INHERITANCE

They had been driving along the dirt road weaving through dense pine forest for what felt like hours when the house finally came into view. It was palatial, and felt like it had been dumped in the middle of the wide clearing by an unseen prankster. It sat only yards from the edge of the lake, which glinted silver under the grey sky. Violet wondered if the lake flooded when it rained.

“There she is,” Chase said, taking his eyes off the road a moment to beam at her. The dirt road gave way to a gravel driveway. “It’s something, right?”

“Sure is,” she replied.

Truth was, she didn’t really know what to make of the Prescott lake house. It rose from the sodden earth like something from another age; a weirdly opulent display of Old World prosperity which didn’t fit in at all with the slummy degeneracy of the surrounding townships; hokey little boroughs as far removed from wealth and prosperity as you could possibly imagine. Those towns, all bearing colonial names like Bournemouth and Norfolk which exited the mind as soon as they entered, were sad remembrances of an older, hardscrabble American life which somehow persisted in these forgotten nooks of Massachusetts. The lake house itself was a hodgepodge of varying architectural eras, added over centuries of renovations. A central structure with a gabled roof – clearly the original core of the house – expanded outwards in a flamboyant eruption of modern concrete and glass, giving the whole thing an almost surreal timelessness. It looked like shit, Violet thought. Exactly the sort of thing a loaded family like the Prescotts would think was profound art. Brutally clean modern lines swallowing up the gauche and antiquated.

Chase guided his Range Rover to a stop in front of the white-painted garage doors. “C’mon, let’s check it out,” he said, opening the door and hoisting himself out. The air, crisp with autumnal chill, flooded the car. It stung Violet’s nose. She got out too.

The par of them strolled down to the shore of the lake. It was dead quiet, save for the sound of whippoorwills crying out on the far side.

“It’s nice here,” Violet said. “Kinda far from anything. But nice and quiet for sure.”

“Isn’t it?” Chase zipped up his jacket; his breath coming out in brisk little cloudlets. “It’s our history out here, you know. The Manhattan apartment is way nicer, the beach house down on the Keys has better weather… but this is where we come from, you know? And sometime a little seclusion is the best thing. I used to come here when I was studying for finals. The air clears you out here. Sucks that New York smog out of the sinuses.”

“I can feel it already.” Violet screwed up her face, pursing her lips. “It stings.”

Chase laughed. “You get used to it, I promise. C’mon, let me show you the house.”

Violet followed him up, finding it tough to put a spring in her step. This weekend was not her idea. In fact, her preferred weekend would have involved ending her relationship with Chase Prescott, and hopefully doing it with minimal fuss. It wasn’t fun anymore, if it ever was. Increasingly it felt like she was just an accessory to his future success; like he was already planning in minute detail how he would write about her in his memoirs. She was being played on a life-size chessboard, but she didn’t know what piece she was, or who the game was against. Dating a rich guy was one thing, but Chase had a kind of hungry ambition underneath that wealth which Violet didn’t like at all. It felt nasty, calculated. The rest of the family gave her the creeps, too. They were all the same: a hollow zeal for success, and a fortress mentality towards anyone who might challenge it. At times, it felt like they put Violet in that category.

But it wasn’t to be. Her breakup plan, which she had walked herself through mentally in embarrassing detail, shattered into a million pieces when Chase invited her to stay at the lake house. She decided to agree. There was no rush, after all. It might be nice. Despite it all, Chase was nice enough; good-looking in a generic white guy kind of way. She hated admitting it to herself, but she was also reflexively uneasy about throwing away the opportunity to join the American aristocracy. Memories of growing up dirt poor inculcated that vaguely humiliating impulse in her mind. She’d be pissing away her chance to join what Politico called ‘the most powerful family nobody has ever heard of.’ That was big leagues. So Violet had to be sure that she wanted to end it.

Chase unlocked the front door with his key and opened it. The interior was spacious and inviting, far more warmly designed than the ultramodern exterior improvements suggested. The lobby area opened into an enormous family room lined with plush couches and bookshelves, dominated by a quaint cobblestone fireplace on the feature wall.

