CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 License.
Before anything else, Matthew is aware of the smell of disinfectant: it’s strong enough to make him lightheaded. He opens his eyes to a blurry curtain of pastels and a few patchy darker colors that might be people.
“Hey, look who’s awake.” One of the patchy darker colors, tanned blur with yellow patches on the top and bottom of what might be a face, peers down at him.
Matthew opens his mouth to speak, but he can barely sigh.
“No, don’t talk just yet.” Another patchy darker color comes into view. “You’re still pretty dehydrated. What you didn’t spit up, you managed to sweat out.”
Matthew blinks rapidly, trying to focus. The first blurry shape gradually focuses into the face of Buck Gardener.
“Thought you were a goner,” Buck says cheerfully. “Never saw anything like it. You faded pretty quick.”
Matthew opens his mouth again and manages a slight croak.
“Hold a minute.” The second blurry figure sharpens into the form of Henry Lancie, holding a small plastic cup that he presses against Matthew’s mouth. “Here. Chew on this a bit.”
Henry tips the cup and Matthew feels something cold and wet press against his lips.
“Ice,” Henry explains. “Just let it dissolve, then swallow. That’ll help you talk.”
Matthew nods and waits impatiently. The melting ice burns as it trickles down the back of his throat. He coughs, almost gagging.
“Now don’t go breathing it.” Henry tilts Matthew’s head forward to keep the ice from sliding to back of his throat so quickly. “You couldn’t get away with that if you were healthy. You’ll get away with it less now.”
Matthew smiles faintly. The burning subsides a bit as he sucks on the ice, and gradually the tightness in his throat relaxes.
“Hi,” Matthew croaks.
“See? That’s better.” Henry nods in satisfaction. “All right now, let’s see if we can’t tilt your bed up a little. Hold on now…”
The bed shudders, and Matthew feels it bend in half, lifting his head and torso into a more upright position.
It’s a small room, barely large enough for two beds, some chairs by the door, and a TV mounted on the far wall. A curtain is drawn across the other bed, making the room feel even smaller. Henry and Buck stand on each side of his bed, watching him closely.
“How long?” Matthew asks. “How long have I…”
“About three days,” Henry says. “Two and a half, really. Brought you in the evening you had your spell, then you were delirious and on fluids for two full days after that. Fever broke the second day—that was yesterday—and it’s mid-morning now.”
Matthew closes his eyes and sighs. “I’m tired.”
“I can imagine,” Henry says.
A short, awkward silence follows.
“I guess I should see someone about getting you untied,” Henry says.
“What?” Matthew looks down. His arms and legs are strapped securely to the bed. “Why?”
“You were thrashing about pretty good there for a while,” Henry explains. “I sedated you on the way here, but after that wore off you started shouting like a lunatic and flailing like we were trying to skin you alive.”
Matthew frowns as he tries to think back. “I don’t remember that.”
”Not surprised,“ Henry says. “You know you had a fever of 105? Just in case you didn’t know, that’s not a good number.”
Matthew grimaces. He tugs against his restraints and sighs.
“I’ll go see if I can find that doctor,” Henry says. “We need his permission to take those off. Hospital policy, paperwork, all that. I’ll be back in a bit.” He smiles, winks, then strides out through the door and into the hallway beyond.
“I’m… ah… gonna sit down, I guess,“ Buck says. He moves over to one of the chairs and falls into it, sighing softly. “That’s better.”
“Thanks,” Matthew says. His voice is stronger, less raspy.
“For what?” Buck looks surprised.
“For taking me to see Henry,” Matthew says. “I obviously needed it. I guess I was pretty out of it.”
“Well you know what’s funny,” Buck says, “is that according to Henry, they did all kinds of tests on you when you first got here, and nobody could find a blessed thing. Screened your blood and all they found was blood. I figure they screwed up somewhere.”
“Seriously!” Buck insists. “I can’t imagine they’d find nothing. Not in the state you were in. So quick, too…” He snaps his fingers. “Like someone flipped a switch.”
“Henry said I was shouting something. Know anything about that?”
Buck shrugs. “Nope. I missed all the fun stuff. They wouldn’t let me in the ambulance, and I couldn’t visit you here till Henry came to get me himself.”
“Oh.” Matthew thinks back, trying to pinpoint the last thing he can remember. He remembers the sidewalk, and climbing into Buck’s truck. He remembers… hearing something?
