Front left, front right, back pockets.
Pulled the pockets out, dug deeper, slapped at my thighs.
Hoarse gasps. My own.
Front left, front right, front left, back pockets.
I didn’t have my phone. I had my wallet, my car keys, the house key, but no phone.
I thought back to when I was in the hotel room. I remembered taking out my phone to call Andrea and, when I got her voicemail, I remembered leaving it on the desk beside me in case she called back right away. I didn’t remember putting it back in my pocket. I only remember leaving.
It was impossible that I would leave without my phone, without a lifeline. I must have put it in my pocket and then left in the car. I turned, unlocked, and opened the front door. Outside was a world of water with a soundtrack of thunder, wind, and rain. Despite the porch light being on, I couldn’t see my own car.
I took a step forward, felt a cool mist on my face – the force of the rain bouncing off the ground and porch railing and up, back into the air. Through the dull monotone of the pounding rain, I could hear the shrill notes of the chimes. Was it coming from out there, in the dark fields? Or was it coming from inside the house, underneath my feet?
I peered into the rain, into the black night. I couldn’t see anything past a foot around the porch. Was my car even there? Was the world even there anymore? I didn’t have the courage to try and find out.
Without my phone, I was cut off.
The chimes jangled in the rain. Shivering, I went back inside and locked the door again. I would check out the basement and then leave. It would take me maybe five minutes. I would drive slow, take my time in the rain, and once I was back at the hotel, I would call Andrea. In the morning I would call Christian and I would leave. I would put my back to Belham and wait for the money to hit the bank. I would go home to Andrea and tell her that she was right, we should try again, that I was done living in the past.
Everything could be that simple. All I needed was to take that first step down the hall, towards the pitch-black kitchen at the back of the house. I walked down the hall, ears aching for how alert they were to any sound that might be out of place. I stopped short of stepping across the threshold, into the shadows, choosing instead to reach around the door frame and feel for the light switch.
The kitchen light flashed on. I stepped inside. The only sounds were of the wind against the windows and the rain on the roof. Still I waited to hear something else, something insidious. Crossing the kitchen, I opened the cellar door. The top six stairs were bathed in the light from the kitchen, the rest remained swallowed by darkness. There wasn’t a light switch.
I didn’t allow myself to think. I started searching through the kitchen drawers. In the third, I found a large flashlight next to a fresh pack of AA batteries and even a thick candle. I switched the flashlight on to check it was working and slipped the batteries into my pocket.
I stood at the top of the cellar stairs again, shining the yellow light of the flashlight over the steps to the very bottom where I could see a dirt floor.
My therapist would call this obsessive-compulsive behaviour. I was fixated on the house. Fixated on the basement, looking to find something that wouldn’t be there. There was no curse, no skeletons in the closet, no ghosts, no anything. I needed to know though, I needed to prove it to myself with my own eyes that nothing was there. My therapist would tell me I was trying to impose a layer of control over something I didn’t have control over. A compulsion rooted in the helplessness I felt when that man broke into our house, when he brutalized Andrea and me, and – in a desperate attempt to quiet my daughter – shook her so hard she died.
I was watching myself from behind my own body. I could analyze and understand my motives for doing what I was doing. I saw myself as my therapist would in this moment, but I also couldn’t – or truly didn’t want – to stop myself. I stepped down. The first stair creaked as my weight settled. It was a deep sound, unsettlingly loud compared to the muted weather coming from outside. I alternated flashing the light to the step I was stepping down on, to sweeping across the basement itself – revealing cardboard boxes, shelving built from rough planks filled with jars, and larger objects covered in sheets. From the last step, I descended to the dirt floor. I stood like that, one foot on the dirt and the other on the step, body turned slightly toward the stairs and ready to flee. I cast my light over each corner in the room, taking in the details, and listening intently.
Shelves, boxes, jars, sheets. I caught a glint in the corner as my light flashed over a new-looking furnace. The shadows jerked back and forth as my light crawled across the ends of the shelves. Nothing looked out of the ordinary.
I tiptoed along a wall, keeping a hand on its rough surface. The plaster covering the walls was damp with moisture. Down here, the scent of dirt was overpowering. The sounds of the storm outside were erased except the occasional rumble of thunder.
