Matthew Alexander Garrett leans against his car, one foot on the road, one resting on the door frame. He’s trying to decide what to do. More accurately, he’s already decided what to do, and he’s waiting for the rational part of his mind to give in to the idea.
August nights are hot and wet, and what little light spills out from the car interior shines off the fine layer of sweat covering Matthew’s face and neck. Dark eyes gaze out at the trees along the shoulder of the road; lean hands brush absently at damp, dark hair. The air is heavy with honeysuckle, humidity, and dew; the scent is rich if you like honeysuckle, cloying if you don’t. Matthew does.
The trees are nothing more than silhouettes from where he stands, only slightly darker than the overcast sky. The difference is so faint that if it weren’t for the rustling of branches he’d write it off as a trick of the mind, but he can hear them quite clearly. Visible or not, he knows they’re out there.
For a moment he thinks about how he might paint them: nothing but black paint, perhaps, the only variation the weight of the brush and the coarseness of the bristles. It would be an image of texture instead of shade. It might be a good painting, though he isn’t sure he wants to try. He imagines the reaction everyone will have: the ones who will be ecstatic that he’s finally seen the error of his ways, and returned to his old form, the ones who will worry that he’s sabotaging his career all over again. Randy would shout, a lot. And then of course there would be the people who will look at it and wonder why he spent so much time and effort painting a canvas square black.
He smiles at the thought of that, but it brings back memories of Richmond. The smile disappears. He places his hand palm down on the top of the car, feeling the warmth of the metal roof even in darkness, and steadies himself. He pushes all the unpleasant thoughts out of his head—of Richmond, and art shows, and the sudden and insufferable expectations of critics who, only months ago, didn’t care about his work at all. He concentrates on the trees: the dark, nearly invisible trees that make their presence known only by their whispers as the warm, stale breeze rustles past.
He ducks back into the car, reaches across the driver’s seat and grabs his jacket. Ignoring the heat, he shrugs it on, then kicks the door shut with a heavy boot. The interior light winks out a second later, and darkness swallows everything.
There’s a moment of disorientation when the light winks out—there are no stars, there is no moon, there isn’t even any glow in the sky from streetlights or windows. He gropes his way around the front of the car, trying to ignore the weight of his jacket in the summer heat. He’s thankful for it a second later when he stumbles, straight into the roadside ditch, sprawling into the gravel at the bottom. His hands sting, but the leather keeps his arms unbloodied. He turns over on his back, sits up slowly, and remembers the flashlight in his glove compartment.
Then he remembers the batteries are dead. He laughs ruefully as he picks himself up out of the ditch, dusts himself off, and reaches into his jacket pocket to pull out his phone.
The screen winks on briefly. Five voice messages from Randy. Seven text messages from Randy. Twenty unread emails. Some of them are probably from Randy.
Battery: eight percent.
He sighs, powers off the phone, and puts it back in his jacket pocket. He can do it without a flashlight. The trees aren’t far, he only needs to follow the sound of leaves and branches.
He climbs up the side of the ditch, toward the sound of the trees, slowly inching his way forward, holding his hands out in front as he gropes for the feel of bark. Almost immediately he feels it: a wall of leaves and branches, tangled tightly together like a rough, braided curtain. He jerks his hands back in surprise; he didn’t expect it to be so near to the road, and the trees are much closer together than he remembers from the light of his high beams.
He hesitates. This is crazy. It’s probably trespassing. He considers going back to the car and just driving off. But his skin is tingling with excitement, his breath is quick, he feels like he did back in college, when he was about to do something stupid just for the thrill of it. He grins, makes a fist, and pushes it through the tangled mass of branches.
There is some resistance, but eventually he breaks through. Methodically Matthew starts to tear away at the branches, pushing them aside as he forces his way in. His hands are bloody from the effort, and as soon as he steps into the trees branches whip at his face and tear at his jeans. Once again he’s glad he’s wearing his jacket, because the branches can’t get through the leather. He sees nothing. The darkness is absolute, his ears are full of the sounds of twigs snapping, leaves rustling, and branches whipping at his face with loud cracks and pops. He takes a step and finds his leg snarled in a tangle, wrapped tight around his knee like a lariat. He pulls himself free, hearing ropy, vine-like branches ripping out of the trees, only to fall back into more branches that wrap around him in a tight embrace. Each attempt to free himself is countered by another snarl, another tangle. Something wraps around his wrist, something whips into his face, slaps at the back of his head.