A wave of nausea rolls over him. Buck leaps out of his chair and leans over, staring intently. “Now hold on, we just got through that. You want me to get a nurse?”
Matthew shakes his head. “Just a bad memory. That, and I really want to get out of here.”
Buck grins sympathetically, then settles back into his chair. “I guess they want to make sure you’re OK first.” He glances at his watch and frowns. “Damn. Tell Henry I had to go, OK? And when they let you out… well, don’t know how long you’re gonna be in Daylight, but if you’re gonna be here a spell, we have a spare room back at the house. It’s out on the lake and I reckon the air’s a bit better for you than that hotel you’re at now.”
“I… well… thanks. I appreciate it. I think the sheriff wants me out of town by the time my ankle heals, though.”
“Well who died and made him king?” Buck asks, laughing. “It’s a free country. If you want to stay, I don’t see as how he can do much about it. Anyway, I got to go. Call if you need a place to stay. We’re the only Gardener in the phone book.”
Matthew’s eyebrows shoot up. “Daylight has a phone book?”
“We’re backwards hayseeds,” Buck says cheerfully. “We even have working payphones. Anyway, call anytime.”
He shuts the door behind him on his way out.
Matthew settles back, waiting as patiently as he can for Henry to return and discovering that he isn’t as patient as he’d like to be. His arms and legs feel numb, and he wonders if they’ve fallen asleep or if it’s because of any medicine they might have given him. He remembers feeling terrible when he climbs into Buck’s truck, but at the moment he doesn’t feel much of anything at all, good or bad. He decides it’s probably the medicine.
The door opens again, and Matthew twists in place, hoping to see Henry with a doctor in tow. Instead he sees Sheriff Dobbs, hat in hand, stride into the room.
He sighs. “Hello, Sheriff.”
Sheriff Dobbs’ mustache twitches, but his expression remains otherwise impassive. “Sorry to disappoint.”
“I hoped you were Henry.” Matthew shakes his right arm, making the restraint rattle softly against the bedrail. “He’s trying to find a doctor who’s allowed to get me out of these.”
The sheriff takes in the restraints and nods once. “I can see why you’d be disappointed, then. Anyway, I heard you had a bad spell. Thought I’d check in.”
“Henry says I was pretty sick,“ Matthew says. ”I don’t remember much. Buck found me, took me to Henry’s clinic, and I wound up here. More or less.”
“In my experience,” the sheriff says, “when someone says ‘more or less’ they generally mean ‘more.’”
Matthew tenses defensively. “I don’t remember any more than that.”
Sheriff Dobbs spreads his hands in a placating fashion. “I wasn’t accusing. Well, I suppose I was, but it was habit more than intent. Occupational hazard. Actually, I just wanted to give you some unpleasant news: I sent Billy out to get your car yesterday, and he couldn’t find it.”
Matthew frowns. “He couldn’t find my car?”
“Not anywhere on 29,” the sheriff confirms. “Not anywhere on 29 that would get you to the Wendell property, at any rate.”
“Wendell property. That’d be the old manor house. Used to be called Wendell Manor once upon a time, and I continue to prefer that name instead of ‘Old Man Simon’s house.’ I’m sure you understand.”
“Anyway,” the sheriff continues, “Billy couldn’t find any sign of your car. He thought maybe someone made off with it.”
“I don’t know why,“ Matthew says. “It’s a piece of junk.”
“Well, the other option is that someone already had it towed.” The sheriff shrugs slightly. “Seems like an unusually vigilant thing to do in this neck of the woods, but it’s possible. We’re calling around to see.”
“Right.” Matthew looks down at his restraints and smiles sardonically. “I guess I’m not going anywhere.”
“Funny thing, Mr. Garrett,” the sheriff says, face impassive, “but that doesn’t amuse me as nearly as much as it might in other circumstances. I’m starting to get the kinds of phone calls I distinctly remember telling you I had absolutely no interest in getting.”
“I haven’t done anything!” Matthew protests. “You told me not to go back to the manor or talk about it. So, I haven’t gone back, and I haven’t talked about it.”
“I suppose that’s one view,” the sheriff says, “but Sally—God love her, because she is the sweetest woman I have ever met, but she is the biggest gossip in town—Sally has been telling everyone who’ll listen that you were asking about a church on Bridge Road that doesn’t exist.”
“So what?” Matthew shrugs. “I was just asking for directions. I don’t know Daylight very well. I got my street names mixed up. I’m not trying to make trouble.”
