CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.
Daylight by Daylight
Matthew stares at the door as it shuts, the jingle of the bells fading away in the unusually silent room. “What’d he mean by that?”
Henry grins. “Off days? I hope this is an off day for you. Not sure how you lived this long if this kind of thing happens all the time.”
Matthew grimaces and runs a hand through still-damp hair. “This is definitely up there. No, I meant the thing about daylight. ‘Welcome to daylight.’ Weird kind of thing to say, isn’t it?”
“Name of the town, honey,” Sally says. She takes his plate, mug, and cutlery, and heads to the back.
“Ah,” Matthew mutters. “Less weird…”
Henry’s grin widens, then breaks into laughter. “That would be odd,” he agrees, “but not quite as odd as the stranger who woke up not knowing where he was.”
A low rumble of laughter makes its rounds across the diner, followed by indistinct murmurs that Matthew is convinced is about him. He feels himself start to stiffen, jaw tightening the way it always does before he gets himself into trouble, but another glance at Henry’s face—open, friendly, not a hint of malice in sight—and he decides that the laughter might be at his expense, but all things considered it doesn’t cost that much.
“Come on,” Henry says. “Let’s head over to my office. We’ll get you checked out and cleaned up.”
Matthew stands, then winces as soon as he puts pressure on his right foot.
Henry drives a dark green 1981 Cadillac Seville. It’s enormous and quite possibly the ugliest car Matthew has ever seen. He fumbles with the heavy seatbelt clasp on the passenger side, then sinks back into the seat, sighing as all the stored heat in that dark leather seeps past the chill in his bones.
Henry slides into the driver’s seat and starts the car, ignoring the seatbelt entirely. The car starts instantly. Henry beams.
“Bought her brand new. Never had to buy another.”
He pulls into traffic without bothering to signal or check his mirrors. Matthew braces against the door to keep his face from smashing against the window as Henry immediately veers left to avoid a pedestrian. He waves cheerfully as they pass the startled woman, then turns sharply right to avoid an oncoming car.
“Reckon you’re either a musician or an actor,” Henry says. He weaves around a pickup truck, then brakes sharply as a streetlight goes from yellow to red faster than expected.
Matthew relaxes his jaw and forces his voice to sound steady. “Artist. Painter.”
Henry nods. “Close enough. Figured it’d be something like that, what with you dressed all in black in August.”
Matthew grins in spite of himself. “I had a show in Richmond last night. My agent gets mad when I don’t dress the part.”
“Good advertising,” Henry agrees. “A little unusual for Daylight, is all… though not exactly unheard of. Just this year the Mayor’s kid came home from college with green hair. He didn’t even blink. ‘Course, I did have to prescribe him a sedative. But he’s doing well.”
Matthew chuckles politely.
“Here in Daylight,” Henry continues, “we have Baptists and Methodists.”
This time Matthew’s laugh is genuine. He stares out the window, watching the buildings roll by but not really paying attention to anything in particular. Thanks to that big leather seat he’s starting to feel warm again.
“So what did you see?” Henry keeps his voice casual.
Matthew glances over to him. The doctor keeps his eyes on the road, his expression remains genial. It sounds for all the world like just a simple question… which means it very likely isn’t.
“You mean at the old manor house? Where I was apparently trespassing?”
Henry nods. “Lots of stories about that place. It’s a source of… unending gossip and entertainment. Some of it’s amusing, some of it’s kind of a pain in the ass. That’s why the sheriff is so concerned.”
“Concerned?” Matthew thinks back. “If that’s concerned, he’s got a hell of a poker face.”
“Ha,” Henry says. “He does at that.”
“Well…” Matthew tries to strike just the right balance of curiosity and unconcern. “What kind of stories?”
“Oh, well… probably the kind of stories every place like this has,” Henry says. “It’s haunted, there’s ghosts, things like that. You know, I’ve always suspected there’s something growing in all that old, rotted wood—some kind of mold—that makes people hallucinate if they breathe it in too long. I think they should tear the place down, but it’s private property and the owner pays taxes on it every year. There’s nothing we can do. Sheriff closed the bridge a few years ago just to keep kids from playing around there and getting hurt.”
“I can’t imagine that working,” Matthew says.
Henry laughs. “No, not even a little bit. In fact it made the whole thing that much more tempting.”
“Is that why the sheriff doesn’t want me talking about it?” Matthew asks. “He doesn’t want any new stories?”
Henry shrugs. “I doubt it matters at this point. Strange man shows up soaking wet, collapsed on the road going to the old bridge… I’m pretty sure Daylight already has a few new stories at this point.”
“Not usually the way I like to make an entrance,” Matthew agrees.
Henry turns the car down a side lane, into a well-to-do residential area. “So what did you see?”
Matthew thinks about Alice and her friends, the dancing, and the picnic. Then he thinks about the gray things, the ones that attacked him and the ones that watched him from the bridge. “I’m really not sure.”
