Here is Chapter Two of The Reflected Forest series. This is a continuation of a series so, if you haven’t read Chapter One yet, I highly recommend you do so. Don’t worry, we’ll wait! The first part can be found here.
As always, I greatly appreciate your comments — so please let me know what you think below.
x P.L. McMillan
2.1 The Reflected Forest – Anthony Coates
Anthony sat back and pressed his palms to his eyes, pushing until stars appeared on the backs of his eyelids. There was a soft knock on his door and he let his hands fall to the keyboard on his desk in front of him.
“Dr. Coates?” Gemma Milford called through the door.
“Come in,” Anthony sat back in his chair as she opened the door and stepped inside.
His assistant greatly resembled a gray mouse – small, timid, always dressed in neutral colours, and even had pale ash blonde hair that – in certain light – looked gray. She took another tiny step in, just close enough so that she could drop the files she held next to his computer.
“The latest results,” she said.
“Thanks. It’s late, I’m surprised you’re still here,” he said, leaning forward to slide the paper folders closer to him.
She shrugged her delicate shoulders and turned halfway towards the exit before stopping.
“My date ditched me,” she said.
Anthony looked up in shock. His assistant had never said anything about her personal life before and he had to repress a smile.
“That’s a shame,” he said and then he surprised himself. “Why don’t we grab a beer, so the evening isn’t a total waste? I can’t promise to stay long as my wife will likely have dinner waiting in the oven for me, but at least you don’t have to go straight home from work.”
Gemma shifted, paused, and smiled. The smile was foreign on her face, an alien trying to pass as human. Then she nodded.
“Alright, meet me downstairs in the lobby in ten minutes,” Anthony said.
She hesitated then blushed and hurried out the door. Anthony cringed a bit. This was bound to be an awkward hour of stilted conversation and extended silences. Anthony sighed. Still, there was no backing out now.
Anthony picked up the folders and resisted the urge to open them, to read the data within. It’d been months of failures, months of frustrations. He wanted to believe he’d found the answer, that he’d discovered something. He put the folders into his briefcase – the one he’d kept since university, much to Sharon’s gentle mirth – and shut down his computer.
Leaving his office, he took care to lock the door behind him. Normally he didn’t worry too much about it, Dunwich was a rather safe town, but lately he’d noticed papers displaced, his computer booted up but still locked. In the hall, he took in the heavy silence. It was the beginning of spring break and the students had gone home, most of the faculty had left for the weekend as well.
Anthony walked down the length of the hall and opted for the stairs rather than the elevator. Professor offices were on the fifth floor, the surgery rooms were on the fourth, examination and recovery rooms on the third and second floors. On the ground level were the classrooms, café, giftshop filled with the typical stuffed animals, balloons, and cards, and a cafeteria. It was here that Anthony descended. The main floor was set out simply, with the classrooms in the very back, past the elevators and stairs. The front desk sat between the café and gift shop, the cafeteria was tucked as a barrier between the elevator and classrooms.
Clara raised her blond head as she heard his footsteps approaching. Her limpid blue eyes were as blank as her mind, and she smiled a tight, disapproving smirk. A few feet in front of the desk stood Gemma, her back to Clara, and her shoulders tense. Anthony frowned.
“Oh, doctor. I was just telling Gemma how she shouldn’t bother you during your free time. You do have a pregnant wife waiting for you at home. You don’t have time to be grabbing drinks with her,” Clara said, loud enough to wake the patients on the second floor.
Anthony’s dislike for the vapid receptionist grew. His irritation over Gemma’s obvious discomfort and embarrassment made him speak before thinking.
“Actually, Gemma has granted me some time out of her busy schedule today. I’ve been trying to get her out for a happy hour to talk office politics for months.”
He allowed himself a moment to enjoy the absolute shocked look on Clara’s face before lapsing into a remorseful guilt. Anthony forced himself to stride past the desk.
“Come on, Gemma. First round’s on me!”
The Pint on the Doorstep was a small hole in the wall pub near the hospital. Anthony had met the owner, a Mr. Henry Cobb, two years prior when he’d come to the hospital for a dislocated shoulder. With no insurance, Cobb had been predictably apprehensive. Anthony had fixed him up no charge, using him as an example during a lecture, instead of asking for payment. Since then, Anthony always got happy hour prices at The Pint – even when it wasn’t happy hour. The place sat about thirty people at most and was dim no matter what time of the day you went. The high-top tables were small, about the size of the top of a barrel, and each came with four stools. Four more stools were placed in front of the small bar, behind which stood Cobb himself, guarding the shelves of rye, whiskey, and scotch.
All the lights in the bar were set in red glass domes that hung from the low ceiling. Along one side of the small pub were bookshelves stacked with yellowing paperbacks. Most were mysteries, westerns, and thrillers. Cobb loved to read. The opposite wall was bare except for four well-used dartboards and accompanying chalkboard scoreboards.
