2.2 The Reflected Forest – The Intruder

Hello ghouls and ghosts!

Thank you so much for waiting patiently for this next, very exciting chapter of The Reflected Forest series! It’s been a crazy couple of months, but I am so glad to be back into the rhythm of things. I made a few story submissions and got to work on several different projects — not to mention, one of my favourite holidays is approaching! You guessed it — Hallowe’en!

So, take a look at this next chapter in the Coates family tale and let me know what you think (first part of chapter two is here) — don’t forget to like, comment, and share!

x P.L. McMillan

 

2.1 The Reflected Forest – The Intruder

Sharon had her back to him as he entered the kitchen again, quietly, on tiptoes. She was bent over the children, talking to them in a soft, comforting cadence. The door to the basement was already open so all he had to do was descend, carefully avoiding the creaky parts of the steps. He took off his socks on the last step, leaving them draped over the bannister. The dirt floor was cool on the soles of his feet, the air slightly damp. Anthony made sure he was out of view of the door at the top of the stairs and kneeled between the shelving full of Sharon’s canned fruit. He dug his fingers into the dirt, enjoying the initial dry rasp, which turned into richer, moist earth. Ever so faintly, at the end of his fingertips, he could feel a pulse. It beat in time with his own heart.

Smiling, he stood and went to the door beneath the stairs. He opened it and stepped inside. The thirteen mirrors framed in rough fulgurite borders reflected the pale tree. Walking deeper in the room, revelling in the strange vertigo he experienced every time, Anthony touched each mirror in turn with a hand. At the thirteenth, he pressed his ear against the glass. It was from this mirror and this mirror alone that he could hear the ethereal chimes.

He had discovered this room only four years ago. His life had been at its lowest, his marriage on the verge of breaking up after the loss of their first child, his career stagnating in a series of endless lectures and no projects, and Anthony had come down into the basement with the full intentions of eating a bullet from one of his grandfather’s service pistols.

As he had kneeled between the cans of fruit and vegetables, pressing the cold, greasy muzzle against the roof of his mouth, Anthony had heard the chimes.

He had heard the chimes and for the very first time in his whole life, Anthony felt whole, he felt content. The gun slipped from his mouth, his arm fell to his side, letting his hand drop to the dirt, forgotten. Everything had fallen into a perfect state: the chimes had surrounded him, and he had felt his muscles relax, his eyes close, and in between the brilliant notes Anthony could hear a regular pulsation. At first, his heart had thundered out of chord with this deep, dark drumbeat. Then, as his pain, his inner turmoil, his agony faded away, so too did his heart slow its frantic race and had joined the sound in its peaceful cadence.

He had smiled that fateful night, even as he had felt a tear escape and slide down his cheek. He was whole.

Despite his overwhelming desire to keep his eyes closed and stay lost in euphoria, Anthony had opened them. He had seen a thin glow coming from beneath the stairs and, when he had focussed on it, he saw that it was light coming from beneath a door. A door he hadn’t known existed. The chimes had grown fainter and Anthony had experienced a bittersweet pang of loss as he stood. He chased the trailing notes to the door and opened it.

The mirrors had been there. He’d seen the endless forest of shifting mists and albino trees. The vertigo had hit him hard and he’d stumbled against a mirror. The glass had heated in a flash, it felt as though he’d been burned, and the glass had bowed outwards. For a mere moment, Anthony had felt a cooler air and smelled something… otherworldly. For a mere moment, Anthony had seen himself reflected in the glass, standing on the ashy ground, staring out at him.

With a sharp trill, the glass snapped back into place, pushing Anthony away. He fell against the mirrors – the windows? – on the other side, clutching his stinging hand. He’d recognized the feeling of rejection, the withdrawal of something beautiful in his life. His heart broke, but he steeled himself. He could still hear the chimes; the mirrors still showed the trees. He would find a way into that world. He would find the secret to this inner peace, no matter what it took.

That had been four years ago. Using samples he had chipped off the mirrors’ frames, along with the fulgurite he’d gathered from external sources, he had managed to imitate the sound of the chimes by vibrating the mineral at different frequencies. All humans subject to the different sounds he had made with the crystal reported feelings of contentment, peace, even arousal. His desire to enter the world beyond the glass grew stronger each year that passed, feeding his ambitions and finally giving his life meaning.

Now, tonight, Anthony pressed his ear to the glass and listened to the faint whisper of chimes. Above him, he could hear his wife calling his name, but she was distant and the chimes were here. It was agony pulling himself away, torture closing the door on the mirrors, and heartbreak to climb the stairs away from them.

Sharon was standing at the table, trying to corral their twins into two high chairs, but she turned when the top cellar step creaked under his foot. He cursed himself softly.

“I didn’t see you go down there,” she said, her voice thin, hard.

“Didn’t I mention I was going to go down to the cellar?”

“No, you didn’t.”