“Can get a fire going tonight,” Chase said, flashing a grin. “Get cozy.” He pressed his groin against Violet’s rear and ran his hands up and down her waist. Violet let him kiss her cheek, but made no effort to turn and let their lips meet. The spark really wasn’t there.

“And there’s nobody but us this weekend?” she asked.

“Naw,” Chase replied. He broke away, walking into the family room. “Uncle Mike was gonna take it, but once he found out I was bringing you here he said that he’ll kick it next weekend instead. It’s always special to come here for the first time, and he didn’t wanna spoil it bitching about DC.”

‘Uncle Mike’ was Michael Prescott, the older brother to Chase’s dad Toby, an investment banker with KPMG. Mike was the United States Senator for Rhode Island; just one of a number of politicians in the Prescott family. A New York Times cover story – which Chase read aloud to a deeply uninterested Violet over breakfast in a diner once – pointed out that the Prescotts had produced “three senators, two governors, nearly a dozen congressmen at both the federal and state level, and more mayors, assemblymen and city managers than could be counted without a calculator.” The only jewel they didn’t have in their crown was the Presidency. If Uncle Mike ended up nailing next year’s primary like the polls said he would, that minor omission might be struck off. Despite those luminous credentials, most people didn’t really think much about the Prescott family – even if they were aware of some of the more high-profile scions. It didn’t have the same ring as the Kennedys, the Clintons, the Bushes. Being related to a president wasn’t high on Violet’s bucket list. But, she had to admit, it would be a nice-to-have, and her mother very much agreed.

Violet inspected some of the art on the walls as she circled the enormous room. It was mostly landscapes, pastoral stuff. The sort of paintings she was glad to never have to see again when she got her fine art degree. It was all sweeping hills, unsullied pine forest, deep blue lakes. Tiny log cabins and gabled cottages in little clusters, rendered minuscule amongst the broad sweep of raw, unsullied nature. Hanging this stuff up indicated a yearning for a simpler, less complicated time. But Violet knew that it wasn’t that way at all. That era was as rich in blood, death and torture as any other.

“Some of these are eighteenth century,” Chase said from behind Violet, startling her a little. “Been hanging up in this place since then. A guy comes two times a year to do preservation work on them. God knows what that entails.”

“Maybe you guys should just get some of that nice, inoffensive patterned stuff from Ikea. You know, the framed pictures you see in every single Airbnb.”

Chase laughed. “Come on,” he said, leading Violet down the adjacent hallway and further into the house. “There’s some cooler art this way, you’ll get a kick out of it.”

Down the hallway the house felt more claustrophobic. It seemed the pair had entered the historic core of the house, which was built when the Prescotts were perhaps slightly less wealthy. Violet asked Chase whether that was the case.

“Oh yeah, absolutely. We’re getting closer to the original place. I think it’s kinda cool. It’s like… we’ve got all this new stuff, and we’ve been really lucky, but we always know where we came from, and we respect that. You know?”

“Yeah, I get it.”

“Speaking of which: here’s the man himself.”

They stopped before a wide alcove which emerged from the wall of the hallway. A mantle rose from the floorboards, and above that was an enormous oil painting of an intense-looking man who peered out at the viewer through beady eyes. “Jesus,” Violet said. “He looks intense.” “That, sweetie, is none other than Josiah Prescott himself. The man who made it all happen.” Josiah Prescott did not look like he ‘made it all happen’, unless ‘it’ was a mass poisoning event at an orphanage. He had a mess of jet black hair perched atop a cruel, birdlike face. There was a hint of Chase’s handsome face in his visage, but it seemed to have been weathered down by the vicissitudes of a hard life. He wore a simple black robe which seemed at first like a priest’s cassock, but on closer inspection was not much like one at all. It was a strange picture which only became stranger the longer Violet inspected it. It was a full length portrait of Josiah, expertly painted, and his figure stood against a sickly, greenish gradient which made the whole thing radiate unpleasantness. She wondered why the artist had chosen that background.