Anthony led the way in and Cobb caught sight of him as he entered, raising a hand in greeting. There were six other patrons, all older gentlemen nursing short glasses of amber liquid. Anthony led Gemma to the bar, where he thought she’d be more comfortable. She was terrible at maintaining eye contact so Anthony thought sitting side by side rather than across from each other would be best.
“The usual, boss?” Cobb asked as the two sat.
“Thanks, and I’ll pick up whatever she’s having,” Anthony said, gesturing towards the red-faced woman beside him.
Cobb stared at Gemma and the moment of silence stretched into an awkward minute.
“Just – just a beer, thanks,” she said finally.
Anthony reminded himself not to get annoyed. She was shy, painfully so, but she was also a brilliant researcher. It was also rare to have a woman working in the research section so it was no wonder that she struggled sometimes. Regardless of her social inadequacies, her pros outweighed the cons. Or at least, he hoped. Cobb poured Anthony a rye and coke, placing it on a white napkin in front of him. Glancing briefly at the two draft taps, Cobb glanced towards Gemma, caught Anthony’s eye instead, shrugged. He poured her the lighter of the two beers and placed the pint glass in front of her.
Gemma was sitting slightly hunched, her shoulders curled in towards her chest, and her face downturned. Her hands were clenched in her lap. Anthony picked up his drink and had a sip. It took Gemma a moment to mimic him.
“So, this guy, does he work at the hospital with us?” he asked, trying to dispel the silence.
Gemma rolled the glass back and forth between her palms.
“No, my mother set me up.”
“Ah, well. It’s good that you’re getting yourself out there. Dating isn’t what it used to be, at least from what I can remember. I’m lucky to be married, I wouldn’t want to have to navigate those waters now,” he said, feeling the conversation floundering already.
“Why are you researching the effects of fulgurite vibrations on the human brain, Dr. Coates?” Gemma asked, with a volume level high enough to startle both her and Anthony.
Lowering his hand from his chest, Anthony let out a shaky laugh. Gemma’s face scrunched up and he could tell she was mortified at her outburst.
“You’ve been working with me for two years now, Gemma. You can call me Anthony. In that time, you’ve also learned why I’m researching the phenomena we’ve seen.”
“Yes, of course, Doctor, um, Anthony. I understand that our mission is to trace the origins of the brain’s reaction of the sound of the crystal when it vibrates, but why did you start this project? You’re brilliant, a genius,” Gemma blushed, her face a shade of red too painful to look at. “You could be doing something more, more –”
“Useful?” Anthony supplied.
Gemma stuttered a bit and took a deep gulp of her beer. Anthony smiled.
“It’s true that there are other projects I could turn my attention to, ones that are deemed more practical, worthier even,” he said, taking a sip of his drink. “Have you ever wondered about the meaning of life, Gemma?”
“Sorry?” Gemma choked a bit on her beer.
“The meaning of life? The point of us being alive. Our purpose.”
“I guess not. Well, I mean, as organisms we have the drive to eat and procreate the species,” Gemma’s voice grew steadier as she talked. She was better with science, facts, than she was with chitchat. “That’s the purpose of everything on Earth: eat, procreate, die.”
“I suppose so, if we want to take a very literal approach to it.”
Anthony stopped. He didn’t know how far he’d wanted to go in the seriousness of this conversation. Gemma drank more of her beer before turning to him.
“Are you asking if I believe in a soul? In a God who has a plan for everyone?” she asked.
Cobb, like a pro bartender, poured Anthony another drink before his asked for it. Anthony sighed and felt the familiar weight settle on his shoulders, on his chest.
“When I was younger, I used to think that when you grew up and became an adult, your life would fall into place. Movies, books, comics all gave me that impression. I thought that things would line up and I would find a purpose. I went through university, I got my job at the hospital, I met my wife, and I still feel like something is missing. Sometimes life feels like it rings false, like I should be somewhere else, I should have made a different decision in my past. It’s a lingering sense that I’m lost. You’d think that I would feel content. I have a family, a house, a satisfying career, and friends,” Anthony stared down into the dark depths of his drink.
This was something he’d never told anyone. He’d been too proud to go to a shrink and see if something was wrong mentally. He’d been too worried to tell his wife, in case she thought she was lacking in some way.
“You… you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want,” Gemma said, staring at her paper coaster and tearing its edges apart.
“It feels like a hunger that I can never sate. An imbalance I can’t seem to correct. I went through a period where I was deeply depressed, I thought that the peace of death might be better than the forever not knowing that I feel now. When it felt like I was at the bottom, I discovered the reaction between the fulgurite audio vibration and the human brain.”
“How did you discover it? I don’t think I ever asked,” Gemma said.
Anthony was almost flattered by how focussed she was on him, on the conversation. He wondered if this was how the test subjects felt when she was hooking up the electrodes to their temples and forehead. Normally unfocussed and faraway, her gaze was now pointed and intense.