As I passed along the length of one of the shelves, I glanced at the jars. All were covered in a dense layer of dust. Most were mason jars used for canning. Every third was black, its tin lid bowed up with some internal rot. A few still had their labels, which were covered in neat handwriting: Beans, 86; Peaches, 87; Beets, 86; Apples, 87; Apples, 88; Apples, 89.
The shelves ended three feet from the other wall. It was in this corner that the furnace lived, quiet and cold. I ran my fingertips along its cool surface, transferring my hand to the opposite side of the wall when I got to it. I passed the other ends of the shelves, stepping over the boxes set on the floor against the wall. After the third shelf, the space was taken up by the sheet covered furniture. I braved taking a step towards the middle of the cellar, bending down and lifting the mildewy fabric up. Underneath was a full-sized mirror.
I dropped the sheet, repressing a sneeze at the dust that rose from it. I approached another shape and lifted its sheet: a vanity. The next shape was a grandfather clock whose pendulum compartment was lined in silver and reflected a warped version of my face. Dropping the cloth, I retreated to the wall to complete my survey.
I crossed the next corner and made my way towards the space beneath the stairs. The silence between thunder grew longer. It seemed like the storm was passing as quickly as it had arrived, the drive home was sure to be simple. I smiled in the darkness.
Walking faster, I made to turn so I could follow the length of the stairs to where it met the ground when my beam flashed on something metallic. I stopped mid-stride. Trailed my light backwards and settled on a golden orb set in the wall. It took me a second to realize it was a doorknob. There was another room down here.
I stepped up to the wooden door and laid my palm against it. It was cold. I leaned in, pressed my ear against it. Ever so faintly, I heard the chimes and they sounded beautiful. My hand slipped down to the cold metal of the doorknob and, before realizing I was doing it, I turned it. The door opened smoothly, sliding over the dirt floor with a whisper.
I leaned forward, trying to see inside.
Before my flashlight could pick up anything, I felt something strike my face. I cried out, stumbling backward, and hit my head against the underside of a stair. Stars imploded behind my eyes and I clutched the place on my scalp where a lump was sure to grow over the next day. My skull vibrated with pain and I let out a stream of curses under my breath. Keeping the flashlight raised, I saw a metal chain hanging. Through the pain, I laughed at myself and pulled it. The room flooded with light.
I forgot where I was for a moment. The room was filled with seven-foot-tall pictures – or prints – of the same pure white tree. I counted thirteen in total. Each had a rough frame made of a thick, circular crystal, which was encrusted in dirt or sand in places. I stayed on the very threshold of the room. The floor was reflective glass, reflecting the light from the three naked bulbs wired to the ceiling.
The room was longer than it was wide, with six paintings on each wall perpendicular to the door and one on the wall opposite. The paintings depicted the white tree against a background of thick mists and blank sky, the ground was a slate-gray soil disrupted by a roiling mess of smooth roots beneath the tree. The tree itself was a perfectly straight trunk that split off into dozens of jagged branches, which split off into more branches, all as sharp as icepicks. Every tree was the same. A perfect reflection of one another.
I placed a foot over the threshold.
I stepped inside.
I saw myself.
I saw many selves, staring back at me.
I faced myself in the picture across from me, I stood beside myself in the many pictures to my right and left. I stumbled, my head lost in a sudden attack of dizziness. To save myself from falling, I tossed a hand out and caught myself, grabbed myself – no, my palm landed on a cool, flat surface.
I clutched my head with the hand that wasn’t steadying myself on the glass. Thirteen Tonys clutched their thirteen heads – no, it should be fourteen. Thirteen mirrors and the real me. A single, bright note had rung out as my palm had struck the mirror on my left. The sound pierced my brain, digging right into the stem, and down my spine. Hunched over, holding my head, I squinted up at the mirror on the opposite wall. He stared back. Standing straight, head held high, older than how I remembered, hair speckled with gray, and deep grooves in his forehead and around his downturned mouth.
Twelve versions of me turned in the twelve mirrors that lined the walls to my right and left, twelve versions of me now faced me when they shouldn’t.
My uncle took a step forward. I cried out, slipped on the slick floor, and fell.
Too long until I hit the dirt floor of the cellar and was able to scramble back, kicking the door shut against the light, against the mirrors. I stumbled to my hands and knees, pulled myself up to my feet. I left the flashlight on the ground, let the chimes chase me up the stairs and into the kitchen, where I slammed the cellar door. Sunlight streamed through the kitchen windows and illuminated the spiralling dust motes in the air. Things shone too brightly: the counters, the glass in the picture frames on the walls, the metal of the appliances, the metal spoon I’d left in the sink…it was a painful, false brilliance.