Henry glances at him sharply. Matthew shrugs. “Sorry, Doc. I was pretty sick at the time. Feverish, chills, couldn’t walk straight. I was never sure what I was looking at, you know? One minute the manor looked new, like someone lived there. The next, the roof was all caved in, and the windows were all broken. I guess I got sick driving home, got out to get some air, then just sort of… I don’t know… slipped into Neverland.”
“Neverland…” Henry turns out of the residential area and into a wider street, a mix of churches and department stores. “Pirates?”
Matthew shakes his head. “No pirates. Wonderland, then. Talking rabbits. Mad hatters.”
“Ah,” Henry says, nodding sagely. “So you were Alice.”
“Yeah…” Matthew puts his head back and closes his eyes, suddenly tired. “And I fell down a really deep hole.”
* * *
Dr. Lancie’s office is a small brick building placed in the center of a cracked concrete parking lot. It’s a homely, misshapen thing that carries little innate charm.
“It’s an ugly little place,” Henry says, as if reading Matthew’s thoughts, “but I own it outright.”
Henry drives almost straight up to the door and slides out almost before the engine stops. Matthew fumbles with his seatbelt and climbs out of the car, shivering as a short breeze rolls by, tickling the sweat on the back of his neck.
“Grace—that’s my receptionist—she won’t be in till later,” Henry explains, reaching into his pants pocket and pulling out a ring full of keys. He sorts through them quickly, sliding one into a lock above the handle and then a second into a lock in the handle itself. The thick wood door opens, revealing dull orange carpet that very definitely clashes with Henry’s green suit.
“Come on in,” Henry says. “Down the hall, first door on the left. We’ll check you up, draw a little blood, and get the sheriff calmed down.”
It’s an old building, and the furnishings don’t appear to have been updated since the seventies, but it’s clean and the equipment looks modern enough. A short checkup and one blood test later, Henry declares Matthew fit.
“You’re fine,” he says. “Blood pressure, fine. Heart rate, fine. A little congested, but that’s what happens when you pass out in the middle of the road in the middle of a rainstorm. You were obviously recently sick, but you’re not sick now. Your right ankle is a little swollen. You take a fall?”
Matthew nods. “Climbing over that bridge. It’s not too bad now.”
“We should probably tape it up anyway. I’ve got a cane or two in the closet, I’ll lend you one. They’re a lot more convenient than crutches.”
“Thanks,” Matthew says. “How long until you can tell the sheriff I’m drug free?”
“I can tell him right now,” Henry says. “But he’s waiting for the official test results. Should only take a few hours to get word, since we’re fast tracking it. Tell you what—the bathroom across the hall has a shower. Why don’t you clean yourself off while I call Sheriff Dobbs and give him my preliminary findings? When you’re done I’ll tape up the ankle and get you that cane.”
Matthew limps his way across the hall and takes the best shower he never knew he needed. He’s amazed by how filthy he is, and even more amazed at how much better he feels when he’s finally clean. He’s drying himself off when Henry knocks on the bathroom door.
“Buck stopped by with clothes,” Henry says. “I put ‘em in a bag and left ‘em on the door handle.”
“Thanks,” Matthew says.
Matthew decides Buck’s son is a jock—they’re about the right size, but they’re a little baggy, made for a far more muscular form than his own. Faded jeans, a white t-shirt, even fresh socks and pair of boxers—when he finishes dressing, everything he’s wearing is gloriously dry… except for his boots. He feels almost human again.
When he returns to the exam room Henry is already there, gauze in one hand and medical tape in the other. The doctor widens his eyes in mock surprise.
“Who is this?” Henry motions for Matthew to hop up on the examination table. “What happened to the scraggly wet thing we dragged in here?”
“Only thing I miss is a shave,” Matthew says. “Please thank Buck for me.”
“You can think him yourself,” Henry says. “I asked him to wait around to take you to the sheriff’s office. Hope you don’t mind, but it’s across town and I’m on business hours.”
“Not at all,” Matthew says. “Thanks.”
“Let’s get that foot taped up first. Here, I found you a cane.” Henry nods to a simple wooden cane with a curved handle and a rubber toe leaning against the wall, then he rolls up Matthew’s jeans leg and ditches the sock to start taping up the ankle. It doesn’t take long, and when he’s finished he looks over his work carefully.
“This should do,” Henry says. “Not sure if you’ll be able to get your foot back in your boot. It might fit all right, but don’t flex your ankle too far when you try.”
“I’ll manage,” Matthew says. “Thanks for your help.”
Henry nods. “I’ll go tell Buck you’re almost ready. The sheriff’s office is downtown, and you should be able to get to anything you need once you’re there. Laundromat for your clothes. Or a dumpster, if you take the sensible route.”
He winks. Matthew laughs.