Light. He needs light. He reaches into his jacket and pulls out his phone, fumbling with the power button only to feel the smooth plastic case slip through his fingers and tumble to the earth. He forces himself down through the tangled snarl to crawl on his hands and knees, searching blindly. The stench of rotting leaves surrounds him—rotting leaves, and old, musty wood. He gags, panic rises, and he abandons his search, choosing instead to thrash blindly on. He’s no longer interested in getting through—at this point, he simply wants to find a way out. But every turn is blocked by another branch, every step caught by a gnarled root. The trees are no longer inanimate in Matthew’s mind—no longer silent curiosities, lurking in the darkness like ghosts along the road. They are alive, they are malevolent, they are swarming on him like eager, grasping predators, full of malice, fighting him. A large branch crashes into his forehead, making him stagger; he raises his hands to cover his face and stumbles as he catches his toe on something. He falls forward, hands extended, falling into the damp ground caked with leaves. Something sharp scrapes his cheek—a splintered twig, sticking out of the ground like a spike. Had he fallen an inch to the right, it would have pierced his eye.
His breath grows ragged. He feels blood trickle down his cheek, pooling into the corner of his mouth. He shuts his eyes tight as his face is pelted with leaves and dirt from a hostile branch. He thinks about giving up, sinking down into the muddy ground, waiting in mute surrender until day breaks and he can make his way back to his car. His knees buckle, he almost surrenders to the trees right there, but a moment later the branches give way and he tumbles free.
He doesn’t understand at first. When he realizes the branches have stopped hitting him, he wonders if he actually made it through, or if it’s a trick. Did he make it through? Did he turn around, and come out the way he went in? Is he still in the woods, standing in a brief gap in the branches, still surrounded on all sides? He bends over, hands on his knees, and draws a ragged breath. He coughs: the air is cold and sharp, his lungs burn from the unexpected chill. It smells faintly of autumn hay.
He opens his eyes and sees the sky. The summer haze of August is gone, the overcast darkness is gone. The sky is black fading into blue and purple, softened by the light of thousands upon thousands of stars, shining brightly. Matthew stares at the sky in astonishment. He’s never seen so many stars. Painting that sky, he thinks, would be a challenge. He finds himself mixing oils in his head, trying to guess at the best way to match the colors hanging above.
He stands at the edge of a large field. It stretches out before him as far as he can see, the horizon melting into the sky, the field stretching on seemingly forever. Lush and verdant, thick grass and weeds grow without restraint. Crickets and other night insects chirrup and buzz and chatter around him. He shivers slightly, and realizes the cool air is actually cold. It feels more like mid-autumn than late summer. He pulls his jacket tighter around him and fumbles with the zipper as he zips it up halfway.
He turns to look back at the trees. They are tall, and grow close together, but they don’t look oppressive. Their branches do not twine together in an impenetrable wall, and they do not look thorny, or sharp. He rubs his scratched face ruefully, vaguely aware of the light trickle of blood running down his cheek, and wonders why it’d been such a struggle to work his way through. Then he shrugs, turns back to the field, and begins to walk through the knee-high grass.
There is no moon, but the sky is bright enough for him to walk without impediment. He has no destination in mind. It is enough, for the moment, that he is out of the trees and under this magnificent sky. Somewhere in the back of his mind he realizes that it shouldn’t be cold, that August in Virginia is never cold, but he doesn’t care. The presence of that sky makes anything plausible.
Eventually Matthew hears something new—not crickets, not insects, not wind, but the faintest trace of music, far off in the distance. A few minutes later he’s certain it’s music, but he can’t tell where it comes from. The music grows stronger, louder, and soon it sounds as if rises out of the ground itself. It’s not until he sees the play of flickering light against the sky that he realizes the darkness is tricking his eyes. He’s walking uphill—he has been the entire time, on a grade so slight he never noticed—and what appears to be the endless, distant horizon is actually the crest of a hill fading into the background of the night sky. The music comes from just beyond, on the other side.
Curious, he quickens his pace. As he jogs to the crest, the music grows clearer—a waltz—and beneath the music he hears the murmur of voices. As he reaches the top of the hill, the murmur grows distinct: many voices, laughing and talking together.
It’s difficult to get a sense of where he is—there is no moon, and he can’t find any of the usual constellations in the sky—but the trees were parallel to the road, and he’s been walking perpendicular to the trees, so he decides he’s traveling south. South takes him to the very top of the hill, which drops off abruptly into a steep slope, descending into a valley. The valley is littered with trees and fields, bordered by a river at the southernmost end. East down the river he can see a faint echo of a glow that reminds him of electric street lights reflecting off the sky. A town, perhaps, just out of view.