“Maybe. But you seem to display a knack for causing it regardless. Lucky us. Anyway, nothing personal, but I am looking for to the day when you go back home to Richmond.”
Matthew pushes all thoughts of Richmond out of his head as quickly and as forcefully as he can. “Stafford.“
“Right. That reminds me…” Sheriff Dobbs reaches into a jacket pocket and pulls out a little spiral-bound note pad. He flips it open and browses through the first few pages. “Do you know a Randall Morgan?”
“Randy,” Matthew says. “He’s my agent.”
The sheriff focuses on Matthew for a second, then returns to his note pad. “Artists have agents?”
“Sure,” Matthew says. “Some do, or close enough. That’s what I call him, and he answers to it.”
Sheriff Dobbs shrugs. “Well, he filed a missing persons report on you. We got the fax this morning. I’ve got Jeannie back at the station trying to get in touch with him, to let him know you’re still alive.”
“Thanks,” Matthew says. “I should probably give him a call.”
“I recommend it. Well, I have things to do. I hope Henry can get you out of that bed soon.”
Matthew eyes his restraints, then looks at the sheriff hopefully. “I don’t suppose you could—”
“—piss off the hospital?” Sheriff Dobbs actually smiles at that. “Sorry, Mr. Garrett. Good luck.”
With that he turns, ducks out the door, and shuts it firmly behind him.
Matthew settles back with a sigh, closes his eyes, and grapples with that lack of patience he was starting to find in himself. It’s an unusual feeling. He normally considers himself a very patient man—it’s a quality he finds very useful when he’s painting. Of course, he supposes there’s a difference between choosing patience and having no real workable alternative on hand. He hates not having options.
He wonders what he’d been shouting when they decided to strap him down. He can’t even remember getting to that point.
He remembers painting at the park. He tries to take himself detail by detail through what he can remember, and that’s where it starts.
I was painting at the park. I was talking to Deke. I gave up painting because of something Deke said… or maybe just something he hinted at? Or implied? Then I tried to walk back to the hotel, wasn’t feeling well, then… Buck pulled up in his truck. I asked him something…
Matthew feels a buzzing sensation right behind his eyes. He shakes his head, trying to focus.
I asked him… something… and he looks confused? What did I ask him? Why was he confused? What did he say? The radio was off—he said the radio was off. Why did he say that? What was important about the radio?
The buzzing sensation turns into a pressure, as if something right behind his eyes was trying to force its way out of his mind and into the open. His vision goes spotted, just as if someone had punched him in the nose, and all he can see is splotches of yellow and green and blue.
Music. I asked him if he heard music.
All at once the memories return: the singing, the forest, the tower, the man and the woman, the child. The screaming child; the silent child. He feels the room spin, and he reflexively grabs at the bedrails for support even though he knows it’s all in his head. He shakes his head violently, as if that would knock the pressure loose and let whatever’s inside come tumbling into the room. He can almost hear the singing now: he remembers the melody so clearly it’s as if he can still hear it being sung in the distance.
The door opens. The buzzing stops.
“Henry?” He turns to look but all he can see are those damned spots of color. He shakes his head again, and the spots begin fade… by the time his vision returns he sees the door shut, but he doesn’t see anyone else in the room.
No reply. The door to his room is closed. There is no one in the room.
Silence. Matthew wonders if he’d just imagined the sound, but then he hears a rustling to his left. Turning his head, he discovers it comes from behind the curtain surrounding the other bed.
The curtains burst open. A figure covered head to toe in dirty rags leaps toward him arms outstretched, a low gurgling sound emerging from beneath the rags covering its face. Matthew recoils in horror, futilely struggling against his restraints. He can’t break free.
It leaps, sailing across the space with strange, feral grace, landing on his chest. Matthew gasps as breath leaves his body, leaving him dazed and desperate for air. Strong hands grasp his head, and as he finds himself staring into a horrifying, familiar, inhuman face: wizened, paper-like skin, sharp teeth, and dark, sad eyes.
Matthew wants to shout, but he can barely breathe—the best he can manage is a single, terrified gasp. The creature regards him a moment… then, wizened hands holding his head firmly in place, it bends over to kiss him.
Matthew screams silently as something tears him to pieces from within. he gags and whimpers as fire courses through his veins, consuming him, eating him away piece by piece. He tries to resist, but with each passing moment the agony simply increases as more and more of him disappears into the pain. Finally his resolve crumbles, and he lets himself slip away.