CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.
Matthew sleeps in, but not long enough: he wakes feeling feverish and weak, it hurts to breathe, and if he inhales too deeply he breaks into fits of dry coughing that leaves him doubled over. Light hurts his eyes; when he moves, his arms and legs respond sluggishly, as if tied down by weights.
It feels like a hangover combined with the flu.
He stoically accepts these new infirmities and drags himself into the shower. He feels a little better after that, but his head is still stuffy and the cough lingers. He dresses in the same borrowed clothes he wore yesterday then collapses back on the bed, brooding.
He can’t stop thinking about last night. The chapel, the singing… the look on Alice’s face through the gate he couldn’t open.
It’s real. It’s all real.
It’s all real, and it left me behind.
The cooler morning air is gone by the time he stumbles out of his motel room, replaced by a thick blanket of heat and humidity that presses down as he makes his way to Sally’s. By the time he reaches the diner he’s panting and drenched in sweat, sighing with relief as he walks through the glass front door and into the cool, air-conditioned diner. The diner is mostly empty, with only a handful of patrons apparently immune to the demands of a day job. Sally sits behind the counter, taking advantage of the thin crowd to read a newspaper. She looks up as he enters, looks him over once, and frowns.
“You look like hell, honey.”
Matthew laughs weakly, hobbling over to a stool at the counter and sitting heavily. “That’s not wrong.”
“Rough night?” Sally reaches under the counter and pulls out a laminated menu, sliding it toward him.
Matthew thinks back on the light and the singing and the wonder of it all and thinks it was actually pretty great right up to the last part. He forces himself to nod. “Didn’t sleep too well. Still on the mend, I guess.” He glances over the menu. “Omelet and coffee, side of bacon.”
“Well, you’re hungry,” Sally says, and flashes him a smile that warms the room. “That’s always a good sign.” She gets up and pulls a carafe from an an industrial coffee maker placed next to the kitchen door. “It’s the slow part of the morning, so it’ll take a little longer than usual to fix everything up.”
“That’s fine,” Matthew says.
Sally sets a clean mug down in front of Matthew and fills it with coffee as she shouts the rest of his order back to the kitchen. She has a surprisingly strong voice. Matthew manages not to wince.
He takes a sip, testing the heat, then reaches for creamer and a few packets of sugar from one of the little holding cups lined along the counter’s edge. As he doctors his coffee, he hears the door jingle.
“Good morning, Deacon!” Sally’s voice, already bright and sunny, seems somehow brighter and sunnier. Matthew looks up to see an old black man standing at the entrance, dressed in a neatly-pressed brown suit with matching vest and hat. He is clean-shaven, his hair cut short and mostly snow white, with some darker gray around his temples. He stands slightly stooped with age, and his skin hangs off his thin face in folds. Sharp, intelligent eyes peer out from behind thick spectacles.
“Good morning, Sally.” The man has a dry, raspy voice, old but clear and strong. He makes his way to the stool to Matthew’s left and sits. “Some of that coffee, if it’s not too much trouble. And a biscuit with some egg on it.”
Sally calls the order to the back. The man turns to Matthew and smiles amiably, then his brow furrows in concern.
“You look like hell, son,” the man says. “You all right?”
Matthew nods, smiling weakly.
“You on drugs? Drugs ain’t gonna do a damn thing for you that Jesus can’t do better. Except maybe kill you—though I reckon Jesus could do that better, too, if He wanted.”
“Not drugs,” Matthew says, grinning in spite of himself. “Just sick.”
The old man shakes his head. “Ain’t no ‘just’ about it. You better go see Dr. Lancie. Sally, the Doc been here yet?”
“Had his breakfast and gone,” Sally says. “You two are late. It’s almost nine thirty.” With that she steps into the back to check on their orders.
“I saw him yesterday,” Matthew says. “I know I don’t look so great, but he said I was fine.”
“Ah,” the man says. “You’re the one the Sheriff found on the road yesterday morning, I expect. Heard Sally talking about it yesterday, when I came in for breakfast.”
Matthew nods. “Guess so. Unless it happens more often than I was led to believe.”
