Stuck on my MS “The Cottage” and getting more frustrated by the minute I decided to take a break from the story. I was flipping through some of my art books (yeah once upon a time I wanted to be an artist) and came across a book of art by the wonderfully delicious and dark artist Brom. Mesmerized by his haunting and twisted visions I was hit by sudden inspiration aka a plot bunny from Hell. So I’ve been playing with this one off and on for the past two weeks, even posting excerpts to Facebook. I might regret this, but I’ve decided to post here Chapter One of the MS I’ve entitled “Bone Garden” here in all its raw, unedited glory. I would love to hear what any of you folks out there think. Leave a comment or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Do not fear the shadows.”
That was what his mother said whenever he woke from nightmares as a child, eyes red and swollen from the fear he choked on.
“It is not the shadows you should fear, but rather what lies hidden in their folds.”
The omniscience of her words haunted him tonight as he stood before the window, focused on the garden outside hidden in folds of black velveteen shadow, moon high above and swollen—the abdomen of an expectant mother. He stood trapped between two worlds. Autumn chill locked out behind frosted glass and raging fire on the hearth against his back. He imagined this might be how a soul felt whose judgment had not yet come to pass, frozen in time, locked away in Purgatory until some higher power could decide what path—Heaven or Hell.
“What are you thinking about?”
He shivered at the sudden voice behind him, fear twisting and undulating, coils of a livid serpent, trapped in the cage of bone and flesh that was his body. Fear had been his constant companion for so long he’d lost track of time. Its dark touch—at some point—became more welcome than a lover’s embrace, although he dare not say those words aloud.
“Nothing.” he replied instead.
The serpent buried inside him hissed in disbelief. It knew his every thought, every memory, and it served no purpose to lie other than to comfort himself if but for the span of a heartbeat.
“Why do you insist on hiding from me?”
He swallowed, gorge rising in the back of his throat. “I’m not hiding. I’m right here.”
From the shadows behind him, a bitter laugh drifted and he swore he could feel the air shift as the man moved across polished marble, click of boot heels approaching in rhythm with the pulse of his heart. “You know I did not mean it in the literal sense. My eyes are able to witness you standing here, again, in the dark staring at that damnable garden you refuse to destroy.”
Deep in his gut, the serpent hissed again, voice reminiscent of the crackling heat of the fire failing to chase the shadows away. Its words were unheard except by him, trapped in his head as they were, forever flitting about as if moths to a flame.
“My father created that garden you despise more than anything.” He hissed between clenched teeth.
“All the more reason to destroy the damn thing, create something to wash away his sin. Plow the earth, salt and burn it, perhaps lay bricks and create a veranda.”
“How can you say such things? He was my father.”
“He was a fiend—cruel and capricious.”
Mouth open, he exhaled, breathe misting the glass, and lifted his hand. Finger pressed against the window he began tracing one of the numerous patterns he’d discovered in his father’s journals. A part of him realized his mother’s death had been due to the things his father had dabbled in; sinister, depraved things no man should ever seek to control. He bore the scars of those things both inside and out. He had for a long time.
Finishing the last sweep of his finger, he noticed a weak glow in the garden outside and pressed his nose to the glass. He knew it was his mother again. For the past year, he’d caught glimpses of her, gliding through the garden, searching, but for what he had no inkling. The first time he’d seen the light was three days after they’d laid her to rest in the family crypt.
“Conley, are you even listening to me?”
Turning he shook his head, laughter rising in his chest. “I’m always listening, Aiden. All you ever do is repeat the same sentiments. I understand. You hate the garden. You want it gone, but this is my home and it will never happen.”
He stormed from the library and into the corridor focused on one thing and one thing only. In his heart, he knew the roaming light was his mother although she had yet to show her face to him, he was determined to look into her eyes be they empty or rotting within her skull.
Outside standing on the brick path to the garden, autumn night’s chill far less removed from his skin, Conley realized he could no longer abide Aiden’s disrespectful voice. He knew if the people Ballinderry discovered the true nature of their relationship, it would be the final nail in his coffin. For decades, there had been whispers about what occurred behind the towering walls of Bradbury Manor. When his father disappeared, the whispers became more apparent along with the stares of the locals as he walked the streets with his mother. Eventually, his mother—driven mad by what they whispered—had chosen to leave him alone.