“Is this eighteenth century too?” Violet ran a finger along the ornately-carved frame.

“Funny you should ask, actually. It is, but the man himself lived much earlier. The painting is dated 1790, but Josiah Prescott was actually born around 1600 or so. He came to the Massachusetts colony about 1640.”

“So someone painted him after he died?”

“Well, not just someone. One of his great-grandchildren, an artist named Gideon Prescott, did.”

“So he might not have looked like this at all.”

“Maybe. But it’s so precise, right? And it’s clearly labelled as Josiah Prescott, so Gideon knew who he was painting. It’s possible that he modelled it on his own father, Enoch.” Violet was on the precipice of tuning out as Chase recited the names of these long-dead men from rote. Elaborate family trees were a kind of thrilling hidden knowledge for people of his pedigree. Violet had always found the obsession with heredity, even in its most innocuous forms, to be off-putting. If she traced her own family backwards, there were slaves on both sides within only a few generations. Beyond that: nothing. The kind of people Chase venerated were the kind of people who ensured through violence that Violet would have nobody to venerate at all.

“What was he, then?” she asked. “A farmer? He doesn’t look like an aristocrat.”

“It’s actually quite funny.” Chase seemed captivated by the piercing, painted glare of his kin. “This isn’t something we tend to parade around or boast about to journalists, but Josiah Prescott was something of a mystic. Definitely no Christian.”

That was kind of interesting, Violet thought. “Like a… druid?”

Chase laughed. “I don’t know the term for it – maybe there isn’t one. Funnily enough, we don’t even know where he was from, exactly. Probably Scots-Irish extraction, but that’s really just guessing. We assume so because he didn’t speak English when he got here. I guess he spoke some kind of Gaelic. His original name is forgotten, if he had one – the other colonists named him Josiah Prescott based on God knows what, and he kept it and passed it on.”

He opened a drawer recessed into the mantle beneath the painting and opened it. From within, he pulled out an old keyring, to which was affixed five or six thick, old-school keys. He kept talking as he went.

“The rest of the colonists were Puritans, pretty much. It makes you wonder how he even got on the boat over here, but he did. They hated his guts, thought he was a devil-worshipper, a cannibal, a pedophile. You know, the worst of the worst. There’s some microfiche scans down at the library in Boston I’ve had a look at, some journal and diary entries from way back then. Josiah was not a liked man. They say he spent all his time wandering the forests, rarely coming into town at all. One said they would see him out in the middle of the lake on a boat during thunderstorms, speaking in tongues. Any time something bad would happen, they’d blame Josiah. Considering the politics of the time, it’s a miracle they didn’t burn the guy at the stake. Nobody would have anything to do with him, so I gotta say it’s a huge surprise he even procreated. Lucky he did, though. For my sake.”

“It’s definitely an odd kind of history for a family of your…” Violet paused a moment to phrase it diplomatically. “Standing. In society.”

“I know what you mean.” He continued, like Violet had interrupted a prepared spiel. “Josiah was actually quite a prolific writer, definitely by the standards of the time. He wrote reams and reams of stuff, and it’s all still here in the lake house. Crazy, right?”

“That’s pretty cool.”

“Not in English, though. Or Gaelic. Or Latin, or French, or fucking Swahili. It’s incomprehensible. Symbols and notes and diagrams, thousands of pages of the shit. Looks almost scientific.”

Violet looked back at the painting. She wondered how Uncle Mike would handle a television debate where a moderator threw him a query about his ancestry. “Mr Prescott,” the guy, from CNN or NBC or whoever, would ask. “The American people are all asking the same question: is the arcane occult wizardry of your forebear Josiah Prescott going to have any influence on your administration?” Violet giggled imagining it.

Her laugh seemed to stir Chase from his thoughts. “Let’s go,” he said. “I have to show you something really cool.”

