CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.
By late afternoon Matthew has given up on the painting entirely. His conversation with Deke put him off, and he can’t get back into his work. As the day wears on, he starts to feel worse: dizzy, shivering spells, and eventually a persistent buzzing sensation in his forehead and cheeks. Finally, he decides what he needs is sleep. He throws away the last of his coke, still unfinished, empties the water bottle and throws it in after, gathers his things, and limps back in the direction of the motel.
The sun is on its way to setting, but the sky is still clear and the evening is hot and muggy. Despite this, Matthew feels cold. He shivers involuntarily as what should have been a listless breeze cuts through him as sharp as any winter gust would have. He stumbles slightly as he makes his way down Bridge Road and his ankle starts to throb.
The buzzing in his head grows stronger. It might be from the fever, but it’s not exactly what he expects from feverish lightheadedness. It swells and fades, almost rhythmically, in a pattern he almost but can’t quite see. He stumbles again, almost knocking into a man passing him by.
“Sorry,” he mumbles. The man hurries on by.
He leans against a lamppost for a moment, trying to steady himself. The buzzing surges, and for a moment he feels the distinct chill of cool autumn air. He shakes his head, trying to beat the buzzing back, and shivers violently as the feeling recedes, replaced with the muggy heat of August, though the heat can’t seem to counter the persistent chill in his bones. He stumbles on, and a moment later he realizes he’s turned himself around and is walking back up Bridge Road, toward the park.
Behind him someone honks their horn.
The horn honks again. Matthew tries to focus, turns, and looks around.
“Matt! You OK?”
He hears a motor cut off, a door open, and moments later a strong hand grabs his shoulder. “Matt. What’s wrong?”
Matthew squints up at the voice. He sees a blur of blue denim and red plaid.
“Hey there.” Matthew’s vision sharpens, and he sees Buck looking down at him, worry plastered all over his face. “You don’t look so good.”
Matthew shivers. “Do you hear buzzing?”
Buck frowns. “Buzzing?”
“Or singing, maybe…” Matthew looks around him. The other people on the sidewalk are giving them a wide berth. “It sounds like buzzing to me, but… maybe it’s…”
His voice trails off as he tries to focus on what that buzzing could be. He almost recognizes it. Almost…
Buck studies Matthew for a moment, then says “I think you need to see the doctor again, Matt. Maybe you better let me give you a ride.”
Matthew nods slowly and lets Buck lead him around the front of Buck’s truck. He fumbles at the handle, pulls open the door, and awkwardly climbs into the cab. As soon as he pulls the door shut Buck slides into the driver’s side and pulls the truck out into the street, honking at oncoming traffic as he veers into the proper lane.
“I don’t feel so good,” Matthew mumbles.
“No kidding.” Buck looks over at Matthew and frowns. “You look like hell.”
Matthew laughs in spite of himself. “Everybody keeps saying that. That’s what Sally said. That’s what Deke said.”
“He told me to leave town. I think he’s working for the Sheriff.”
Buck snorts. “Doubt it. They aren’t enemies or anything—lots of mutual respect, as far as I can tell—but they don’t exactly see eye to eye.”
“Well, they’re on the same page on this one. Sheriff wants me to leave, and Deke does too.” Matthew is surprised at the bitterness and resentment seeping through his words. He just met the man today, and he’s used to townies not liking him much.
“I don’t believe it,” Buck says. “Deke ain’t the type. Sheriff Dobbs, now… well, yeah, he is the type, but it’s only because he thinks you’re on drugs.”
Matthew snorts, almost gags, and breaks into a fit of coughing. When the fit passes he hugs his shoulders tight, trying to stop shivering. “Do you hear singing? Is it your radio?”
“Not on,” Buck says. “All I hear is you talking like a crazy man. You sure you ain’t on drugs?”
“Pretty sure,” Matthew says.
“Well.” Buck turns his truck onto a vaguely familiar road. “Maybe that’s the problem.”
Matthew tries to laugh, but all he can do is cough. “Sorry for the trouble, Buck.”
Buck shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it. Better than hearing you’d, I don’t know, died in the street. Then I’d have to say ‘you know, I passed him not an hour back and I thought to myself he didn’t look so good…’”
Matthew shivers again. “Cold. I’m cold. Doesn’t seem right for August.”
“Just hang on.” Buck turns the truck again, and Matthew recognizes Doctor Lancie’s parking lot. “Here we are…”
Buck gets out. The truck dings as Buck doesn’t bother to shut the door behind him or take the keys out of the ignition. Moments later the passenger door opens, and Buck reaches in to undo Matthew’s seatbelt.
“Here, give me an arm, Matt, and we’ll see about getting you—”
The earth spins, and Matthew tumbles out of the cab, hitting the ground in a half-roll that takes him about a foot past Buck’s feet. His body heaves, and he feels his throat burn as he gags. He vomits on the asphalt.
“Sorry,” Matthew gasps, then convulses again as he spits more bile on the ground.
“It’s gonna be all right,” Buck says. “Don’t get up. I’m gonna get Henry. And a bucket.”