The day of the funeral was the day Aiden appeared in his life. Stranger to Ballinderry and all its secrets he’d insinuated himself into Conley’s life in a way no sane man would have done. At first, Conley had believed the man was out to snatch his inheritance, but as the days passed he’d found himself longing for Aiden in ways unacceptable to society.
It turned out, Aiden had been close friends with his father a disciple, if you would, of the beliefs the two men had shared. Younger than Robert Bradbury, Aiden had brought new ideas to the table, but over the course of time they’d parted due to irreconcilable differences. Aiden was who had brought to Conley’s attention the location of his father’s journals. Black leather bound volumes hidden away in the attic space neither he nor his mother had ever dared step into either before or after his father’s disappearance.
He stepped beneath the wrought iron trellis marking the path into the garden and squinted into the darkness in search of the light he’d witnessed moments before. There was no sign of it from this vantage point, but he was sure if he simply moved deeper into the garden, he would discover it.
As he walked further into the shadows, he fought the urge to reach in his jacket pocket and wrap his fingers in the rosary he’d started to carry the moment he’d uncovered so many of his father’s secrets. He’d never been a religious man for a number of reasons, but what he’d discovered in the attic had changed his beliefs. Aiden had warned him about the discoveries he would make if he chose to unlock that door. He’d chosen to ignore those warnings though.
When Aiden discovered Conley’s father designed the garden he’d insisted the best thing to do was to destroy it. Conley refused. Then their relationship as it stood began to crumble. Aiden blamed the garden and refused to see it no other way. It sickened him to the core what he’d discovered in his father’s journals. The man had been no true father except in the sense he’d provided the seed from which his existence began. What little he recalled from distant memories of his father was not enough to agree with what he’d read in the journals at first, but Aiden had pushed forward with his education.
Behind the sound of frosted leaves skittered across the brick path as if the claws of the damned digging their way to the surface from the depths of Hell. He breathed in the cold air and convinced himself not to look over his shoulder no matter how much he desired to do so. Heart thundering in his chest he continued onward searching as the wind began to pick up bare bone branches scraping across one another creating an eerie song a fiddler’s mournful dirge echoing through the night air.
Up ahead the light appeared again, bobbing between fruit trees and bushes from which dying leaves clung with desperation. Conley inhaled, the scent of familiar perfume drifting toward him. Tears rose in his eyes. It was his mother’s spirit. He’d never lost hope and now she was close enough to touch.
“Damn you, Conley! Come back to the house, it’s freezing out here.”
He ignored Aiden’s petulant demand and continued toward the light, sure-footed, and stubborn as any farmer’s goat. He knew the garden back and forward despite the lack of light as the clouds slid across the surface of the moon, blotting her light out.
A few dozen feet ahead, the light began to sail higher into the night sky and he feared he would lose his chance to demand answers. Its allure reminded him of a tale his mother had once read him, sitting on her lap before the fire, and curled in her loving arms—The Pied Piper of Hamelin. His mother emigrated fromGermanywith her parents as a child and swore the story was true, but none knew the real story as those fromHamelndid.
If he listened close, he could hear a faint melody being sang. What the words were he could not say yet he was positive his mother’s voice was the one he heard. Even as the serpent of his fear fought with the desire to see his beloved mother once more, he continued with a quickening step. He’d never believed she’d ended her own life, she wouldn’t have he concluded.AnnelieseBradleyhad been many things, but a sinner was not one of them. She’d possessed faith that far outweighed his own, attending services at the village church for as long as Conley could recall. She believed as no one else in God’s word despite everything the family had suffered.
A God fearing woman such as herself would have never committed such a sin as taking her own life. Conley had been the one who found her that warm autumn afternoon. It appeared she had leapt from the attic’s dormer window, overlooking the garden. Her body broken and bloody on the bricks surrounding the ancient oak his father had designed the garden around was cold to the touch when he’d discovered her there, the sun lowering behind the distant woods.