“It was a fluke really. I was at a farmer’s market in Belham with my wife and I heard these chimes. It was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. It was like the vibrations of the crystals themselves were resonating with my mind, with my body. I felt … a peace I had never known. I followed the sound and found a small shop in one of the rows. It had all kinds of handmade mugs and knickknacks, but it had only one wind chime. It was from the chimes that the sound was coming from. I asked the woman what the chimes were made of and she told me there had been a large thunderstorm one evening, a dozen or more bolts of lightning had struck the beach close to her summer cabin. When she went to investigate the damage the next morning, she found the fulgurites. I bought the wind chimes from her that day,” he lied.
Gemma’s eyebrows beetled.
“What made you decide to MRI scan your own brain while listening to the sound though? That seems like a large jump.”
“Intuition maybe,” Anthony finished his drink.
He stood and was thankful Gemma took the hint. She finished her beer as he threw some bills on the bar.
“Thanks for this,” she said, nodding towards the bar.
Anthony smiled, allowing her to go ahead of him. Cobb returned his wave with a salute as Anthony followed her onto the street and into the early dusk. Despite her protestations, Anthony walked Gemma to her car, a block away, before finding his and starting the drive home. His daily commute wasn’t enviable. Belham was 45 minutes outside Dunwich and his family home was 15 minutes farther still. When Anthony had first married Sharon, he’d wanted to sell the farm and move permanently to Dunwich. He envied his colleagues with the pristine townhouses and gardens along the streets next to the university, however, Sharon had fallen in love with the old Coates house and begged him to change his mind.
Anthony smiled as he thought of his wife. She was his opposite in everyway: strawberry blond hair to his black, pale skin to his tan, cornflower eyes to his onyx, 5’3” to his 6’2”. She was obsessed with gardening, canning, sewing, and art. He was more interested in experiments, technology, and the cultivation of the human brain. More importantly, she saw the positive, the light, the hope in everything while he struggled with the dark clouds of self-loathing, nihilism, and pessimism that hung daily over his own mind.
Eager to see her, Anthony pressed the gas pedal lower. His Cadillac DeVille sped into the newly formed night as he raced home. Stepping into the house was like stepping into heaven. The warm smells of tomatoes, basil, garlic, and baking bread rushed him, chasing away the cool air from outside. This was where he felt safe.
Kicking off his shoes, Anthony left his briefcase at the door, folder of new results forgotten, as he made his way into the kitchen. Sharon was there, one hand on her swollen belly, the other stirring a pot of sauce on the stove. Her soft hair was tied back with a yellow ribbon, almost matching the colours of the walls and completely matching her hounds-tooth patterned dress. A white apron tied around her giant belly had protected the dress was errant splatters. Her face, flushed with the heat from the stove and oven, was radiant.
Anthony resisted the urge to pick her up and kiss her hard on her perfect pink cupid’s bow lips, mindful of the precious life curled in her belly. She heard him approach, turning to smile at him over her shoulder.
He kissed her cheek instead, wrapping his arms around her, and cradling her belly. Leaning her head back against his chest, Sharon continued to stir the sauce. This would be their fourth child, but only their third living. They had married when Sharon had been only eighteen and he twenty-two. They had been pleasantly surprised, though also shocked, when she had gotten pregnant on their wedding night. The joy had soon died. Early on, when they had been looking at cribs, Sharon had miscarried. Their first child, unknown in sex and name, had passed in a crimson flood on a department store floor. He had nearly lost her that day too, as she hemorrhaged in his arms.
However, she had survived and Sharon, ever-strong and stubborn Sharon, had carried on and carried him back into a life worth living. The twins had been born – against their doctor’s predictions – healthy and beautiful. Now here they were again, with another gift on the way.
Anthony nuzzled against her neck, smelling her sweet musk from working in the sun in the garden and toiling in the kitchen. The human body was a magnificent machine, unparalleled by all the things he’d witnessed in his career. Nothing matched its ability to regenerate, to heal from illness, to build and carry life to completion.
Behind him, Anthony heard a bubbling laugh. He turned and the twins were in their playpen, clenching the top of the walls with pink fists, and jumping up and down. Sharon had dressed them in matching green smocks and the only way to tell them apart was that Christina’s black hair was long and Christian’s was short. He picked them up both, three years old and as light as feathers. He kissed them both on the cheek and allowed them to slobber on his in return.
“When will dinner be ready, my love?” he asked, spinning on his heels and making the children squeal with laughter.
Sharon clucked at his antics, trying to look stern, but giggling instead.
“Twenty minutes until the bread is done,” she said.
Anthony set the babies down in their pen.
“I have a few files to look over. I’ll be upstairs,” he swung by her side to steal another kiss before he went.
He didn’t mean to lie to her. He really had meant to go upstairs to his study. He’d gone to the front door, grabbed his briefcase, and then paused. He tilted his head. Just faintly, he could hear the chimes. He shivered, a delicious feeling that raced over his skin. So, instead of going upstairs as planned, Anthony went into the basement instead.