Deeper and deeper they walked down the hallway. Violet realised that it was curving downward and arcing around sharply, descending into the earth in a narrow spiral. As soon as her mind comprehended the descent, the floorboards became stone steps.

“What the hell?” she said, mostly to herself.

“Watch your head,” Chase said, indicating the dark stones above, which were illuminated every few feet by a modern electric downlight. “This is part of the original house that Josiah built.”

“Back in the 1600s? Surely not. There’s some serious construction here.”

“Hand on my heart.” He turned back and smile, his face like a skull under the overhead light. “Some geniuses in the family, for sure.”

The temperature dropped quickly as they descended, and it wasn’t particularly warm upstairs. Violet was shivering. The air, which was rich in the pleasant scents of wood and vanilla up in the house, grew thin. It smelled like fresh rainwater, and the stones of the walls began to look shiny and damp. Soon enough, they were at an old, thick oak door.

“Is this some kind of cellar?” Violet asked. “Yeah, something like that.”

“I hope it’s safe down here.”

“It’s safe.”

Chase fumbled at the keyring he had retrieved from the drawer, finding one and sliding it into the lock. It sounded out heavily as it turned, centuries-old mechanisms creaking and clunking. Chase pushed the door open.

As soon as he did, a rush of sickly warm air came from within the pitch black corridor ahead, and a deep, fetid odour.

“Fucking hell,” Violet said, on the verge of retching. “What the fuck is that?”

Chase coughed and fumbled for his phone. He flicked the torch on and shone it ahead. The stones here were also slick, but the wetness seemed thicker, more viscous. “Sorry,” he said. “We’re pretty far down, and there’s a bit of a stink sometimes. It’ll clear out now the doors open. Sorry.”

It didn’t seem like the kind of stench that would ‘clear out’. It smelled of ripened rot, like a steak forgotten the bottom of a fridge for weeks. It was the smell of death. Chase pressed on regardless, leading by his smartphone light. He didn’t even cover his mouth and nose, which was the only thing Violet could do to stop herself from throwing up.

“It’s airing out now,” he said, his voice echoing slightly. It wasn’t airing out at all. If anything, the smell was getting more intense as they walked on. “This is pretty cool, right? It’s not on any map or blueprint or anything. It’s our little family secret.”

Violet didn’t respond. The sickening odour grew more fetid, easily passing through her hands, which she cupped feebly over her mouth and nose. She could hear something now too. At first it sounded like the echo of Chase’s voice, but it wasn’t that. Something was coming from deep down the passageway. As they went further, it resolved itself more clearly.

It sounded like a moan.

Coughing, Violet breathed through her mouth. Down here the air had a taste. Like breathing through a mouthful of ham.

“What is that sound?” she managed to ask.

Chase didn’t respond now. He just kept leading her on, as if driven by a higher purpose. She wondered if she should just turn back, walk right out of these strange tunnels and back to the surface. Get in the Range Rover and drive away.

But then they found themselves at another thick oak door. Etched onto this one were symbols Violet did not recognise.

The sound was clear now. Something was moaning from behind the door. It sounded neither entirely human nor entirely animalistic. In one moment it sounded like the cries of a goat in pain, then in the next it was so obviously like a woman that Violet felt a knot form tightly in her lower gut.

“What–“ she started to ask.

“Just wait,” Chase said. His voice was strange now. Shaking slightly. Absent the braggadocio that infected basically everything else he uttered.

This door wasn’t locked. He turned the knob and opened it, pushing it open.

Violet saw it immediately, and she retched.

The room itself was quite small. Rendered in roughly hewn stone, like the corridors they had followed in. Water trickled in small rivulets from the upper corners, perhaps seepage from the lake. In the centre, filling almost the entire space, was a creature.