None in the house claimed to have heard or seen a thing when questioned by the town constable. Each member of the staff had confirmed alibis. Although Conley knew none of them would have harmed his mother, there was something not quite right in their behavior in the following days. Each time he walked into a room they would grow silent with their usual banter and he noted some gave Aiden sidelong glances of fear. Aiden never seemed to notice, but Conley did. When he asked his companion one night about the looks the staff aimed his way he simply laughed his question off with a wave of his hand. Surely, he’d offered, Conley knew none of the staff cared for his presence in the house. Besides, he’d not been in town at the time of his mother’s death. He’d arrived the day of her funeral. Even with reassurances from Constable Wisdom and Aiden, he still refused to believe his mother had jumped from that window.
“Conley, where the hell are you going?”
He jumped at the sound of Aiden’s demanding voice far too close for comfort. He sped up his pace and focused on the bouncing light as it reached the eastern wall and seemed to drift up and over the brick to disappear from sight. Terrified he’d missed his chance, Conley’s long legs ate up the distance in seconds, boot heels clacking against the path with such force he imaged the brick would crack and splinter.
When he’d reached the gate, he paused, fingers wrapped around the cold wrought iron to catch his breath. The crash of brush behind him told him Aiden was having difficulty navigating the garden in the darkness. It mattered not a bit though. Aiden could try as he liked, but he would not stop him from his mission. He needed answers if he were to find peace.
Nudging the gate open, dead leaves whispering along the ground outside the wall, Conley squeezed through and into the night. Beyond the wall a few hundred yards was the edge of the woods from which the town had gotten its name. Although, there were a number of species the majority of the woods consisted of oaks far older than the town itself. The majority of the immigrants who’d settled the area were Irish and the man who’d established the town had given it his surname, the anglicized version of the old Gaelic Baile an Doire—town of the oak wood. Standing there in the shadows, Conley agreed it was the perfect name.
A sudden gust of glacial wind lifted the scattered leaves from the ground and sent them dancing into the sky, blinding Conley for a moment. They caught in his long tangled hair and slapped his face as if to draw attention to a point they needed to make. He brushed them from his face and hair in a fury desperate to find what he had lost.
What seemed to him an eternity, but in reality was mere minutes passed before the wind died and he spotted the light once more, flickering among the towering trunks of the trees. It swayed and drifted with such gentle grace Conley imagined an ecstatic young woman dancing to music only she could hear. Without a second thought, he ran toward the woods, air so cold now it burned his throat and nose as he ran.
Again, he heard the gentle tune he’d imagined in the garden and he wondered if he’d at last lost his mind. Before the death of his mother, he’d not believed in such things as spirits and demons. Now though he knew they existed. He understood there was far more to existence than the simple day-to-day chores he’d believed were all humanity had to look forward to in their lives.
He sprinted across the ground, crunch of dying vegetation beneath his boots, frost a crust of sugary crystals gleaming in moonlight as the clouds parted. There was intelligence to the way the glow moved and had Conley doubted it the fact it stopped moving as to allow him to catch up confirmed the thing’s cleverness. Darting in between the trees, he continued toward the light as it hovered above the earth. When he was almost within reach, his stomach twisted into a knot. The light was no longer a pulsing orb, but rather was undulating, delicate tendrils stretching out from a core of brightness that to Conley rivaled the sun. Yet the intensity didn’t blind him.
A wave of emotion rolled over his skin, emotion that with its intensity drew tears from his eyes, and fear from his heart. Love was too simple a word to describe what he felt. He’d never experienced such sensations and discovered himself unable to move virtually losing the ability to breathe.
As he stood, staring into its luminescence, he swore he saw a familiar face in the depths of the light. He tried to find his voice, but much as his ability to move it seemed lost. In the distance, he could hear Aiden’s terrified screams as he continued to search for him in the dark. He wanted to cry out and tell Aiden to stop things were fine, that he’d at last discovered what he’d been searching for since they’d sealed his mother’s lifeless body in the crypt all those months ago.
He did none of those things.