Matthew nods miserably as his stomach churns. His throat and nose sting; he closes his eyes as feels another spasm coming on. His stomach twists and he retches—dry this time, but just as violent as before.
He can hear it clearly now: singing, very similar to the singing from last night. Almost the same tune, but simpler, with fewer voices. It’s all around him, as clear as if he were standing in the chapel.
But it wouldn’t be in the chapel, he thinks. There aren’t enough parts for it to be in the chapel. The chapel had five distinct parts, this has… two?
And then he starts laughing, because he realizes he’s curled up on the ground, surrounded by vomit, comparing and contrasting the hallucinatory singing he’s hearing now with the actual singing he heard the night before. Then is overcome with another dry heave, and he can’t think of much at all until it passes.
“Good God,” he hears.
He tries to look up, but he feels himself curl up again as he goes through a third bout of dry heaves. Strong hands grip him by the shoulders and haul him to his feet. Someone shoves a bucket under his face.
“Hold on to that,” the voice says. Matthew thinks it might be Henry.
He grabs the bucket and thrusts his face into it as he starts to retch again. It’s all dry heaves now, so the bucket isn’t really doing anything useful, but he’s glad to have something. A cool, wet cloth presses against his forehead, and strong arms support him, leading him forward.
“We’ll take care of you, son,” the voice says again. “Let’s just get you into my office…”
Matthew feels himself go limp just before he passes out.
He stands in the middle of a forest. The air is warm and pleasantly dry, like late spring just before the heat of summer takes hold. The sun filters down through a canopy of trees—tall trees, thick with age—bathing the forest in a glow that looks like perpetual dawn. The forest is dense, but not impassable.
Off in the distance, Matthew hears singing. It’s faint, no more than voice or two in tandem—it’s that song, the one he heard in Buck’s truck. Two voices: it’s definitely two voices singing, with something else right behind it. Another noise… he can’t tell what it is.
Letting the song draw him closer, he walks deeper into the wood.
“Lord Almighty!” A voice that is very definitely Buck shouts with a level of panic Matthew wouldn’t have expected from the man. Strong arms catch him as he falls. “I got him. I got him.”
A hand presses against his forehead. “He’s burning up. Buck, can you carry him?”
“Sure.” Matthew feels himself being lifted off the ground. “He’s a lot lighter than he looks. Like he ain’t even here, hardly.”
“How long has he been like this?” The other voice—Henry’s—sounds worried.
“Like this? He didn’t get this bad ‘till he fell out of my truck. Else I’d have got here faster…”
“How was he when you first picked him up?”
“Not great, but better than this. Jesus, he looks a lot smaller like this. Almost like a kid.”
A door opens forcefully. Matthew feels cool air hit his face. They’re in Henry Lancie’s waiting room.
“Grace, call an ambulance.” Henry’s voice is crisp and professional. “Then get in the exam room. I’m going to need everyone’s help.”
An older woman gasps in surprise. “What in God’s name happened to that boy?”
The ground is soft, covered in decaying leaves and thick moss. The leaves crunch softly beneath Matthew’s feet as he walks, and the farther he walks, the louder the music grows. The two voices, he realizes, are a man and a woman singing together. Their voices blend together so well he hadn’t been able to tell them apart until now. As he grows even closer he can hear the distinct wail of a baby crying.
Ahead of him the three trunks are surrounded by a faint nimbus of light. The trees are thinning, and more sunlight is filtering through. He might be reaching the edge. He quickens his pace.
A bright, indistinct light plays over Matthew’s face. He wants it to stop—it hurts—but he feels powerless to do anything about it.
“His pupils aren’t contracting.” Henry’s voice is still crisp and professional, but it’s a bit tighter than it was before.
“He looks dead,” Buck says.
“He’s not dead. He’s still breathing, and he has a pulse.”
“Just mean he looks dead. Eyes open, staring into space like that.”
“I’ve never seen this before,” Henry admits. Then, raising his voice: “Grace! Where are you?”
The trees thin, and in the distance he sees something man-made rise beyond them. The light grows stronger, and as he nears the edge of the forest he sees a stone gray tower, two or three stories high, rise up above the treeline. The singing comes from there.
Matthew runs. Passing out of the forest, he sees the tower is taller than he first thought, because it sits in a valley below the forest. It is actually six or seven stories high, and the singing doesn’t come from within, but just outside.
A man and a woman stand at the foot of the tower, right in front of a heavy open door leading within. They face each other and sing the song, noticing nothing but each other and the tiny bundle in the woman’s arms—a baby, crying fiercely.
Matthew crouches, then lays down flat behind a large stone that juts out just beyond the forest, overlooking the valley below. He doesn’t move. He breathes as shallowly as he can, making as little noise as he can, and watches.
The man and woman are dressed in dark cloaks, hoods pulled back, their faces clearly visible in the sun. The woman has long auburn hair and smooth, white skin. The man is older but not old, and though he isn’t the man who’d presided over the chapel the night before, Matthew is struck by the similarities between them.
The woman, still singing, holds the crying child in front of her. The man, still singing, reaches out to hold it as well. Together, still singing, they lift the child above their heads, as though offering it up to the sky. Its wailing grows, louder and more desperate, but the man and the woman stare at it lovingly, and their singing never stops.