At least that was the taxonomy her mind immediately leapt to, though it looked like no creature she had ever seen. Her first frame of reference was a cow, but that wasn’t right. It was an enormous conflagration of pinkish-grey flesh with no appendages to speak of, dotted with strange orifices at irregular intervals. It mewled and moaned, quivering. It sat in a pool of thick, viscous fluid which seemed to seep from every square inch of its body. The being was chained to the walls at four points. As there were no arms or legs to affix the chains to, whoever did this had simply manacled armfuls of pulsing, grotesque flesh. Blood seeped from under the enormous cuffs, clearly aggravating and wounding the rubbery skin.

Violet could not speak. Her vision swam in and out, like merely looking at the being was tipping her into insanity. She retched again, messily, a line of drool and bile hanging from the corner of her mouth.

“F-fuck,” she managed to say.

Chase was calm. He stepped towards the restrained mass of squawking and moaning tissue and fell to his knees beside it. Arms outstretched, he lay against the flank of the monster, pressing his cheek to the wet corpulence. He hugged it silently a moment, then withdrew, wet ropes of slime hanging from his cheek where it had pressed to the skin.

“Mommy,” he said, his voice a quiet murmur. It seemed to calm the creature temporarily. “I’d love you to meet Violet.”

A bitter hot tear wormed its way out of Violet’s left eye, rolling down her cheek. She inhaled a racking sob. The grim reality of it all came crashing down on her. The thin-lipped blonde woman she had met in the Prescott penthouse in New York was not Chase’s mother. That woman might have been Toby Prescott’s wife, but she had mothered no children with him. No wonder there was that deep, abiding sadness behind her eyes; that festering, empty resentment. Violet thought it was directed at her.

No. This thing was Chase’s mother.

And his grandmother. And his great-grandmother. And his great-great-grandmother. And so on, all the way back to Josiah Prescott. Violet knew it, the awful truth of it, all at once.

Chase looked back towards her. His face, which had always been boyish, now looked entirely like one of a child. “This is our family secret,” he said. “This is what has made us who we are. This is our thing.” He beckoned. “Come here.”

Violet didn’t budge. She felt like her legs were about to give away from underneath her. Part of her wanted them to, for her head to crack on the stone floor, to bleed out right then and there. She could not imagine living knowing that something like this occupied the same universe as her. She shook her head.

“Don’t be afraid. They’re always afraid. My stepmother was afraid. But she came to understand how beautiful our thing is. Let me show you something. Please.”

She found her feet moving forward mechanically, as if by reflex. Inching along the floor towards the creature. The thought of getting any closer – smelling it, touching it – was repulsive to her. Chase rose to his feet and reached out his hand, taking Violet’s. It was slick with slime. She vomited fully now, down the front of her cardigan.

Chase looked sympathetic, almost caring. “Baby. I’m sorry. Come on. You’ll feel better.”

He led her, and she followed, feeling like she was no longer in control of her body. He led her around the quivering mass that was his mother to her other side.

She saw what he intended to show her right away. On a seemingly random point on this side of the creature, a translucent bulb of flesh bulged out from the side like a blister on a sunburn. Inside that spheroid protuberance was what looked like a human foetus, encased in a layer of amber fluid, eyes closed, a peaceful expression on its face.

Chase cooed. “This is my nephew, Brandon. Brandon, this is Violet.”

Violet’s legs finally gave way, and she fell to her knees, her face level with baby Brandon, who stirred slightly in his bubble. She thought of Chase’s brother Joe, the gorgeous college football star. Charismatic, charming, friendly, destined for great things. At the age of twenty-four, he was already clamoured for by every big investment bank on Wall Street. She thought of him down here, in this dank little chamber by a lake in deepest Massachusetts, undertaking a rite fouler than anything she could imagine or name. She thought of his fiancée Rose. She had that sadness in her eyes too.

Tears flowed freely now.

Violet’s hand rose slowly, shaking. It lightly rested against the globe within which little Brandon sat, his future etched in his very DNA. The world would be his inheritance, as it was his brothers and fathers.

Through the gelid yellow surface of the bubble she saw the distorted features of Chase’s face as he knelt on the other side. He was smiling.

“Will you marry me?”