Much closer, and of more immediate interest, is the manor house.
It’s built in the fashion of a lord’s estate at the end of the nineteenth century, seemingly untouched by the passage of time. It rises five stories in height, capped by the arched rooftops found on Tudor houses, complete with tall windows and turret-like fixtures. The two wings of the house are lower to the ground, perhaps three stories at most, but have the same arched rooftops and ornate fixtures. It’s obviously large, but Matthew can’t get a feel for how large it really is. Standing alone in the valley, away from the river, away from the distant town, it possesses a strange sense of intimacy that softens its size and grandeur.
Behind the house other buildings sprawl around the estate. Matthew sees a carriage house, and a full set of stables, though he sees no road leading to or from the estate itself. A number of smaller, well-kept buildings line along the back—the north side. Guest houses, perhaps, or servant quarters.
The grounds around the manor house are ornate and well-kept. The front lawn, facing south, is mostly obscured from Matthew’s view by the house itself, but he can see rows of hedges and fountains. Just east of the east wing is an elaborate hedge maze, with a dimly-lit statue resting at its center. Just west of the west wing is a large circular pond, sectioned off by four arching bridges that meet in the center, opening up into a large, white gazebo. That is the source of the music.
The gazebo, the bridges, and the gardens around the pond are filled with people. Beautiful people: men who are tall and strong, women who are slim and graceful, all dressed formally. The men wear dark suits—not tuxedos, but he doesn’t recognize the style. The cut is different; the cloth is closer to the body, there are coats and vests with many buttons, and the shirts gleam white beneath the night sky. The women wear many different colors, cream and rose and lavender, blue and green and yellow, and the purest of white, in long, flowing dresses. They are elegant. They seem to belong to another time, as though they were lifted from a storybook. It makes him ache.
Lanterns circle the pond, reflecting light off the water and casting shadows across the bottoms of the arched bridges. The gazebo is large, easily the size of a ballroom. From his vantage point he can see inside the gazebo a little, and men and women are dancing. None of the dancers miss a step: they twirl and spin in perfect time with the music, all weaving in and out of each others paths in an intricate pattern he can’t quite follow.
The colors astound him. The green of the lawn is darker than any green he’s ever seen, the white of the gazebo gleams brighter than the combination of starlight and lantern-light warrants. The dark colors of the men’s suits are stately and dignified, browns and grays and blacks all complementing each who wears them. The colors on the women are vibrant and alive, and add to the glow of each smiling, beautiful face. Their faces are rich and varied, the men and women seeming to belong to every nation on earth. They dance and laugh, and talk, and celebrate, oblivious to Matthew, standing above, feeling uncomfortably like a voyeur.
All oblivious, save one.
He doesn’t notice her at first. He’s too caught up in the spectacle to notice anything specific. Then he sees her: a slim figure, standing apart from the others, gazing up at him, head cocked to one side. The sound of music and laughter fades, and suddenly he realizes how very out of place he looks. They’re dressed in finery, he’s wearing boots, jeans, a t-shirt, and a leather jacket. He panics, suddenly afraid his intrusion will disrupt the party. He wants to disappear so they can continue dancing and laughing. He wants to continue watching them be beautiful.
But the party doesn’t end. She doesn’t call out to the others, she doesn’t warn them. She notices him noticing her, and in response she straightens her head, and looks at him directly.
She’s beautiful. Despite the distance, Matthew can see her clearly: tall and slender, dark, curled hair tied up and back, pulled off her neck. She carries herself with confidence and serenity, conveying strength and delicacy together.
They’re all beautiful, of course, and from a purely detached perspective she’s no more or less beautiful than the rest. But she does something the others don’t: she looks outside her world. The others stand inside the manor grounds and see only the manor grounds. They look at each other and see only each other. She looks beyond their borders, and sees the hill, and the stars… and him.
Matthew feels foolish. He stands motionless, caught in her gaze, trying to decide what to do and failing to make a decision of any kind. They stare at each other for some time, doing nothing else, paying no attention to the others, who ignore them in turn. Finally, Matthew sees her dip her head and then bob into a graceful curtsy. He blinks, surprised, and awkwardly raises his hand in return.
She straightens, cocks her head to the side again, and waits.
He tries to muster the courage to do something—to turn away, or move forward, anything. The music swells, growing louder and clearer, as if it feeds off his indecision. Finally, as it reaches its crescendo, he starts down the hill: down into the valley, to the manor house, to the party of beautiful people, where she stands waiting.