“Depends on what you mean,” the man says, then sticks out his hand. Matthew shakes it. The old man’s grip isn’t especially strong but it is energetic. “Folks around here call me ‘Deke.’ Except for Sally, who calls me ‘Deacon.’ She thinks Deke is undignified.”
“It is undignified.” Sally emerges from the kitchen with a heavy stoneware plate. She sets the plate in front of Matthew, and the smell of egg, bacon, and cheese fills the air. “Your omelet’s ready.”
“Anyway, folks call me Deke. I don’t mind it.”
“Hello Deke,” Matthew says, then shovels in a mouthful of omelet before he realizes he hasn’t given the man his name. “I’m Matthew,” he says, trying to find the right balance of speaking clearly while his mouth is full.
Deke laughs. “Well, you don’t eat like a sick man. Where are you rushing to? There’s plenty of hours in the day for eating alongside whatever else you have planned.”
Matthew waits until he swallows his food before answering. “Don’t know exactly,” he says. “I’m sort of stuck here while the Sheriff looks for my car. Thought I might try to find a church.”
Deke nods approvingly. “That’s good.”
“Uh, not like that,” Matthew says. He takes a quick sip of coffee. “I want to sketch it. I think it’s right at the top of the hill, at the end of Bridge Road.”
He’s another bite into his omelet before he realizes that Deke and Sally are staring at him—Sally in confusion, Deke in what appears to be mild alarm. He looks from one to the other quizzically, swallows, then clears his throat nervously.
“Did I say something wrong?”
“There’s no church on Bridge Road,” Sally says. “All our churches are on Church street, except for the synagogue. That’s on Pine.”
Matthew frowns. “I could have sworn I saw one. Tiny, like one of those old-time single-room churches that’s just the sanctuary. Maybe it’s not a church any more, just a historic building?”
Sally shakes her head. “Not on Bridge Road. I can’t think of anything like that.”
Matthew shakes his head, trying to clear it. This was turning into one of those conversations that was bound to make the sheriff unhappy. “You know what, I saw it yesterday when Buck was driving me to the sheriff’s office and I bet I got all turned around. I probably do need to try Church street.” He shrugs self-deprecatingly, hoping the lie takes.
It works for Sally. She smiles sympathetically. “It’s easy to get turned around in a place like Daylight. We’re not as small as we used to be but everyone who lives here assumes everyone knows where everything is…” She looks over at Deke, whose look of alarm has eased into an expression of thoughtful contemplation. “I’ll go check on your breakfast, Deacon.”
Deke nods, then, as Sally exits back into the kitchen, he leans over to Matthew, his voice dropping noticeably in volume.
“There was a church on Bridge Road, once,” Deke says. Matthew has to strain to hear him. “Long time ago, though. Only way you would have seen it is if you lived two hundred years back.”
Matthew laughs nervously. “Well, that’s obviously not possible.”
“Or,” Deke adds, “maybe you didn’t see it yesterday, when Buck was driving you to see the sheriff. Maybe you were out last night.”
Matthew’s eyes widen. He opens his mouth, the questions already forming before he has the wit to stop them, but he’s interrupted by Sally exiting the kitchen with Deke’s breakfast. They leave the conversation where it lies, and both turn their attention to their food.
Deke finishes first, despite Matthew’s head start. He stands, tips his hat to Sally, leaves some money next to his plate, and leaves the diner, door jingling cheerfully behind him. Matthew’s appetite is gone, but he forces himself to finish his plate.
Matthew limps out of the diner and finds himself swimming in humidity. It’s not the kind of thing he usually pays attention to, but it feels particularly bad today. He wonders if it is particularly bad, or if he’s just feeling it more than usual because he still feels sick.
He limps up the street and stops at a craft store only to find that it has a very limited selection of art supplies. He broods over his choices for a bit and ultimately settles on a small watercolor kit, an over-sized clipboard, and some heavy stock paper that isn’t really suited for painting but it’s the best he can find. At a drugstore up the road he buys a coke and some bottled water. Then he starts walking up Bridge Road, looking for anything recognizable.