Aiden stood at the east wall of the garden, drenched in sweat despite the chill of the autumn night. Some distant part of his mind had known this would happen. From the instant his dreams had drawn him to Ballinderry, back to the place he’d sworn never to step foot in again he’d understood on a visceral level Robert Bradbury—once friend and colleague—had gone on to do the one thing he’d feared most.
The first time he’d lain eyes on Conley he’d come to the realization he was lost; mind, body, and soul. His heart had yearned for the young man with a passion so few had instilled in him. Perhaps, that had beenRobert’s plan all along. To establish this damnable excuse for a home, wed the appropriate woman, and create the perfect sacrifice born of his seed and oblivious to his purpose. It was unfortunate Aiden had not seen the true nature of the man he’d trusted so long ago.
Out in the woods, he could see the light—at last—Conley had insisted haunted the garden surrounding the house. He’d believed Conley ill, influenced by the journals he himself had led him to find. It seemed instead he was the fool not the young man who’d stolen his heart; with sweet disposition and deep abiding belief in something far removed from the natural.
If Conley were to be Robert’s final sacrifice to the ancient powers he’d dallied with he would not go alone. The boy had wanted nothing more than to know the truth of his mother’s death. What he hadn’t known was the truth had been staring him in the face the entire time. Anneliese Bradbury was a sacrifice, tasty morsel, fed to the beasts buried beneath the surface. The shadows drove her mad bit-by-bit until her faith, at last destroyed, allowed her to offer herself unknowing of what she’d done.
Aiden had lied to Conley only once and he regretted it as he headed toward the light, drawing the dagger from the sheath in his riding boot.
He’d been here when Anneliese had plummeted from the attic window. He’d watched in horror as the dormer window flung open, Anneliese climbing out, skirts gathered in one hand, and the other balancing her precariously on the window ledge. Even where he was hidden by the carriage house he witnessed the terror in her expression as she let go, no sound escaping her lips as she tumbled down to the garden below.
He refused to stand by again, as whateverRoberthad released devoured his beloved Conley. Running toward the woods grip tight on the dagger, and wind threading through his hair he could feel the thing’s power building as it mesmerized Conley with an exquisite web woven of treachery, lies, and greed. No man deserved to be born to sacrifice. Only God had the right to create such a sacrifice, not man, and not for the reasons Robert wanted to do so.
There was no doubt in his mind Robert had gone mad in the end, perhaps as mad as his poor wife who abandoned in a temple of insanity, constructed by a husband who’d never gave a damn for society or its pleasantries had completed what he’d started when he laid the foundation of his plan.
Reaching the line of trees, Aiden fingered the silver crucifix at his neck. He whispered a silent prayer to a god he’d discovered only after being in the presence of true evil. “Forgive me, Lord.”
Darting into the clearing where Conley stood mesmerized by the deceitful light, beatific smile on his youthful, innocent face, Aiden grabbed a handful of his lover’s hair and yanked back his head. Staring straight into the light, jaw clenched, he lifted the dagger to Conley’s throat and then spoke four words.
“You cannot have him.”
He drew the blade across Conley’s throat before the boy could react, blood spraying in a waterfall of crimson across the tree trunks and forest floor. Tears filled his eyes as the thing howled in fury, wind tearing at his clothing as Conley fell to his knees clutching his throat in shock, life’s blood pouring between his fingers.
“And neither can you have me as your sacrifice.”
He plunged the dagger into his chest to pierce his heart leaving him dead before he hit the ground. His lifeless body came to rest next to Conley, their mixed blood soaking into the rich black earth.
Seconds after their deaths the greatest storm Ballinderry had ever witnessed descended upon the town. Some believed it was the end and others believed it was simply the beginning of something far worse. Lightning struck the vane high atop Bradbury Manor and set the roof aflame. Those who happened to be among the score of people trying to save the house swore the flames and smoke contained something dark and wicked.
In the woods behind the smoldering remains of the manor, the following morning, villagers discovered the bodies of Conley Bradbury and the man known only by the name Aiden. Whatever the story none of the villagers pushed it. Within hours, they lay to rest both men; Conley in his family crypt and Aiden in a pauper’s grave.