As far as Bronte Hallows is concerned, Midnight Falls is her purgatory. Though she’s never lived anywhere else, she has to believe that other places are better. She also believes she will never see them. Not a one.
She is wrong.
Bronte is on her afternoon jog, the second of her regular three a day. It is the same path she has taken three times a day, for four years. A left out her front door, down her street, onto Main street, which is made up of mom and pop shops that people only frequent out of a dreadful sense of community obligation. She follows this up by jogging past the bridge that leads into the forest. This is where Olivia’s camera was found. The bridge; the last thing Olivia ever photographed. Bronte’s husband, Hayden, has learned to avoid the bridge at all costs, but Bronte can’t bring herself to do that. She won’t. In fact, coming here is almost like a compulsion. And today, it’s stronger than ever.
As she jogs towards it, Bronte finds herself disgusted by the passerbys who nod and smile at her with pitiful eyes. It’s something she desperately tries to control, but New Years’ Resolution be damned — feigning friendliness has always felt like wearing a full body suit that is three times too small. And itchy. And what’s the point? Earlier, she had seen a young woman drive up to the old Williams house, the one the kids believe is haunted. She forced herself to wave but the stranger completely ignored her. She was about 21 or 22, maybe. The age Olivia would be if — Bronte hates that she does this now, compares strangers to her daughter. It makes her skin crawl and her spine tingle. And what about the locals? They play at pleasantries but she knows what they’re all really thinking. When they say, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” they mean, “I’m so glad it’s not me.” When they say, “You’re looking well these days,” they mean, “You’re running yourself to death.” When they say “Nice to see you out and about,” they mean “Nice to have something to gossip about later.”
It’s grotesque, really.
Bronte’s temperature is rising, as it does when she lets the bad thoughts in. She has stopped running. That’s the problem. She’s standing still, staring at the bridge, and something ugly and slimy is curling its tendrils around her heart. Before she knows what she’s doing, she approaches the bridge, and steps up.
It’s been 1508 days since Bronte has been inside the forest. A month and a half before Olivia disappeared, she had dragged Bronte on a nature hike. Back then, Bronte hated going beyond her front yard. She still does, but her reasons are different now. These days, it’s more about having a dire aversion to small-talk (no, really, she thinks she may be anaphylactic), and less about the mistakes she might make, the truths people might read in her eyes, and the crippling fear that if she left home, she just might stay gone. Bronte never did trust herself to be a good mom. She was though, in some ways. She made a list of rules for herself, strict ones, and keeping them was easier when she stayed inside the house. But on that particular day, Olivia’s pleading had won her over.
“Don’t you see it, mom?” she had asked, staring out into the nothingness.
“No, Olivia, for the millionth time, I do not.” Bronte had said this in a tone dripping with exasperation, because there was nothing unusual in the forest that day, and she was growing weary of Olivia’s insistence otherwise.
But today — today, there is something unusual in the forest. Or rather, it’s always been there, but for the first time, Bronte can see it.
The next morning, Bronte’s hands shake fervently as she pours Hayden a cup of coffee from the french press and passes it to him without a word. She’s thinking about those last few weeks. Olivia’s last few weeks. She grits her teeth against the memory. The unwashed hair. The dark circles under her eyes. The near translucency of her skin. Her obsession with the damned forest made Bronte worry that her teenage daughter was somehow irreversibly damaged. Fundamentally broken. Admitting it though, would mean admitting she was as bad at this mom thing as she feared. So, instead, she ignored it, and hoped it would pass.
It did not.
Hayden spits his coffee back into his cup, dramatically.
“It’s cold! Did you even turn on the kettle?”
The accusation rouses Bronte from her daze. “Of course,” she growls.
She did not.
Another week passes before Bronte has finally had enough. She had been in the forest again, returning each day now, when she tripped on a root and twisted her ankle too badly to jog (or even walk) home. After limping back to Main street, and against her better judgement, she called Hayden to pick her up. They are driving home in silence when Bronte whispers: “I saw it.”
“Come again?” his tone is gruff.
Bronte stares out the window, watching the pastel coloured houses whizz by. Hayden has always driven a little too fast, but she has stopped complaining about it over the years. She leans her head against the pane, and lets it gently bounce with the grooves in the road.
But it’s not nothing.
The car pulls into their driveway and Hayden turns off the engine with a sigh. They sit still, counting the seconds, each wishing the other would say something first. When neither does, Hayden opens his door and heads into the house. The flowers that line their path are all wilted and crisped. Hayden doesn’t even care about the lawn anymore and Bronte thinks its height is against regulations, but no one has bothered her about it.
Everyone is too afraid to break the lady made of glass.
And in that moment, Bronte decides that she can no longer go on this way. Not now that she knows the truth.
Bronte scoots over to the driver’s side and with her own key, starts the engine back up. With barely a thought, Bronte drives straight to The Fern. It’s quiet in the bar — barely afternoon. Behind the counter, the bartender, Poe, chops limes without looking up.
“What can I get you?” he asks, eyes still on the knife.
Bronte limps forward.
Poe looks up, his chestnut curls bouncing eagerly. He nips his lip ring and lets his eyes roam over Bronte because in recent years, when her reality got too tough, she had found comfort in him. But that’s not what she’s looking for today. He can sense it, and tries to reign in his desire.
They go to the back room together. She’s a mess, but neither of them acknowledges it.
“I told you before. I’m no Necromancer.”
“And I told you before, she’s not dead.” Bronte never accepted that theory. Now, she has proof. “There’s a doorway, Poe. I’m sure of it. Just like she said. In the forest. I’ve seen it. She went through. I know it.”
“Crossing the vale is black magic.”
“Why else would I come to you.” It’s a question, but she gives it no upward inflection, because it’s also not a question at all.
Poe’s dark eyes light up.
“Let’s get to work.”
Two hours, and a pot of venom and herbs and blood later, Bronte and Poe are standing on the bridge. This is it, she suddenly realizes. She is actually leaving Midnight Falls, forever. There’s not a soul she wants to say goodbye to. And that includes Hayden.
Poe wishes he could touch her body once more, but the timing is all wrong.
“I hope you find your girl.”
And this much is true, because on the other side, Olivia has been waiting for her. She has been waiting to say those four precious words: I told you so. But the world behind Midnight Falls is not better, but worse, and this will make their reunion bittersweet.
Bronte opens the vile Poe has sealed the concoction in and pours the putrid liquid down her throat in one quick swig. Her skin glows green. Her irises ink over until they are only black.
A tear in the vale reveals itself to her, and just like that, Bronte disappears from Midnight Falls, forever.
Thanks for reading!
Midnight Falls is an ongoing series following a set of loosely connected characters and their strange encounters in the spooky town of Midnight Falls. The stories can be read in any order. If you enjoyed this tale, see Midnight Falls for more.