He walks up Bridge Road, trying to retrace his steps from the night before and growing increasingly more dissatisfied the further he gets. He knew the street had changed somehow the night before, but he hadn’t realized how much. There are no old, elegant houses, dark and silent. There are only storefronts and office buildings, dingy and squalid by comparison. No cobblestone street, no oil lampposts, just asphalt and electric. These ought to be what he prefers, and it takes him a moment to realize that what’s bothering him is that Bridge Road is just… normal. There’s no trace the world he saw last night, none of the stillness or reverence—nothing. It’s not until he reaches the final hill that led to the chapel grounds that he begins to feel a glimmer of recognition. When he reaches the top recognition washes over him so suddenly he sways in place.
The chapel isn’t there, but the space is unmistakable: a circular park, ringed by a concrete sidewalk, with a small fountain at the center. Immediately Matthew thinks of the manor, and the circular pond with the gazebo at center. The comparison is marred by the small children’s playground set off-center in the space, but the size and shape is uncanny.
He takes a moment to catch his breath, then settles on one of the benches farthest from the playground, away from the parents. He opens the coke and drinks, just sitting a moment, letting the exhaustion ebb before turning his attention to his paints.
He sorts through the brushes he bought, choosing the one he likes best, and opens up the sheaf of paper. He puts a piece on the clipboard and rests it on his legs as he fumbles with the watercolor kit. It’s essentially a child’s set—eight basic colors in a thin metal tray—and he frowns at it in distaste.
He sighs, unscrews the cap from the bottled water, and dips his brush. He stares at the blank page for a moment, considers his colors, and gets to work.
Watercolor is not Matthew’s favorite medium. He prefers oil painting: it’s slow and uncompromising, but he prefers the precision of oil when combining pigments to make shades and colors. When he works in watercolor everything feels sloppy, and no matter how hard he tries his colors always come out in shades of pastel.
He’s painting the chapel, of course—at least, the chapel as he remembers it. As he works, he decides that in this particular instance watercolor might have been the right decision: he’s still unable to move past watercolor pastels, but that makes the chapel look ghostly, radiating light into the darkness while appearing to fade into it at the same time.
He’s working on the path leading into the chapel when he realizes someone is standing over his shoulder, watching him work. He looks up, twisting slightly in place, and sees Deke gazing at the watercolor intently.
“Hi, Deke.” Matthew turns back to his work and starts mixing his next color.
“You’re pretty good with that brush,” Deke says.
“Thanks,” Matthew says. He wets his brush, drips it into the color, and applies it to the paper in short, quick strokes. “It’s all right for what it is. Watercolor isn’t usually what I do.”
“That right? What is?”
“Oils…” Matthew frowns at his brush and dips it back into the water. “They’re easier to mix. For me, at least.”
“Well,” Deke says, “you’re doing all right for something that ain’t your specialty.”
Matthew paints in silence for a while, finishing out the chapel path as Deke watches his progress.
“Well, look,” Deke says finally, “it just so happens that I like to sit on this bench and feed the birds. Do it every day, except for Sundays. You mind? I won’t get in your way. I just need that corner over there.”
Matthew shrugs. “Fine by me.”
Deke walks around the bench at sits at the far end. He holds a bag of birdseed in his hand, and wastes no time spreading it out in front of him. In short notice a small flock of birds has gathered around Deke’s feet, pecking at the seed with no apparent fear of either Deke or Matthew.
“I like pigeons,” Deke says. “They remind me of doves. Doves are holy birds.”
“Oh?” Matthew furrows his brow as he tries to decide his next step. “Why is that? World peace?”
“Holy Spirit,” Deke says.
“Hm?” Matthew looks up. “Oh, right. I forgot you’re a deacon.”
“Was,” Deke says. “No more. Too old. It’s hard work, and my body got too tired. ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’”
“I thought that verse was about temptation.”
Deke nods. “Can be. Mostly it’s about limitation. You’re young, you don’t understand limitation yet. I’m old and tired. I see those limits every day, getting closer and closer. I’m getting worn out.”
Matthew looks at Deke appraisingly. “You don’t look particularly worn out to me.”
Deke snorts. “I feel how you look.”
As if on cue, Matthew coughs. He takes a sip from his coke, which is now half-empty and getting warm. “I’m feeling better.”
It’s a lie, and he knows it.