I’d hit my head too hard on the stairs and passed out. I’d laid there through the night and into the morning. I felt the back of my head, felt the thick crust of dried blood. My very skull ached and a bump was forming. My ears rang, my brain rattled with the bright tones that echoed there. I lurched out of the kitchen, slumping against the hallway wall, and sliding myself towards the front door.
I pulled back the deadbolt and stepped out onto the porch, practically falling down the two steps to the yard. I was drenched instantly by the torrential downpour. I slipped on the slick grass in the darkness, in the night. I had to get to my car. I had to get home. Arms forward, waving blindly, I pushed on against the wind and rain. I should have reached my car by now. I should have felt the crunch of gravel beneath my sneakers.
I slipped and landed on my knees in the mud. I slumped forward, I let the cold, sharp drops strike my skin and chill me to the core. I turned my head, let my ear press against the grass. Beneath me I heard faint reverberations, two back to back and a pause. Two back to back and a pause. Two back to back and a pause.
I leaned on my heels and turned to look back at the house. The rain was gone, the night was gone. The Coates house loomed in front of me, two stories high and covered in a delicate lattice of fog. My uncle stood on the porch. I looked forward, hoping to see my car, to see sanity.
Instead, I saw thousands upon thousands of copies of the white tree. They were all identical, all spaced exactly the same distance apart, and wreathed in the sheer mists that hovered a few feet above the ground.
“It’s too late, Tony.”
I stood, my clothes dripping. I turned.
“You’re not dead,” I said, not a question but a statement.
“Not the Anthony Coates you met at your mother’s funeral, no,” he replied.
“This can’t be real,” I pressed my muddy palms against my forehead, bowing my head.
A hand pressed down on my shoulder.
“Well met, Tony.”
I twisted away from him.
“The pictures, the mirrors in the room in the basement –”
Uncle Anthony nodded.
“I found them a year or two after my son moved out. I began hearing the chimes at sunset, and eventually in the night as well. Of course, I had heard the rumours, I knew what people thought of our family, of the house. I didn’t believe it in the beginning. Nothing occurred the eighteen years I lived there with Christian. After he left, things started to get… interesting.”
I shook my head. This was insane.
“Why are we chatting? What are we doing right now?” my voice was rising, growing sharper in pitch.
I was losing control and if I lost it here, in this place that shouldn’t exist, I didn’t think I would get it back.
“We’re talking, Tony. It’s polite.”
I shook my head again and started back towards the house. I had the vague idea that if I went back into the room in the cellar, I could somehow wake up in the real world. Uncle Anthony stepped in front of me, a hand raised to chest level.
“There’s no going back unless it lets you,” he said.
I knocked his hand away, repelled at the very real, very warm feel of his flesh.
“I have to try.”
I pushed past him, leaped over the two steps of the porch, dashing through the front door that I had left open. My footsteps ricocheted off the hallway walls as I dashed past the living room, the study, the stairs to the second floor, the bedroom, dining room, and into the kitchen lit by an impossible light. I ran down the cellar stairs, half falling the whole time, and caught myself on the plaster wall. Panting, I turned, lunged to the door half hidden under the stairs, and threw myself into the mirror room.
Only they weren’t mirrors anymore. They were just pictures of trees. I wasn’t reflected, there were no other Tonys, I was alone.
“No. No, no, no, no,” I moaned.
I stepped up to the painting at the end of the room. I grabbed the frame and tried to pull it from the wall, but it was stuck tight. I pounded on the glass covering the picture and kicked the crystal frame. Nothing.
“Please, please, let me go back,” I whispered, my breath fogging the glass, but the tree had no answer.
I wanted to trick myself into believing this was all a bad dream, but it was too real.
Faintly, I could hear the chimes. Instinct guiding me, I laid my head against the crystal frame. It physically hummed against my flesh and, inside the crystal, I could hear the chimes of the other world – my world.
The ceiling creaked overhead. Someone was walking down the length of the house. I heard my uncle call my name from the top of the cellar stairs. I turned and walked out of the room. I had to get answers. I had to find my way out. And my only source of information was standing above me, a looming silhouette at the top of the stairs.