His wife turned away, focussing on the fussing children again, her shoulders tense, her back stiff. Anthony sighed and tiptoed to the dining room table like a chastened criminal. He helped himself to spaghetti and sauce, pouring himself a generous glass of red wine to accompany it. When he made to grab Sharon’s plate so he could serve her, she snatched it away from him.

“I’ll do it, you always serve too much,” she said.

The harshness of her tone shocked the babies and they began to sniffle. Anthony got up again and began comforting them until they quieted. Sharon didn’t wait for him, instead she drank half her wine in one gulp, and poured herself another.

She knew of the mirrors. He had showed her them a week after discovering them for himself. Unlike Anthony, she had reacted with horror and disgust, clutching her ears against the chiming of the ethereal tones, and bursting into tears. Since then, she had refused to even descend into the cellar, forcing him to carry down what canning she had produced. In a way, he preferred this. Anthony had become oddly possessive of the room in the basement. She hated the time he spent down there, so he often found himself stealing down in the night as if to meet a lover.

They ate dinner in a strained silence and, as soon as she was finished, Sharon rinsed her plate, left it in the sink, and whisked the children away upstairs. Anthony finished his meal alone, packed away the leftovers, and thought only of the music that was likely playing away beneath his feet.

The babies were tucked into their cribs and Sharon in their bed by the time Anthony made his way upstairs, after finishing the bottle of wine. His beautiful wife was snoring, her face half covered in her soft hair. Anthony slipped into bed, leaning up and over her, brushing the hair away so he could kiss her cheek. She mumbled something and rolled away. Anthony looked at her back bathed in shadows and felt an intense emotion he could not identify.

He laid down, felt himself sink into the mattress, and felt himself sink further – deeper into his own self, into sleep.

Anthony jerked awake gasping into his hands, which had automatically risen to cover his mouth. As quickly as it had come, his nightmare – a vision of a vast, albino cephalopod writhing deep beneath house and stretching out into infinity – disappeared. He was left with a strange metallic taste in his mouth and a racing heart. Sharon was still turned away from him, deep in her own dreams.

Anthony folded back the thick covers and got out of bed. His head felt cottony and he slunk down the stairs, meaning to get a cold glass of water from the kitchen. As he set his foot on the ground floor, a faint sound caught his attention. Anthony paused, listening to the thick silence of the house. The noise had sounded like the creak the top front porch step made when someone stepped on it. Anthony stared at the front door through the shadowed foyer. The silence continued and he let out a sigh. He was only two steps down the hall toward the kitchen when the creak sounded out again, clear as his own heartbeat in his chest.

Someone was on the front porch. Anthony clenched his hands. Someone was here, in the dead of night.

He looked down the hall, towards the kitchen. The phone was next to the fridge, but going for it meant leaving the stairs open for the intruder if they somehow managed to get inside. He could wake up Sharon, but she would panic. For the first time, Anthony wished he had kept bullets for his grandfather’s guns, or even a baseball bat. Torn by indecisiveness, Anthony went to the front door and reached for the doorknob. Gripping it with white knuckles, Anthony pressed his ear to the wood and heard… nothing.

He opened the door and stepped out onto the porch.

There was no one there.

The cool, humid night air crept over his skin like intrusive fingers. The relief he felt was instant and Anthony chuckled. He went to the edge of the first step and stared out over the fields at the far distant lights of Belham. Something moved in the corner of his vision. Anthony jerked his head to the right. Someone was in the old orchard to the right of the house.

“Shit,” Anthony hissed, ducking down.

He briefly considered going back indoors to call the police, but something held him back. The brief glance he’d gotten at the figure far in the distance had seemed familiar to him. As if it belonged to someone he knew, maybe it was one of the neighbours, drunk and out on a walk. He straightened up and walked out into the driveway. The faint figure he’d seen walking through the trees was gone.

The cold soil under the soles of his feet and between his toes grounded him. Anthony’s long strides carried him away from the house and among the stunted apple trees. A gray mist rose from the dirt and Anthony was enveloped in the scent of decay. The orchard had died a decade ago and the dead husks were slowly rotting away. Sharon was always saying she planned on revitalizing the small orchard and canning her own apples, but it hadn’t happened yet. Things kept getting in the way and now she had two babies to keep her busy, with a third on the way.

Thinking about his children, Anthony’s heart jumped into his throat. He whirled around and started racing back to the house.

He’d left the front door unlocked.

As he approached the house, a light in the nursery flicked on. Was it Sharon checking in on the babies, or something else?

He misjudged his step and caught a toe on one of the overhanging porch steps, tumbling forward, and striking his head against the front door hard enough to see stars. He fought through the pain, scrambling to stand and get the door open. Once through, he raced up the stairs. From beneath his feet, he registered the sound of a door closing. Sharon appeared at the top of the stairs.

“Honey? What’s wrong?”

“Were you just in the nursery? Was it you?”