They stand there for some time, singing, holding the child in the air. The child continues to cry and wail, reaching a shrieking pitch that makes Matthew uncomfortable. The man steps back, releasing the child, and the woman draws the child close to her breast, stroking its head as she continues to sing. The child does not stop crying.
The man steps through the door into the tower and the woman follows with the crying child. Matthew wants to move closer, but dares not: there is no place to hide in the valley, and he feels it’s very important to stay out of sight.
The singing and screaming continues from inside, both growing in strength and volume. Just as the singing reaches its crescendo, so does the wailing—and then, immediately, both stop.
A door crashes open.
“They’re here!” Buck shouts. Matthew hears others entering the room, along with the beep of machinery and the sound of squeaking wheels.
“Thank God.” Henry’s professional demeanor is starting to crack.
“What’s the problem?” Matthew doesn’t recognize the voice. He sees a blurry, indistinct face peering down at him.
“I’ll tell you on the way,” Henry says. “What little I know. Right now we need to get this man on your ambulance and get some fluids in him. He’s burning with fever, and was puking his guts out a few minutes back.”
“OK,” the voice says. “Let’s get him on the stretcher and tie him down.”
Matthew presses against the rock, staring down at the silent tower as a feeling of dread settles over the valley. He can see no movement at all from within the tower itself.
Moments later the man and the woman emerge from the tower door. Matthew sees with the relief that the woman still carries the child, and the child is alive. It has stopped crying, and contents itself by calmly tugging at a lock of the woman’s hair.
The man and woman embrace, and the man strokes the child’s face softly, smiling and gazing at it fondly. He kisses the woman on her forehead. She holds out the child to the man, who holds it as she raises her hood over head, obscuring her face. She takes the child back and turns away, walking further into the valley. The man stands in silence, watching her leave, and when she disappears from sight he disappears back into the tower.
A few seconds later Matthew hears the sound of stone scraping against stone. Again and again he hears it: stone scraping against stone, and then the sound of metal striking against stone, and then the sound of more stone scraping against stone.
Matthew stands and makes his way down into the valley. Glancing at the sky, he sees it’s almost evening. A few bright stars pierce through the darkening blue sky. The sound of scraping continues as he nears the tower entrance.
Then, all at once, the sound stops. Matthew stands still, rooted to the spot. He wants to run back to his rock, to hide once again, but he can’t muster the will to move.
The man appears at the tower entrance. His cloak is covered in dust and dirt, and his face is red and sweaty, but he radiates strength and power. Matthew suppresses a tremor. The man sees him and halts. There is no discernible emotion on his face, but his body is tense and rigid.
“Interesting,” the man says.
Matthew doesn’t reply. His heart pounds in his chest.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” the man says.
Matthew forces himself to speak. “I didn’t mean to trespass—“
“No,” the man interrupts, “you don’t understand. You’re not supposed to be here…”
The man begins to sing. Not the song Matthew heard earlier, but a single, deep, terrible note. It echoes through the valley, and the ground begins to shake. Matthew falls to his knees, overcome with pain: it feels as though he were being shaken from the inside out, as though the sound itself were vibrating him to pieces. He knees on the earth and shuts his eyes as his body tears to pieces, and then he thinks he hears voices calling out to him, “Matthew… Matthew… Matthew…”
“Matthew!” Henry’s voice cuts through to him at last. “Come on, come back. Matthew, if you can hear me, we’re taking you to the hospital now. Matthew. Matthew!”
Matthew convulses once, then tries to sit up, only to be restrained by straps tying him to a gurney.
“Easy now!” Henry’s face peers down over him in a mixture of surprise and concern. “Just relax. You were in arrest for a minute there. You’re in an ambulance. We’re taking you to the hospital.”
“I… what?” Matthew looks around wildly. “Where am I?”
“Everything’s fine,” Henry says. “You had a little heart attack there, just a second ago. Scared me half to death. But you pulled out of that.”
“But where’s the forest? How did I get here from the forest?” Matthew tries to sit again, only to be restrained, yet again, by the straps.
Henry frowns and puts his hand over Matthew’s forehead. “What forest? Don’t you remember Buck driving you to my office?”
Matthew shakes his head. “I was just there! A tower in a valley, near an old forest…”
Henry stares down at Matthew, nonplussed, then looks over to someone just out of Matthew’s field of vision. “Think I’d better sedate him before this gets worse.”
“No!” Matthew feels a surge of desperation-fueled strength as he tries to get out of restraints, but it’s not enough. “Henry, I swear, I was just there. In a valley, about six stories high—”
“Just hold still,” Henry soothes. “You’re going to be all right. Time for you to sleep.”
“But I don’t want to sleep! I want to—”
Something sharp pricks at Matthew’s skin. He tries to twist away, but hands hold him firmly in place until the injection is complete.
“I don’t… want… to sleep…”
The world around him begins to dim and blur.
“I was just there,” he mumbles.
“Well, you’re here now,” Henry says. “Go to sleep.”
The world goes dark.