“Uh-huh.” Deke watches the birds; Matthew resumes work on his painting. He’s putting far more effort into it than the materials warrant, but he finds the process satisfying.
“There was a church on Bridge Road, once.” Deke’s voice is lower, almost conspiratorial.
“Oh?” Matthew lowers his voice in kind, eyeing the other people in the park—mostly parents watching their children play—to see if they react to the conversation.
Deke nods. “Not any time recent. It goes way back to the founding of Daylight, before the Revolutionary War. Most folks don’t even remember the stories. Just a few whispers of it.”
“This about ‘Old Man Simon?’” Matthew tries to keep his voice casual, but he’s betrayed by a tremor in the name. He coughs self-consciously, then coughs again, harder. He takes a slow, steadying breath, trying to prevent it from getting worse. He grabs his now-lukewarm coke and takes a swallow.
Deke looks on calmly, waiting for the fit to pass. Then he nods. “Heard about that, did you? Yeah, it’s all tied up in him.”
“Him…” Matthew almost coughs again but manages to steady himself. “Him and the thing I saw last night. Which you obviously know something about.”
“I do.” Deke continues to sit there, giving him absolutely nothing.
I bet he’s a hell of a card player.
“Last night…” Deke exhales sharply, then turns his attention back to the birds. They’ve cleared the ground of the seed he’d scattered, and are starting to get restless. He reaches into his bag, scatters more, and the frenzy begins anew.
“Last night, I don’t know exactly how it started for you, but I expect you heard singing. Beautiful singing, something that tugged at a piece of you that maybe you hadn’t thought about in a very long time.”
Matthew stares at him, breath caught in his throat, afraid to interrupt.
“So you started to follow the singing and you saw them. The congregation, all hooded, all singing in a melody and a harmony so sweet you almost can’t move, but something pushes you on. So you follow them… and since you’re painting what you’re painting today, I believe you were following them up the street and not down, because it’s the only way you’d ever see that shining church.”
He scatters a little more seed, gaze still focused on the birds, deliberately not looking in Matthew’s direction. “So you listen to them sing. And then you see them leave. At that point… hm.”
He turns to Matthew then, studying the younger man closely. “At that point, you tried to follow them back. Must have. And you got stopped at the bridge. Not our bridge, not the one we have today. Their bridge. The one that shows when they come, and when they go. You got stopped there, but not all of you. A little bit of you went with them, I think, which is why you feel so sick now.”
Matthew shakes his head. “I’m just recovering from—”
“I’ve seen it before,” Deke says. “More times than I’d like. People like you always seem to find that manor, and it takes little pieces of you until one day you’re just gone. And you become another ghost story in a city that has too many to start with.”
Matthew frowns. “People like me? What people?”
“I don’t mean artists, exactly. Though there are plenty of examples of them. There was a local musician. A photographer who was just passing through. A few writers. But mostly I mean dreamers. People who were sensitive. Maybe too sensitive for this world, people who get hurt by it.”
“Hey,” Matthew says, “what makes you think I’m—”
“I been on this earth for a very long time, son.” Deke’s voice sharpens a little—not quite rude, but definitely pulling rank. “And I know for a fact that if you weren’t that kind of person you wouldn’t be able to paint that church the way you just did.” He gestures to Matthew’s watercolor, drying on the oversized clipboard sitting in his lap.
Deke tucks what’s left of the birdseed back in his jacket pocket. As if on cue, the birds begin to disperse, some wandering to the other benches, others taking flight.
“It ain’t right, the way he gets at people like you. It ain’t your fault, but it’s hard to keep that in mind when I see it happen over and over and over again. Get out of town. Get out before that evil takes you and the people who love you never see you again.”
Matthew is startled by the quiet vehemence in the old man’s voice. “There’s no evil,” he says. “There’s nothing I saw last night that I could ever call evil. It was beautiful. It was so beautiful it… well, you said it already. It tugged at something I hadn’t thought about in a long time. There’s no way that can be evil.”
Deke stands, straightening the sleeves on his jacket. “How would you know?” He pauses, as if he’s giving Matthew a chance to respond, but all Matthew can is stare in consternation.
“That’s what I thought.”
He turns, waves at the children playing the park, and walks off.