In the moment it took her to register his question, to when her face twisted in panic, Anthony shoved past her, and dashed down the hall. The nursery room door was slightly ajar, allowing a thin crack of light to leak out. He could faintly hear one of the babies cooing and that only served to panic him more. He shouldered open the door, catching it as it bounced with a thud off its cushioned doorstop. Fists raised, Anthony looked around the room, and found it empty.

Christina was fast asleep in her crib, tiny hands twitching as she dreamed her tiny dreams.

Christian was awake, gripping his crib bars and bouncing on his feet. When Anthony looked at him, the baby stopped bouncing and, instead, raised his hands up and made grabby motions, indicating he wanted to be picked up. Sharon appeared at the door.

“Are the babies okay?” she cried, clutching at the doorframe and nearly bent over at the waist.

Seeing her heaving belly, Anthony was swept up in a wave of guilt. Without thinking, he had shoved her aside, endangering the life of their unborn child in a moment of panic.

“What about you, are you and…” he reached for her, but she pushed him aside, picking up Christian and checking him over.

“The baby is fine, but what’s going on? I woke up and you were gone, I thought you’d gone to check on the kids, but then you were running up the stairs and you scared the daylights out of me!” Sharon said, her fear turning into annoyance.

“I… I thought I saw someone, in the orchard. When I went out there, I didn’t find anyone. When I saw the nursery light was on, I … I panicked, I guess.”

“You saw someone? Is there someone in the house? We have to call the police!” Sharon’s voice hit an octave that was loud enough to wake Christina.

“I didn’t see anyone inside, just someone wandering around the apple trees. Probably one of our neighbours, drunk and lost,” he said.

“Check the house! What if he’s still in here?”

Christina started wailing, kicking her feet against the wooden bars of the crib. Anthony made to reach for her, but Sharon stepped between him and the crib.

“I’ll take care of them, you go and make sure there’s no one inside the house!”

Feeling admonished and angry, Anthony left the nursery and checked every room on the second floor – every closet and even the spaces under beds. As he descended the stairs, Anthony began to feel foolish. He’d been so tired and groggy after that nightmare, he couldn’t be sure anymore of what he had seen. Had the nursery light been turned on, or had it already been on, left on when either he or Sharon had checked in on the babies before bed?

Upon reaching the first floor, Anthony locked the front door. He searched his mind, sifting the fog of his half-waking memories, but found he didn’t know for sure. He jiggled the knob again to make sure the lock had caught then moved away down the hall. The first floor yielded nothing, no belongings had been disturbed, no valuables missing. Ending up in the kitchen, Anthony poured himself the glass of water he’d originally intended to have upon first waking. He leaned against the sink, sipping the mineral-heavy well water as he tried to piece through his memories once more. It was then that his gaze fell on the cellar door, which was closed when he remembered leaving it open.

He became very still. Anthony cocked his head to the side. Overhead the ceiling creaked slightly as Sharon paced to and fro in the nursery. Beyond that, the house was quiet. He set the glass down on the counter, wincing at the slight clink it made, sounding as loud as a thunderclap. He slid along the counter to the corner, where a block held the kitchen knives, and pulled the largest out. From there, it was only four steps to reach the cellar door. He opened it, thankfully that he regularly oiled the hinges to all the doors in the house. It opened with no sound and he stared down the steps, which should have been wreathed in darkness.

Instead, he could see them clearly – illuminated by the harsh light he recognized instantly: the light from the room under the stairs. An intense possessiveness took hold of him and Anthony dashed down the cellar steps, regardless of the clamorous racket he made. Gripping the railing to swing himself around to face the needed direction, Anthony lurched inside. He didn’t need to search anything; the small room was clearly empty. That didn’t mean anything though – the door had been opened when it should have been closed. Someone had been down there, somehow someone had gotten into the house, and managed to find his room under the stairs.

A hot flash boiled over his skin as a dread realization struck him. The intruder could still be in the basement. He whirled around, squinting to pierce the shadows. His heart thundered in his ears and he couldn’t hear anything else. Sucking in a desperate breath, Anthony forced himself to go out into the main cellar and search between the shelves. It didn’t take long. After satisfying himself that no one was lurking in the shadows, Anthony leaned against the new boiler and willed his heart to calm.

He took several deep, body-shuddering breaths until he felt more in control. He was safe, his family was safe. Anthony decided his next course of action would be to inspect the mirrors for any kind of damage, then go back to bed. He walked through the narrow gap between the rough-hewn shelves he’d made on the fly from old deadwood one Sunday as Sharon had demanded. She had called it “up-cycling.” Now, running his hand along the rough edge of the elbow-high shelf to his left, Anthony’s hand throbbed with the phantom pain of the many splinters he’d received in the construction process.

The look on her face had been priceless though. She’d proudly placed three jars of her canned apples on one of the shelves, not doubting once that the amateur shelves would hold. Anthony stepped out from between the shelves, one foot falling into the outer most edge of the light that fell across the stairs and dirt floor.  He looked over, into the room of mirrors and saw the intruder.

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